Barnsley are yet to pick up a league win in 2021, yet sit 13th in the Sky Bet Championship at the time of speaking, nine points off the top six and eight points above the bottom three. What have you made of the last few months?
They had some outstanding form in December. They had a lot of games against teams in the bottom half of the table; started away to Birmingham and won that, beat Wycombe, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston at home, as well as further away wins against Huddersfield and Rotherham. Each win was by a 2-1 scoreline and, in the vast majority, they went behind and fought back. Under normal circumstances, Valerien Ismael would’ve won the Manager of the Month award for December, but there were three or four teams who were on really good runs, including Brentford.
On the horizon, by contrast, they always had a hard-looking January on paper. They played Norwich, Swansea and Watford at the start of the year, as well as a game against Cardiff who are, traditionally, a bit of a bogey side. They’ve played pretty well but have just been edged out in games. Ismael has been reasonably happy with the performances, though he’s had a go about the officiating in some games. There’s no real time for panic as they would’ve gladly taken this before the start of the season but the teams are concertinaing up behind them.
Since Valerien Ismael’s appointment in October, Barnsley quickly shed the label of being relegation candidates once again. While they are currently in that middle ground, would you say a play-off push is what they are aiming for?
In December when they were winning that many games and coming from behind, there were one or two of the more optimistic supporters getting a little bit giddy, but to be fair to Ismael, he’s always been grounded. I asked him about it recently and his aim was to get to 50 points. If they can have a comfortable mid-table finish, it’ll be significant progress when you consider what happened at the end of last season, when they survived by the seat of their pants. Barnsley haven’t finished in that position too many times this century, so that would be a fair achievement in the circumstances.
The Frenchman had his first opportunity to mould his squad last month, with several players leaving both on loan and on free transfers and three incomings, too. What did you make of the club’s business?
Traditionally, the January window can be a tricky one for Barnsley. Last season, they ended up scrambling on the last day of the window as they wanted to bring in a defender and it didn’t quite happen. A few years ago, under Paul Heckingbottom in 2016/17, it was a little bit like this season in that they had a strong first half of the season but then ended up selling Conor Hourihane and James Bree to Aston Villa, while Sam Winnall went to Sheffield Wednesday, which took the wind out of their sails and ended any realistic hopes of reaching the play-offs. Fans were keen on getting reinforcements but also retaining players who’ve captured attention, like Callum Styles and Alex Mowatt. The situation with Mowatt is similar to Hourihane and Winnall in the past, in that he’s a leading player coming up to the end of his contract. Alex is up in June and they club haven’t managed to get him tied down, though they have been talking to him. I think they had one bid for him but the fact they’ve managed to retain him is a source of encouragement.
They brought in two players at the start of the window, too. They had been on Carlton Morris’ trail for a few months and brought him in from Norwich after they recalled him from MK Dons. He’s quite quick and powerful and they’ve lacked that sort of player this season. They also brought in Liam Kitching from Forest Green, though we’ve not seen him yet as he’s got a groin injury. On the last day, they brought in Daryl Dike from Orlando City on loan for the rest of the season. He’s got quite a big reputation in Orlando and was the Rookie of the Year in the MLS last year. He was also among the nominees for the Young Player of the Year so there has been quite a lot of hype about his signing. He’s probably one of the most high-profile signings Barnsley have made for a while so I know a lot of fans are excited about seeing him.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on this Saturday?
The main goalscorer is still Cauley Woodrow. He signed an improved contract at the end of the previous transfer window and has got into double figures for the last two seasons. Bringing in another couple of forwards who add a physical option may open up more opportunities for him but he’s been pretty consistent, has Cauley. To get into double figures two years in a row at this level when he’s not someone who is operating right at the top of the Championship is a pretty good sign, really.
How is Ismael likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?
The tried and trusted three at the back is Michael Sollbauer – who has been excellent since joining the club – Michal Hellik and Mads Andersen. Callum Brittain (pictured above) will be at right wing-back, with Alex Mowatt and Herbie Kane in the middle, Callum Styles on the left-hand side. Up front you’ll have Cauley Woodrow, Conor Chaplin and Dominik Frieser, so it’ll be 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. They play a very high energy, high pressing game and that’s probably the way I can see them going.
Brentford have won on their last two trips to Oakwell, though in west London, they’ve not won since March 2006. What’s your score prediction for this one?
I could see this being quite a high-scoring game, maybe even a 3-2 win for Brentford. Whether it’s sensible or not doing it at Brentford, they will have a go and I don’t think they’ll be happy to just sit and dig in. They will try and ask questions and they are dangerous opponents.
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