Doug O’Kane analyses Barnsley’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, with second half goals by Alex Mowatt and Daryl Dike putting them five points clear in top six with five games left.
COLOURFUL OAKWELL RETURN FOR WARNOCK
On Grand National day, Barnsley resembled a long shot that stumbled out of the gate but has galloped to near the front and is threatening a major upset in the final furlongs.
Their fifth place is enviously looked up to by many clubs including Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough.
The former Barnsley winger turned veteran manager had a typically colourful and cantankerous afternoon back at Oakwell.
Chris Kamara, who was working for Sky TV, hilariously booed Warnock as soon as he walked onto the Oakwell pitch for the pre-match warm-up then said: 'I'm just trying to make you feel at home here."
Warnock smiled but was not happy later as he moaned at the referee almost constantly throughout the second half.
After the match, he said he wanted Barnsley to be promoted but became the latest manager to highlight their allegedly direct style - saying ‘they just hoof it.’ He also said his Sheffield United of the early 2000s side played better football and that Chris Morgan was like Franz Beckenbauer compared to Barnsley’s defenders.
Ismael won a league and cup double for Beckenbauer in his Bayern Munich days and should not care about the criticism, especially from one of the arch exponents of long ball football who has far more resources available.
Boro's squad had been recruited for just under £50million and had far more Championship experience than their hosts.
Although they only had six of a possible nine substitutes due to injury, they were able to make a triple change of £15million club record signing Britt Assombalonga, former Barnsley promotion hero Ashley Fletcher, who they signed for £7million, and Yannick Bolasie who Everton signed for £25million.
That change came at 1-0 but could not stop the Reds controlling the last half hour.
STALE FIRST HOUR, BUT REDS TOOK CONTROL AFTER OPENER
The first hour was very poor, with both sides mainly pumping unsuccessful long balls which were easily headed away by the opposition defence. Hours before El Clasico, this was El Long Pasico for 60 minutes. This can often happen when a side decides to go ultra direct to negate the press of Barnsley who attempt to get the ball forwards as quickly as possible.
The Reds did seem the team most likely to put together a decent footballing move but lacked the killer final touch, cross or pass. Warnock said: “I don't think they had any idea of how to break us down.”
They were eventually indebted to bizarre goalkeeping from Marcus Bettinelli who allowed Alex Mowatt's corner to curl in. Bettinelli was also at fault for both Barnsley's goals in their EFL Cup win at the Riverside in September.
Bettinelli then appeared to take out Daryl Dike who was through on goal but the referee did not send him off, with the Reds staff furious and Ismael shouting 'embarrassing.’ But it did not matter as Barnsley were well on top by that point and soon added a second through Dike.
COLLINS’ 10TH CLEAN SHEET AS MADS DOMINATES
Barnsley should have gone behind in the ninth minute when Toby Sibbick tried to head back to his goalkeeper but did not get the distance and George Saville intercepted then nodded tamely at Brad Collins inside the box when he should have scored.
Other than that, Collins had to save just once from Grant Hall's difficult headed chance early in the second half as he kept his first clean sheet in six games and his tenth of the season in competitions.
After some nervy moments in previous games, he has judged his runs out of the box to clear well since the international break - something he has to do as opponents try to play long balls over the Reds’ high line.
He was well-shielded by the back three who, although not given their sternest test this season, did everything right except Sibbick's early error.
The match started with a minute's silence following the death of Prince Philip, who was born a Prince of Denmark, and Danish defender Mads Andersen played like royalty as he won 12 headers and made eight clearances, as well as making the most touches and passes.
The wing-backs made the most tackles of any player with Callum Brittain making five and Callum Styles six. Styles – who essentially faced two Boro right-backs in Darnell Fisher and makeshift right-winger Died Spence – had a quiet first half on the attack but improved after the break. Brittain - who is in the division’s top five for successful dribbles and blocked crosses - registered his fifth assist of the season with a fine cross for Dike's 2-0 goal.
REDS COULD HAVE SEVERAL PLAYERS IN DOUBLE FIGURES FOR GOALS
Both Dike and Mowatt moved onto eight goals, three behind top-scorer Cauley Woodrow who has 11 in the league.
All three could finish in double figures which would be the first time Barnsley have had three players on ten or more second tier goals since the 1999/2000 campaign with Craig Hignett, Darren Barnard and Neil Shipperley.
With Carlton Morris on six, Michal Helik on five and Callum Styles four, the Reds have threats all over the pitch and on the bench.
Mowatt eventually, as he so often does, stamped his authority on the game after having to battle through a difficult first half which he mainly spent competing for the ball in the air.
He almost scored again five minutes later when another set piece, this time a left-wing free-kick, nearly floated all the way in again but Bettinelli sprang to his left to make a good save. Mowatt’s set pieces opened the game up for Barnsley and the quality he possesses is too much for Championship opposition at times.
Dike also had to battle in the first half, mainly at the other end of the pitch with three important clearances. But he eventually got the better of the stubborn Boro centre-backs and scored a good diving header.
PROGRESSION SINCE STRUBER’S REDS VISITED BORO
When shot-shy Barnsley tamely lost 2-1 at Middlesbrough in early October, Gerhard Struber was about to complete a move to New York Red Bulls which had been on the cards for weeks.
There were real doubts over whether last season’s saviour should have been allowed to take the team in that game as the deal was all but done and it was announced days later.
He infamously used his post-match interview to criticise the lack of ambition of the Reds, who three weeks later brought in Valerien Ismael - a coach who very much wants to be at Oakwell and has done the kind of job that almost defies description now.
Fifth-placed Barnsley have 21 league wins this season, the same as in than in their previous two Championship campaigns combined.
This win put them five points clear in the top six with five games left - an extremely strong position from which to make the play-offs.
The ultra-critical would say that if the Reds - who knew Struber was likely to leave well before he did - had brought in Ismael in early rather than late October then they might be in contention for the top two.
But that would be quite harsh considering how wise Ismael’s appointment and other decisions have been in the club’s best season since 2000.
Far from questioning the club’s ambition, like Struber, Ismael has been backed with no sales of key players and the recruitment of key men like Dike.
His post-match interview on Saturday was of a man who knows his side just moved into a position from which they can do something truly special.