IF BACK 3 KEEP IMPROVING, REDS WILL THRIVE
One of the narratives for most of this season has been that the back three looks the weakest part of Barnsley’s team and squad, following the departure of all three of last season’s starting centre-backs and their replacement with generally less proven players.
With no real consistency of selection and the absence of last year’s midfield anchor Luca Connell, the defence has looked porous at times with Liam Roberts the busiest goalkeeper in the country for much of the campaign.
But recent games have suggested that there have been improvements.
It is still too early to say it is no longer a problem position for the Reds but they have certainly made significant progress.
Mael de Givegney has looked a different player after his disastrous debut, suddenly dominant in the middle having replaced Kacper Lopata who had also done well before hurting his shoulder, while Jamie McCart has been extremely solid so far on the left. Captain Jordan Williams is still adapting to the right side of the back three having been a wing-back but, although he struggles against targetman strikers, his pace and ball-playing ability are important assets.
If they do manage to find a solid and effective back three consistently throughout the season, that should turn them into major promotion candidates given their proven quality throughout the rest of the team.
Barnsley’s bench, particularly in attacking areas, is now looking very strong with Neill Collins having many options to change his side throughout games such as the last one at Exeter City where the substitutes got the win.
They seem to have a good bond and character as a squad, which may be strengthened by the harrowing experience of escaping their team bus last week seconds before it burst into flames.
CHANCE TO IMPROVE HOME RECORD NEXT WEEK
When Wigan defender Charlie Hughes was controversially sent off 21 minutes into their home game against Barnsley on August 26, he helped to start one of the Reds’ best ever sequences away from home.
The visitors won that game 2-0 then began a successful traverse across the south of England which brought victory at Cheltenham, Northampton, Cambridge and Exeter.
Another success at Leyton Orient tomorrow – no easy feat with the Os on good form at Brisbane Road – would equal a club record for six successive away wins, with the away end sold out by last week as Barnsley fans are loving life on the road.
The home form is very different currently, with just three sides collecting fewer points on their own turf than the Reds who have been beaten there four times already.
But it is not quite as simple as home and away – the teams who Barnsley have lost to at Oakwell have been, by and large, the best they have faced this season. Portsmouth and Oxford are the top two, Peterborough are fourth and Blackpool seventh.
They may not all stay so high come the end of the season but, so far, they are among the best performing sides in the division. That raises its own questions about Barnsley’s promotion credentials but they will hope to keep improving to a point where they can beat their top six rivals regularly.
The losses at home do now mean there is now some more pressure on the Reds when they play there and they must win over some supporters frustrated by poor performances.
Oakwell is, after all, the only place where the vast majority of Barnsley fans watch their side play live.
The games against struggling Shrewsbury and Fleetwood next week provide a good chance to improve the home record, although the Reds will have to play much better than in the last game there against Blackpool.
They need to be better early on in home games, having given away a penalty to open the scoring in three of the four defeats while they have still not equalised at Oakwell in the league in 2022 or 2023.
GRUELLING RUN OF GAMES UNTIL 2024
After the three games in this upcoming week, the Reds will have played 15 league fixtures.
They already have one more point than they collected at the 15-game mark under Michael Duff last season.
Duff’s side then went on an extraordinary run which will be tough for any side to repeat so it was vital that this current Reds side had a better start and they are doing exactly that at the moment.
That is despite performance levels still not being as good as this squad is capable of, as they adapt to new players and a different style which has seen them go from making the 11th most passes last season to the third most this season.
There have been plenty of games when they have been under pressure for long spells, or the opponents have missed a series of good chances.
But how long can we keep saying they rode their luck if they continue to pocket three points?
They have found a way to win.
The season has been split up into chunks with Portsmouth and Bolton both pulling out of trips to Oakwell due to international call-ups – essentially keeping the same schedule they would have in the Championship.
They have just had a fortnight off which they used to recover then work on the training pitch, after having the same last month.
But, once they re-start, they are due to play at least 15 games across ten weeks until New Year’s Day with – potentially several more depending on their progress in the FA Cup and EFL Trophy which they are likely to take fairly seriously given their large squad.
The next international break weekend is on November 18 when the Reds are due to host Carlisle United who have not been calling games off this season for international call-ups.
COLE AND STYLES FUTURES UNCLEAR FOR JANUARY
The January transfer window is beginning to loom on the horizon.
The Reds have not sold a first team regular in the winter window since Brad Potts in 2019.
But keeping Devante Cole could be a difficult challenge this January, something Neill Collins all but admitted to the press last month.
The striker is the top-scorer in League One and joint top in the EFL with nine. That is despite playing for a team that have been given one league penalty this season and last combined.
After some interest at the end of the summer window, bids are expected in January should he keep up his current form. Given he is out of contract at the end of the season, when he will be 29, the Reds may be tempted if they can get their valuation.
But he will not be easy to replace and a guaranteed goal-scorer could be the difference between staying in League One and returning to the Championship with the £8million extra revenue which will dwarf any fee for Cole.
As always, much will depend on what the player wants with Cole in his peak years and – despite being the son of a former superstar – his next contract could be vital financially.
Callum Styles’ future is also uncertain.
The midfielder has been much improved since the distracting summer transfer window closed, if not quite back to his best yet. If he continues to progress and to add goals and assists, clubs might be more tempted in January to pay the release clause which is believed to be at least £2million, or close enough to it to tempt the Reds who have plenty of midfield talent if not someone who looks he will play at Euro 2024.
Styles’ fear that he would be dropped by Hungary after dropping into the third tier in England has not been realised, in fact he is playing more regularly than ever and impressing with and against players from the top leagues in Europe.
Eventually that could well tempt a club to pay the release clause.
He will clearly want to play at a higher level in the future, but currently seems to be enjoying his football at Barnsley again which is pleasing to see.
Players who are not featuring in league games could be loaned out or even sold, such as high-earner Josh Benson and Conor McCarthy who has not played a league game for 13 months following injury.
As for bringing players in, the Reds should have some money left over from the sale of Liam Kitching to strengthen their squad. Centre-back had looked an obvious position to recruit in and may still be despite recent defensive improvements.
Other strikers as well as Cole must also become regular scorers, or new forwards may have to be signed.