Despite his 1st win, and being more respected as a coach than his predecessor, Asbaghi is struggling to turn shocking season around in difficult circumstances
AS WE watch Poya Asbaghi attempt to turn Barnsley’s miserable season around in very difficult circumstances, two questions spring to mind.
The first is: can he keep the Reds in the Championship this season?
And the second is: is he the right man to lead them forward in the long-term?
It was impossible to answer that first question in the affirmative on Saturday, despite him getting his first victory in English football.
Scraping an extra-time victory over a League Two relegation-battler who had ten men, having led three times, does not indicate in any way that the Reds are capable of staying in the Championship.
If anything, the shambolic second half may have made that job harder for some players whose poor individual performances might have drained their already-low reserves of belief even further.
We will have to see how that 5-4 slugfest with Barrow impacts Barnsley going forward as they attempt to bridge an eight-point gap to safety. But they have offered no real evidence recently that they have enough to stay up.
As for the other question, about Asbaghi’s long-term suitability to the role, Saturday may have brought increased doubts for many about that.
As he stood almost motionless and silent in the dugout while his team were being carved open during the pathetic second half, Barnsley looked as rudderless, broken and hopeless as they have all season.
Asbaghi had few options within a squad ravaged by injury and Covid-19 but also appeared to have few ideas about how to help his floundering team.
If an injury-time penalty had been given for handball against the blundering Liam Kitching – and it certainly could have been – then Barnsley would have probably been out of the cup and Asbaghi under serious pressure.
He has only had seven weeks in the role, inheriting an awful situation, but has made little tangible progress in his seven matches. With three draws and three defeats from his first six league games, he is on the longest wait for a new boss’ first league win since John McSeveney 50 years ago. That takes his personal wait for a league win to 18 matches when you include the 12-match barren run that cost him his last club job at IFK Gothenburg, after which he did excellent work with Sweden under 21s.
But nearly every player or coach you speak to, on or off the record, seem genuinely impressed by Asbaghi as a person and a coach. They are not just words, he has won respect around the club.
He certainly looks to have brought more structure and understanding to training and the team’s development than his hapless predecessor Markus Schopp who left the Reds in deep trouble.
But that, and the positivity it initially creates, can only take a team so far.
Key players and leadership figures such as Cauley Woodrow and Michal Helik are injured, along with several others, while Covid has swept through the squad in recent weeks.
But Asbaghi cannot seem to get his ideas fully through to the players in a way that produces a consistent 90-minute performance.
His Barnsley are either extremely defensive with very little attacking threat or they try to go forward more and leave themselves frighteningly open at the back. Their last two league opponents, West Bromwich Albion and Blackburn Rovers, both missed a series of major chances.
He has exiled players such as Toby Sibbick, who would be a decent option given the absences in defence, while his selections on Saturday with full-backs in attack and on their opposite flanks were surprising and did not really work.
Asbaghi needs help from those above him.
You could be forgiven, as a Barnsley fan, for not realising the transfer window has been open for two weeks. It has been a quiet window across the division but few clubs went into it in as urgent need for players as the Reds.
They clearly need a new central midfielder and striker but Asbaghi has been at pains to say that ‘room’ has to be made on the wagebill to sign new players which does not paint a healthy financial picture of the club.
The lack of early incomings and the integration of a host of under 23s into the first team squad almost suggests the club is starting to accept relegation and prepare for League One. But they are also down to the bare bones with about 12 players missing.
After the cup tie, most of Asbaghi’s usual positive demeanour had disappeared and he was more annoyed than in any previous interview – saying his side ‘played like children’ and that the second half was ‘unacceptable.’
Every Barnsley boss in the last six years or so – except Valerien Ismael whose achievements last season look even more incredible as they drift further into distant memory – has eventually reached the point where they exhaust all options within their young squad and desperately ask for more experience. It is often followed soon after by their exit.
There is no evidence at all that Asbaghi is close to leaving and there is still a slim chance of survival – with 22 games left in the season – if they can have a good window and somehow find a couple of league wins to build momentum.
The postponement of both games this week was always likely after they were ravaged by Covid cases and injuries on Saturday.
It gives them some breathing space but that will not last long.
They already have 13 games scheduled in the eight weeks from next week’s trip to Birmingham City, with the Stoke and Blackpool games still to rearrange as well a home fixture with Cardiff City which has been replaced on February 5 by the FA Cup trip to Huddersfield Town.
Barnsley thrived on that sort of schedule last spring, collecting 28 points from ten games between mid-February and mid-March which is double their current season’s tally.
But this year they seem a much more fragile squad, often crippled by injuries and regularly looking tired late on in games.
The packed schedule is an opportunity to climb the league very quickly if they find some good form, but it could also see the gap between them and safety increase well into double figures.
We should learn a lot more about Asbaghi’s short and long-term prospects in the coming weeks.