The underlying significance of a ball-playing holding midfielder has been highly recognized in modern day football. The elite sides around Europe all possess a player in this mold – the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Busquets and as of late Phillip Lahm have consistently performed at world-class levels as the single pivot, abolishing the belief that only players whom possess a physical presence can succeed in this role.
Most recently, the admiration for a deep-lying midfielder has shifted towards the Premier League. Michael Carrick was a standout last season in a deeper role, similar to Mikel Arteta’s impressive showing the year prior. And while sides like Liverpool occasionally play with a midfield trio, they still combine energy (Henderson), passing (Gerrard), and strength (Lucas) in these areas. The aim to control central areas is pivotal in the modern game, which explains why teams prefer to sustain possession and have players that are capable of dictating the tempo from deep positions.
Everton has undergone a radical transformation in terms of their philosophy, since Roberto Martinez’s arrival. Opposed to their reactive approach under David Moyes, Martinez has instilled a pragmatic possession-based philosophy. Despite losing Marouane Fellaini to Manchester United, Martinez has put his faith in Ross Barkley to be the main source of creativity, Romelu Lukaku to spearhead the attack and Kevin Mirallas as a direct wide threat – thus forming a tantalizing partnership on the right flank with Seamus Coleman. Nevertheless, Martinez inherited a great core of players, and the Spaniard has found a balance between promising technical youth, and experienced veterans.
Surprisingly, Martinez’s most influential signing came at no cost, minutes before the transfer window closed. Gareth Barry was surplus to requirements at Manchester City, and in desperate need of first-team football, so a change in scenery was tempting – even if it wasn’t the dream move to Liverpool that he hoped for in 2008. Rafa Benitez was keen on bringing in Barry for Xabi Alonso – who was reportedly set to depart Anfield – but Liverpool didn’t have the funds to meet Villa’s price valuation, and Alonso stayed at the Merseyside club for another season.
At the time, Barry’s growth was gaining recognition at Aston Villa, so when Manchester City inquired about his services in 2009, the Englishman couldn’t decline. “I feel I am joining a club that will seriously challenge to win major honours,” Barry said.
However, while Barry’s stature continued to rise, his deficiencies were exposed on the world’s largest stage in South Africa. Barry was exhausted. He looked unfit, out of his element, average, frankly there weren’t enough words to describe Barry’s unpleasant afternoon at the Free State Stadium nearly four years ago. The English midfielder chased German shadows when Joachim Low’s men slaughtered England in the most recent World Cup. The Englishman conceded possession at the edge of the box, which led to Germany’s third goal – and he was lucidly beaten for pace by Mesut Ozil, thus putting the match out of reach.
Barry’s career was scarred – he’s never fully recovered from that humid, summer day in Bloemfontein, and many began to closely critique his weaknesses afterwards. Despite enjoying two good seasons at Manchester City, Barry’s progress at the club level was impeded. In terms of silverware, the 32-year-old midfielder coveted an FA Cup and Premier League medal, but he was incapable of solidifying a role alongside Yaya Toure in City’s midfield. While the Englishman’s performances were rarely putrid, his natural ability wasn’t enough to boast the Manchester Club amongst Europe’s elite.
And as the years went by, City desperately searched for players to fill this void. By the end of Barry’s fourth season with the club, City had Jack Rodwell, Toure, Javi Garcia, and newly acquired Fernandinho at their disposal.
At the age of 32, Barry knew his minutes would be scarce when manager Manuel Pellegrini told him a starting role was unattainable, as many midfielders were ahead of him. Barry began to realize that a move abroad was logical, and with Marouane Fellaini set for a move to Manchester United, Everton’s interest persuaded the Englishman.
“Firstly, it’s all about playing regular football in the Premier League. I haven’t joined Everton to try and help my England ambitions but that will come if I’m playing consistently well for Everton,” Barry said.
“I wasn’t comfortable with my last year at City, with not playing, so now I’m looking to establish myself here. It was made clear to me that I wasn’t going to be guaranteed first team football.”
The arrival of Barry has led to a formidable midfield partnership with James McCarthy – the Englishman often sits as the deepest midfielder, while McCarthy’s dynamism enables him to drive forward into attack. More importantly, Barry’s positional and tactical awareness allows Everton’s attacking players to express themselves. He drops between the centrebacks and in vacant spaces out wide, giving the fullbacks onus to surge forward.
Barry sits in deep areas ahead of the two centrebacks, and focuses on dictating the tempo of the match – his passes often go sideways, but the Englishman isn’t wary of playing forward, penetrating balls. The 32-year-old averages 69.7 completed passes per game – a team high – at an 86% success rate, but he also plays an integral role on the defensive end breaking up play. More so, Everton hasn’t lost a match at full strength, with Barry in the starting XI.
Martinez has expressed his praise for the midfielder on several occasions, as he believes English supporters don’t appreciate the importance of the no.6 role. “To be able to see a pass and execute it in the way he does is a talent which you either have or you haven’t but he has developed an incredible awareness – the way he sits in for other players, the way he drives forward when he has to, the way he takes decisions,” Martinez said.
In the buildup to Gerard Deulofeu’s equalizer against Arsenal, we witnessed a glimpse of what Barry offers Everton. Barry controlled a loose ball, and played a forward pass to Ross Barkley, who turned Mathieu Flamini wonderfully, and evaded Arteta’s challenge. Barkley sprayed the ball out wide to Bryan Oviedo, and Barry continued his run powerful from midfield, aiming to create an overlap, which gave Oviedo half-a-yard to deliver a cross – thus leading to Deulofeu’s magnificent finish.
Everton’s transformation under Martinez has been remarkable – The Spaniard’s ability to evolve their attack over a short period of time has produced a different side at Goodison Park. The young attacking players may steal the headlines, but Barry remains a key cog towards the club’s success this season.