IT IS hard to predict what Barnsley’s November might be like – partly due to the uncertain fixture list, but also the extremely inconsistent form of Michael Duff’s Reds team.
Currently they have two league fixtures scheduled this month in-between tomorrow’s FA Cup trip to Bolton Wanderers and the last 32 of the EFL Trophy.
But they could end up playing as many as seven games depending on how they progress in the FA Cup and when their league match with Portsmouth is rearranged for.
However many games they play, they will look for more consistency than in October.
They began last month by winning 1-0 at Fleetwood Town on the first, with Jack Aitchison scoring a last-gasp goal to put them fifth in the League One table on a four-match winning run.
It would have been hard to believe then that they would collect just one point and no goals from the next four games and Aitchison would not even be selected for the squad against Forest Green Rovers.
Although Saturday’s opponents were poor, there was a lot of pressure on the Reds and they produced a solid 2-0 win which will have settled nerves without answering every question.
They are eighth, three points off the play-offs, with just over a third of the season played.
That is a reasonable start to the campaign given the torrid last year at Oakwell, with humiliating results and changes throughout the club from boardroom to changing room.
Duff is making significant alternations to the playing style as seen by the Reds, who were in the top four for tackles during each of their three Championship seasons from 2019 to 2022, having made the fewest tackles in League One this season.
This season they have sometimes looked outstanding, like at Sheffield Wednesday, and other times abject like through most of October. But the reality is they are somewhere in the middle.
Their defensive stats are excellent.
No side in League One has conceded fewer goals this season than Barnsley, who have let in 14 in 16.
They have conceded the second fewest shots on their goal, had to make the second fewest blocks of shots and made the fewest saves.
The stats have been even more stark recently, with just three shots on goal conceded in the last four league matches while Brad Collins made only one save in six October appearances.
The Reds have conceded in that time, of course, but mainly due to the odd silly error or an excellent finish from the opponents which won’t happen every game and should be cancelled out by goals at the other end.
Clearly it is in attack where they are struggling.
They are, as Duff himself admits, light in forward areas – following the injury to Luke Thomas and the failure to sign another striker in the summer window. Although they would like more options, the attacking players they have at the club are capable of more than three goals in six games throughout October – often barely mustering a chance.
There was real concern at the club following the inept losses to bottom club Morecambe then Lincoln City but, after a change to 3-5-2, they looked far more threatening against Forest Green.
Time will tell if that was just a one-off against the worst defence in English football or if the Reds will net more regularly from now on – especially against better defensive sides who sit back and concede possession.
Reinforcements must arrive in January but, until then, the Reds need to find a way to net more regularly to make their defensive prowess count.
BOLTON WANDERERS, A, tomorrow
This FA Cup first round draw was not exactly met with excitement in the Barnsley fanbase, as it was made two days after the teams played out a drab 0-0 in League One.
But the bad-tempered nature of that fixture, and Bolton boss Ian Evatt’s criticism of the Reds’ approach, may add an extra layer to this return trip.
With a sparse schedule this month, both sides should have little motive to field significantly weakened teams, and are likely to take it seriously with the FA Cup’s later rounds providing financial windfalls and the chance to face the biggest clubs.
Cup runs have helped Barnsley’s promotion pushes in the past and a first ever win at the University of Bolton Stadium could be just the boost they need at the start of this month.
SHREWSBURY TOWN, A, November 12
Few people have had more influence on Michael Duff’s career than Steve Cotterill, who was his manager for most of Cheltenham’s rise from the Southern League to League One in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
He also signed Duff for Burnley for £30,000 in 2004, beginning the defender’s 14-year stint with the Clarets.
Duff and his first team coach Martin Devaney have spoken about their grounding under Cotterill at Cheltenham, and will now come up against him in Shropshire.
Shrewsbury are the ninth EFL club Cotterill has managed and he currently has them 14th, but just two points behind the eighth-placed Reds.
Cotterill hasn’t won any of his last five meetings with the Reds, in charge of Nottingham Forest, Bristol City and Birmingham City, but he and Duff beat each other at home last season when Shrewsbury met Cheltenham.
MILTON KEYNES DONS, H, November 19
The Dons were expected to launch another promotion bid this season after missing out in the play-offs last campaign under highly-rated young coach Liam Manning.
But they were bottom of the league after 14 games, having lost five in a row.
Despite four points from their last two games, they remain in the relegation zone.
They have a much better record away than at home, where they have lost their last five league games. Their next scheduled away game is at Oakwell where they have won their last two games.
MK have a very possession-based style which will be a stark contrast to the more direct approach expected against Shrewsbury.
After this, the Reds are due to play in the EFL Trophy in midweek then potentially in the FA Cup second round if they have defeated Bolton.
In December, Barnsley visit Peterborough then Oxford before hosting Burton Albion. They visit Accrington Stanley on Boxing Day then complete 2022 at home to Fleetwood Town.