Analysis of Barnsley's 3-0 home loss to Ipswich Town.
TOP TWO CHANCES OFFICIALLY OVER
SO PLAY-OFFS, it is.
One of the highest points and wins totals in the club’s history with two games still to play, it is.
A top four position very few, even head coach Michael Duff, expected at the start of the season following a shattering relegation and a summer of turmoil, it is.
A team and coaching staff that has totally revitalised the club and made the fans enjoy supporting Barnsley again, it is.
A home tie in the second leg of the play-off semi-final, with the prize a return to Wembley where they have recent fond memories, it is.
That is a very good outcome, despite the disappointment on Tuesday evening.
Automatic promotion was already a very long shot but it was mathematically confirmed by this comprehensive defeat against a side who look set to achieve it instead.
The Reds have collected 64 points from 29 games across the last six months, the most in League One by five.
They could still finish on 91 points, the club record and a total that has never not been enough for the top two in this division before.
In the context of this still being a very good season, why have they missed out on automatic promotion?
They started comparatively slowly, picking up 21 points from 15 games while rebuilding broken confidence and pulling together a new squad under a new manager plus selling a series of star men. That points total seemed just about acceptable at the time but, along with an abnormally high threshold for the top two of almost 100, it has made the gap just too much to bridge.
They may have taken the fight a lot further if they had not been on the wrong side of some poor refereeing decisions such as the errant advantage at Portsmouth and the blatant handball on Burton Albion’s goalline.
There is then the fact that they have only collected two points from behind all season, with Duff recently questioning his side’s response to falling behind. They conceded twice within seconds just before half-time in this game.
They have also dropped eight points across the last month from trips to mid-table sides Exeter, Burton and Lincoln.
Then, on Tuesday, they came up against an extremely good team.
IPSWICH A VERY GOOD SIDE
Duff said pre-match that Ipswich were the best team in League One history, and they were deserved winners on Tuesday.
They have won 12 of their last 13, conceding only two, are the top-scorers in the top four divisions in England, while they have lost the fewest games and conceded the fewest goals in League One.
They are likely to secure promotion this weekend and could still finish with 100 goals and 100 points, although they may miss out on the title to Plymouth.
They had spent several million in the last two seasons on transfer fees and their budget is far bigger than Barnsley’s. They have also been together longer as a group, under manager Kieran McKenna.
All of the visitors’ starting 11 had played in the Championship – more than 600 games at that level combined – despite the club not having been there for four seasons. They were able to bring on four players at 3-0 who would be almost guaranteed starters at most other League One clubs.
Their average age was 27, several years above their hosts, and they are a very experienced side full of players in the peak years of their careers, compared to Barnsley’s squad of mainly emerging talents.
It remains to be seen which is the better long-term policy but, in this match, Ipswich’s team were better.
The Suffolk pushed the game back a month from March 25 due to three international call-ups, only for it to be revealed that their second choice left-back Greg Leigh had not actually been called up for Jamaica. Town claim it was an honest mix-up, and there is no reason to disbelieve that, but it has inevitably led to conspiracy theories.
Leigh had only made one appearance in two and half months but Ipswich put him on at 2-0, then some of their social media afterwards focused on him.
At the time of the postponement, the Reds were three points behind Ipswich with a game in hand and unbeaten in 12 with ten wins including high-scoring home victories over other promotion candidates Derby, Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday. It may have been a different game, and a different season, if the game had been played a month earlier, as opening goal-scorer Nathan Broadhead and the dangerous Wes Burns were with Wales.
REDS CAN'T BUILD ON GOOD START
For 40 minutes, Barnsley were the better side in general play – regularly winning the ball, pressing well, putting some good moves together and getting into good areas. Their plans to rattle a Town defence which plays out from the back and overwhelm their experienced midfield duo with three younger and more energetic players in the middle looked to be working.
But they did not create any real first half openings. When Jordan Williams volleyed over a tough chance in the fourth minute, it seemed unlikely that it would be the Reds’ best opportunity until several late on after they made changes.
Barnsley had a series of tame long-range efforts before the break then, for 20 minutes after it, barely even mustered an attack.
In contrast, Ipswich hit the crossbar through Massimo Luongo and saw George Hirst miss a one-on-one at 0-0 then floored their hosts with the double suckerpunch just before the break.
The visitors were the more threatening and incisive side throughout, against an unusually wobbly home defence.
They have made the most passes and had the most possession in the division this season but did not in this game as they went slightly more direct to nullify their high-pressing hosts.
The referee wrongly awarded a penalty which was missed, while the corner for the opener was disputed, but he was not the reason the Reds lost.
The atmosphere was loud, although it was not the sell-out it might have been had the teams been slightly closer in the top two race.
The almost 5,000 away fans increasingly outsang the home supporters who did back their team but had mainly left by the final whistle. Those who stayed clapped their side off and rightly so.
The Reds’ run of nine successive home victories came to end with, strangely, their fourth 3-0 home defeat of the season.
POOR GOALS FROM SET PIECE AND LONG BALLS
There was stunned silence among the Barnsley players and fans when an Ipswich corner went into the net on 45 minutes.
It even took the visiting fans a few seconds to realise they had taken the lead as the ball had just crept it in at the near post.
It was the first goal Barnsley had conceded from a set piece delivery at Oakwell this season.
The only such goals they had let in away were Conor McCarthy’s own goal from a corner at Derby in August and Morecambe’s scrappy winner from a throw-in in October.
Broadhead lost his marker Jon Russell, who had been drafted into the side and would not usually be defending at the near post.
The next two goals, as well as the missed penalty and other chances, came from straight balls over the top of the Reds defence.
Mads Andersen, who had been named in League One’s Team of the Year, had probably his most difficult game of the season as he was at fault for the second goal and struggled all night against Hirst, the son of former Red David. Andersen is an excellent defender but can be guilty of the odd misjudgement and occasionally gets himself embroiled in an unnecessary physical battle as he looks to dominate.
Goalkeeper Harry Isted – who saved a penalty but may be disappointed with the first and last goal – and Bobby Thomas had both won every game they had played at Oakwell before this match.
CONNELL A BIG MISS
The first blow of the night came before kick-off when Luca Connell was not in the squad.
The influential midfielder missed the game due to illness, and Barnsley missed his energy and skill as well as his set-piece prowess which has led to eight assists this season including two against Ipswich in August.
Nicky Cadden, back in for Ziyad Larkeche after suspension, replaced Connell on set pieces – but struggled to produce his best work – while Russell came in for him in the holding role of the midfield three.
It was Russell’s full home debut and a tough ask to throw him in against one of the best teams in the league having played very little football all season at Huddersfield then Barnsley.
Russell started very nervously and lost the ball several times in the first five minutes but grew into the game, taking part in some good passing moves and winning the ball on a couple of occasions as he led the press from midfield.
But he was at fault for the first goal and, once Connell is well again, is likely to find himself as a back-up in the play-offs.
One midfielder who looks set to play a key role is Herbie Kane who was probably the most eye-catching player on the pitch, certainly in the first half. He dominated the left wing – intercepting balls, demonstrating great skill to trick his way out of tight corners and spreading the ball with fine passing. His passing accuracy was once again over 90 per cent and he produced five ‘key passes’.
He appears to be hitting another level in a very good season just in time for the play-offs.
Along with bringing in Russell and Cadden, Duff also benched Slobodan Tedic, who had netted twice on Saturday, and instead started former Ipswich man James Norwood. The head coach was clearly hoping Norwood and Devante Cole’s pressing could rattle an Ipswich side who like to play out from the back.
It did to an extent early on but did not lead to any chances against the division’s best defence. We will never know what would have happened had Tedic started but Duff’s logic was sound and, even if it was a mistake, he has a lot of credit in the bank for his wonderful work this season.
Other former Ipswich men Luke Thomas and Barry Cotter came off the bench for Barnsley.