Ross Barkley’s stumbling

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There was a funny start to Ross Barkley’s Chelsea career on Wednesday night. As Willian prepared to limp off the Emirates Stadium pitch midway through the first half Barkley, his obvious replacement, was still dutifully gambolling up and down the touchline in his tracksuit.

This didn’t go down well with Antonio Conte who seems, even at the best of Teuvo Teravainen Youth jersey times, to be in a state of constant eye-boggling rage at every detail of his sentient existence. This is Conte’s default mood, his baseline. But he still managed to find some even deeper gears, letting out a shriek, waggling his arms and clenching his fists like a man strangling invisible kittens and generally urging Barkley back down the touchline like the most embarrassing stressed-out dad in the long and detailed history of embarrassing stressed-out dads.
The Arsenal fans on that side roared with laughter. Barkley scuttled off to remove his shirt, all anxious fingers and thumbs. Finally he came on for his first game of football after eight months out, one traumatic hamstring injury and a life-changing move from his boyhood club. His first Aaron Altherr Jersey act in a Chelsea shirt was to fall on his face. His second was to foul Jack Wilshere. His third was to run the wrong way in search of a pass. After which things really started to go downhill.
There is something compelling about terrible debuts, a kind of voodoo that is hard to shake. Simon Kerrigan’s Test cricket debut for England against Australia at the Oval springs to mind, when Kerrigan didn’t just bowl poorly but seemed to have forgotten completely the sequence of movements he had been repeating with uninterrupted success from childhood, instead hurling down assorted round-arm lobs like a man tossing wellies at a country fair. He hasn’t been seen since.
Judgments have already been passed on Barkley on this basis, doubts confirmed, cards marked.
Which is a great shame for two reasons. First, because it does Barkley a disservice. Yes, he was bad, producing a horribly uncomfortable performance, a sense of being unable to avoid or stop or walk away from what was clearly a traumatically raw and rusty hour of football.
He whirled around a lot, finding pockets of pointless space. He looked red-faced and startled in exactly the way footballers really aren’t supposed to be startled, baffled by the patterns around him. Understandably so. Barkley wasn’t ready. He is not an instinctive, natural-genius kind of footballer, those who seem to define the game simply by playing it, to reek of pure uncut essence of football.
Luka Modric, for example, could be dropped on to the storm-racked surface of Mars with just a lungful of air and a football, and in the 40 seconds or so before he asphyxiated Modric would still be able to move and link and pass between the craters and rock piles, even here asserting his own sense of pure footballing ease.
Barkley is not that player. His form and his conditioning are more delicate. With a little care he will show the best of himself. Really, though, the point of interest here had little to do with Barkley and a lot more to do with that genuinely rare spectacle of a professional athlete so startlingly out of kilter. This is the occasional vertigo of professional sport, the revelation, suddenly, of its brutality, its rarified levels.


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