Everything you need to know about Middlesbrough's upcoming opponent Watford
We are now moving into the final 6 games of the season and the answers to the promotion and relegation questions are beginning to take form. While some questions remain about a final push and a final fall in the relegation zone, the automatic promotion places are growing increasingly concrete as Watford now sit 9 points ahead of closest rival Brentford. Meanwhile Barnsley are in the middle of the fight for a playoff position, currently sitting in 5th place, the Tykes will be hoping to hold onto their position despite the late offensive from Bournemouth, in order to stake a claim for the Premier League in the playoffs. Their current form has been relatively impressive and, if they can continue in the same vein over the next 6 games, it would set them in great stead to confirm their place in the playoffs.
Meanwhile Neil Warnock recently dismissed Middlesbrough’s outside chances of getting in the playoffs, as he begrudged the injuries of Dael Fry and Marcus Tavernier as they brought a premature end to Middlesbrough’s pursuit of the playoffs. Yet there is still a lot to fight for as Warnock stated that he remains unconvinced about a number of his squad players, indicating that they will have the opportunity to stake their case for involvement next season within the last 6 games. It will be interesting to see which players futures have been cast in doubt coming into the final games as we find out if any of them manage to persuade the Middlesbrough manager that they deserve their place in the side for next season.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Season So Far:
It appears as though Barnsley is in a good vantage point leading into the last 6 games of the season, as they are in 5th position, with Reading sitting between themselves and Bournemouth in 7th. However their situation is more precarious than it first appears as the Tykes are just three points ahead of Bournemouth, who have a game in hand on the South Yorkshire side, and if the Cherries won their game in hand, then they would jump above Barnsley and into 5th position. While this would still keep them within the playoffs, in 6th place, but it would make their position far more unstable as they would have just 2 points between the playoffs and a finish just outside the top six. So Barnsley will want to make sure that they have a good run of form between now and the end of the season in order to secure their place in the playoffs.
Barnsley currently has the worst goal difference in the top 6, with just +8 goals, and this may be a dangerous situation at this stage in the season as the points difference between playoffs and 7th place narrows increasing the possibility that goal difference will become a deciding factor in the playoff run. If this is to be the case then Barnsley may want to improve defensively as they have conceded 44 goals so far this season, while only a single goal separates them from the worst defensive record the top six, other defensively poor sides have the fortune of a soiree of talented forwards that have made up the gap. If Barnsley can show more steel in defence then it could go a long way to securing their place in the playoffs. They are equally one of the weaker sides in the playoffs going forwards too as only Swansea, renowned for their defensive record, has scored fewer goals. However, in Cauley Woodrow and Alex Mowatt, Barnsley have two players who know how to find the back of the net and create goals; so only time will tell if this will be enough to beat Swansea, Reading, Bournemouth and the rest of the chasing pack to a playoff spot.
Form: W W L D W
It is important for sides to put in a good run of form in the latter stages of the season as all the hard work up to this point will all come to nothing if they do not make the final push for the clubs season target. This can be seen in Wales as Swansea’s recent form has been cause for concern, leading fans and pundits to question whether they are going to drop into a battle for a playoff spot; despite recently being one of the favourites for automatic promotion. Barnsley, on the other hand, have been going in the other direction as they have entered a good period of form. The Tykes have managed to get an average of 2 points per game over the last 5 fixtures, 0.3 points per game more than their season average. Therefore indicating that if they can sustain this form then they should confirm their place in the playoffs.
Barnsley has won three of their last 5 games: an impressive 3-2 victory over fellow playoff contenders Bournemouth, a match that saw them overturn a 2-1 deficit during a vital game for the playoff picture; a 2-1 victory over Luton Town, who may not be the best side in the league, but they are a difficult side to play against and they have caught a number of teams out on their journey to 13th place; and 3-1 against Wycombe Wanderers, albeit a game they would have been expected to win, but the job still had to be done. They also managed to draw with fellow promotion chasers, Reading last Friday, holding them to a 1-1 draw following a Mowatt penalty. Their only loss during this period came as a surprise defeat to lowly Sheffield Wednesday as a brace from Jordan Rhodes helped the Owls conquer the Tykes. There are noticeable chinks in Barnsley’s armour though, even despite their recent impressive run, which should give Middlesbrough fans some hope.
Firstly, Barnsley has not had a single clean sheet during this recent run and they have managed to concede 6 goals overall during this period. While this indicates that there is a goal to be had against Barnsley, it also shows that the side may only score one and preventing an in-form front line, that has scored 10 goals during this period (2 goals a game on average), from scoring may well be key to Middlesbrough’s success.
Secondly, Barnsley is set to host Middlesbrough at Oakwell Road, where Barnsley have found it considerably more difficult. The Tykes sit in 7th position on home form as they have failed to win any of their last 3 at home. Middlesbrough will be hoping to make the most of Barnsley’s home form struggles extending the South Yorkshire's home run to 4 games without a victory.
Top Goalscorer: Cauley Woodrow (11)
Most Assists: Alex Mowatt (7)
Most Yellow Cards: Cauley Woodrow (8)
Most Red Cards: Alex Mowatt, Mads Andersen, Michal Helik (1)
One To Watch: Alex Mowatt
The English central midfielder may have been linked with Middlesbrough in January, but he has continued to thrive at Barnsley providing 7 goals and 7 assists so far this season. He has been a key figure in Barnsley’s promotion push and he will prove vital if they are to remain in the playoffs.
The Doncaster-born midfielder started his career at Leeds United, moving into the first team during the 2013/2014 season he would go on to play 8,041 minutes for the Lilywhites in 125 appearances playing an average of 64 minutes per appearance. Therefore showing that he became a starter for Leeds during his time with the Whites. He was also an attacking influence for Leeds United as he was directly involved in a goal every 309 minutes, a decent return from a young central midfielder.
While he was valued at £900,000 during 2017’s January transfer window, Leeds accepted a bid of £522,000 from Barnsley. The South Yorkshire side was not wholly convinced by his performances during his first 3 months at the club as he was then moved out on loan to Oxford United in the following summer.
He played 2,242 minutes across 34 appearances during his time at Oxford United and, while his minutes per direct goal involvement failed to reach the heights seen at Leeds United, as he contributed to a goal every 560 minutes, his time in Oxford did help him earn his place in Barnsley’s squad and he hasn’t looked back since.
Mowatt has played 12,914 minutes so far at Barnsley across 155 matches, averaging 83 minutes per appearance, as he quickly became a key figure; and the consistency of his involvement has to be considered as key to his success during his time in South Yorkshire. He has managed to surpass his best goal contribution per minutes while at Barnsley too as he has helped to get Barnsley fans on their feet every 307 minutes.
So why is he so dangerous? Alex Mowatt is as complete a box-to-box midfielder as you can find in the Championship as he has a massive impact on both ends of the pitch in every game he is involved in. He is not afraid to make a tackle and his reading of the game means that he rarely gets it wrong, breaking up the oppositions play and instigating his own moves. He is also happy to receive the ball in deeper positions on the pitch, as he doesn’t shy away from situations that, if he lost the ball, may turn into a good opportunity for the opposition. Instead he will carry the ball from these situations, using his strength and on the ball skills to maintain possession and remain a calming influence as the sides captain. He is a commanding captain too as he demands the best out of the players around him and he has quickly became the point of reference as to how to deal with on field situations. He uses his ability to dictate the pace of the game speeding it up and slowing it down to benefit his side; which has grown more effective since he became captain as it allows him to encourage other players to play at that speed. This is accompanied by a good range of passing as he is able to find teammates over a long distance, often instigating counter attacks, and he is particularly good at through balls, especially on the ground between the fullback and centre back, allowing the wingback to get in behind the defence, a favourable position to deliver a cross. Finally, he knows how to strike a ball, and he is not afraid to have a go at goal if the opportunity arises be it on the edge of the box, in the box or from the penalty spot, he has always added goals to his game and goalscoring midfielders are in high demand for good reason.
On the other hand, is his weaknesses, the most prominent of which is his discipline, his willingness to slide in to break up play comes with its own risks and can lead to freekicks in and around the box that Middlesbrough will want to exploit. But this issue runs deeper than that as his passionate performances can sometimes lead to a temper that can cause to him see red. This was seen during his stint at Oxford United as he was sent off for slapping Nathan Thompson as he mocked the Barnsley players missed penalty. His willingness to risk the ball in deeper areas is also something that Middlesbrough can exploit, particularly if Saville is involved as he presents the best option for pressuring and retrieving the ball higher up the pitch. Finally, he has become a little predictable; and although he is still very effective, it does allow sides to plan to limit his effect on the game.
If Mowatt doesn't get promoted with Barnsley then he may well gain interest from lower Premier League sides as they look to build on their current squads in another limited market and Mowatt maybe the perfect addition to a solid Premier League squad under these conditions. In the meantime, it is up-to Middlesbrough to limit his impact on the game as he pursues promotion with the Tykes.
Hot Prospect: Daryl Dike
There appears to be a growing trend of European clubs looking across the pond for talented youngsters. The most prominent of which, Christian Pulisic and Alphonso Davies, are currently playing at an impressive level. Swansea, on the other hand, brought two American players in an attempt to augment their squad for a final push for promotion; and it is this category of player that Daryl Dike fits into. He joined the club on January’s transfer deadline day with the target of helping Barnsley get promoted. There is no doubting his talent either as the 20 year old has garnered interest from Manchester United, Leeds and Everton, but any attempts by these clubs to bring in the player will be subject to Barnsley’s decisions and their push for promotion.
Barnsley may have brought the player into the club on loan but the contract has a reported £17 million buying clause that would allow the side to negotiate with the player to make the short term move permanent. Former Salford City manager Richie Wellens stated that he doubts the club would pay such a hefty fee for the player during an appearance on EFL on Quest stating, ‘I can’t see Barnsley paying £17 million for him’ and there is clear reasoning behind his statement as it would be a considerable output that would blow the sides current record transfer fee of £1.5 million out of the water. Yet the buying clause was added for a reason and Wellens’ praise for the player that’s ‘given Barnsley a whole new dimension to their game’ makes it clear that Barnsley won’t hesitate to attempt to sign him should they receive the payload that comes with promotion to the Premier League. Whether they can persuade the player to join the club with other established Premier League sides showing interest will be another factor in any potential long term deal.
Daryl Dike started his MLS career at Orlando City SC, where he has played just 1,444 minutes in 22 games, an average of 66 minutes per appearance, indicating that while he wasn’t the first name on the team sheet, he was highly regarded by Orlando’s management. Dike also made a direct goal contribution every 131 minutes (1.45 games) during his time in his home land, a good return for a young striker, who went through a number of moves during his younger years as he made his way up the American Soccer League ladder.
A transfer to Barnsley earlier this year has seen his transfer value spike, originally valued at £2.7m, he is now worth £4.5m. Orlando City will be very happy with his progress since moving to the UK and they will be hoping that it will provide an influx of cash at the end of the season. It’s no surprise that his transfer value has almost doubled either as he has scored a goal every other game for Barnsley including a recent brace against Luton Town. Dike is a talented young player that has managed to highlight his abilities on the Championship stage in turn gaining the interest of a number of Premier League sides.
Daryl Dike has managed to hit the ground running in England due to his height and physical stature as it has allowed him to compete with the physical nature of the Championship without needing too long to adjust. The American is capable of holding off defenders and beating them in the air and he is comfortable playing with his back to goal. But his best attribute is his movement, on and off the ball, Dike is a mobile forward often dropping off the defensive line or moving into the wings which can ask some serious questions of the oppositions back line. This is one of the rarest and most valuable commotities in a striker as most are content with remaining relatively static and allowing others around them to provide the movement to break through a defence. A striker who is tall, physical and hard for centre backs to pin down can be a serious threat and defenders will not look forward to playing against him. He pairs this with good ball carrying, often dribbling at defences which can ask questions of the defenders and instigate attacks in the final third, while his powerful shooting means that he is a danger when shooting scenarios arrive.
He is far from the finished article though as his reliance on his right foot allows defenders to marshal the player relatively successfully and he has a tendency to hold onto the ball for too long often ending in the opposition getting the ball. While his touches sometimes look jagged and he sometimes appears to have limited control over the ball providing opportunities to knick it away from him. Finally, his physical build and willingness to play with his back to goal can sometimes mean that he is pinned facing his own goal forcing him to play the ball backwards if he wants his side to keep attacking.
Daryl Dike is a striker that is in a similar mould to Romelu Lukaku, and while we are yet to see if he can play at that level, this comparison provides an insight as to what to expect from the player when/if he lines up against Middlesbrough. Expect a physical presence with a willingness to make runs in and around the defensive line to find shooting situations from which he can release a powerful shot.
Manager: Valérien Ismaël
The current Barnsley manager has been singled out for his work at the South Yorkshire club as he has managed to escort the side into the playoff positions. Now there are just 6 games to go before he can stake a claim to take Barnsley into the Premier League. While some Middlesbrough fans will not have heard of the manager, he has had quite an extensive playing and managerial career extending over 28 years, and he has brought a lot of that experience into his role at Barnsley.
History: Playing Career
He started his playing career at RC Strasbourg Alsace in France, a team that would would return to on two separate occasions, once on loan, once permanently, during his 16 year playing career. This led to the player playing 11,492 minutes across 147 appearances for Strasbourg Alsace, as he was an almost constant in the side when he was available for selection. Unsurprisingly, playing as a centre back led to the player getting 25 yellow cards and 2 red cards during his three stints at the club. His goalscoring return, of four goals from 147 appearances was far from impressive but he would go on to become a goalscoring defender in later years.
He spent a short period playing for Crystal Palace where he made just 13 appearances during a failed transfer that would end any potential career in English football and he was quickly shifted out to RC Lens for £1.62m. He made 104 appearances during his return to France, scoring 6 goals and setting 2 up for his teammates, a steady increase on his goal contributions at RC Strasbourg Alsace. It is after his time in Lens that he returned to his home town, before moving to Werder Bremen in July 2004 for £675,000.
It was his first stint in German football that brought about his best form as he contributed 14 goals and 6 assists over 88 appearances for the Bundesliga side, resulting in a goal contribution every 392 minutes. It was this goalscoring form, paired with his impressive defensive displays, that brought about Bayern Munich’s interest. The German giants paid £7.65m for the centre back in what would be the biggest move of the defenders career.
The move alone highlighted the players success and this is only intensified when his age is taken into consideration. Bayern Munich were willing to fork out £7.65m, a considerable transfer fee in 2005, for a defender that was set to move into his 30s. While most defenders can perform at a high standard well into their third decade it is always a risk for the buying club as, while he may be currently in his prime, he will soon enter the period of inevitable decline. So the fact that Munich were willing to fork out such a fee for the player at that age just highlights how well he was doing before he joined Munich.
He would go on to play 4,065 minutes of first team football for Munich across 46 appearances, an average of 88 minutes per match, showing that the Bavarian clubs belief in the player was well founded. Unfortunately though, Ismaël sustained a long term injury in his final year at the club and he was ushered out the club in January following 7 games for Bayern Munich II.
Hannover 96 pounced on the opportunity to sign a talented centre back on the cheap, paying just £180,000 for the centre back that would make 19 appearances for the club, assisting 2 goals before hanging up his boots.
History: Coaching Career
It didn’t take him long to replace his boots with a clipboard becoming Hannover’s Executive Assistant in the October following his retirement. He would then trade this role to be the manager of Hannover’s second team where he had relative success over 49 games with an average 1.67 ppg (points per game). He has also went on to have a number of even more successful stints as he averaged 2.08 and 2.04 points per game during two stints at Wolfsburg II, 1.98 points per game during his time in charge of LASK and he is currently averaging 1.94 point per game for Barnsley. This shows that Ismaël’s success at Barnsley is not a fluke but a continuation of some of his most impressive performances as manager. Unfortunately, it has not been a perfect career for Ismaël though as he stepped onto a bigger stage too early in his managerial career, only managing to average a point a game at Nuremberg in 2014; and he would replicate the same form when he took over VFL Wolfsburg on a permanent basis in 2016. Yet he is clearly a talented manager and Barnsley couldn’t be happier by his appointment.
When asked about what made Valerien Ismaël special, Barnsley Chief Executive Dane Murphy explained that it is ‘his self-belief’ and ‘self-assurance and security with who he is and what he is trying to do which allows him to be successful.’ This confidence in himself will have been key as he altered the side in his image. His Barnsley side deploys a high press, particularly in the wide areas, where his lynchpins can be found. Ismaël prefers to play a wingback formation and expects the wide pair to provide the width and to be ever-present in offensive, defensive and turnover situations. This is where Middlesbrough’s man-marking system may prevail.
Valerien Ismaël has been a success at Barnsley for a reason; he has found a system and a philosophy that makes the most of the talented players in the side and he can utilise his wealth of experience over an impressive career to help his side through difficult situations. Early signs at Barnsley indicate that Ismaël could become a successful manager beyond the Championship level.
This is yet another difficult match but Barnsley’s high press and leaky defence means that Middlesbrough should get a few opportunities to score and it will be up to the forward men to make the most of these opportunities. However the biggest question for Middlesbrough will be in the defensive third. Barnsley has been particularly prolific in recent weeks and they will favour their chances to continue that run against the North-East side, as such Middlesbrough’s defence will have to be at its very best if they wish to get a result against Barnsley.
The psychological and form factors have to be considered too as Barnsley have struggled at home this season and their 3 game winless run could have a negative psychological effect that Middlesbrough could exploit. It is for these reasons that I believe that Middlesbrough have a good opportunity to knick all three points, or failing that, an impressive draw.
Alex Mowatt Sources:
https://youtu.be/4orEIUcWFLk (red card against Portsmouth)
Daryl Dike Sources:
https://youtu.be/HzwM-S77sao (USA players abroad report)