Analysis from Barnsley's 1-0 home loss to Bournemouth on Saturday.
TEAM CLAPPED OFF AFTER SHOWING FIGHT
THIS was Barnsley’s first home league game in 43 days since the 0-0 draw with West Bromwich Albion on December 17.
Since then, they had lost three league games, Covid-19 swept through Oakwell, top-scorer Cauley Woodrow was ruled out for months through injury, they conceded four FA Cup goals in a fortunate win over League Two Barrow and 29 days of a transfer window went by without the arrival of desperately needed reinforcements.
All the while belief in survival has drained, Poya Asbaghi’s wait for a first league victory has become the longest for 69 years and anger in some sections of the fanbase has simmered closer to boiling point.
Hundreds of Barnsley fans had been chanting 'we want Conway out' and 'you greedy b******ds get out of our club' to the owners well before the 12th-minute goal that proved to be the winner.
They continued throughout and were joined by the away fans singing ‘get out of their club.’ Most of the home fans applauded.
After a fourth straight defeat, extending the winless run to 11, a few hundred fans massed at the front of the Ponty End before eventually dispersing.
But thousands had clapped off the players who had shown fight and produced one of their better performances this season.
Although there are doubts for many about the owners, the majority of the fanbase - hundreds of whom returned to their seats in the re-opened West Stand - do not appear ready for an all-out protest and would rather support the players, especially if they have a good reason to which they did on Saturday.
We are long past the point where decent performances can form a silver lining for defeats which leave the Reds eight points adrift of safety, but it was hard to fault the team too much for this game in itself as they competed fairly well with the third-placed side.
They were further depleted as Victor Adeboyejo and Claudio Gomes joined the list of injured players which is starting to threaten double figures, while Carlton Morris was still out with Covid-19.
So was Asbaghi but the decisions he communicated to his staff were generally sensible.
They played a 3-5-2 formation, which has seemed a good option for months as it adds an extra body in their weak area of central midfield, and generally put players in their natural positions. They also returned to a style similar to last season as they were happy to have 30 per cent of the ball and often play it long, as they went direct to avoid Bournemouth’s press.
The Cherries were the better side overall, and could have been 4-0 up early on, but showed the nerves of a team who had won two in ten as they struggled to play their expansive brand of football on a bobbly pitch in very window conditions.
MISSED CHANCES COST BARNSLEY AGAIN
Bournemouth got the winner through Phil Billing who, like team-mate Dominic Solanke, had more goals this season as an individual than Barnsley’s whole matchday squad.
Aaron Leya Iseka was the only home player of the Reds’ 18 to have scored more than once this season, with three, while Callum Styles - who again missed big chances - and Devante Cole were the only other players who had netted in the league.
Styles should have netted the equaliser on the stroke of half-time but he shot straight at the goalkeeper Mark Travers five yards out after Romal Palmer intercepted a Travers kick, swapped passes with Cole and crossed low from the right.
Styles also had a long-range shot pushed away by Travers early in the second half then sent an acrobatic effort straight at the goalkeeper from eight yards out on 85 minutes.
He is a huge talent but is struggling in front of goal, having missed a big chance four days earlier at 1-0 down against Nottingham Forest and also fired wide from lost range in the game before that at Birmingham.
No one playing in midfield has scored for Barnsley this season and Styles, who netted as a left wing-back in August before a 21-game barren run, needs to start taking these opportunities if the Reds are to have any chance of survival.
Styles always looked Barnsley’s best route to goal and he also set up chances for both their strikers. But they were both denied by Travers who made several good saves without being forced into anything exceptional.
DISASTROUS EARLY GOAL
Goalkeeper Brad Collins - on his 50th successive Championship start - made a big error for the second successive Saturday.
He raced out of his penalty area to clear a long pass by Jack Stacey but was beaten to it by Dominic Solanke whose lofted cross could have been punched away by the scrambling Collins but instead was headed home by Billing.
Collins also gifted Bournemouth a goal in their 3-0 win in September but that was a rare blemish in a superb first half of the season which makes him the favourite for Player of the Year.
But, after not playing for nearly a month, he suddenly looks nervous, regularly dropping crosses and making poor decisions.
His coach Ferran Sibila said the windy conditions were a factor in his mistake but ultimately he just misjudged a run out of the box.
WOLFE AND MARSH IMPRESS ON GOOD DAY FOR ACADEMY
While it was another poor day for the first team, it was a great one for the academy.
The under 18s won 5-0 in the morning then Matty Wolfe made his first start for the first team and Aiden Marsh his debut off the bench.
Wolfe - a 21-year-old from Wakefield who had impressed for Barnsley’s Danish sister club Esbjerg pre-Christmas - had an impressive match in the middle, despite coming up against the likes of Jefferson Lerma and Billing, another former Esbjerg man, who had been recruited for £40million combined. Wolfe looked a neat and tidy player with the confidence and skill to drive forward on the ball.
Marsh, the 18-year-old striker from Monk Bretton, became the first academy product from Barnsley to play a league game since George Smith in 2016.
He came off the bench with 12 minutes left and unleashed a powerful 25-yard shot within 20 seconds, but Travers denied him a fairytale moment by leaping to his left to save.
Both players have grown up in the Oakwell academy since they were in Primary School age and certainly added an enthusiasm on the pitch and buzz in the stands. Joe Ackroyd, another long-term academy player from the town, made his debut in the FA Cup earlier this month while under 23s Cameron Thompson and David Bremang have come on for their league debuts since.
That is because of injuries and Covid-19 but the Reds may as well give these players an opportunity, after the first team has failed to compete this season.
Marsh could be seen geeing up his team-mates after the sending off of England international Gary Cahill, who is twice his age, and was clearly very emotional to make his debut.
Left wing-back Remy Vita made his first league start. He looked solid and lively enough for it to be very surprising that he did not get any gametime in his first four months at the club. The Bayern Munich loanee had the best passing accuracy and made the joint most tackles.
CARDIFF GAME HUGE
Barnsley now face fifth-bottom Cardiff City on Wednesday in what feels like a final chance to keep themselves in realistic contention for survival.
Cardiff are on a long winless run of their own ahead of today’s game with Nottingham Forest while they and Reading currently look like the only sides outside the bottom three Barnsley could catch.
Many fans have given up on this season which is understandable given a record of two wins in 27 games and an eight-point gap to safety.
But should they win in midweek, the Reds will be five points off safety with 18 games left - a bleak but not impossible situation - along with all the belief and confidence a victory brings.
If they lose, it will realistically be game over as the rest of February sees them play a series of promotion-chasing sides while the teams above them could extend the gap to safety well into double figures.
Wednesday will be a very different game against a more direct side.
But if they play like they did in Saturday’s second half, and finish better, they could beat the Bluebirds.
However, this season cannot be about ‘ifs’ much longer.