Analysis from Barnsley’s 1-1 home draw with Championship leaders Fulham on Saturday.
TWO POINTS DROPPED BUT STILL POSITIVES AGAINST LEADERS
It was a difficult result to analyse, with powerful factors pulling in both directions. Any points dropped in Barnsley’s position are costly, and again they failed to manage their way to victory.
But they shaved another point off the gap to safety as all their rivals lost later in the afternoon. A good performance against the runaway leaders - in which they generally defended well, pressed superbly and counter-attacked incisively - was encouraging for their chances of picking up regular wins over lesser opponents. The key now is to find consistency in games such as Tuesday's home fixture with Bristol City, which they surely must win.
EXPECTED BIG FULHAM WIN KICKED INTO LONG GRASS
Fulham’s 18-man squad had been recruited for about £110million, with 14 internationals, which made Marco Silva’s post-match comments about Oakwell’s grass being too long seem rather silly.
Fulham were 14 points clear at the top, losing just two of their last 24, including four straight wins, while they had scored an eye-watering 89 goals – 36 more than anyone else – and had the joint best defensive record.
They were unbeaten in ten league away games, winning the last five while their tally of 44 away goals was almost double the next best in the division.
They had won 7-0 at both Blackburn and Reading this season and some may have feared a similar scoreline for the Reds, although that never felt realistic based on recent defensive displays.
Fulham were the latest side who appeared to turn up at Oakwell expecting victory only to be dragged into a real fight. They had the better chances but it certainly did not look like there were 22 places and 52 points between the sides.
SOFT PENALTY BUT REDS HAD BEEN DUE SOME LUCK
Fulham dominated early on and missed some good chances but then were dragged into a scrap by their whole-hearted, well-organised hosts who eventually took the lead.
Carlton Morris robbed Tosin Adarabioyo of the ball and sprinted into the box. He appeared to slip but referee Tim Robinson awarded a penalty, apparently on the advice of his linesman.
Asbaghi said he would rather have had a red card for what he saw as a pull by Tosin on Morris’ shirt outside the box.
It was a soft penalty but Barnsley will point to the two appeals they had turned down four days earlier against Stoke while they also had two injury-time equalisers harshly ruled out last month.
It was excellent play to get in that position in the first place by Morris who put in a huge effort up front on his own and looked exhausted by the end.
DEFENCE AND GOALKEEPER EXCELLENT
Michal Helik was a colossus at the back, making ten clearances – including one off the line – winning eight headers and blocking three shots. He and Mads Andersen, who also impressed, kept the Championship’s 35-goal top-scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic quiet.
Liam Kitching, at left-back, had one of his best games for the club, including taking a powerful free-kick right in the face.
Goalkeeper Brad Collins only had one save to make but it was an excellent one as he got down to his left keep out Carvalho’s effort seconds before the penalty was won at the other end.
SUBS AGAIN COST REDS A WIN
When the ball dropped in the Barnsley half after 86 minutes, second half substitutes Romal Palmer and Josh Benson seemed to hesitate only slightly but crucially, leaving it for each other. Fulham's Tom Cairney – who had come on at half-time but was up to the pace of the game – won the tackle and flattened Palmer.
The ball ran to Fabio Carvalho who set up Harry Wilson to curl a fine strike from just inside the box into the top left corner.
The Reds - who were excellent for the most part - were denied what could have been a season-changing win over the champions elect and instead were fortunate not to lose as Wilson missed a massive chance in injury-time.
It was reminiscent of four days earlier when Devante Cole, another substitute, was equally flat-footed when helping Stoke level in injury-time. You could go back further to Jasper Moon’s error at Coventry last month.
After struggling for a consistent side due to injuries and Covid cases, as well as many players being badly off form or low on confidence, Poya Asbaghi seems to have found 12 fit players who he trusts to play - or 11 on Saturday since Callum Styles dropped out with a minor injury and Matty Wolfe came in. The number would be higher if not for several long-term injuries.
Palmer, Benson and Cole have been benched after playing often early in the season but being very inconsistent.
They have been given bit-part roles but are still managing to undo all the good work the starting 11 has done, which may be a thorny issue in a tight-knit dressing room.
If they had not conceded two late levellers, the Reds would have had four extra points and be out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
Asbaghi said later that the players he brought off were exhausted and that he had to make changes in the third game of five in 15 days. He added that the substitutes’ mentality may not have been right and that that was his fault, but he cannot have anticipated such inexplicable errors.
Some supporters will say Asbaghi should have brought on Will Hondermarck or Aapo Halme into midfield but those players have barely played in months, with both apparently preferred in defence.
Asbaghi should have been able to trust Palmer and Benson to kick a loose ball down the pitch, but instead he may now have doubts about putting them on in the future.