Analysis of Barnsley's 3-1 home win over Accrington Stanley on Saturday.
REDS KICKS-START NEW YEAR WITH ONE-SIDED WIN
Welcome to 2023, Barnsley FC.
After a stuttering start to the New Year - with some mitigating circumstances - the Reds gained a very convincing victory and reminded us all that they are serious contenders for the top six, which they are now inside by a cushion of five points.
Michael Duff had challenged his side to be more clinical after not scoring from 23 shots in the loss at Charlton a week earlier, and they responded superbly with three goals in the first 19 minutes.
Those were the Reds’ first goals of 2023 and mean they have passed their tally of 18 at home in the league from the whole of last season.
There was a slightly subdued atmosphere considering the scoreline but the fans, possibly still scarred by last season, will get more vocal with more performances like this and if a promotion push feels closer.
Barnsley were utterly dominant, running riot early on then controlling the remainder of the one-sided contest.
Their defence was barely troubled, until an controversial injury-time penalty, their midfield first to nearly every loose pass while bullying their visitors and supporting the strikers who were very clinical.
The match was dedicated to former owner Patrick Cryne, who died five years previously, and they certainly played the high-intensity football he wanted to introduce when he started to recruit only young players later in his time in charge.
Although the signing of veteran striker James Norwood - who scored the spectacular opener - was a tweak to his plans of bringing under 25s only, he surely would have been delighted to see the development of the other scorers Jack Aitchison and Jordan Williams as well as midfield stars Luca Connell and Adam Phillips who ran the match.
Before folding in the 1960s, Accrington had suffered Oakwell losses by scorelines of 4-0, 6-0, 4-1, 5-0 and 5-0 and this could easily have been a similar scoreline as Barnsley had several other chances.
Accrington’s 18-man squad had two appearances above League One between them, while seven of their starters were 23 or younger compared to five for Barnsley. They showed all of that inexperience as they were totally outmuscled, outplayed and outfought.
Stanley are battling relegation and - although they had beaten Bristol Rovers last time out - were very weak opponents on the day, and there will be far tougher tests ahead.
But Barnsley got the job done, which they could not in the previous meeting on Boxing Day when they missed several big chances and conceded an equaliser from a much more important disputed penalty.
NORWOOD AND AITCHISON IMPRESS ON FIRST TIME PLAYING TOGETHER UP FRONT
Aitchison and Norwood had never played up front together in a competitive game before this match.
That may come as a surprise as they have both played more than 20 times this season and have been two of a very small number of strikers in the squad.
But the handful of times they have both been on the pitch, Aitchison has been used in attacking midfield.
In this game they formed an impressive partnership - both scoring early but, equally as important for Michael Duff, holding onto the ball in advanced areas which the Reds had been struggling to do recently.
Norwood was excellent, having replaced the dropped Devante Cole in the 11 then scoring his sixth league goal of the season to move just one behind Cole.
He set the tone for the game with a fantastic overhead kick in the fifth minute then terrorised Accrington’s lumbering defence all game with his relentless running and pressing – getting on the end of some passes he had no right to reach.
Aitchison got his first goal at Oakwell – two and a half years after signing then being loaned out twice – as well as his first non-headed goal for the club.
He had started just three league games in three months before this game but looked sharp and lively from the beginning, after a difficult Christmas period when he missed games for personal reasons.
It must not be forgotten, amid some talk of Barnsley’s lack of options up font, that Aitchison has been converted to a striker from attacking midfield this season and can also contribute there.
It was encouraging to see two senior strikers coming off the bench in Cole and home debutant Max Watters – indicating their growing strength in depth in that department.
Unlike for most of the season, there is enough competition for selection to be determined on performances in training, which was how Norwood and Aitchison were chosen.
MIDFIELDERS TOTALLY IN CONTROL
Barnsley’s midfield three were outstanding – playing with an energy, physicality and desire that their beleaguered opponents could not handle.
Firmer Stanley player Phillips and Connell especially stood-out, both playing a key part in two of of three early goals and looking a threat every time they got the ball.
Connell is a strong candidate for Player of the Year, and must be one of the best midfielders in League One – shielding his defence in the anchor role but also showing superb passing, set pieces and an ability to burst forward.
Another is right wing-back Williams, who showed the finishing prowess of a striker for the fantastic third goal and should have had at least one assist from an excellent performance. He had moved from the back three to his usual position of right wing-back where his pace, dynamic running and increasing end product can be deadly. Williams has three goals and four assists this season.
ACCOMPLISHED THOMAS DEBUT
Bobby Thomas had an impressive Barnsley debut, after replacing his injured house-mate Josh Benson and playing on the right of the back three.
There will be much harder games to come but the loanee from Burnley did the little defending he had to do well and looked good on the ball going, while he assisted the opening goal.
He had joined the Reds eight days earlier and mainly trained inside due to the cold weather.
Alongside Thomas, Mads Andersen and Liam Kitching were solid as usual while goalkeeper Brad Collins did not have a save to make until the 74th minute when he easily caught Josh Woods’ volley from the left of the box.
ANOTHER PENALTY CONCEDED
Collins was beaten by an injury-time penalty after substitute Ziyad Larkeche was judged to have tripped Michael Nottingham on the right of the box. It looked a harsh decision by the referee but Larkeche - who had come on for the impressive Nicky Cadden - had dwelled on the ball too long after he had a chance to blast it clear.
There may have been some frustration towards Larkeche from team-mates who saw a first clean sheet in six games - and the contracted bonus that usually comes with it - evaporate after such an easy afternoon.
But Duff showed good leadership by taking the blame himself for putting on Larkeche, although of course the Fulham loanee must learn from that error and not repeat it in more important moments.
It was a fifth penalty Barnsley have conceded in six games, including twice against Accrington.