A comprehensive view of Barnsley's current situation so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image 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)
The chaotic nature of the Championship is a frequent topic of conversation for managers with epithets such as “anyone can beat anyone on their day” reverberating through stadiums across the country on a bi-weekly basis. This overused cliche of Championship football may cause groans and grumbles within footballing fandom but it is an accurate representation of a league that has no guaranteed outcomes. Within almost every round of fixtures there will be a result that shocks and surprises fans. Within a month the ‘nailed-on’ can turn into turmoil. Within a season a team or two will fall from grace, subverting expectations in a thoroughly disappointing manner while others punch above their weight challenging above the level that the club and squad is at. Barnsley is one such club and this season could consolidate the side as either a top half, playoff challenging side or one that is forced to scrap in the bottom half of the table.
Chinese-American entrepreneur Chien Lee joined forces with the Pacific Media Group in order to acquire Barnsley. The Chinese-American entrepreneur owns multiple European football teams including AS Nancy, K.V. Oostende but the most prominent club in his portfolio was OGC Nice. The French side frequently finished in the top half of the table during his time as owner before agreeing to sell the club. Interestingly, his interest in English football did not start and end with Barnsley but he did attempt to acquire a number of other clubs prior to taking over at Barnsley. Middlesbrough, Barnsley’s upcoming opposition, was one such club but his offer was roundly rejected by Steve Gibson in January 2017.
Following his purchase of Barnsley, Lee implemented a new way of running the club: Moneyball. The idea, born in Baseball (see Moneyball or read about Billy Beane), was that by utilising analytics they could root out undervalued players that could outperform what was expected of them and so create a team that could compete in the top proponents of the tournament without breaking the bank. Lee was not the only owner to devise such plans though with a number of new football club owners subscribing to the Moneyball ideology. The most famous and most successful of which, Matthew Benham, took control of Brentford and subsequently oversaw their recent promotion to the Premier League through this style of running a club.
To Barnsley’s credit, they have managed to adopt this style of administration with the Barnsley's long-held identity. Based in South Yorkshire, a large proportion of the clubs fanbase comes from a background in physical labour and they expect to see their hardworking ethic reflected in the football team that represents their town. This symmetry is found in the very fundamentals of the club with its nickname, The Tykes, coming from the hardworking tradition and its position as the ‘underdog’ mongrel. Lee has managed to recruit with this perspective in mind. The side doesn’t shy away from the physical with the Tykes finding a balance between the talented and the industrious.
This method found success in 2019 as Barnsley bounced back from relegation by finishing 2nd in League One. While the odds were in their favour following their recent relegation, their success in a speedy return was an indication that Moneyball could succeed at Barnsley moving forward. However, they would have to satisfy themselves with a scrap for survival in the following season, avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.
A left-field managerial appointment would follow their first season back in the Championship as Valerian Ismael agreed to join the club. Despite the managers relative success in previous jobs, expectations for the 2020-21 season were understandably low. 46 games later Barnsley had secured a 5th placed finish which was far beyond the expected talents at hand for Ismael. A failed campaign in the playoffs would follow but it wouldn’t hinder Ismael’s exponentially growing potential. The French manager would garner interest from across football after impressing in outperforming with Barnsley. His subsequent exit infuriated a portion of Barnsley fans who felt that the process that had been introduced to the club had been cut short for his individual aspirations.
Ismael’s exit put Barnsley in a difficult predicament. They now had to solve the question of who was to lead the Tykes into the 2021/22 season. Lee’s administration returned to Moneyball in search of a new manager and the perimeter of the search was clear: find someone who can take the helm and continue the process that Ismael had begun. Markus Schopp, referred to as “Ismael-lite” by ‘The Other Bundesliga’ Podcast, was nominated to take over the role.
This, in principle, was an astute hire. Markus Schopp has a number of similarities with Ismael. The Austrian manager has been known to deploy a pro-active press that isn’t too dissimilar to the one that was fundamental to Ismael’s success at Barnsley. His sides build-up in a heavily structured way with a refusal to play long passes from the defence. Schopp encourages his sides to dictate tempo, a feature of Ismael’s management that brought Alex Mowatt to the fore, but in this instance Schopp utilises the change in the speed of the game to catch the opposition’s defence on the hop. A tactical outline that is further exacerbated by his sides frequent switches of play (opening up space in the wide areas). Finally, Schopp’s time in charge of TSV Hartberg showed that he was capable of outperforming the expected limitations of a club as he consistently kept the side in the Austrian Bundesliga despite being the worst funded and supported side in the league. In fact, Schopp even managed to take Hartberg into the Europa League playoffs despite the apparent handicap that was inherent with the club be was managing.
Despite these similarities, Schopp’s reign has been far from a success so far this season as the Tykes have managed just 1 win and 5 draws in 12 fixtures. This poor run of form has placed them within the drop zone, a disappointing return to type for Barnsley following their prosperous season last time out. But why has this happened?
First, while there is similarities between Ismael and his replacement Schlopp they are not identical. The back three which was the fundamental basis for Ismael’s previous success is a formation that Schlopp has tinkered with but he has previously favoured a more traditional back four. The incessant drilling that Ismael was endlessly and rightly praised for last season is not something that can be expected from Schlopp who is willing to tinker with his sides tactics and instructions from game to game. This can be a great advantage when used well but it is a large adjustment for a side that is used to knowing exactly what is expected from them week-in, week-out. Schopp is also a risk taker. His previous management jobs have come with positive connotations towards the style of football, arguably a diversion from Ismael’s football, and he appears to subscribe to the idea of outscoring the opposition. This has backfired at Barnsley as the side has yet to click moving forward with the side scoring just 7 goals so far this season.
The issue goes further than the change in management though as the nature of Barnsley’s moneyball philosophy means that they frequently sell their best performing assets (Alex Mowatt and Conor Chaplin) and attempt to replace them with cheaper alternatives. This can be very successful but it is a risk and it does cause some turmoil within the squad.
Overall, it will be interesting to see where Barnsley finish this season as it could be telling about their short term future in the Championship. A finish in mid-table could position them as future playoff challengers while staying in their current predicament or a minor improvement may mean that they remain in the midst of the Championship/League One line for at few more seasons.