Analysis of Barnsley's 2-0 loss at Sheffield United on Saturday.
REDS HEAD INTO POSSIBLY LAST INTERNATIONAL BREAK FOR SOME TIME AFTER DAMAGING DAY
A disappointing derby defeat saw Barnsley go into what could well be their final international break for at least 18 months in a far worse position than at the start of the day.
This Saturday lunchtime loss, and Reading’s win a few hours later, saw the gap to safety grow from two to five points, with the Reds now likely to need five wins from their last eight games to stay up which is not impossible but a huge challenge.
They have bounced back from adversity well recently and will have to do so again after a lot of their good work in cutting the gap from nine to two points was undone in a few hours. They are still in the fight, with Reading up next, but the events of Saturday made survival a more distant dream.
International breaks are one of the luxuries they will forfeit should they drop into League One, which would also put them in the Papa John’s Trophy and the first round of the FA Cup.
They will spend much of this international break wondering how a very promising start at Bramall Lane turned into an extremely one-sided contest and comfortable win for the Blades.
REDS DO NOT LOOK LIKE RELEGATION TEAM FOR 55 MINUTES BUT THEN DO FOR 1ST GOAL
For 55 minutes, Barnsley were the better side – defending and counter-attacking extremely well in what was, at that point, a perfect away performance other than Matty Wolfe missing the two big chances they created. Poya Asbaghi said it was the best away display under him and better than the previous three home games in which they were unbeaten.
But then they conceded a goal which made them look every inch a relegation team as they were not ready for a quick free-kick and totally off the pace, badly lacking any form of leadership.
After Callum Brittain conceded a free-kick about 40 yards from goal near the touchline, the Reds were unprepared when Oliver Norwood played it quickly down the left wing to Conor Hourihane.
Amine Bassi was facing the wrong way when the ball was played and could not catch the former Barnsley captain who whipped in a fine low cross in from the left which two home players were unmarked and ready to tap in two yards out at the back post. Sander Berge was slightly ahead of Kyron Gordon and bundled the ball over the line.
Michal Helik was the closest marker to the pair but the entire Reds backline was behind play. Asbaghi said that he had warned his players of United’s quick free-kicks – which had been in evidence before the break – as they were leaving the dressing room at the interval. Captain Mads Andersen said the goal was ‘not good enough’.
From that point on, Barnsley fell apart and United – with the pressure around the ground totally released – dominated with a series of chances against a reeling Reds rearguard.
VERY TOUGH AWAY GAME BUT ANY LOSS NOW IS DAMAGING
In many ways, this should have been expected.
United moved into the play-off places with this win while no side in the division has collected as many points since former Reds boss Paul Heckingbottom took over in November.
They are unbeaten in ten at home under him, winning seven and conceding only twice.
Although their list of injured players was almost in double figures, increased by Billy Sharp limping off, their squad still boasted more than 2,000 Championship appearances – more than double Barnsley’s. Their bench contained four internationals including former Reds captain Adam Davies as well as another ex-Red in £20million signing Oli McBurnie who assisted the second goal.
The first goal was set up by another former Reds captain Hourihane and scored by a £22million signing Berge, one of several big-money recruits left over from their Premier League spell which ended last year.
This was always going to be a tough game for the Reds and, in normal circumstances, a defeat would not be a disaster.
But Barnsley – following a catastrophic first 29 games which brought only two wins – have no margin for error and are now being punished for any dropped points.
They beat similarly-placed sides QPR and Middlesbrough at Oakwell last month but continued their woeful away record on their shortest trip of the season.
LACK OF MIDFIELD OPTIONS AGAIN AN ISSUE
Heckingbottom left Barnsley in 2018 because of poor transfer windows, and current Reds boss Poya Asbaghi is still struggling with the after-effects of a calamitous summer overseen by co-owner Paul Conway who was watching from the directors' box.
This was the latest in a long series of games when Barnsley’s central midfield was found wanting, with the lack of experience there a major issue.
Wolfe – who was put on the bench aged 17 by Heckingbottom at Aston Villa in 2018 – stood out in a midfield battle which included Hourihane whom he must have idolised as a teenager in the Reds academy.
Wolfe was later replaced by Romal Palmer – to boos from the away fans.
A minute later it was 2-0, with Palmer not able to stop the attack with two attempted tackles.
Many will question the substitution but the initial culprit was Claudio Gomes who lost the ball while trying to lead a counter-attack and left his side badly exposed. Gomes has gradually improved throughout his first season in senior football and won a regular starting place but he often loses the ball in key areas and was also partially at fault for Stoke’s injury-time leveller earlier in the month.
That goal was one of several moments when Barnsley’s defence was exposed by a lack of protection in the middle or on the flanks - with them being particularly tormented by the impressive Morgan Gibbs-White.
TIME TO REST AND REGROUP AHEAD OF CRUNCH READING GAME
The Reds will now have some days off, with most of the players returning home for some time with their families – other than Michal Helik and Callum Styles who are on international duty.
Towards the end of the coming week, the squad will regroup at Oakwell and begin the process of preparing for the home match with Reading on April 2, the importance of which is difficult to overstate.
With a five-point gap between the sides and only seven matches left afterwards, a defeat would all-but eradicate any chance of survival and a draw would leave the prospects looking bleak. But a victory would cut the gap to two points again and at least give Barnsley a chance of survival.