Ross Barkley's value to Everton shown by Koeman's lacklustre No. 10s
It has seemed a recipe for regressions. Everton have spent £144 million and gone into the bottom five. They have scored three fewer league goals as a team than the striker they sold, Romelu Lukaku, has mustered on his own for Manchester United.
Yet the forward is not the only man they are missing. Ross Barkley is injured but not gone. Everton replaced him without finding him an alternative employer. And not once, but three times. Change may have been enforced by Barkley's refusal to sign a new contract, but it was also botched by Everton's inability to sell him and their triple-pronged efforts at finding a successor.
Because when manager Ronald Koeman fielded the trio of No. 10s he signed this summer, it looked as if Everton were playing with nine men. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen all converged in the middle, each trying to occupy his preferred position. Everton lost 3-0 to Tottenham when all three started. They were losing 1-0 to Bournemouth when Koeman took two off. It is already apparent the three imperfect 10s cannot play together. There is scant evidence that two can.
Rooney and Sigurdsson have spent 618 minutes on the pitch together. In that time, they have one goal apiece and the Icelander has an assist, all against either Hajduk Split or Apollon Limassol. In the Premier League, their combined record when paired shows no goals and no assists in 472 minutes. Everton's record signing and their boyhood fan represented their two flagship additions. Koeman demoted Rooney against Burnley while selecting Sigurdsson. It suggested he may be concluding they are incompatible. As for Klaassen, the £23.6 million buy from Ajax has offered so little that Evertonians are bemused precisely where his strengths lie.
Yet each is hampered by the presence of the others. There are teams -- Brazil in 1982, Croatia in 1998 -- that had so much talent, a suitable style of play and sufficient understanding that they could accommodate three No. 10s. Everton's class of 2017 are not among them. They illustrate that most sides require the balance different players with different attributes offer. In particular, the three slow or slow-ish No. 10s would benefit from more speed, width and movement on either side and in front of them. Sigurdsson's sole assist, against Apollon, came when winger Nikola Vlasic made a burst into the penalty box.
And it prompts the thought that the No. 10 Everton need most is the one they discarded. Koeman suggested in July that Barkley's Everton career is over. That was before he suffered a hamstring injury that could sideline him until December and before the breakdown of a move to Chelsea, amid a dispute if he attended a medical.
Barkley is less of a classical No. 10 than the newcomers. That may be what Everton need. He is part playmaker, part runner. The Paul Gascoigne comparisons were overblown, but Barkley possesses a similar capacity to beat a man and carry the ball deep into enemy territory, which Rooney used to, but the days when he surged up and down the flanks for Manchester United are very much confined to the past. Now Koeman has a slower trio, each suited to the centre.
In contrast, Barkley flourished operating off the right for Everton in the second half of last season; it was a role Steven Gerrard once filled for Liverpool, spared defensive responsibilities and allowed to use his energy and invention in the final third. The paradox of Koeman's summer recruitment drive is that Everton's best form last season came without a No. 10, but with Tom Davies instead allowed to show his dynamism in the middle while Barkley's flexibility afforded other options. Perhaps, should he revisit such a strategy, Sigurdsson could play off the left, as he sometimes did for Swansea, but that would require picking players with more physical attributes elsewhere in the forward line. And whether through transfer-market failings or Koeman's reluctance to select others, Everton do not have that sort of balance.
Barkley may seem proof that reputations can be elevated in absence. Returns of 21 goals and 18 assists in his top-flight career are underwhelming. He has long been the Evertonian enigma, frustrating many, forever holding unrealised potential.
Koeman has contributed to that image. His criticisms of Barkley could be interpreted as tough love, confrontational leadership, perfectionism or simply irritation. It may seem hypocritical to condemn the man he inherited and not those he signed but the Dutchman is yet to be as cutting in his comments about the recent arrivals.
Yet whether because or despite his manager's rhetoric, Barkley ranked fifth for chances fashioned in the Premier League last season, fractionally ahead of Sigurdsson, behind just Christian Eriksen, Kevin de Bruyne, Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard. With Everton now having had the third fewest shots on target, albeit a statistic that reflects their failure to replace Lukaku, such creativity would be welcome.
Instead, Barkley remains likely to leave in January. If not, and if he is summoned to strengthen the side, Everton will have to write off a potential windfall for a player who is out of contract next summer. Yet it may sum up the confused thinking at Goodison Park that they have spent best part of £70 million on No. 10s and committed perhaps £15 million a year in salaries to replace him. And if it was supposed to secure an upgrade, Everton may have got a downgrade instead while the No. 10 position looks a metaphor for costly deterioration.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.