Analysis of Barnsley's 3-0 home win over Bristol Rovers on Tuesday, in which goals by Devante Cole, Jordan Williams and Josh Benson capped a fine team performance.
REDS IN TOTAL CONTROL
This was Barnsley’s biggest win since the 3-0 success over QPR under Valerien Ismael in October 2020 and, like that game, it felt like a side clicking under a new manager with a dominant display that bodes well for the future.
It is far too early to confidently predict another run at the play-offs or an end of season promotion party like the last time these clubs met in May 2019, but this was a rare night of pure positivity which should be savoured.
For the supporters – who returned from behind-closed-doors football to last season’s nightmare – it must have been a great feeling simply to see their side control a full game and outclass an opponent for the first time in years at Oakwell.
In 56 minutes, the Reds scored one sixth of their tally of home league games from last season.
The weather was awful, with heavy rain all night, but the football played by Michael Duff’s side was superb.
From the opening minutes, Barnsley were quicker to nearly every loose ball, pressing their sluggish visitors into errors and working their way up the pitch both with searching long balls and excellent team moves.
The Gas did not have a shot on target or a genuine chance while, at the other end, their two 20-year-old centre-backs had a torrid time.
Joey Barton made a triple change at the break and matched Barnsley’s 3-5-2 after a harrowing first half in which his side could easily have conceded five and eventually resorted to scything down the Reds with three bookings in a minute. That meant the second half was less frantic but the hosts remained well on top and cruised to victory.
CONSISTENCY NOW KEY
One game should never be taken too much out of context. Rovers were very poor despite following promotion with two wins from their first three games. But it felt, on the night, like a high-quality League One side making their extra class count.
The two home games against Cheltenham and Bristol Rovers stood out – from a difficult early fixture list – as games the Reds needed to win to build early confidence and momentum.
They have done so without conceding but this was a step up in performance – which built on the good second half at Derby County on Saturday – and suggested they could be a strong third tier side.
Now the challenge is to replicate those standards consistently with a gruelling August schedule and a run of games ahead against some, in theory at least, of League One’s better sides.
Some new signings will help too, but more to add options to a squad shallow in certain areas rather than emergency reinforcements rushed straight into a struggling 11.
Barnsley have not lost a League One match at Oakwell in 27 fixtures since Danny Wilson’s Chesterfield briefly halted Paul Heckingbottom’s promotion charge in April 2016.
The template of making Oakwell a fortress while hoping to pick up regular points on the road is a simple but sensible one and the Reds are carrying out at least the first part of it so far.
IMPRESSIVE COLE GETS STRIKERS ON SCORESHEET
Last time these sides met, Kieffer Moore netted his 17th League One goal of the season, from 31 games, with Cauley Woodrow adding 16 from 31. With any new arrivals likely to be untested loanees, it is unclear whether they will have a striker this season who scores every other game, but it might be a case of several players chipping in with medium-sized totals and Devante Cole’s performance suggested he possibly could be one.
It was pleasing to see one of Barnsley’s frontmen score for the first time this season.
Some may have been surprised when Cole was put back in the 11, for James Norwood, after a poor start to the season – but he repaid Duff’s faith with a goal on three minutes.
That was the start of a fired-up, physical performance in which he was a nuisance for defenders – winning five first half headers.
He could have scored more as he was put through by a fine lofted Josh Benson pass but tackled by the goalkeeper, then dragged wide of the bottom left corner 15 yards out.
But, seconds after a superb run past two Rovers players with a turn and a nutmeg late on, he was taken off to a standing ovation.
Cole started alongside Jack Aitchison whose passing and movement was excellent, linking play between the front line and the fluid midfield from which runners sprang forward regularly to overwhelm the visiting defence – especially in the first half.
Luke Thomas played just behind the strikers against the club where he spent last season on loan. The Gas had hoped to sign him permanently but instead he terrorised their defence with his pace and was unlucky not to get a goal or assist.
MIDFIELD IN CONTROL WITH BENSON AGAIN SUPERB
There has been some talk of whether Barnsley should sign an experienced midfielder – and it may still be needed – but the young Reds dominated a Rovers midfield which contained first captain Paul Coutts, who is 34 with plenty of Championship experience, then his half-time replacement Glenn Whelan, 38.
Josh Benson again was outstanding, continuing an astonishing transformation from the timid, error-strewn player of most of last season to a dominant, swaggering, skilful, all-action midfielder who made it three goals in as many games across six days.
While his first two goals had an element of fortune – a goalkeeper error at Middlesbrough then a big deflection at Derby – this one was pure class.
As well as his goal, Benson impressed with his passing, runs forward, pressing and tackling. It is only one good week but it indicates the potential to be a sensational player this season.
Luca Connell’s set pieces were good while he allowed Benson and Thomas to get forward by playing the sitting midfield role.
But, such was the Reds’ dominance, that Connell could also burst into the box in the first half and force an excellent low save with an eight-yard shot after a clever Cole pass.
STYLES LOOKS BACK TO NEAR BEST
Connell’s return to the starting line-up has meant Callum Styles has moved to left wing-back.
After a slow start to the season, with speculation rife of a move away, he brilliantly set up the first goal and looked much more like the sensational left wing-back of two seasons ago.
It was a reminder that, should the Hungary international leave in the next fortnight, there will be a huge amount of talent exiting Oakwell.
The other wing-back Jordan Williams scored with a healthy slice of luck but deserves some fortune after being plagued by injuries.