Analysis of Barnsley's 1-1 draw at home to Wigan Athletic on New Year's Day. Devante Cole put the Reds in front but they were denied a win by Jonny Smith's late screamer.

LATE STUNNER CHANGES MOOD AND DENIES REDS GROUND-OUT WIN

If Wigan substitute Jonny Smith’s 87th minute shot from 25 yards had flown just over the bar, then the Reds would likely have ground out a 1-0 win and been praised for it, as well as excellent ten-point festive period.

The unconvincing performance would have been a mere footnote in the growing narrative of progression into a serious promotion challenger.

Instead the visitors’ only shot on target found the top left corner and Barnsley began 2024 with a frustrating home draw which allowed back in some criticism from some of Neill Collins’ changes and the second half performance.

The Reds certainly weren’t at their best and showed very little of the eye-catching football they displayed in Friday’s draw at high-flying Peterborough United.

But they are unbeaten in eight league games across two months, with four wins and four draws.

The two draws this week, coupled with defeats for Stevenage, meant they crept back into the top six with games in hand on many of those around them and big matches against them coming up.

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There is still much more to come from this squad, and some help is needed in the transfer market, but they are moving into a strong position to make at least the play-offs despite not yet being consistently impressive performers.

Clearly the supporters have not fallen in love with Collins yet but that may come if their generally positive form over the last several months continues all season.

This draw completed the gruelling sequence of four games in nine days over Christmas and New Year, with Barnsley taking eight points with two wins then two draws.

It could have been 12 points as they led 2-0 at Peterborough then were ahead of Wigan until the late stages. But it also could have been far fewer than eight if Herbie Kane’s shot had not deflected perfectly into Stevenage’s top corner, if Port Vale had made it 3-2 slightly earlier on Boxing Day, if a clear penalty had been given to Posh on Friday and if Wigan had taken their big chances at 0-0.

There are always such moments in any football game and eight is probably a fair reward for the Reds’ efforts over the festive period while, if they continue to operate at two points per game, they will definitely finish in the top six and have a chance of the top two.

During the festive fixtures, they finally took their first points against top eight opponents, continued their impressive unbeaten record against the rest of the division and played their best football since the opening day in the first half at Vale then for much of the Peterborough game.

After months of tinkering, they appear to have found a consistent midfield three and front two with Devante Cole continuing to net regularly and John McAtee emerging as a major attacking star.

TOP-SCORER COLE BACK IN GOALS

Barnsley finished the first half strongly and were rewarded with a goal in injury-time.

John McAtee blocked an attempted clearance by Steven Sessegnon with the ball breaking to Adam Phillips on the right of the box who squared for Devante Cole to tap in from close range.

He has 14 for the season which puts him third in the top-scorer charts – one goal off top – while he has followed a run of one in eight games with two in two this week.

He now has the most non-penalty goals at Oakwell in the 20th century of any Barnsley player as well as 39 overall for the club so, if the Reds do not sell him in January, he could reach a half-century this season and post one of the highest individual goal tallies in recent decades.

Cole spent two years as a Wigan player between 2018 and 2020 - not scoring or starting while being loaned out twice. He also netted in the away game back in August.

Overall, Cole did not quite have the spring in his step that he showed in the previous two games when he was beating players easily, possibly due to fatigue, but he is a lethal finisher and very consistent goal-scorer.

ANOTHER SECOND HALF WOBBLE FOR REDS

For much of the season, Barnsley have scored the majority of their goals in the second half of games – the most in division after the interval – as they often salvaged average starts with better displays after the break.

But, in the last three games, they have led 3-0, 2-0 and 1-0 at half-time then only taken two points – conceding five second half goals and scoring none. A ruthless professionalism of seeing out wins when they are ahead is something they will need to develop in the run-in.

They have lost 13 points from winning positions this season compared to just six last season, although it must be added that they have taken nine points from behind this season compared to a division-lowest three under Michael Duff.

Wigan had two massive chances before they scored, Jordan Jones blazing over at 0-0 then Josh Magennis inexplicably missing the target early in the second half after a mistake by Jordan Williams. Magennis – the latest big striker to cause Barnsley problems – had earlier made a mess of two decent headed chances while he won a series of headers deep in the Reds half to start attacks.

But, between the 50th and 84th minutes, there were no opportunities of note in a dull spectacle with Wigan applying some pressure but struggling to break down the Barnsley defence.

In that period, the only entertainment came from the pitchside flamethrowers which seemed to go off randomly during play rather than after goals and a pitch-invader who ran almost the length of the field before being slide-tackled by a steward – prompting some to ask if the worker can play in defence.

But the Reds started to drop deeper and concede too many set pieces – with both Collins and Jamie McCart admitting fatigue was a factor as many players had started four games in nine days. Collins said later that he could have made more changes to the 11 and off the bench but felt the team had played well in the previous games so wanted that to continue.

Wigan had the ball in the net on 84 minutes when Liam Roberts appeared to misjudge an in-swinging corner from the right which went in off the post but the referee Seb Stockbridge saw a foul.

The Durham official also frustrated Wigan in the reverse game in August by sending off Charlie Hughes early on. For the second calendar year in a row, he took charge of Barnsley’s first game but, unlike when wrongly sending Mads Andersen off against Bolton, this decision favoured the hosts.

Barnsley will question whether the corner should have been given to Wigan in the first place as Mael de Gevigney seemed to have seen the ball out after a Latics touch.

The goal came minutes later when Luca Connell conceded a free-kick on the right wing which was tapped to Smith to score his screamer.

TWO MANY OFF-DAYS IN BARNSLEY TEAM

Wigan arrived in 18th, six points and three places clear of the relegation zone, having been docked eight points in the summer.

They had ended a poor run by beating bottom club Carlisle United on Friday but had won just one of their last nine away league games.

The Latics have not beaten Barnsley in their last four attempts but scored against them for the first time since 2017, while they have never lost at Oakwell in the league in seven visits.

They had seven academy players in their squad while their 11 contained six players aged 23 or younger – compared to just Luca Connell for the Reds – including their goalkeeper, their two 20-year-old centre-backs and their two central midfielders.

Barnsley had plenty of the ball in the first half but most of their attacking players appeared to be having slight off days - in particular Herbie Kane and Connell whose usually impressive passing let them down and their shooting was also poor.

In the second half, the hosts barely had a meaningful attack but defended comfortably until the final five minutes.

Phillips and McAtee were two who at least looked likely to create something - having made the goal - but they were taken off on the hour-mark for Callum Styles and Max Watters respectively. There were boos in the stands for the McAtee switch and both the incoming players made little impact. The change may have been based on the minutes players had played in the busy festive schedule. Big striker Sam Cosgrove may have provided an out ball to ease some pressure.

Nicky Cadden continued his job-share with Callum Styles and started at left wing-back, creating two first half chances.

McCart returned from injury to the left of the back three in place of Owen Dodgson who was recalled by parent club Burnley after playing infrequently during his loan. He was a solid presence, while Mael de Gevigney grew into the game well after some early struggles with Magennis. But Williams continues to gift opponents chances with errors he simply wasn’t making before this stint in the back three which seems to have impacted him, as well as costing Barnsley goals and points due to his inability to compete physically. This should be his last game at right centre-back, at least for a while, with a defensive signing possible before Bristol Rovers next week.

JANUARY A HUGE MONTH ON AND OFF PITCH

January is obviously a big month on and off the pitch as the Reds look to strengthen their squad without losing any key men while they play five games in 14 days in the second half of the month including two games in hand on many of their promotion rivals.

If it goes well, especially trips in four days to fellow top seven sides Stevenage and Oxford, they could suddenly be very close to the top two going into February and well clear in the top six.

They have not lost at home in seven games since September but would have liked more than three wins in that sequence, having led in three of the four draws. It is certainly an improvement on their home form after a series of early season losses to sides now alongside them in the top eight.

This was the start of a run of home games against sides outside the top eight, with Bristol Rovers, Carlisle United, Exeter City and Leyton Orient visiting in January and February before expected promotion-challengers Derby County and Bolton arrive. It is a real chance to improve a home record which is the 15th best in the division as well as the atmosphere at Oakwell which was flat at times on New Year’s Day.