After Valerien Ismael won three of his first four matches as Barnsley head coach, Doug O'Kane looks at some of the key issues at Oakwell.
We will see if this is happy honeymoon or start of path to mid-table solidity
‘CALL me Ishmael’ is one of the most famous opening lines in literary history and the namesake of Moby Dick’s narrator has also made a very memorable start to his chapter in Barnsley FC history.
Herman Melville’s novel is about the relentless quest for Moby Dick, but Barnsley’s ‘white whale’ – the thing that drives and motivates them, at least for now – is establishing themselves in the Championship without constantly fighting relegation battles.
The very early signs look good as, with a quarter of this season played, they are as close to the play-off places as the bottom three.
The last time they were six points clear of the Championship relegation zone was exactly three years ago under Paul Heckingbottom.
November 2017 is also the last time that the Reds were as high in the second tier table as they are now, in 16th, except for the first weeks of last season before an opening day win was followed by a 17-match winless run. The Reds’ last two campaigns in the Championship have been ugly fights against relegation while, Heckingbottom’s first full season in which they came 14th aside, their most recent finishes at this level are 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 21st and 21st.
After staying up in extraordinary style at Brentford in July, with a coach and squad that seemed likely to only get better, many Reds fans rightly set their sights on mid-table.
The hopes of competing rather than merely surviving looked to be dashed when they made their joint worst start to a season in a century, with some lethargic and toothless displays in a winless first seven games, before last season’s saviour Gerhard Struber left for New York Red Bulls. The failure to sign a new striker in the transfer window, as well as legal disputes between the owners and discussions about moving away from Oakwell, led to a despondent mood for many fans and the feeling that everything was going wrong.
Then in stepped Valerien Ismael.
The Frenchman has won three of his first four matches, with three clean sheets, and no club in the Championship has collected more points than Barnsley since he took over. They have reached 13 points ten games sooner than last season.
We are not yet a month into his tenure so it is too early to really judge him but he could hardly have asked for a better start.
With a similar intensity to his predecessor Struber but a more formal dress sense and a taller stature, most of the players interviewed since his appointment are quick to mention his ‘power’ and ‘aura’ on the training pitch and in the dressing room. The phrase ‘really nice guy’ is also common. He is a former title winner with Bayern Munich and played with and against some of the best players in recent history which must impress a group of young players and make it easier for them to buy into his tactics and philosophy which they have put in place quickly.
When he arrived, Barnsley had played the fewest accurate long balls and most inaccurate short passes in the division. Those are the opposite of the stats Ismael needs if he wants to play a style of football that sees incisive long balls and ruthless counter-attacks. But they are improving in both of those areas under him.
He still needs to develop a plan B for when his 3-4-3 and style of play are not working, such as in Cardiff last week. But he has time to work on that during this international break.
He is working with what he has until at least the January transfer window, giving another chance to strikers such as Victor Adeboyejo and George Miller while using Callum Styles at left wing-back in the absence of natural players in that position.
Ismael’s Reds have certainly benefited from significant generosity from opponents.
Rob Dickie was sent off conceding a penalty 26 minutes into Ismael’s tenure then his QPR team-mate Yoann Barbet confirmed the Reds boss’ first win with a ridiculous own goal.
Watford’s England international Tom Cleverley missed a near open goal then Derby goalkeeper David Marshall gifted Conor Chaplin the opener on Saturday.
But the Reds have also played some excellent football, including for the second goals against QPR and Derby as well as the winner over Watford and several other fine moves.
The counter-attack for Adeboyejo’s stunning strike at Derby would have graced the Premier League and shows this side has the quality to compete with the best in their division on their day.
Schedule gets even tougher in run-up to Christmas and 2021
IN THE seven games between the last international break and this one, Barnsley lost just once as they collected 12 points while scoring 11 goals and conceding eight.
That is play-off form and, while we certainly shouldn’t get carried away by three wins, those points cancelled out a disappointing start.
Caretaker Adam Murray and his new boss Valerien Ismael will be pleased with those numbers which, if they replicate them in the next run of matches, the Reds will be comfortably in mid-table at least by Christmas.
The first priority is to ensure survival.
A few weeks ago, it had looked as though there might be just one realistic relegation place to avoid this season, with Sheffield Wednesday struggling to reduce their 12-point deduction and Wycombe Wanderers losing their first seven ever Championship games.
But the Owls had their deduction halved and have moved off bottom – before sacking ex-Red Garry Monk this week – while the Chairboys collected seven points from nine before a loss on Saturday.
Barnsley play both of those clubs within four days in the eight-game month of December which could be vital in deciding what kind of season they have.
First they have a break.
We saw last season how vital the extra time on the training pitch with the players during lockdown was for Gerhard Struber to tighten up the defence and implement his style.
Ismael will have less time to do so with just this current international break until March but, after four matches in his first two weeks in charge, it could be crucial for getting more of his ideas across as well as for injured players recovering.
Once this two-week hiatus is completed, they will play 27 games in 17 weeks before the next international break, starting with 12 in 43 days.
They will need some luck with injuries, especially to key players, as the tough schedule and Ismael’s intense style will put extra strain on their soft tissue.
If they get that, and consistently repeat the performances against Watford and Derby, they should stay well clear of the relegation fight.
Clean sheets in half Reds games since February while centre-backs and midfielders top stat lists
IT TOOK Barnsley 37 matches to keep their sixth clean sheet last season, whereas this campaign it has taken just 14 games.
The Reds have not conceded in half of their last 28 matches since February, as they seem to have found a consistent system and personnel in the defence.
Barnsley’s three centre-backs are in the top ten for interceptions in this league with Mads Andersen third, Michal Helik fourth and Michael Sollbauer tenth, with the Reds therefore having made the most in the league overall.
Andersen, who is having an excellent season, has also made the most clearances of any player in the division while Helik is in the top ten for winning aerial balls.
Left wing-back Callum Styles and midfielder Alex Mowatt have made the fifth and sixth most tackles in the division so far this season while no side has made more tackles than Barnsley.
Of course stats aren’t everything, and the Reds still need to improve their defending from crosses and set pieces as well as cutting out some individual errors.
The back three had poor games at Millwall and Cardiff but generally they have been very solid.
Making the most tackles and interceptions is very promising for a side based on pressing and counter-attacking.
Victor’s scoring return suggests they may have enough firepower for now
THE WIN at Derby was five years to the day since the FA Cup loss at non-league Altrincham which convinced Patrick Cryne and Lee Johnson to sign an experienced free agent in Adam Hammill, who changed the season.
Saturday’s success suggested the Reds could be right not to do so this time.
There was surprise 48 hours before the game when Ismael said the club was no longer looking for a striker in the free agent market due to the return of injury of Cauley Woodrow and Victor Adeboyejo.
Before the trip to Derby, Adeboyejo had netted just one goal in his previous 57 appearances – except in the EFL Trophy – as he struck once in 18 League One games for Bristol Rovers and none in eight League Two matches for Cambridge United while on loan last season.
The fine 20-yard finish, after an excellent team move, was his first goal in the Championship and his first for the Reds in 25 league games since he netted another late goal to secure a 2-0 win at Bradford City in August 2018.
Adeboyejo comes across extremely well in interviews and is clearly a hard-worker and popular figure at Oakwell.
Doubts about whether he is a long-term Championship player will persist but he certainly looked good enough at Pride Park and has now earned himself more chances at this level.
Ismael said he hoped the goal in Derby was a ‘breakthrough’ for Victor while the other scorer Conor Chaplin admitted his fellow striker adds something different to the other forwards at the club with his physicality.
It was only one goal but, coupled with an impressive all-round display off the bench, it certainly suggests he could play an important role in the upcoming gruelling schedule.
Adeboyejo’s goal was the 11th in seven matches following the departure of Gerhard Struber whose last 15 league games saw the Reds score just eight times. They are playing a more direct style under Ismael, while their main midfield creator Alex Mowatt has been freed to go forward more by the signing of Matty James.
Their strikers are also slowly returning to form after a difficult end to last season.
Cauley Woodrow has scored three penalties this season, winning two of them, and – while he will not dominate defenders physically – his clever movement, touches and passing create chances in every match.
Chaplin has as many goals in four matches under Ismael as in his previous 25 and he is adapting well to the wide forward position while he has created the most chances of any Barnsley player. Dominik Frieser is much improved for a run of starts on the other side of the front three under a coach he knows well.
Patrick Schmidt, although he failed to make a big impression in two starts last week, has proved he can make an impact from the bench.
George Miller will be hoping he gets another chance to get his first Barnsley goal after also being brought into the first team squad by Ismael having struggled on loan in League Two last season. He struck twice for the under 23s this week.
Although a tall targetman would still make a good plan B, the Reds may well have enough firepower to pick up the right amount of goals and points until reinforcements possibly arrive in January.