Doug O'Kane looks at Barnsley's 1-0 loss at Watford last night.
Barnsley’s style of play has been criticised recently for being very direct and not good to watch, but the Reds passed the ball around with far more freedom and skill on a superior playing surface to that which they have been used to in recent weeks while they also brought it out from the back confidently.
But the only effort on the Watford goal was by one of the Hornets’ defenders in the 72nd minute as Francisco Sierralta headed towards his net from a wicked cross by the excellent Alex Mowatt but goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann made a fine save. Other than that, the Austrian shot-stopper had about as much to do during the game as his compatriot and fellow former Admira Wacker player Patrick Schmidt who was once again an unused substitute for Barnsley.
The Reds lacked quality and composure in the final third as they failed to back up a performance full of industry and organisation with the magic needed to register points. Their set pieces were very poor once again, frustratingly played to the near post and easily cleared or caught – or simply allowed to drift out of play.
If one moment could sum up Barnsley’s performance on Tuesday – and most of their 2021 displays – it was Mads Andersen’s foul throw when trying to launch one final attack in the 94th minute as his team-mates ran forward.
All the intent, energy and passion was there, but there was a sloppiness about it and the Reds were punished by the referee.
After Troy Deeney’s cross from the left of the box hit Callum Brittain’s upper leg then bounced onto his outstretched right arm, referee Tim Robinson – who sent off Mads Andersen and Michal Helik in Reading in September – awarded a penalty, correctly under the current rules.
Veteran marksman Deeney – who has 129 goals in the Championship and Premier League combined – made it five in his last five games against Barnsley when he blasted the spot-kick straight down the middle of the goal and Jack Walton got his hands to it but could not keep it out.
Reds boss Valerien Ismael fumed at the lack of consistency from officials after his side were not awarded a penalty for a similar incident three days earlier against Swansea, and earlier in the season against Brentford. It is easy to understand his annoyance and the Reds must hope that the old cliche of decisions 'balancing themselves out over a season' comes true for them.
Barnsley appealed for a penalty deep in stoppage time when Cauley Woodrow went down next to Craig Cathcart in the box but Ismael said afterwards he did not think it was a spot-kick.
Alex Mowatt was easily Barnsley’s best player, and probably the most impressive on either side. His passing was generally outstanding, as was his tackling, and he appeared all over the pitch in an all-action display which demonstrated why the Reds are so desperate to keep him and other clubs are keen to pinch him. Although he did not score a tremendous winner like in the previous meeting with the Hornets, he certainly did not deserve to be on the losing side as he more than matched Watford’s central midfielders Tom Cleverley, an England international, and Will Hughes who had both been signed for £8million.
Alongside Mowatt was Romal Palmer – who made his first start under Ismael in place of Herbie Kane – and, although he was not at his best on the ball, he seemed to gel better with Mowatt than Kane has so far. Palmer’s naturally defensive game allows his captain the freedom to break forward more and create.
After losing to top two sides Norwich City and Swansea City, on Tuesday the Reds visited the team with the best home record in the division who moved up to third with this victory.
Barnsley also came up against the league’s second best defence – the Hornets had conceded 17 goals all season – four days after facing the best defence in Swansea.
Watford had spent £75million on recruiting their starting 11, which is almost certainly more than the Reds have ever spent on transfer fees in their history.
Against the current top six this season, Barnsley have lost seven, won one, conceded 12 and scored one – the winner against Watford at Oakwell in October.
But, although they were easily beaten at Swansea and at home to Bournemouth, they missed a fine chance for a leveller at Norwich while refereeing decisions and silly mistakes cost them at Reading, under Gerhard Struber, as well as at home to Brentford and Swansea and now at Watford.
For long periods of several of those games, the Reds have matched or outplayed the top teams so they will hope that leads to points in a run of games against Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest and Derby County who all have better squads, in theory, and bigger budgets but are below the Reds.
2021 is a year that appears to promise so much for the world, with Covid-19 vaccines, for sport with the European Championships and Olympic Games, and for Barnsley Football Club who went into it on course to, at least, record their highest finish in more than two decades.
So far, the Reds have have not scored in the Championship this year or picked up a point, while they have no clean sheets in 13 league games across more than two months.
It has been a frustrating three-game run, their worst of the season, but the fact that staff and players are ruing not picking up more points from matches against the Championship’s top three, with three of the four best defensive records, shows how far the club has come.
Barnsley’s previous visit to Watford was a 3-0 loss in March 2014 on their way to relegation when they were 2-0 down after 16 minutes and the away fans sang ‘what a load of rubbish’.
Barnsley supporters, if allowed in the stadiums at the moment, would be a long way from singing that with their side in the top ten but they will hope that – as the league fixtures become slightly less daunting – 2021 will begin to bring more success.