Analysis of Barnsley's 2-0 win over Bristol City on Tuesday at Oakwell. Carlton Morris and Michal Helik netted early from corners as the Reds halved the gap to safety to two points.
REDS LOOKED FINISHED LAST MONTH, BUT ARE BACK IN FIGHT
After looking consigned to League One last month, Barnsley continued their remarkable recovery with their most complete performance of the season.
On February 8, the Reds suffered a seventh successive league loss and were winless in 13 – both for the second time this season – while they produced the latest in a series of lifeless, lacklustre, error-laden performances in a 2-1 loss at Luton Town. They had just 14 points, less than one from every two games, and were last in the table with the gap to safety eight points, before it grew to nine the next week.
Poya Asbaghi had broken a club record for 11 league games without a win since being appointed Barnsley boss, amid a raft of injuries and Covid-19 cases which had restricted him to ten fit players in training. He was constantly being asked about his future.
Fast forward just 35 days and Barnsley have taken 14 points from eight games, doubling the tally from the previous 29 matches in which they won just twice.
This win meant they have the eighth most points in the division across the last eight games.
They suddenly look solid at the back, competitive in midfield and far more threatening in attack while the gap to fourth-bottom Reading has been sliced down to two points.
The Reds are still likely to need at least another four wins from their final nine games to stay up.
That is a big challenge but one that is looking more and more manageable – especially with fellow bottom four sides Reading and Peterborough the next visitors at Oakwell.
‘The Reds are staying up’ boomed around Oakwell at full-time.
It remains to be seen if they will but Barnsley are now firmly back in the survival race, having looked likely last month to break all kinds of records for the worst ever season.
How have they done it?
Much of the credit must go to Asbaghi who, after making mistakes early in his tenure under difficult circumstances, seems to now be adapting to the Championship. The players and staff have always praised his hard work and coaching ability and now that is bearing fruits on the pitch. He has found a 4-2-3-1 formation that works for this squad and a set of players who he trusts, with those who have let him down seeing their gametime cut significantly.
January signings Amine Bassi and Domingos Quina have made a huge difference, adding a creative spark and flair, but also crucial have been the return to full fitness of Morris and Mads Andersen after three-month injuries, as well the introduction of Remy Vita and Matty Wolfe who were on the books nearly all season but not used until 2022. That is more than half the team who were not playing during most of that horrific spell between September and February which saw the Reds collect just six points from 21 league games.
They, along with stalwarts Michal Helik and Brad Collins who are competing for Player of the Year, and the improved Callum Styles, Callum Brittain and Claudio Gomes, have come together to form a reliable and consistent team.
FIRST GOALS FROM CORNERS THIS SEASON
The Reds were the second highest scorers from set plays in the Championship last season but, since abandoning Valerien Ismael’s direct approach and losing the dead ball prowess of Alex Mowatt, they had not netted from a corner or free-kick cross in 36 league games this season.
Barnsley had worked on attacking set pieces in training, believing they could expose a City defence which had conceded the third most goals in the league, and their tactics from the start were clear – get the ball wide quickly, run at defenders to beat them or win a corner.
They gained a succession of flag-kicks on the left side with Bassi taking them very successfully, and Helik reminded us of the aerial ability that saw him net six goals last season.
If they can continue to threaten from corners and free-kicks for the remainder of the campaign, that is a crucial weapon to add to their arsenal in this attritional league when you cannot always rely on breaking a team down from open play, a counter-attack or a piece of individual skill.
Having said that, the marking in many games will not be as poor as it was on Tuesday.
SUPERB MORRIS’ ‘TIGHT CALF’ ONLY DOWNSIDE
Carlton Morris was outstanding up front, as he grows into the central striker role having been used wider for most of his recent career.
As well as netting his sixth goal of the season, his hold-up play was superb and he bullied the visiting defence in a pumped-up performance while creating other chances as well as his goal.
Morris had to come off midway through the second half with a calf problem. Asbaghi hoped it was nothing serious, and the Reds need that to be correct.
Morris is by far their best option up front currently and a major issue recently has been that, while the starting 11 are doing exceptionally well, there is little strength in depth.
Although Devante Cole was more solid as a replacement than a week earlier against Stoke, Barnsley will be desperate for Morris to start at Sheffield United on Saturday.
WOLFE CONTINUES TO IMPRESS
Matty Wolfe again impressed in the holding defensive midfield role, looking extremely composed for a 21-year-old who only made his first Championship start six weeks ago.
He competed well against a City midfield containing £7million signing Han-Noah Massengo and two former Barnsley loanees he would have admired while in the youth teams in Matty James and Joe Williams, with the latter coming on for the injured Alex Scott then hobbling off himself.
Wolfe’s positioning, passing, and ability to burst forward all catch the eye.
He also registered a second assist, although he knew little about it like when he teed up Patrick Schmidt for the injury-time winner against Nottingham Forest in 2020. That was his only appearance of that season but he looks set to play a much more prominent role in what the Reds are hoping will be another great escape.
The last time Barnsley beat Bristol City at Oakwell – a 1-0 win in 2012 before five successive 2-2 draws – John Stones was playing for the Reds, and Wolfe has been hailed as the best player to come through the Oakwell academy since the current England and Manchester City centre-back.
It would be too much at this stage to predict a similar trajectory for Wolfe but he is the first player since Stones to come all the way through the Reds academy – he has been with the club for a decade – and get a consistent run of starts in the Championship.
Wolfe’s contract expires at the end of this season and Barnsley must surely be making it a priority to sign him up on a long-term deal.
OTHER PLAYERS ALSO CATCH EYE
Collins had just one real save of note to make but was a confident presence from crosses and coming out of his box to clear. In front of him, Helik was immense yet again – clearing off the line for the second successive game – and, along with Andersen, looking like a centre-back pairing that should be nowhere near the relegation fight.
Full-backs Callum Brittain – who made the most tackles for the second time this week – and Remy Vita, did not need to venture forward much but completed a solid back four.
Wolfe’s presence in front of the back four meant that his fellow central midfielder Claudio Gomes, another impressive 21-year-old, could venture forward more and be one of four attacking midfielders in a fluid system ahead of Wolfe and around striker Morris.
Gomes, Bassi, Quina and Styles – back in the 11 after injury in place of Liam Kitching – contributed to the win with good attacking play and tremendous workrate.
Bassi is now Barnsley’s joint top assister this season with three, along with Morris and Brittain, despite only starting eight games.