Doug O'Kane analyses Barnsley's win over Wycombe Wanderers.
The outside of Oakwell was beautifully lit up for the Rainbow Laces campaign, but inside there was no such colour as the match was an attritional battle as expected.
The Reds were the better side throughout, creating the majority of the chances and looking unsurprisingly the most creative.
This game was almost two years to the day since Barnsley were surprised by Wycombe in a 1-0 loss in Buckinghamshire, with Daniel Stendel calling them lazy. That was the last word to describe them this time as they ground their way to victory.
Wycombe have had the least possession of any team in the Championship this season, with the lowest passing accuracy and number of passes but are in the top five for clearances as well as blocking shots and crosses. The Reds have built their game under Ismael around pressing opponents into mistakes and counter-attacks, with the most interceptions and tackles of any team in the league. They had not had more possession than their opponents in any match under the new head coach – except ten man QPR – but did so in this game with 52 per cent of the ball and marginally more touches and passes.
The Reds were expecting to have to adapt their game as they knew it would be difficult to press a side who immediately play long balls nearly every time, while the hosts would have to find a way to break down a defensive and well-drilled visiting team who sit behind the ball.
Barnsley planned to get the ball wide quickly by switching play with clever crossfield balls such as the one that led to the opener. Callum Brittain’s pass found fellow wing-back Callum Styles in space and he beat ex-Red Jason McCarthy before scoring. They then found a moment of magic for the second goal, with Conor Chaplin’s superb touch which sent Luke Thomas scampering away to win the penalty.
Wycombe’s main threats were long balls to huge striker Adebayo Akinfenwa or the corners of McCarthy, which tested his ex club-mate Jack Walton whose first unconvincing punch led to Josh Knight heading wide under pressure from defenders. Walton made a fine point blank save early in the second half after David Wheeler made a trademark run to the near post, between Aapo Halme and Cauley Woodrow, to head a McCarthy corner towards goal. That was his only save of note as Barnsley generally dealt well with the visitors’ threat.
The Reds had had five days without a game since the 4-0 thrashing by Bournemouth on Friday, a comparative holiday during this gruelling schedule, and they needed to show a reaction against a side who had a day less to recover after playing on Saturday. The match was sandwiched between that heavy loss and a big derby at Hillsborough on Saturday so there was plenty of pressure on the Reds to win what many would have labelled their easiest fixture of the season. There could hardly have been a starker contrast in opponents from Bournemouth, both in terms of finance and also style of play.
Barnsley's previous four games were against teams beginning with ‘B’ in Brentford, Blackburn, Birmingham and Bournemouth, but many may consider Wycombe to be the B team of the Championship. Wanderers are one of few second tier clubs with a smaller budget than the Reds, with their squad put together for far less than that of Barnsley who still could not afford to take them lightly, as so many ‘bigger’ clubs have done to the Oakwell outfit over the years. Valerien Ismael’s side could not view the Chairboys as whipping boys but knew it was a big chance for three points, which they deservedly took.
For the second midweek match in a row, Barnsley secured a win over a struggling side who play long-ball football, and the victories over Birmingham and Wycombe have answered the questions over whether the Reds can deal with that style that arose following the 3-0 loss at Cardiff City in Ismael’s first away game last month. They have also beaten bottom half sides in QPR, Nottingham Forest and Derby County. They will look to do so again on Saturday at bottom club Sheffield Wednesday.
Wycombe were lucky to level when Geoff Eltringham ruled that Aapo Halme had fouled Garath McCleary in the box, when the contact was clearly outside the area.
Joe Jacobson converted the second controversial penalty Wycombe have been given in as many trips to Oakwell after Ethan Pinnock was harshly penalised last year.
But 12 minutes later Eltringham awarded a spot-kick at the other end, although it was another strange incident. Thomas was tripped by McCleary then Woodrow put the loose ball in the bottom left corner but Eltringham ruled the penalty must be taken. Woodrow again found the bottom left corner via a slight touch by Ryan Allsop. The striker admitted he was ‘gutted’ not to get his second open play league goal of the season but showed great mental strength to clear his mind then net a fifth spot-kick of the campaign.
The last time Wycombe visited Oakwell, Dane Murphy was at the stadium for the first time.
The American saw the Reds beat the Chairboys 2-1 in February last year, on their way to promotion from League One, during the interview process for the chief executive job he would eventually get.
Murphy says the atmosphere that day convinced him to leave his homeland and move to England.
This time he was in the directors’ box along with Jean Cryne and just a few seats across from his compatriots, Wycombe’s animated and vocal American owners whom he appears to know well.
It has been a turbulent 18 months in the role for Murphy, with the departures of two head coaches, Bambo Diaby’s doping conviction, legal fights between the two ownership groups, a last-second escape from relegation, and the coronavirus crisis which left stadiums and bank accounts nearly empty. But on Wednesday he watched Barnsley open up the largest gap to the bottom three in his time at the club, with a sixth win in ten under the coach he appointed, in potentially one of the last behind-closed-doors games at Oakwell. Things are going well but the pressure is now on him, and others, to deliver a successful January transfer window.
This match was a perfect microcosm of where Barnsley are three weeks away from the January transfer window.
The scorers were two players who will surely attract interest from other clubs in January, while the back three continued to look vulnerable at times.
If Murphy and the board can keep their star players next month and strengthen wisely in defence and with more depth up front, which is their plan, then the Reds can realistically target the top half, at least, and their highest league finish since 2000.
Callum Styles began the game poorly with a couple of uncharacteristically bad touches, leading Valerien Ismael to shout at him from the dugout. He soon upped his game, starting and finishing the move for the opener - his third goal in six matches which have all been wins. Styles finished with the most touches for Barnsley while defensively he showed why he has made the most tackles per game in the division with a couple of crucial and well-timed challenges.
The second goal-scorer was Woodrow who now has seven this season and 41 in 94 for the club. Both are certain to be on other clubs’ January shopping lists but Barnsley insist they will not sell, and are instead focusing on recruiting a new defender. Mistakes have crept into the defence in recent weeks, with no clean sheet in five games. Michal Helik was dropped after some unconvincing performances and replaced by Halme who was unfortunate to concede a penalty but struggled early in the second half under an aerial bombardment. An improvement in the quality in the back three could be vital for Barnsley in the winter window.