EFL COLUMN: BRILLIANT BARNSLEY ARE A MODEL ALL CHAMPIONSHIP CLUBS SHOULD FOLLOW
Valerien Ismael’s Barnsley have won seven Championship games in a row to move into the play-off places and become poster boys for how to run an EFL club in the process.
Saturday’s 1-0 win against Birmingham City was the least convincing performance of their excellent recent run, but it once again highlighted one of the facets of the club that has got divisional rivals looking on enviously.
January loan signing Daryl Dike fired home the winning goal early in the second half after receiving a pass from another recent recruit in Carlton Morris, moving the Tykes above Bournemouth into sixth in the Championship table.
Dike and Morris have nicely encapsulated the Barnsley model in recent weeks.
US international Dike was brought in on a deadline day loan from Orlando City thanks to the connections of chief executive Dane Murphy in the US - showing a willingness to explore a largely untapped talent pool - and with three goals in his last four the 20-year-old already looks pivotal to a potential promotion push.
Morris is a transfer more typical of Barnsley’s recent recruitment. The Norwich academy graduate was brought in from MK Dons despite scoring just 3 goals in 18 League One appearances this season. The signing was initially something of a surprise, but Morris has already found the net four times in his first few weeks at the club.
Since entrepreneur Chien Lee, former baseball player and executive Billy Beane and multi-media company Pacific Media Group invested in the club in December 2017, Barnsley have been a club with a plan.
The work of Beane at the Oakland Athletics inspired the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was later turned into a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt as the Barnsley investor.
The principles he used in Moneyball allowed the Athletics to massively overperform based on the level of investment in the team by using player data to identify and recruit individuals who were not valued by other teams.
It is easy to see how these principles have been applied in South Yorkshire as well.
The Tykes mostly sign players from either the lower leagues of the English pyramid or from largely untested markets in Europe, resulting in a starting eleven that includes recruits born in places as varied as Bury, Oklahoma and Chorzow in Poland.
In the case of Morris, the recruitment department clearly saw that his running power and work-rate off the ball would make him an ideal fit for Ismael’s side, meaning the decision-makers at the club were willing to sign him when the majority of other Championship clubs would have turned their noses up at him.
Even more impressive than the players brought on board by Barnsley’s investors are the managers they have appointed. The last three managers chosen by the Tykes have all turned out to be successful – a rare achievement even for the most well-resourced teams in world football.
Daniel Stendel helped Barnsley get promoted from League One at a canter, Gerhard Struber led them to survival against the odds in the Championship whilst also playing some of the division’s most interesting football, and Ismael currently has them on course for a play-off challenge at least.
None of them were known to most in English football before their respective appointments, again showing that looking beyond the obvious can pay off handsomely.
Their hard-pressing, all-action style is a result of countless drills on the training pitch, helping a youthful side bridge the talent gap with divisional rivals by effectively being faster, fitter and more aggressive than them.
Ismael described his playing team’s playing style as ‘direct with purpose’ to The Athletic, and it does not take long to see this description in their play. Opponents are hassled and harried at almost every opportunity but there is also an intelligence to the press, it is not simply a case of eleven men chasing the ball.
The manager regularly makes triple substitutions thanks to the five-sub rule in the EFL, meaning the entire frontline can be replaced to ensure the intensity of the team rarely drops.
This style makes Barnsley one of the most difficult teams in the Championship to play against, as they showcased in a recent 2-0 win at Brentford.
The Bees are another side that have been praised for their intelligent use of the transfer market, but their array of attacking talent was restricted to just three shots on target thanks to an organised and effective Barnsley press preventing Thomas Frank’s side creating chances.
The Tykes were also the better team in their FA Cup defeat to a Chelsea side that could feasibly claim to be the second-best side in the country on current form.
The performance against Chelsea though appears only to have fuelled further belief among the playing squad that Ismael is leading them in the right direction. They haven’t lost a game since exiting the competition, and their aggression out of possession has somehow become even more impressive.
Barnsley appear to be moving in only one direction at the moment, and after years of yo-yo-ing between the second and third tiers, getting things right behind the scenes has given them a genuine opportunity of returning to the Premier League for the first time since 1998.
Owners and chairmen of the EFL, if you are at a loss figuring out how to take your club forward in a realistic and sustainable manor, just take a look at what’s going on at Oakwell.