Reds set to give Markus more time, with players coming back from injury and a kind fixture list, but can he prove he is the right man for the job?
‘HAS HE gone yet?’
That seems to be the most frequent question from Barnsley fans as Markus Schopp staggers on as head coach despite the worst start to a tenure in the club’s history and a win percentage of seven. It is asked increasingly with a weary, apathetic expression as the anger of the opening months of the season has turned, for some, into a contemptuous disbelief that nothing is changing.
A season in which the club has closed as many stands as they have won football matches has been very difficult on and off the pitch so far and, although it certainly could change, the drop-off in the last six months since Barnsley reached the play-offs is astonishing.
Almost every available piece of evidence – results, performances, the relationship with the fans, comments from some of the players – suggests Markus Schopp is simply not the right man to be Barnsley’s head coach.
But the Reds’ owners are keeping faith in him, at least for now, as he insists the results will change now that they have scored some goals and key players are not far off returning from injury.
It is a dangerous policy which could be ‘Schopp til you drop’ as the Reds, despite having more than enough quality to stay up, slide further into relegation trouble after almost a third of the season.
We have become used to major highs and lows on the Oakwell rollercoaster, but the great escape of last year or this year’s play-off charge were only achieved due to a change in head coach.
There won’t be many employees at Oakwell who do not like Schopp as a person, and it is hard not to feel sorry for him on some level as he is constantly barracked by fans and asked by press about losing his job. He comes across as a good man.
But ultimately he is failing badly.
So why is he still in the role?
From sources at the club and the guarded comments of Khaled El-Ahmad last week, it seems that sacking Schopp is not a card that is totally off the table, but one the Reds are unwilling to play just yet. Perhaps, having already sacked Daniel Stendel at Nancy this season and with fans of Esbjerg protesting against their manager, the ownership group do not want more disruption at one of their clubs.
It would be an expensive business to sack a manager just a few months into a three-year contract – and El-Ahmad said there were financial factors – but not as costly as if the Reds get relegated which will lose them around £7million, not to mention devalue the players they may plan to sell.
The last time Barnsley were on as long a winless league run under one manager, in 1959, Schopp was 15 years from being born while the Sound of Music, set in his home nation of Austria, was first opening on Broadway. The Oakwell stands were alive with the sound of boos and furious chants on Sunday as the Reds succumbed to a sixth straight loss in their derby with Sheffield United.
No EFL side has fewer wins or goals than the Reds this season while they are winless in 12 and would be bottom of the Championship if not for a points deduction for Derby County, who could overtake them this week.
Their only win was two months ago against a Coventry City side who missed an injury-time penalty as well as several other big opportunities while conceding the hosts’ only chance. Cardiff City, Birmingham City and Stoke City will all be wondering how they only drew with the Reds.
Comparisons have often been made to the poor start to the previous campaign which ended in the play-offs but, after 14 games of last season, Barnsley had double their current points tally.
NOT AN EASY JOB, BUT SCHOPP STRUGGLING
Schopp can make some valid excuses.
He was unable to bring in his own assistants, seven new signings – not made by him – have made little impact collectively, he did not get the experienced central midfielder he wanted and has lost several key men to injuries, with the team changing nearly every week.
That has certainly not been ideal but all of those factors are nowhere near enough to explain this start to the season.
Schopp still took over a side that almost reached the Premier League six months ago and was the first Reds manager in a decade not to have a first team starter sold in the summer.
He would say he has had to deal with inflated expectations following last season’s fifth-placed finish, and the fact that fans have returned after a painful behind-closed-doors season anticipating another promotion push.
But the majority of supporters have always been realistic this season and, even if 2020/21 had never happened, the start to this campaign would still be a catastrophe.
Valerien Ismael – who took over a year ago this week – was a tough act to follow, not just his results but his impressive aura, clarity and authority. But Schopp has failed in almost every way. He often does not respond well to opposition managers’ changes, which alter the course of games, he often plays people out of position, and seems wedded to Ismael’s 3-4-3 formation despite it clearly not working for him.
He slinks off down the tunnel at full-time without clapping fans who have often travelled hundreds of miles, despite colleagues advising him to do so. That may seem a small point to some but it adds to the discontent in the fanbase.
Devante Cole suggested on Sunday that the comeback from 3-0 to 3-2 was in spite of Schopp rather than because of him.
Callum Brittain – one of several players whose development seems to have stalled under Schopp – complained before the international break that the Reds did not work on attacking plans in training.
Since then, several players have said that the squad had meetings with Schopp in the break and that they are now getting more clarity and understanding their roles. That is a comment you expect to hear in July or August not October, four months into a manager’s tenure.
CHANGE OF STYLE FOR FINANCIAL REASONS NOT WORKING
Those above Schopp are also to blame for selecting him as head coach, and implementing a total change in style from last season.
Ismael’s direct, long ball approach may not have pleased everyone but it brought Barnsley’s best season in more than two decades.
The Reds then went away from that by appointing a manager who employs a possession-based passing approach that simply has not worked.
Apart from a wonderful first half at a QPR team who played into their hands, and the last 15 minutes on Sunday, the Reds have mostly looked ponderous and toothless in attack. Schopp played with Pep Guardiola at Brescia but, in trying to be a Pound Shop Pep and copy the Manchester City boss’ style, he has robbed Barnsley of nearly everything that made them successful last season.
The argument that Ismael’s style of football cannot be played without Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike (or his replacement Obbi Oulare) up front, does not wash because the Reds did not have them this time last year and were doing a lot better.
Chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad said on Friday that Ismael’s style did not develop players to sell on as well as the passing approach. But it is hard to imagine that the likes of Michal Helik, Mads Andersen and Callum Styles garnered no interest.
It was a very slow summer due to Covid and El-Ahmad’s predecessor Dane Murphy slapped a £5million price tag on the players.
El-Ahmad’s comments make Barnsley sound like a factory for producing sellable assets rather than a football club supported, literally in terms of money, by fans who understand the financial pressures but also want to see ambition and wins.
NEXT THREE GAMES COULD NOT BE A BETTER CHANCE FOR POINTS
If you were going to design a three-game spell to be kind to an under-pressure manager, you would probably give him an away game at a club that has not won at home in nine months and home matches against the other two sides in the bottom three. Tomorrow Barnsley visit Bristol City, who have not won at home since January, then are at home to bottom club Derby and third-bottom Hull City before another international break.
Accepting the mantra that no game is easy in the Championship – certainly true for Barnsley right now – this is as generous as the fixture computer could possibly have been to Schopp.
He must look to build on the final 15 minutes on Sunday and, with some players possibly back from injury, begin to pick up regular points.
It would have been a good time to make a change in the dugout, if deemed necessary, before those potentially season-shaping games, and the last international break until March.
A fresh set of eyes and different approach, even if a caretaker at first, might just have given the Reds the impetus to start collecting points.
But Schopp now has the chance to do that and, if he doesn’t win at least one of those fixtures but keeps his job, then it is difficult to see anything other than relegation this season.