Doug O'Kane analyses yesterday's FA Cup win over Norwich City.
BEST FA CUP RUN IN EIGHT YEARS
This fourth round FA Cup tie could have been seen as an opportunity to rest players with important league fixtures either side, but Valerien Ismael chose to field close to his strongest side with only goalkeeper Brad Collins replacing Jack Walton as in the previous round.
The head coach – who won cups in France and Germany as a player – wanted to end a run of poor results and was not concerned about the workload on the players. Cauley Woodrow said pre-match that they are now used to playing twice a week and wanted to go far in the FA Cup while testing themselves against top sides.
A fifth round tie with Chelsea was the potential prize while the club also received £90,000 in prize money and television revenue for the next round – a welcome financial boost in these challenging times.
This is the furthest the Reds have gone since 2013 in a competition in which they have often fielded weakened sides as they prioritised their league campaign.
For Norwich, clearly a return to the Premier League is the number one priority this season, and they lacked their hosts' intensity and drive.
The Reds have now won four cup games (two in the League Cup and two in the FA Cup) this season, which is the most since 2012/13 (exluding EFL Trophy). The last time they won more than four was in 2007/08 when they reached the FA Cup semi-final.
That run included a win over Chelsea and they may have the chance to beat the Blues again on February 10 in what would be their greatest success so far in their remarkable journey over the last year.
EXCELLENT REDS PROVE THEY CAN BAT CHAMPIONSHIP’S BEST
This was probably Barnsley best performance of the season, to topple the Championship leaders, and a brilliant response after losing their previous three league games to promotion contenders without scoring - including at Norwich three weeks earlier.
Barnsley had got into the top ten by regularly beating the rest, now they beat the best. Norwich changed their midfield five from the league fixtures but still started eight players who had been brought in for a £1million or more.
Canaries have been used by miners to test the safety of tunnels and now Norwich, nicknamed the Canaries, could be a test case for how this team from a town of rich mining history can defeat the best sides in their league. They got on the front foot from the start, pressed frantically, gave Norwich no time on the ball in important areas and had plenty of shots, with the only improvement needed to be more clinical.
The Reds only had 29 per cent of the ball but had all ten of the game’s shots on target with seven coming in the first half which they dominated before they made the breakthrough in a more even second half through the excellent Callum Styles.
Norwich - who were seven points clear at the top of the Championship and had won their last four games in all competitions - had more than 400 of both passes and touches than the Reds but many of them, especially in the first half, were in their own penalty area or near to it. In contrast, the Reds attacked when they had the ball and produced more shots on target than in their previous four league games combined.
STYLES BACK TO SENSATIONAL BEST
Callum Styles was outstanding at both ends of the pitch to secure this win.
Ismael rightly said the 20-year-old, who is being monitored by a host of clubs, had dipped in form recently but was back to his best against Norwich.
The goal came on 56 minutes when the excellent Callum Brittain's cross was the right was headed out by Max Aarons but fell to Styles 15 yards out and he brilliantly turned a defender before firing into the bottom right corner. It was his fourth goal of the season and was also the result of Barnsley's tactic of seeing one wing-back latch on to crosses by the other, with Styles almost doing so twice in the first half.
The most aerial battles won by any Barnsley player were by the two wing-backs Styles and Britain with two each. That is highly unusual and shows Norwich didn't play many long balls to test the back three which was deeper and more difficult to expose with long passes than at Carrow Road three weeks earlier.
Styles completed a sensational individual performance by brilliantly blocking from Buendia who looked certain to tap into a nearly empty net on 77 minutes. That was from a pass by Przemyslaw Placheta who broke behind the Reds defence for the second time in four minutes, having previously smashed the bar from 15 yards out after a good dummy by Buendia.
Norwich – whose only effort in the first half was a 25-yard hit by Aarons which went over – saw £5million striker Jordan Hugill head well wide a left-wing free-kick by Placheta five minutes into the second half. Those were there only chances as Brad Collins in goal had very little to do because he was well shielded by those in front of him.
SIBBICK PUTTING PRESSURE ON SOLLBAUER
Toby Sibbick looked very good after replacing Michael Sollbauer for his first start since the loss at Blackburn Rovers in November 2019 in the first game under Gerhard Struber who then removed him from the starting line-up and loaned him out twice.
He looked assured on the right of the back three, adding extra pace and mobility, while he helped set up the first chance of the game for Cauley Woodrow.
Norwich's best chances came down their left when Sollbauer replaced Sibbick in that position midway through the second half.
Sollbauer has been an excellent servant for the Reds over the last year and offers a lot in terms of character and, usually, consistency. He likely still has a significant role to play but his starting spot may no longer be guaranteed with Sibbick’s return. Aapo Halme and Liam Kitching, when fit, will apply the same pressure respectively to Michal Helik in the middle of the back and Andersen on the left. That is the competition Ismael has been looking for.
PALMER LOOKED GOOD BUT ISMAEL SAW IT DIFFERENTLY
Romal Palmer was taken off at half-time as, despite making as many tackles with six as Norwich in total through the whole game and looking dangerous through shots and crosses, Ismael said the central midfielder was tired and couldn’t compete for ‘duels’ or make the right decisions. The consensus from reporters and fans was that he was one of the best players in the first half but Ismael has a ground level view of his players, lots of experience in the game and sports scientists providing him with data. He made the decision to remove Palmer and his team won so it is hard to disagree.
The other starting central midfielder Alex Mowatt – who missed the league game at Norwich after testing positive for Covid-19 – was excellent in the first half, with some superb passing while he and Palmer won the ball consistently and allowed their team to attack regularly. Mowatt was rested by Struber in the fourth round last year but was key to this victory.
Palmer was replaced by the less effective Herbie Kane, which allowed Norwich to have more of a grip in the game after the break, but the hosts held on to win.