LAST Christmas, Barnsley were third-bottom having collected 19 points from 23 games including four wins, while they had conceded 46 goals.
This time, despite having played three games fewer, they have nine more points and are nine positions higher, with twice as many wins, while they have let in 18 fewer goals.
They are five points off the top six and 12 clear of the bottom three.
It is clearly a weaker Championship, with many teams struggling to make signings during the coronavirus crisis, but it is also a much stronger Barnsley.
The core of last season’s squad who stayed up in extraordinary circumstamces remain, and are getting better, while they have been supplemented by some good summer signings and inspired by new coach Valerien Ismael who has made a phenomenal impact so far.
They have just come through a spell of nine gamesin 28 days since the last international break, collecting 15 points, stretching the gap between them and the bottom three well into double figures and flirting with the top half.
Although the whispers of a promotion challenge may have quietened slightly after Saturday’s loss at Swansea, Barnsley’s points tally of 28 is the most they have had after 20 Championship games since Keith Hill’s first season 2011/12.
That is despite the joint longest wait for a first victory in a century.
They are on course for their highest finish in the last 20 years, which is currently 14th in the 2016/17 Championship under Paul Heckingbottom with 58 points.
Here are what they should want for Christmas:
TO KEEP STAR PLAYERS AS PROMISED
The two times Barnsley have made a comparable start to their current season in the last ten years, were in 2011/12 then 2016/17 when Keith Hill and Paul Heckingbottom both had the Reds a few points off the play-off places and on good form going into January.
Both times, stars players left the club and Barnsley plummeted down the division.
Now, instead of Danny Drinkwater and Ricardo Vaz Te, or Sam Winnall and Conor Hourihane, it is Cauley Woodrow and Callum Styles who the Reds will mainly be trying to keep.
Everyone at the club is insistent that this window will be different, with chief executive Dane Murphy saying it ‘wouldn’t make sense’ to sell in January and that this side deserves to be given at least one full season to see how far they can go.
That is an encouraging sentiment – and Murphy spoke very convincingly of the owners, board and staff being united in that belief – but could it be tested if Barnsley get offers of £5million or more?
It would surely have to be at least that to justify selling Woodrow who has proven himself to be among the best strikers in the division while there is understood to be a significant sell-on clause owed to his previous club Fulham. The same logic applies to 20-year-old Styles who is only going to get better in the coming years as well as centre-back Mads Andersen, who turns 23 on Sunday and is also thought to have admirers at other clubs.
The other question is: who will have that kind of money to spend in January?
Many Premier League clubs will – budgets bolstered by huge TV deals despite the coronavirus crisis – and some in the Championship who sell to the top flight for big money and then want replacements.
That is what we saw in the summer with Brentford, Birmingham, Forest and Norwich, among others, following the sales of Ollie Watkins, Jude Bellingham, Matty Cash and Ben Godfrey respectively for at least £15million each before a portion of that was then spent on new recruits.
That may happen again, but probably to a lesser extent as clubs are traditionally more cautious in the winter window.
That is what Murphy is alluding to when he says it makes no sense to sell.
He is backing Barnsley’s players to keep improving and become more valuable in future markets which are more flush with money following the hopefully successful vaccine and full return of fans.
It also would not make sense to sell because it would probably sew the first seeds of frustration for Ismael and risk the same happening as it did with his predecessors Gerhard Struber, Daniel Stendel and Heckingbottom, who all left after seeing their best players leave and dreams of progression up the table scuppered.
JAMES, PACE AND DEPTH IN WINDOW
In terms of signings coming into Oakwell next month – assuming they do not have to replace any sold stars – then squad depth and competition are the key words.
The head coach and chief executive have openly said they are looking to bring in a new striker and a new centre-back, with Forest Green’s Liam Kitching an option for the defence.
In both positions, it would be good to see some extra pace brought into the squad to add a new dimension.
Brexit means Barnsley will be focusing on signing British players rather than from overseas as in previous windows. They did good domestic business after the international window had closed in October by signing Matty James and Callum Brittain. More of the same could be vital in the coming weeks, although the difficulty of signing overseas players may mean that more clubs join the Reds in searching for the top lower league talent.
The striker signing will be to allow top-scorer Cauley Woodrow more time on the bench, either having been taken off or given the odd game to rest. A new signing in his position may provide him with extra motivation and focus, although he does not seem to lack either.
It may not be easy to recruit someone to obviously be second choice, as Tottenham Hotspur have found when trying to find a back-up for Harry Kane.
But improving Barnsley may be an attractive prospect for a striker who wants to develop himself.
As for the centre-back, the unoccupied number five shirt is up for grabs with another ‘body’ needed to provide more competition in an any area where Barnsley, who play a back three, are just one or two injuries or suspensions away from running out of first team players.
Michael Sollbauer and Mads Andersen are ever-presents and having good seasons, with Michal Helik and Aapo Halme – who is out with injury for the next three weeks – not quite as reliable or consistent fixtures in the side.
Another option would provide the depth and competition the Reds will need as they play the second half of the season, 23 games, within 16 weeks with at least six midweek matches.
Jordan Williams, who impressed on the left of the back three at the start of the season before his injury, should not be forgotten and adds extra mobility and speed against sides who try to nip in between the centre-backs and wing-backs.
In the summer window, left-back looked a problem position but Callum Styles has excelled there and, although his favourite position is central midfield, that is another high-quality area. Ismael has said he is happy with Styles and Brittain at wing-back backed up by Williams and Clarke Oduor.
The Reds are also hopeful of keeping Matty James whose loan deal is due to expire next month.
The Leicester midfielder’s experience will be vital in managing this second part of the season.
He says he wants to stay but it is understood to be down to Leicester.
Keeping James in the midfield could be just as vital as strengthening the attack and defence.
DERBY SUCCESS THEN A FEW SHOCKS
Wins against Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United would be a magnificent end to what has been a remarkable year for Barnsley, who have already registered 19 wins in 2020 as well as their last-gasp survival last season and the positive start to this campaign.
The Rotherham game, scheduled for Tuesday, was last night in danger of being called off due to an outbreak of coronavirus in the Millers’ camp. That would be a shame because it would have been a local derby in Christmas week, and seemed like a winnable game for the Reds against a relegation-battler. But it would ease the Christmas schedule and mean Barnsley will play one game a week for a month.
They still host the Terriers on Saturday in what looks set to be a close game between two near neighbours on the same number of points.
The Reds then go on a high into what could be a challenging January on and off the pitch.
The first game in 2021 – and the first in front of fans for nine months – is a trip to runaway leaders Norwich City where Barnsley have not won in 17 attempts since 1937.
That will be Barnsley’s 11th match in 43 days since the last international break and is followed by a two-week hiatus from the gruelling Championship season, which Barnsley’s young and, in some places, shallow squad has done remarkably well to negotiate so well.
January then sees the Reds face more promotion contenders as they host Swansea on January 16 before visiting Watford three days later then completing that week at home to Cardiff City.
The month is then concluded with a trip to Nottingham Forest who appear to be gradually improving under Chris Hughton.
If they can continue to pick up regular wins against those sides, while also doing well off the pitch in the transfer window, then they could be set for a special season.
TO STOP EARLY AND SET PIECE GOALS
The Reds have not kept a clean sheet in eight games – their longest such run of 2020.
They are being dogged by early goals, having conceded in the first five minutes of their last three games, and set piece woes with Brentford, Preston and Swansea all scoring from corners.
Ismael will now have more time to work on that on the training pitch with a less intense schedule.
Statistically Barnsley’s usual back five are all performing very well. Callum Styles has made the most tackles per game in the division and Callum Brittain is in the top five for blocking crosses.
Mads Andersen has made the most clearances and interceptions in the league – with Michal Helik and Michael Sollbauer joining him in the top five for each – and is top ten for winning aerial balls. The Reds have made the most tackles and interceptions in the division.
But that will all mean nothing unless they are switched on early and from set pieces.
SUPPORTERS BACK AT OAKWELL
While Barnsley’s form has been very good, every win would be far sweeter if there were fans in the grounds to cheer them off.
The stadiums are empty for the right reasons but football will seem incomplete until the hubbub of a crowd returns.
The Reds were due to play in front of 2,000 Norwich fans on January 2 but Norfolk has now been placed in tier four.
Outbreaks at various EFL clubs show football is far from free of Covid and only a successful vaccine will see Oakwell full again. The best they can hope for in the short-term is an upgrade to tier two which will allow 2,000 fans back in.
Romal Palmer has played 13 games for Barnsley but is yet to appear in front of a crowd in his professional career, while Michal Helik, Dominik Frieser and Callum Brittain have never seen fans at Oakwell.
The Reds have collected 12 wins in 29 league games behind closed doors and some may say they perform better without fans.
But surely every footballer wants to see packed terraces and feel a live atmosphere.