Analysis of Barnsley's 2-0 home win over Forest Green Rovers.
CRUCIAL WIN AFTER POOR RUN
The pressure was on Barnsley after some worrying results and performances, with big expectation to beat a lowly side ahead of two weeks without a league fixture, but they were much improved and gained a comfortable victory.
The win doesn’t mean all the problems are solved but they picked up some much-needed goals and points.
The first half was dull but the Reds, although not at their best, controlled the game and got the vital opener through Devante Cole.
After the break, they created numerous chances before eventually substitute Josh Martin secured the win in the first ever meeting of the clubs.
It must be pointed out that this was one of the most winnable matches the Reds could possibly have played at this point.
Newly-promoted Forest Green were third-bottom, had conceded the most goals in English football and not won away since opening day.
The Gloucestershire club are a very environmentally-minded - a carbon neutral and vegan club - but they were given a Barnsley chop and they always looked likely to net zero with no shots on target.
Their fans chanted for their manager to be sacked as their only two shots were well wide in the second half and they were carved open often.
For the second game in row, Barnsley were older than their opponents who averaged 23 in age to the hosts’ 24.
Other than former Premier League striker Connor Wickham, who was very quiet, none of the visitors’ 11 had started a game at a higher level than the Championship, while only captain Baily Cargill had played more than 25 League One games.
The Reds did not press as much as usual, went more direct, and were happy for their possession-based hosts to have lost of the ball. That may not always work against sides with different styles but it was the right approach to beat Forest Green, who were outplayed by their impressive hosts.
FORMATION CHANGE WORKS
Barnsley started the season with a 3-5-2, having worked on it all pre-season but abandoned it after the harrowing opening day loss at Plymouth Argyle.
They have since used two in central midfield with, at first, a number ten behind two strikers, then two attacking midfielders behind one striker and sometimes a flat front three.
But, after the injury to key man Luke Thomas and some very disjointed attacking performances, they returned to 3-5-2.
It might not be right for every game, but the Reds now have the flexibility to change shape when needed.
The 3-5-2 worked on Saturday as it stopped the counter-attacks that have hurt them in some recent games, with an extra man in the middle, made them more balanced in general and also got the best out of most of the Reds’ players.
At Plymouth, they did not have enough players bursting from midfield into the box but this time - admittedly against much worse opponents than the current leaders - they got far more bodies in the box.
Luca Connell played a holding role after replacing Martin, anchoring the team excellently.
That meant Josh Benson and Herbie Kane, had more license to drive forward.
They both looked more comfortable in those roles, shuttling up and down their respective sides. Kane’s energy and hard work caught the eye, as did Benson’s clever build-up play.
The 3-5-2 also meant that the wing-backs had the freedom of the flanks, with no wide forwards next to them and two strikers to aim for, while the extra man in midfield gave them more security to stay wide and attack.
That was exploited superbly, by both the fit-again Jordan Williams, on the right, and Nicky Cadden on the left. Williams set up the opener - drawing him level with Connell as the top assist maker on three - and was the best player on the pitch in the first half, surging forward with some excellent runs. He had replaced the benched Robbie Cundy with Tom Edwards moving from wing-back into the back three.
Cadden does not have the same pace and dynamism as Williams but his crossing is outstanding, and he was extremely unlucky not to register at least one assist as he created several fine chances. The former Forest Green man, who set up the first goal, probably had his best game for the Reds.
MOMENT OF QUALITY FOR OPENER
Another advantage from the change in system was that James Norwood and Cole played together as a two up front and offered much more of a focal point to the attacks.
Cole summed up Barnsley’s more direct style as he only competed six passes in 78 minutes but won six headers, with one hitting the back of the net for a crucial opener. It was a fantastic finish and settled everyone down.
He is not a natural targetman but has been one of Barnsley’s better attackers this season despite often playing in a wider or deeper role.
Norwood has been a lot more hit and miss but, like Cole, was better in a front two.
He missed some big chances but was much more threatening than previous games.
Norwood was booed throughout by the smattering of away fans, who sang some profane chants about their former player who had celebrated provocatively against them after scoring for Tranmere in the National League play-offs.
He seemed to enjoy their fury and later tweeted: “Thanks to the 13 of you making the trip and for the 3 points.”
SUBSTITUTES MAKE IMPACT
Cole and Norwood were taken off on 78 minutes as part of a quadruple change.
Their replacements Slobodan Tedic and Martin combined for the second goal - a positive sign that the Reds do have strength in depth in attack.
Tedic was included in the squad at the expense of Jack Aitchison who suits a high-pressing style rather than a more direct approach.
The Manchester City loanee made his first league appearance since September 3.
Although his wait for a goal goes on after missing a one-on-one, he was a real nuisance and showed great selflessness to square to Martin when clean through.
Martin’s goal should give him confidence after disappointing performances in his first two league starts. His energy and dribbling ability is the nearest to Thomas in the squad, now he needs to adapt fully to Duff’s style and be consistent.
STENDEL SEES FAMILIAR WIN
The last man to get Barnsley promoted out of League One, Daniel Stendel, was given a hero’s welcome when he was introduced to the crowd at half-time as special guest.
The popular German must have recognised some of what he saw on the pitch - a comfortable home win for a Reds side who looked too good for their opponents.
That had not been the case for much of this season, especially the winless and goalless four-game run through most of October.
Stendel never lost at Oakwell in League One but Duff has already suffered three harrowing defeats there, winning just one in five before this game.
Both Stendel and Duff took over after relegation from the Championship.
But, whereas the Reds were financially able to keep a strong third tier squad together in 2018 having only narrowly gone down, Duff arrived amid major changes from boardroom to dressing room. Star players were sold off - something Stendel would experience only after promotion - and Duff is still working on rebuilding confidence following the worst season in half a century.
As well as Stendel, at Oakwell on Saturday was the most legendary Reds boss of them all - Danny Wilson - plus board member Julie Anne Quay. If there was any pressure on Duff, he and his players did not show it.