For two years I worked in Manchester with a team predominantly made up of City season ticket holders. With the Citizens collecting league and cup honours during this time, along my own inquisitive nerding, the tea room ‘bantz’ predominately focussed on the fortunes of the blue half of Manchester. Whilst I had watched some of their games from afar, I was by no means an aficionado during the Mancini era aside from their twice annual humbling against us.
The one ‘hot topic’ which cropped up more than most was the merits of midfield general Gareth Barry. Being a man prone to sweeping generalisations as I am, my impression of him was not great. Benitez overzealous and ultimately flawed courtship of him, along with Capello’s admiration for his qualities showed he was thought of in high stock, but much of this evaporated after a poor showing in the World Cup in South Africa.
The City fans spoke of him with very high regard, strangely more so than some of his more fashionable colleagues. Being annoyingly inquisitive, I’d ask why? What are his key attributes? Is he an anchor or a box to box? Better on the ball or off it? The response seemed like flannel. ‘He’s a great organiser’ ‘He gives his all’ and ‘we look better with him in the team’ were stock answers churned out. The most regular response was ‘I feel safer when he’s in the side’.
None of which quantifiably told me why he is so revered and the answers proposed sounded more like criteria for purchasing a comfort blanket than a Premier League midfield monster. What are the underlining reasons why we’ve won all three games he has played this season and not won any of the four he hasn’t been in the starting line-up. What I’d heard didn’t tell me why he was so useful. What we could pick out was that he was vocal, but never mind what the Soccer Saturday studio will tell you, shouting and leadership doesn’t win titles.
Knowing what we know about ‘the insurgent’ Martinez, it seemed unlikely he would spunk close to £6m in wages on someone who represented little more than a ‘safe pair of hands’ and who was capable of gumption by the bucket load, but little else.
So in my quest to see what Barry actually does I’m going to open up his bonnet and deliver a skillset based MOT focusing on the x10 most important attributes for a central midfielder in our current squad.
Some variables are measurable through data, whilst some rely more on a general understanding of the game. Hopefully this should better gauge if Barry is precision engineering in peak condition or little more than a spluttering Bedford rascal.
1. Is he capable of receiving the ball in tight areas?
The fact he has received more passes than anyone in his three games for the club speaks volumes. If we look at the passes from defence into midfield, Barry receives the ball considerably more than his midfield partner whether it be Osman or McCarthy. Now Osman is a very useful player, but he does like to take a few touches and opponents will look to press him due to his physique. Barry on the other hand is a bit more one touch – like McCarthy – and has a physique to hold players off when they press us in our own half.
His left foot also gives us nice balance. Osman , Gibson, McCarthy – and previously Fellaini – are natural right footers not ideally suited to being on the left of centre. This for me is important and I’ll tell you why. If we look at tennis, a player is often weaker on their backhand and when the ball is played to it will run around it to hit a forehand. Jim Courier is a decent example. Often due to the time lost in running around to hit the forehand, they will compromise the quality of their shot because of the time spent in adjustment. It’s similar in football. Being a natural leftie on the left side of central midfield means Barry will be able to play more on the front foot and the team will benefit from this.
Conversely, his right foot is rank average and an astute opponent would position himself to force him to play the ball on his right. Looking at the data, this doesn’t happen often though and Barry hasn’t been dispossessed once in his three games so far.
2. Can he dictate tempo?
We’ve seen from him already that he can slow things down and crank things up depending on the scenario. Against Chelsea when we were under the cosh just after half time, he looked to relieve pressure and energy levels by slow paced recycling of the ball in our own half, whilst against West Ham after half time when we were chasing the game he added more zip to the tempo. His experience to slow the pace of the game down would certainly have been invaluable in the City game last weekend to enable us to keep things tight after going in front.
3. What is his range of passing like? Can he switch play well?
Fellaini occupied the same role as Barry in the opening 3 games, averaging 9 passes to Barkley per game. In the West Ham game Barry found him 18 times alone. In the Hammers fixture he was really positive on the ball with 61 of his 88 passes going forwards – comfortably the most positive pass ratio from a player in either side and a significantly higher forward ratio than what Fellaini delivered from the same position.
In comparison to his midfield peers in the league he has made the 7th most passes per game (69.3), and the 5th most accurate long passes per game (6.0). The above visual shows who Barry plays in the most and who he receives from most frequently. This ‘geometrical intelligence’ on the field of play, he says, comes with experience;
“Over the last three or four years I’ve tried to look at that in my game, to find space on the pitch. As a younger player I never really thought about where I should be on the field. It was just about doing a job. It’s something my more recent managers have tried to put into my game. I feel very lucky that I’m left-footed because the number of us around is very small. Whether I’d be judged different if I was right-footed, I don’t know. Passing is something you have in your ability as a young player but you try and watch other games, other players, and learn from how they’re playing the game. It helps to have a vision before you receive a ball, where your team-mates are and the movements they’re going to make. You see players who have unbelievable technique but they can sometimes struggle to make the right pass, or make it at the right time, so that’s another thing you need to attach to your game.”
4. What about positional play? Is he good at sniffing out danger? Does he cover well ?
As the miraculous block from Eto’o in his debut testifies, Barry is alert to danger and can sniff out trouble quick – he is after all a centre back by trade where he honed his skills in a back three with horse head Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu.
He made the most recoveries against west ham (recoveries are classed as getting first to the ball when it goes loose) and his defensive dashboard from this game when for the second half Martinez left him as the sole holding midfield player shows the donkey work he does for the team in shoring up the left side when Baines bombs forward.
5. Can he contribute in the final third?
A healthy 52 goals and assists in his final 3 seasons at Villa would say so, although Barry himself has always seen himself more as a defensive player;
“I’m never going to be seen as an attacking midfielder who’s going to dribble past anyone, create untold chances and score lots of goals but going forward is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. It’s something I’ve tried to push into my game, going up and down the pitch“
Last season Barry was given a more offensive midfield role at City in comparison to the more anchor role he filled alongside or instead of De Jong in the title winning campaign of 2012 – a role he delivered admirably albeit he wasn’t a prolific scorer or creator. His record in terms of directly influencing play in the final third with us isn’t anything special either, but this is due to the role he plays further back. Remember, in a midfield 3 you have someone like Barkley who can influence at the sharp point of the triangle, and this is only possible because of the service he is getting as shown above.
6. Does he have the engine needed for the role? How about fast sprints and recovery?
Everyone will remember Ozil showing him a clean pair of heels in South Africa, with twitter irritant Joey Barton labelling Barry ‘a tortoise’, but as a defensive platform this doesn’t happen to him too often. In a study conducted in 2010, Barry’s top speed was calculated at 18.41mph which is a tad ponderous in comparison to other players and was then the slowest in City’s squad. So far this season, he’s been the 7th most dribbled past midfielder in the league which would support this theory that he is susceptible to opposition speed in and around him is a valid one.
“It’s something that’s always been attached to me and being a younger player it’s something I would have worried about. Though it’s still nice to have pace in central midfield, it’s probably not essential, and it hasn’t really been mentioned since five or six years ago when I was playing left-back or left-midfield”
Football demands both aerobic and anaerobic capability. During matches, players must be able to sprint hard, recover quickly and then sprint hard again. Anaerobic training kicks in once players have developed basic aerobic fitness as recovery capacity is developed by increasing aerobic fitness. In football, the demand for anaerobic speed is fairly short. The important point here is the ability of the player to recover quickly from multiple speed bursts and whilst he doesn’t have blistering pace, Barry has the recovery element in his locker.
This was shown by a study in The Mail, which showed that Barry makes up for this lack of speed in terms of the amount of ground he covers during a match. The survey revealed that Barry covered more ground than any other City player – running 7.92 miles in one particular match – and that he is regularly in the top 1% of premier league players for distance covered.
His engine and conditioning appears good then, albeit he is never going to be a speed demon over 20 yards like Andrei Kanchelskis. You could argue that with Distin – arguably still the league’s quickest left sided centre half directly behind him, that this is a low risk problem. Plus due to his aerial prowess he isn’t required to stay back when we have set plays in the opposition half thus mitigating the risk of him being caught out in a straight race with a quicker opponent.
7.Is he good in the air?
Fellaini’s departure left us with a gap in terms of aerial coverage and Barry – along with Lukaku – have helped us fill it. Last season Barry won 50% of his aerials and in his first 3 games he’s won more aerial duels than any of his midfield colleagues, with only Jagielka and Distin recording better figures in the squad. His ability at set pieces could prove very useful as the season unfolds.
8. Is he aggressive enough?
Granted, Barry has the look of a choir boy but he does have the capability to Heisenberg opponents. He is certainly not passive on the pitch, averaging 9 yellow cards in each of the last 3 seasons with 4 career red cards. Clearly, with age he has become adept at how to get the better of opponents by hook or by crook i.e kicking people up the arse. Thus far, Barry has made more fouls per game than anyone in the top flight and has averaged 7.4 pressing contacts per game since arriving, more than any of his toffee colleagues.
9. Does he have the correct mentality?
This is a difficult one to quantify as it’s a fairly subjective variable.
When he arrived at Finch Farm, Martinez spoke of Barry becoming ‘ a godfather’ to the team. He was clearly referring here to him using his plethora of experience of cup finals, title deciders, champions league and World Cup matches to pass on to the younger members of the squad. In the big games he usually shows up too – this a critique which has fairly been levelled at some of his colleagues in the past. For example, in his career he has created the most goals (7) against Chelsea and scored the most (4) against Liverpool and was always a ‘first pick’ for Mancini in the big games.
Personally, I think you can tell a lot about mentality when goals are scored and conceded. If you look at his reaction when Noble puts West Ham in front with only 14 mins to go, there is no head down glum exterior, just an urgency to get the ball back in play. Equally, When Lukaku scored the winner with just minutes to go there is a reassuring composure on the ball – there is no punting into the corner and conceding possession through panic. Just measured, controlled possession.
I’d say his experience and leadership here are incredibly positive, particularly with young pups like Barkley and McCarthy alongside him in the midfield.
10. Is he flexible positionally?
This is a fairly simple one. A centre back by trade, Barry can play at 6,8 or 10 in midfield in either a defensive or offensive position.
As his heatmap against West Ham below shows, he switched in the second half from left of a two man central midfield anchor to a more central role as we went from two holding players to one. Rotund tactician Benitez was a big fan of Barry because of his flexibility explaining here the motives behind his attempted purchase of the player whilst he was at Villa;
“Barry appealed to us for a number of reasons. I have never been the sort of manager who prioritises a system above all else: I am willing to change and adapt my preferred formations given the strength of my squad or the requirements of a particular game. Barry was perfect: he could play as a central midfielder, of course, but he had some experience as an attacking left-back, which would be a useful option for home games where we were expected to go forward, and even as a left-winger”
Barry is a top player who has a range of qualities that is in short supply in this country. What I like about him is that his skill-set gives our midfield great balance as he holds attributes that his likely partners Barkley and McCarthy don’t possess; namely a natural left foot, great defensive qualities, good aerial coverage and bags of experience. Hopefully, like me, you have learnt a bit more about the midfielder and can now better articulate what Gareth Barry actually does.
Finally, whilst we are on the subject of Everton passing midfielders…..
To celebrate publication of Howard Kendall’s autobiography, Love Affairs and Marriage, Everton’s greatest manager will be talking about his life in football with comedian and broadcaster Sean Styles at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on 17 October.
Howard will be joined by friends, family, former colleagues and teammates on the night as we celebrate the career of one of Everton FC’s defining figures.
deCoubertin books are making just 100 tickets available to the general public to take part in this celebration. They are available on a strictly first come, first served basis and are priced at just £8, with £5 deductible from the price of a book of a book on the night.
Doors open at 6.30pm with a 7pm start. The event will conclude with a book signing and the opportunity to meet Howard.
Tickets are available online from The Epstein Theatre here
deCoubertin Books have launched special signed limited edition versions of Love Affairs and Marriage to help raise £10,000 for Everton in the Community and Stick ‘N’ Step. For more details, click here: http://decoubertin.co.uk/?p=787