Unai Emery personally meets Aston Villa transfer target who left trio in his wake last season

Ross Barkley is set to sign for Aston Villa
-Credit: (Image: Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images)


Aston Villa fans will remember flashes of quality from Ross Barkley during his loan spell under Dean Smith four seasons ago, but after rediscovering his form on a consistent basis at Luton Town last term, it's no surprise Unai Emery wants to add him to his squad this summer.

It's crucial Villa add more options for Emery, but while Profit and Sustainability Rules have dictated the club's early summer business a move for Barkley makes great sense for a variety of reasons. Preparations for Douglas Luiz's exit began 18 months ago and following the free transfer of Youri Tielemans last summer, Villa believe Barkley - who Emery personally met to discuss a move - will also be a shrewd capture.

Barkley's career had been in decline since his departure from Everton in 2018 as he struggled to make a real impact at Chelsea. He returned to Stamford Bridge for one more season following a loan spell at Villa Park where he excelled in his first six league games before a hamstring injury appeared to affect the rest of his campaign.

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Barkley left Chelsea in the summer of 2022 and joined Ligue 1 side Nice in what was a surprise move for the midfielder. He only made nine starts in 27 Ligue 1 appearances, but the move abroad allowed him to reset before returning to England with Luton after their promotion to the Premier League.

Barkley didn't take long to accept Luton's offer after a brief chat with Rob Edwards, who explained how he wanted to get the former Everton star back to the same level he showed at Goodison Park earlier in his career.

The 30-year-old believes he will still be in his prime for another three years and only a few months ago said: "I want to play in the Premier League. I want to play in Europe again."

Barkley's rise at Everton came when he was playing in an advanced midfield role, operating around a number nine, often Romelu Lukaku. But at Luton, he demonstrated how he can play in a deeper position and influence the game in front of the defence.

Due to Luton's lack of ability to control matches - which meant Barkley couldn't get on the ball in the final third too often - he was deployed in a deeper role and flourished. As Barkley was getting on the ball more, it allowed his team to sustain pressure, otherwise it would have been a challenge to generate any meaningful build-up.

Barkley often played the regista role, which is a position just in front of the backline. He was therefore entrusted with playmaking, directing the tempo of the game, and moving the ball under pressure from the opponent.

His positional awareness allows him to take responsibility in the first phase of possession, whether that's finding passes or driving past opponents in tight spaces; something which Youri Tielemans does very well in a deep-lying position.

Ross Barkley celebrates scoring for Luton Town
Ross Barkley celebrates scoring for Luton Town -Credit:Getty

"I knew I could play in that position, but sometimes all it takes is a manager to trust you in a certain role," Barkley told the BBC. "When I was younger, I was more of a holding midfielder, making tackles and similar to how I'm playing now but still taking some risks.

"Then once I broke my leg and came back, I had no confidence in tackling or leaving my leg in for challenges. It took me a couple of years because every time I saw someone go in for a 50-50, I thought someone could have broken their leg.

"Of course it affected me mentally, so I got moved further forward into more attacking positions because my decision-making when I was younger wasn't as good as it is now. That comes with experience."

Rob Edwards often deployed either a 5-4-1 or 3-4-3 formation, also a 4-4-2 at times. Despite a few structural changes, Luton's two-man midfield was ever-present. Barkley usually operated on the left side of the central two, forming partnerships with the likes of Pelly Mpanzu and Albert Sambi Lokonga.

While Barkley was consistently brilliant across the Premier League season, he was particularly impressive in Luton's draw against Liverpool, the close defeats to Manchester City and Arsenal, as well as the win over Newcastle.

Barkley completed 163 progressive passes last term at a rate of 5.6 per 90. Compared to Villa's three most comparable midfielders last season Luiz, John McGinn and Youri Tielemans, he ranks second behind Tielemans at 7.1 progressive passes per 90. Barkley's pass completion was 82.6 per cent last term, slightly lower than Luiz (85.7 per cent) and Tielemans' (83.1 per cent) scores.

The Luton man played 138 passes into the final third last season, which was more those three Villa midfielders. He also recorded 24 switches across the pitch, which was the fifth most in the Premier League and 11 more than Luiz in second, in front of Tielemans and McGinn's totals.

Barkley's ability to carry the ball and progress up the pitch in possession is arguably his biggest strength. He completed 104 take-ons in the league season and completed 66, which was the sixth most in the division.

Villa captain McGinn attempted 96 take-ons, while Barkley's higher total was more than Luiz and Tielemans' total combined. Barkley also carried the ball into the final third 49 times last season which was more than the three Villa men.

Ross Barkley of Luton Town
Ross Barkley of Luton Town -Credit:Getty Images

For all of Barkley's qualities in possession, he couldn't have played in a two-man midfield without being defensively secure alongside his teammate. He showed strong positional discipline for Luton last season, recording more interceptions (25) than Luiz, McGinn and Tielemans. He also won more aerial duels (42) than the three Villa players combined and committed fewer fouls (25) than Luiz (51) and McGinn (39).

Barkley is also capable of winning the ball back higher up the pitch as he has the power to burst into high intensity sprints to close down an opponent in a bid to retrieve possession. It was at Nice where he learned the importance of pressing and counter-pressing.

"I learned quite a lot [at Nice] to be honest, even though I felt like I should have played a lot more than I did there," he told the BBC. "I learned a lot off the ball. In France, they work hard on the defensive side of the game, really aggressive pressing.

"Some tackles I saw in training were dangerous, even some of the youngsters go right through the older players and didn't even pick them up.

"I just felt like I had a lot to prove [before signing for Luton] and I missed my football and playing games. I feel like I've gone back in time now. I've not really played [as] much in the past three or four years as I feel like I deserved.

"The manager has helped me a lot since he came in, with his trust and communication. He's got great man-management skills, great togetherness and he's a great man as well."

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