Photo credit: Alex Livesey/Getty

On paper, Ross Barkley and Everton should be the perfect marriage of player and club. On one side you have a young player who drips with talent and potential playing for an ambitious, relatively big club that offers him all the minutes and patience and care he could ask for in hopes that he reaches his sky-high potential. On the other, there is a club with big dreams, though limited opportunities to realize them, in possession of a homegrown player who, unvarnished though he may be, contains all the raw materials you’d look for in someone who could one day be the kind of star that could take the club where it aspires to be. And yet as right as this relationship looks in the abstract, for some confounding reason these two partners appear headed for divorce.

Barkley’s contract with Everton expires after next season. The year before a player’s contract expires is generally the most fraught time for player and club, as it is when both sides must determine whether to stay together longterm or to part ways. The sides get together and ask themselves and each other a battery of questions: Do our ambitions for the future align? What about our financial expectations? Are we on the same page as to the player’s place and prominence in the team? Is there another team out there making an offer one or both of us can’t refuse? Are we happy together? Depending on the answers to these questions, either the two sides hammer out a contract extension or, if there are significant differences preventing them from reaching an agreement on a new deal, the team will look to sell the player as soon as possible before the existing contract expires and the player can leave the team for free.

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So how do Everton’s and Barkley’s interests line up on this stuff? From all appearances they line up damn near perfectly. Barkley and Everton are both flawed yet promising in similar ways, and because of that a continuation of the relationship should be a no-brainer.

Barkley is young and English with all the potential in the world. He also, however, is not all that young anymore (he’s 23 now, wrapping up his fourth season as a regular member of the first team), still hasn’t discovered his best position, and his game as it exists today is severely hobbled by his often bad decision-making, lack of awareness, and inconsistency. He might be big and strong and powerful and fast and tireless and super technical and a great dribbler and really good at kicking the shit out of the ball, but if he never develops the mental traits necessary to turn his physical gifts into the skill set of a truly dominating player, is he really worth it? The answer to that question is pretty obviously “Yes, duh, he’s still just 23 and if he ever puts it all together, watch the fuck out!” but it’s still a legitimate question that Everton and anyone else who might be interested in his services should consider.

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As for the other party, Everton are a pretty big club, probably the best positioned team right behind the six-team cadre of Premier League big boys, which in this new era of boundless TV money and the club’s own rich new owners means there are only maybe a dozen or so clubs around the world who can boast more financial weight and prestige than Everton when it comes to attracting players. However, Everton are also so far behind the six big boys in England, plus the other giants in Spain and Germany and Italy and France, that they don’t even show up in those clubs’ rearview mirrors. The Toffees are rich, and because of that should be successful in the future, but the pack of elites they chase have so much of a lead that it makes catching up nearly impossible.

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Everton see themselves as a team where, if everything goes just right and their brand of savvy player recruitment and development leads to a squad that’s greater than the sum of its transfer fees, they might be able to make a somewhat legitimate push for the Champions League places. This is an incredibly difficult feat to pull off under the best of circumstances, and with the big English clubs only getting bigger and richer and smarter in recent years, the prospect of sneaking into fourth place is much more daunting now than it was even three years ago. The only way Everton can hope to get where they want to be is by finding players like Barkley—ones who might not be great when they join, but have the potential to be bona fide studs as they mature—and holding onto them for as long as possible.

The upshot of all that is this: Barkley isn’t good enough right now to merit a more prominent position on a bigger team than the one he has now at Everton, where because of his current ability and his potential he will remain one of the side’s focal points should he stay; meanwhile, Everton probably can’t lure in a player significantly better than Barkley right now, much less one with the tools Barkley has that project him for stardom. That, plus the romantic stuff about Barkley being an English, homegrown, local kid-made-good, would make a new extension for Barkley in everyone’s best interest.

And yet here we are, on the precipice of the pivotal summer before his contract is up, and Everton manager Ronald Koeman is talking in public as if Barkley will almost certainly be sold. Koeman announced a week ago that he had given Barkley an ultimatum: agree to a new contract with the club before the end of the season or I’ll sell you. Well, the end of the season is a mere two days away and Barkley has not signed the contract Everton have put before him, so if Koeman is a man of his word, Barkley only has one more game in an Everton shirt left.

Here’s what Koeman had to say about Barkley’s contractual status to the media today, from the Independent:

Asked on Friday whether he was confident Barkley would put pen to paper: “No. I spoke to the player, the board spoke to his agent. I don’t know if he won’t give an answer. I don’t know.

Koeman is relaxed and despite wanting Barkley to stay confirmed the club are pondering other options.

“We will go on and we’re looking for players in that position. If he stays there will be more competition,” he added. “I am not worried because I like to work with players who like to play.

“If you offer a player a new contract, and a good contract, that means you want to keep the player.”

As widely known as this contract dispute has been, what neither Everton nor Barkley have made public is what exactly is holding things up. For Barkley, there are only two realistic reasons why he wouldn’t want to re-sign: either he wants more money or he wants to go to a bigger team. Extended haggling over monetary issues is a fine and understandable excuse for the delay, but with Everton’s loaded new owners it’s hard to imagine a few thousand pounds holding up the deal if both sides wanted to make it happen. If that’s true, then the only remaining answer is that Barkley wants out. But why? And where would he go?

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Sure, any one of the big six would at least sound out the possibility of bringing in Barkley, since, again, he is an exceptionally gifted player who could very well turn into a star in the near future. The transfer rumor grapevine says Tottenham and Arsenal are his most likely suitors. But if Barkley joined either of those teams (or any of the other top-six rosters for that matter) it would certainly be as a squad player, since they have better options already at the club. At his best, Barkley is probably something like a down-market Dele Alli, and Alli is not only younger than his Toffee compatriot, he’s also considerably better. Arsenal are already drowning in athletic, technically gifted midfielder types with no real position (see: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey), so it wouldn’t make much sense for Barkley to go there, not if he wants to play a lot and for a manager who knows how to find positions for players like him. Spurs’ and Arsenal’s alleged interest makes sense—why not take a punt on a guy who might be great?—but Barkley’s interest in going there doesn’t really.

If the issue is that Everton are balking at meeting Barkley’s contract demands, then that would be kind of stupid, too, given how much money the team has to throw around these days. The only sensible reasoning there would be that Everton want out of the Barkley business because they don’t think he’ll develop into anything much better than what he already is. Koeman has been pointedly critical of Barkley in the press all year, and has relegated him to playing on the wing for most of the season, seemingly losing faith that Barkley can be a true No. 10. If that’s the case, then so be it, but giving up on Barkley now still feels a bit hasty and unwise. Even if he never develops into a true star, he’s still talented enough to be a useful player, and Everton certainly aren’t good enough to scoff at Barkley’s current talent.

It is of course possible that the matter isn’t quite as dire as it appears. This could merely be your typical contract posturing, with Everton trying to force Barkley into negotiating on their terms and Barkley refusing to. If Barkley doesn’t sign a new deal by Sunday but his people come to the club with a counter-offer a month from now, Everton surely wouldn’t be so stubborn as to decline to reopen negotiations. Hopefully that is indeed the case, and these two find a way to stick it out for at least a little while longer. Because if Barkley and Everton want to make their potentially bright futures reality, their best chance of doing so is to do it together.