LIVERPOOL, England — There is undoubtedly a quality player somewhere within Ross Barkley, but it must be galling for the Everton midfielder to realise that his direct rival in Liverpool red, Philippe Coutinho, spent the Merseyside derby showing him just how far he has to go to before he can live up to the hype.
At this level, it’s all about game-changers in the big matches. Coutinho made the crucial difference for Liverpool, but Barkley did nothing but frustrate and fall short for Ronald Koeman’s team as Everton lost 3-1 and returned to Goodison Park still awaiting their first victory at Anfield since 1999.
Barkley, whose connections made their displeasure known this week about his seven-game streak for England without kicking a ball, was by no means the only Evertonian to go missing against Liverpool. Romelu Lukaku, supposedly a £60m striker, didn’t have a single effort on goal, and for all of the injuries that had weakened Everton going into this game, they still had enough experience and quality on the pitch to halt the home team’s march toward Champions League qualification.
But big games are often defined by the creative players raising their team to a higher level, taking opportunities when they arise; that is where this derby was won and lost. While Coutinho came to the party when it mattered, Barkley’s poor decision-making and suspect temperament contributed to Everton’s insipid performance.
Actor Daniel Craig (aka James Bond) will have enjoyed the afternoon from his seat in the directors’ box, watching his team win the game. Everton will just wish that Barkley could develop some of Bond’s ruthlessness and ability to think clearly when the heat is on. Right now, the only ruthless streak in Barkley’s game relates to his tackling. A sixth-minute foul on Emre Can somehow went unpunished by referee Anthony Taylor, but Barkley was rightfully booked later in the first half after rolling his studs down Dejan Lovren’s ankle.
It was a crude challenge, as reckless as the one on Jordan Henderson that deserved a red card at Goodison Park earlier this season, but the foul stemmed from the biggest weakness in Barkley’s game: his inability to make the right decision at the right time. Having broken clear inside the Liverpool half, Barkley put his head down and failed to spot the unmarked Mason Holgate sprinting down the right flank. Had he passed, the incident would have been avoided, but Barkley didn’t; instead, he lost control of the ball and then dived into Lovren in an ill-judged attempt to win it back.
“You can expect in the derbies tackles like this, and tomorrow there will be headlines about it,” Lovren said. “I’ll leave it to the manager, but there were some nasty tackles last time and some nasty tackles this time, too.”
Barkley, supposedly one of the brightest young talents in the English game, was defended by his manager, who said both teams were culpable for the tone of the game.
“It’s part of football,” Koeman said. “I saw some tackles from Lucas too, but we don’t make a show like the fans of Liverpool about what happens on the pitch. It’s a hard game, but it was a fair game.”
While Barkley was losing his head as well as the ball, Coutinho was the epitome of calm and clarity. The Brazilian had suffered a midseason loss of form, proving unable to replicate his performances from the first half of the campaign after injury, but he was back to his best against Everton. Where Barkley would take five touches when one would do, Coutinho simply got the ball and did something with it.
Whether it was a quick pass, like the one to tee up Divock Origi for Liverpool’s third goal, or the brilliant run that preceded his goal and restored Liverpool’s lead after Matthew Pennington had canceled out Sadio Mane’s opener, Coutinho was making the right decisions. He was neat, tidy and clinical. Barkley, as former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness observed, was everything but.
“He runs when he should pass it, passes when he should run,” Souness said. “He has all the equipment to be a player, but I just see his decision-making not improving. If that continues, he won’t improve.
“I see him as a kid in the playground: that is how he plays in my opinion. I’d be falling out with him every five minutes if I played with him.”
It was not just in the final third that Coutinho outshone Barkley. There was a moment in the first half, when Coutinho raced back to tackle Holgate on the edge of his own penalty area, that highlighted the 24-year-old’s readiness to put a shift in at both ends of the pitch. When Barkley attempts to make a defensive contribution, Koeman probably has to cover his eyes, fearful of the outcome whenever his No. 8 throws himself into a tackle.
But perhaps the moment that best defined the differing fortunes for Coutinho and Barkley came when the Everton man attempted to dispossess the Liverpool No. 10 only for Coutinho to roll the ball back and leave Barkley sliding onto his backside. One player was in control and knew exactly what he was doing; the other was Ross Barkley.
If Everton are to salvage something from their season, they’ll need the 23-year-old to find his form and develop a killer instinct before it is too late. Liverpool, meanwhile, are hitting form at the right time thanks to their perfect No. 10.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_