Young midfielder helps earn a point at Norwich
Preparing for his Premier League initiation in the Everton dugout, Roberto Martinez revealed he had bent the ear of predecessor David Moyes shortly after assuming his new role.
No doubt the departed manager had kind words of advice for the Spaniard, pointed out some possible pitfalls and was accommodating in helping smooth the changing of the guard.
But if there was one suggestion that surely resonated loudest for Martinez, it was regarding one player in particular.
Burdened by the weight of expectation long before making his first-team bow two years ago, the youngster has subsequently been cajoled and nurtured through his development by Everton.
Towards the back end of last season, Moyes was proven justified in throwing the midfielder in for crunch clashes at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
Now, though, it is Martinez who will reap the benefits of that schooling given the weekend’s compelling evidence Barkley is finally blossoming into a genuine Premier League talent.
It wasn’t just with his goal, a blistering 20-yard drive that drew Everton level during the second half at Carrow Road, that signified a coming of age for the 19-year-old.
Instead, it was Barkley’s all-round performance that left Martinez and the travelling Everton support purring, best encapsulated in one thrilling second-half moment that saw the youngster win possession on the edge of his own area then embark on a powerful 75-yard run during which he bustled beyond several opposing players before winning a corner.
Fearless. In terms of physical stature, Barkley is no sapling, as shown by one first-half snapshot in which the midfielder effortlessly bundled Bradley Johnson off the ball.
However, it was Barkley’s goal – his first in an Everton shirt – that will linger longest in the memory, accepting a pass after good approach work from Seamus Coleman before engineering enough space to lash a drive beyond Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy. And with his weaker left foot, too.
“Ross is someone who is desperate to learn and improve,” says Martinez. “He has the perfect attitude. There are not many times when you have a youngster like that and all the basics are there.
“He has a terrific lifestyle and the way he works day-to-day is phenomenal and he has been well educated in the past. The youth set-up at Everton have done a magnificent job.”
Of course, Barkley isn’t the finished article yet, this only his fifth-ever Premier League start. But with confidence bolstered by loan spells in the Championship last year, his showing for England in the Under-20 World Cup this summer and his displays during pre-season, Everton’s patience appears set to be rewarded.
Such a quality has also been urged of supporters on several occasions given anticipated teething troubles of a new regime following more than 11 years of Moyes rule.
But for a step into the unknown, Saturday’s topsy-turvy opener at Norwich coughed up little that wouldn’t have been expected.
From the impressively fluid attacking approach and willingness to play the ball out of defence, down to the at times uncertain defending, the opening-day draw bore the hallmarks of Martinez’s time at previous club Wigan Athletic.
In terms of excitement and entertainment, few could quibble. But Everton will feel this was two points dropped rather than one gained given the overall quality of a performance that showed little signs of rustiness.
Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, Martinez choosing to stick with the Goodison outfit’s tried and trusted with none of his four summer signings starting the match.
All have already bought into the Spaniard’s methods. Steven Pienaar, one of several players to noticeably run out of steam towards the end of last season, appears invigorated by his summer break, Coleman continues to blossom while, in the absence of the injured Darron Gibson, Marouane Fellaini reprised a withdrawn midfield role with an efficient, effective outing.
Fellaini, though, was among those at fault for Norwich’s opener six minutes after the interval, right-back Steven Whittaker allowed to advance a full 50 yards unchecked before slaloming through three defenders and firing a shot against the inside of the post with his left foot.
To compound the succession of errors, Everton were then slow to react to the rebound, allowing Whittaker to convert from a tight angle with his right peg.
It came against the run of play with the visitors having grown into the game and wrested almost total dominance in midfield. But two goals in four minutes transformed the match.
First came Barkley’s wonder strike. Then Pienaar was given time to play in Nikica Jelavic – preferred up front to Arouna Kone on the strength of an encouraging pre-season – and although the Croatian’s close-range shot was parried by Ruddy, Coleman was on hand to finish at the far post.
But Everton couldn’t hold on. Six minutes later, a mishit volley from Whittaker was turned into a fine cross by Norwich debutant Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s powerful header beyond the reach of Tim Howard.
So, what do first impressions tell us of the Martinez era?
Those advocating change will point to the enterprising attacking play, the exuberance of Barkley and a desire to keep the ball on the deck. The more conservative among the fanbase will frown upon some slack defending and the worrying continued lack of a clean sheet.
Few, though, could disagree the positives outweighed the negatives. And there was one certainty: life under Martinez will rarely be boring.
MAN OF THE MATCH. Ross Barkley. A hugely impressive display promises big things for this season