ELEVEN weeks after a magnificent, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to reach the Premier League ended in play-off defeat to Swansea City, the Reds return to Wales to begin their 2021/22 campaign at Cardiff City.
Another promotion challenge is the stated aim of Markus Schopp and his players, following on from last season’s fifth-placed finish and play-off semi-final heartbreak.
Last season, Valerien Ismael’s Reds went from relegation battlers to Premier League candidates within six astonishing months which have, for many fans, changed expectations of what this club can achieve in the future. Since the start of 2020, only Brentford and Swansea City have collected more than Barnsley’s 107 Championship points from 67 games.
That is more than one freak run, it is a sustained spell of the Reds being among the best-performing teams in the division despite having one of the lowest budgets. They are now armed with the experience and confidence they gained last season to add to their undoubted talent.
Another top six finish is an understandable aim after last season, and you would be foolish to bet against it given the extraordinary against-all-odds achievements of both the last two seasons. They are unlikely to be able to keep all of their star players for many more windows, with their stock rising as well as, in theory, the spending power of rival clubs. So this seems an opportunity to take another run at glory with the majority of last season’s squad plus some exciting signings.
But, even if they were to fall short and finish in the top half again but not the top six, that should not be considered a failure and instead another solid campaign for a club building towards a bright future. A good start is not always crucial, as we saw last season, but there seems to be a possibility to pick up plenty of points in August. Tomorrow’s hosts Cardiff could be depleted then the Reds host Coventry City, Luton Town and Birmingham City while also looking for a third straight win at QPR.
Here are some of the key factors:
SCHOPP’S STYLE OF PLAY
PROBABLY the most important factor for Barnsley as they head into the new season is whether Markus Schopp can prove to be a fourth successive inspired appointment by the current Reds board.
After Daniel Stendel got them into the Championship, Gerhard Struber kept them there and Valerien Ismael delivered their best season in more than two decades, Schopp has arguably the toughest task of them all – maintaining success that the club was never expected to achieve.
They were all recruited using Barnsley’s data-driven research as the Reds have identified Germany and Austria as a perfect hunting ground for coaches who play the type of pressing football on which they have built their model and are affordable for the Oakwell club.
So far, Schopp has said and done all the right things but – after four friendlies – now is the time to prove himself in the dugout.
Crucial to how well he performs will surely be how the players carry out his style which, unlike Ismael’s direct approach, involves them passing the ball much more on the ground and often building up from the back. There are bound to be grumblings at Oakwell if the Reds pass the ball from goalkeeper to centre-back but this squad is far more savvy and experienced than in 2019/2020 when that type of football brought regular errors.
The likes of Toby Sibbick have said that the Reds will find the right balance between a passing build-up and sensible defending which, if it works, could see them play some scintillating counter-attacking football. There may be a settling in process with patience required from the terraces.
In many ways, a trip to Cardiff City will be an extremely good test for that style.
The Cardiff City Stadium was where Ismael learned a harsh lesson in a 3-0 defeat last November, which was also his first away game as Reds head coach.
After seeing a diminutive forward line barely touch the ball as his team were brushed aside, he focused on being more aggressive and physical with the recruitment of huge strikers in January.
The summer signing of players such as Obbi Oulare and Aaron Leya Iseka, both well over six foot, shows Schopp will have plenty of physical firepower at the end of his prettier approach.
REPLACING KEY FIGURES
THE THREE main ingredients of last season’s superb success were: Valerien Ismael, the bond forged between the players in the previous campaign’s ‘great escape’ and the club’s impressive dealings in the transfer market that season.
All three of those areas have been weakened, to various extents, by the departure of Ismael, captain Alex Mowatt and chief executive Dane Murphy who each left, along with other staff members, within a few days in late June.
All three have been replaced promptly and, although it remains to be seen how much they are missed, the Reds are going into the season with positivity rather than a feeling that all last year’s work has been derailed by the departures.
Ismael had probably the biggest immediate impact of any head coach or manager in Barnsley’s history, so will be a very difficult act to follow but Markus Schopp already seems popular with the players and the Reds have a fine track record of picking managers.
Murphy was a good figurehead during the Covid crisis but did not walk out of Oakwell with the Reds’ recruitment system.
That belongs to James Cryne who will now be working with Khaled Al-Ahmad whose experience in analytics, recruitment and overseas markets seems to make him a good fit.
Mowatt will be very difficult to replace, as the most experienced player at the club and an excellent Championship midfielder who contributed regular goals and assists.
In Callum Styles, Josh Benson, Romal Palmer and Herbie Kane, the Reds have an extremely talented crop of young midfielders but the question will be whether they have the character, experience and game management skills to dictate Championship matches. Barnsley are considering adding a more experienced midfielder.
Elsewhere, the team is much the same although Daryl Dike’s bulldozing power and moments of match-winning magic will have to be provided by a combination of the new signings. Neither Obbi Oulare, Aaron Leya Iseka nor Devante Cole have great goals records but the Reds have shown themselves capable of finding hidden gems while, at least in Iseka’s case, he has been playing at a high level in the French top flight. Apart from Cauley Woodrow, no player in the current squad has more than seven goals at Championship level but there are plenty in the squad with the potential to contribute.
The majority of this team has now been together for at least a year, in some cases several, and appears to be growing together.
While you cannot describe the squad as experienced, they are going into the season with many more players who have played for at least one season at Championship level than in their four previous second tier campaigns.
If the Reds replicate last summer, when the majority of the incoming transfers were successes, then they should be set for another very good season.
CONTINUE MOMENTUM IN MORE EVEN CHAMPIONSHIP
THE 24 Championship clubs have spent collectively, about £30million so far this summer, with almost half of that down to Fulham’s signing of Harry Wilson from Liverpool which is the only multi-million deal.
While there are still three weeks left in the window, as well as January, that is well down on the £75million spent last season despite the imminent return of fans to grounds as the coronavirus crisis hopefully nears an end.
There has been a huge reduction in spending from the previous five campaigns in which the second tier was averaging an outlay of well over £250million per season.
Covid-19 hit hard a division used to spending nearly everything they earn on chasing the dream of the Premier League, regardless of the risk to the club’s financial future.
Four clubs began this week without making a new signing this summer, due to transfer embargoes in the case of Derby and Reading, while many others had brought in just one or two players.
While many clubs still have players brought in for huge money in previous seasons, including during stints in the Premier League, gone are the days when ten or more clubs are spending millions on players Barnsley cannot compete for.
The Reds still go their own way, focusing on developing young players and living within their means.
Whether they can skip happily through the wreckage of previous giants into the top flight remains to be seen.
But last season suggested that the playing field has been levelled to the extent that a well-run and sustainable ‘smaller club’ can compete with clubs who are far wealthier.
A GOOD END TO WINDOW
THE REDS’ main priorities in the last three and a half weeks of the summer transfer window appear to be to recruit a left wing-back, and potentially a midfielder, keep all their star players and trim the squad of those not in Markus Schopp’s plans.
Barnsley brought in three players within a week, with the arrivals of Obbi Oulare, Josh Benson and Aaron Leya Iseka leaving their squad almost complete going into the final days before the season starts.
A new left wing-back would provide competition for Ben Williams, although they do have other players who can slot in there including Callum Styles, Clarke Oduor and Jordan Williams.
Styles is one of the players they will be desperate to keep hold of, along with Michal Helik, Mads Andersen, Callum Brittain and Cauley Woodrow.
They are understood to be determined to sell for nothing less than a club record of £5million this summer, which is unlikely to happen although it is not impossible.
There are likely to be several departures of players who are on the fringes of the squad, the exact outline of which should become clear when we see who is not on the bench in the coming week.
After Marcel Ritzmaier’s exit, the likes of Isaac Christie-Davies and George Miller are all likely to be loaned or sold.
The Reds have been keen to use their ‘sister clubs’ – those also owned by their owners, of which there are four around Europe – to offload unwanted players.