Chelsea number eights past and present have been working together to improve our attacking effectiveness and the rewards are there for all to see...
When the team sheets came in on Saturday evening at Stamford Bridge, most eyes were drawn to the four changes made by Frank Lampard from our previous league encounter but few acknowledged the inclusion once again of Ross Barkley, starting a third consecutive Premier League game for the first time in his Chelsea career.
The 26-year-old has been enjoying his best run of form and fitness since swapping Goodison Park for west London in January 2018, not just since the restart but on both sides of football’s unprecedented mid-spring break.
In March, he scored an unbelievable individual goal to help us see off Liverpool in the FA Cup before excelling against his former club Everton, while he was back at it again at Leicester at the end of last month, coming off the bench to net the winner and send us to Wembley for a semi-final date with Manchester United.
Against Watford, he scored and assisted as the Blues returned to winning ways with a crucial three points and he admits a regular run in the team has really helped him feel physically and mentally fresh.
‘It’s always good as a player to get a run of games,’ claims the midfielder. ‘I’ve been feeling fit and I worked really hard during the lockdown to make sure I was ready.
‘I feel that is paying off now because I feel really fit and really good. I just want to carry this on now.’
Barkley now has three goals in his past seven appearances for Chelsea and five for the season as a whole, as well as two at international level with England, matching his tally from 2018/19. Tasked with unlocking a Watford rearguard that sat deep and defended in numbers, he drifted intelligently into pockets of space between the back four and midfield lines, always on the half-turn ready to receive a pass and advance towards goal.
The clever movement paid off for the opening goal as Barkley took control of a punchy pass forward from Mason Mount and in turn played a neat reverse ball for Olivier Giroud to slot an accomplished finish into the bottom corner.
It was exactly the type of attacking football that Lampard wants to see from his forward players and he was especially pleased in the aftermath with the efforts of the man who now wears the shirt number he enjoyed so much success wearing on his own back.
‘When you have two players in those advanced midfield positions, number eights or whatever you call them, against a team like Watford you need to get numbers behind their midfield, not be safe and then have the natural ability to make forward passes and make the right runs,’ said the boss.
‘I like working with players in that position because it was obviously where I played myself.’
Barkley is clearly relishing the opportunity to work with a Premier League goalscoring legend too.
‘It’s great that the goals are going in,’ he continues. ‘You’re always pleased when there’s an end product to your play. We’ve been working on that in training and it’s great when it pays off in matches. With the players we have like Mason and Christian [Pulisic] in the team, we’re always going to get goals.
‘We work on it a lot in training with the boss. As a player, he was a specialist at getting into the box as a midfielder with late runs so myself and Mason have been working with him on that and it’s paying off. The boss does a lot of individual work with me on that – getting into the box and finishing.’
Assessing the race for Champions League qualification, Barkley insists the emphasis in the Chelsea dressing room is on looking up, not worrying about the chasing back coming from behind.
‘We’re not really looking at the teams behind us,’ he adds. ‘We’re looking at Leicester and trying to catch them.
'We’re a team that are used to winning things so we want to finish as high as possible. We have so much to play for now with the FA Cup as well.’