In August 2020, Wigan were relegated to the English Football League Two after entering administration. The circumstances surrounding their relegation was shocking as it appeared that the club had been the victim of serious fraud. The news rocked English football and exposed the major shortcomings in the ‘fit and proper person’ test created to guard football clubs against fraudulent investors.
But this article is not about them.
This is about the one football club that benefited to from the Latics’ demise: Barnsley. Wigan’s 12 point deduction meant that, for only the second time in ten years, Barnsley would finish a season above the Championship relegation zone. In avoiding relegation and the yearly league swap with Rotherham, Barnsley were been handed an unprecedented chance to build a squad the fans could get excited about.
And they have grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The Tykes sit in eighth, six points off a play-off spot, and fans are cautiously optimistic about what the season holds. The team have won five from their last six and will be reassessing their season goals if they can continue this form.
Barnsley have been one of the surprise packages this season but just who are the people making the club tick.
Barnsley lost manager Gerhard Struber to New York Red Bulls in October 2020 and replaced him with Valérien Ismaël. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the Frenchman has been in charge for 15 games and has presided over the teams only ten victories so far. He has spoken about togetherness and a fighting spirit which have certainly hit the right notes with the fans who have been full of praise for him so far.
Ismaël’s managerial career started in the German lower leagues with Hannover and Wolfsburg’s second teams before an unsuccessful spell with FC Nürnberg in 2014. He won only four games in 14 for the Bundesliga II team and swiftly returned to Wolfsburg’s reserves. A good display at that level saw him promoted to first team duties but he only lasted 17 matches before – via a one match spell in Greece – finding his way to Austrian outfit LASK; a fourth place finish was not enough to avoid the sack before south Yorkshire came calling in October 2020.
One of the most compelling things about how Ismaël sets his teams up is how he adapts to the situation. His LASK team tended to dominate possession and played on the front foot; they averaged 55.8% possession last season and were only behind giants Red Bull Salzburg in terms of shots per game with 12.1. This is vastly different to how he has set up Barnsley and should be commended. Many managers come into a squad and try and implement their style despite not having the resources to do so; it does not always get the best out of players and the team underperforms and this is something Ismaël has avoided so far.
Ismaël is in no doubts of his sides strengths. In a 1-0 win against Watford, they only had two shots on target but stopped the promotion chasers having a single one. Theyput in a mammoth defensive display in that game winning 18 tackles, 29 interceptions, and 15 clearances and this has been a feature of their overall play. They sit a top the table for tackles per game at 17.5; interceptions per game at 14.9; and second for clearances per game at 21.
Barnsley’s style may be pragmatic but it has got results. In their most recent win against Huddersfield, they played 104 fewer passes than their opposition. Ultimately they used the ball better creating three big chances to the away sides one. What Barnsley do well is us the ball incredibly effectively. They sit bottom of the table for crosses per game (2.8); 19th for successful passes per game at 243; and 23rd for accurate long balls with 15.5. Interestingly, they shoot 8.4 times per game – the seventh most in the league. Along with this, they have been clinical scoring 23 of their 30 big chances (the same number as leaders Norwich).
Teams these days are far too concerned with playing attractive, passing football as controlling the game is much safer than trying to catch your opponents out on the break (attack is the best form of defence). Players are not always capable of doing this and Barnsley should be applauded for finding a style that gets the best out of the limited options they have.
In 2013, London-side Fulham were busy putting together one of the best youth teams in the country. They won back-to-back Premier Leagues and only lost an FA youth cup to an offside goal. One of the stars of that team was England U21 international, Cauley Woodrow. Woodrow would go on to play 66 times for the Cottagers but failed to nail down a first team place. This was to Barnsley’s advantage.
The striker has netted 42 goals in 98 games for the Tykes and was their top-scorer as they avoided relegation; he has started all 18 league games and scored eight goals and contributed four assists so far this season. As the only out and out striker in the team, you would expect him to be the focal point of the attack. He is. But he is so much more than that. Woodrow shows his poacher-like tendencies with a conversion rate of around 17% but he also has the ability to drift to the right or left of the attack and allow for a fluid counter-attack. Roughly 6% of his passes are considered ‘key’ which is the fourth best percentage in the team and his ability to affect the game from different areas is a key part to Barnsley’s success so far.
Alex Mowatt is another player who has flourished at Barnsley after an indifferent career. The former Leeds man was awarded the young player of the year award in his first professional season and followed that up with the players’ player and fans’ player of the year the following season. It looked like he would go on to bigger and better things but he fell victim to the revolving door of managers and found himself with limited to only 22 starts in his final full season at Leeds (having started 38 the previous campaign). After an initial rocky start, he has found developed into a key player only missing two games in the previous two seasons.
Woodrow has been the focal point for the Barnsley attack this year but he has not been the heartbeat of the team. That accolade goes to Mowatt. Mowatt’s ability to operate between boxes is superb and he s capable of creating goalscoring opportunities from thin-air. He has an impressive 1.9 tackles per game and has won 3.5 ground duels per game – both of these statistics are in the top three for Barnsley as well as having the most accurate passes per game (30.7). He is also a master at arriving late on the edge of the area. His ability to let fly with a first time shot gives the opposition defence little time to react; only Woodrow has more shots this season than Mowatt and the fact that he finds the target with roughly 31% of them is an excellent return.
Mads Juel Andersen
Barnsley’s climb up the table has been built around defensive stability. They have won seven of their ten games by a single goal and one of the key performers has been summer signing, Mads Juel Andersen. The 23 year old was a £900k signing from Danish side AC Horsens, and he has started all 22 games so far this season. The move is the first time he has played outside of his native Denmark having played for Brøndby IF from the age of nine until 2017.
At nearly two metres tall, Andersen should be expected to win a number of his aerial duels; he has done so with a team high of 6 per game but also leads the team for interceptions per game at 2.8 and clearances per game at 5.8. Andersen is more than just a lean mean defending machine, however, and has the ability to bring the ball out of defence. He leads the team in accurate long balls per game with 2.7 and sits only behind Mowatt for passes per game at 27. Operating on the left side of a back three, Andersen has formed a brilliant partnership with fellow defenders Michal Helik and Michae Sollbauer.
Barnsley will not be getting carried away this season. Impressive wins against Watford and Preston have been cancelled out by resounding defeats to Cardiff and Bournemouth and they have a goal difference of -2 despite being impressive defensively. The manager has a talented squad battling for one another but, ultimately, the Championship remains one of the best leagues in the world: both in terms of unpredictability and quality. With most pundits predicting Barnsley to struggle at the start of the season, the team has already exceeded expectations but fans will be hoping to tap into the unpredictability of the league in order for it to truly be a memorable season.
Whatever happens, fans will be hoping that they can build upon this season and go from strength to strength. There are countless examples of Championship teams who have built upon good seasons and gone on to become promotion contenders and there is no reason this Barnsley side can’t go on to challenge for promotion in the next couple of seasons. Whisper it quietly, but, with the right moves in the market, Oakwell could well experience Premier League football within the next few seasons.