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EFL Team in Focus: Barnsley’s battle

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Barnsley’s 3-1 home loss to Brentford on Sunday means they have not won a game since the opening day upsetting of Fulham – and remain (three) points adrift of safety in the Championship relegation zone.

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) looks at their tough start to the season.

Energetic spells

Barnsley’s game plan is all about high-pressing, getting men forward quickly and incisive transitions.

That worked a treat for them in the first 25 minutes against Brentford, where they created enough chances to build on Cauley Woodrow’s stunning first-minute long-ranger.

If there is one main positive for the Tykes to take from their return to the second-tier so far, it would be that they are implementing certain aspects of the game plan that they want in terms of the work off the ball, the passing and the co-ordination of movement.

Mowatt’s midfield work

Alex Mowatt will be key to Barnsley’s chances of staying up.

The midfielder, rated so highly early in his career at Leeds, had a slight deep and was unable to overly impress at Oxford in 2017-18, but he appears to be rebuilding his career at Barnsley.

Tenacious and possessing a sweet left foot, Mowatt inspired the Reds’ automatic promotion last season and has been among their best players so far this term.

Short bursts

The work of Mowatt and co. catalyses these spells of pressure, which are normally high on intensity if low on duration.

Barnsley are typically on top in their games for no longer than half an hour – it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise, because their method of chance creation is so reliant on energy levels.

Since March 2019, every goal they have scored has either been their only goal of the game, or within a half-hour of action of another goal – this suggests that, rather than have all their opportunities spread out across 90 minutes, they tend to get a glut of chances in short periods.

Must be more clinical

The task will be to be more ruthless during those periods.

Barnsley have had 120 shots this season – the joint-eighth most in the Championship.

Of those, 72 have come in the penalty box – only four teams have registered more efforts from inside the 18-yard area.

And yet, only 33 of their shots – barely more than a quarter – have been on target and Daniel Stendel’s side are the lowest scorers with a paltry five goals.

That would suggest that Barnsley are lacking an element of composure in their finishing, especially in the box.

Players out of position

Toby Sibbick is a right-back but, due to the injury problems with Cameron McGeehan, he has started four games in central midfield, at the expense of a supremely talented midfielder by trade in Callum Styles.

Jordan Williams is a right-footed centre-back or midfielder by trade yet has played two of his three games at left-back, ahead of Dani Pinillos.

Stendel deserves plenty of trust based on what he helped the club achieve last season and there may be perfectly valid reasons behind certain decisions.

Whatever those reasons, though, one cannot help but feel it is challenging enough for this young squad, many of whom are playing at this level for the first time, to play well in their favoured position.

It might be that asking some of them to play somewhere they are not used to at a standard of football that they are not used to may be too much of a tall order – the sooner Barnsley can get 11 square pegs in 11 square holes, the better.

Doubts over current style

A lot of Barnsley fans are questioning whether Stendel’s high-pressing methods can work in the Championship – does he need to adapt and potentially employ a more pragmatic or defensive approach?

Certain theories go that they were successful in League One, last season, because they had more technical ability than the teams they faced and therefore, the drawbacks of the system were not exposed as much.

Now that they are in a division above, they are facing better quality teams who have the vision to pick long-range passes that allow them to play through the press and create clear goalscoring opportunities, as Brentford did to maximum effect.

Will more teams pick Barnsley off if they keep playing the same way?

Following North End’s lead

The counterargument to the above would be that, firstly, their current shot data is more compelling than seven teams in the division – so perhaps with better finishing, the confidence in the current strategy might be stronger.

Secondly, Preston North End have used a similar ideology under Alex Neil and, with possibly a bottom six budget, they have always been on the coat-tails of the Play-Offs.

Tough season ahead

Time will tell whether Barnsley’s style can work at this level – Stendel must decide whether to make defensive tweaks, whether to perfect the pressing work his side do, whether they just need to finish their chances or even get a bit more luck.

It could be a combination of those things – but with Autumn cellar-dwellers Stoke and Huddersfield likely to improve, Barnsley must close the gap on their bottom half competitors.

It looks like being an arduous campaign in South Yorkshire.