Middlesbrough's EFL Cup run kicks off as they host Michael Duff's Barnsley at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough has not had the best start this season as they only racked up one point across two games. The first game, against WBA, had its positives as they more than held their own against a team with similar promotion ambitions. Yet, there were no illusions about the need to strengthen the squad.
Then Middlesbrough collapsed defensively in the first half against QPR, which resulted in a damning post-match interview by Chris Wilder (see BBC Tees). However, on a more positive note, Middlesbrough improved in the second half, reducing the deficit to one goal and almost completing their comeback. Nonetheless, the cup could provide a welcome break to proceedings as Chris Wilder, Neil Bausor, and Kieran Scott work to fill the holes in Middlesbrough's squad.
This temporary break from Championship football comes in the shape of South Yorkshire side, Barnsley. The recently relegated Tykes are targeting an immediate return to the Championship, and they have appointed Michael Duff to lead them there.
Their relegation to League One resulted in a difficult transfer window for Barnsley as many of their top Championship performers looked for moves back into the second division of English football.
Cauley Woodrow and Carlton Morris have been particular losses for Barnsley. They are proven strikers at Championship level and would have been expected to do even better in League One. However, they have agreed to join Luton Town, where they will continue their fruitful partnership. Callum Brittain has also secured his future in the Championship, replacing Nyambe at Blackburn Rovers.
The Championship wasn't the only destination for Barnsley's players though, as the South Yorkshire side has negotiated outgoing transfers with teams in Austria and Belgium. At the same time, the club's free agents have joined teams in England, Finland and Turkey. However, not all of these departures are considered losses. The Tykes have also successfully trimmed those deemed surpluses to requirements, including Aapo Halme and George Miller.
In total, Barnsley has had to adjust to 10 outgoings this summer. However, Barnsley has offset this with six free transfers, including notable additions James Norwood and Luca Connell. At the same time, exciting loanee Slobodan Tedic could make his first appearance against Boro following his arrival from Manchester City. The Tykes also look to blood youngsters to fill the gap this season, with Joe Ackroyd and Aiden Marsh stepping up to the first-team group.
Carlton Morris to Luton Town (£1.8m)
Connor McCarthy from St. Mirren (free)
Romal Palmer to Göztepe (free)
Robbie Cundy from Bristol City (free)
Aapo Halme to HJK Helsinki (free)
Nicky Cadden from Forest Green (free)
Victor Adeboyejo to Burton Albion (free)
Jamie Searle from Swansea City (free)
George Miller to Doncaster (free)
Luca Connell from Celtic (free)
Cauley Woodrow to Luton Town (Undisclosed)
James Norwood from Ipswitch (free)
Callum Brittain to Blackburn Rovers (Undisclosed)
Slobodan Tedic from Manchester City (loan)
Isaac Christie-Davies to KAS Eupen (Undisclosed)
Patrick Schmidt to Admira Wacker (Undisclosed)
Daniel Jinadu (released)
Barnsley is planning for the future. The Tykes have the second youngest squad in the league, and they have tied promising young manager Michael Duff to a three-year contract. They will hope to develop the Barnsley project in the Championship next season but failing that, they have set themselves up to reach their goals in the medium and long-term future.
Style of Play
Michael Duff is a manager that sticks to a particular tactical philosophy, and his early success, winning promotion and securing a best-ever league finish for Cheltenham Town, means that he will look to establish this philosophy at Barnsley. So it is little surprise that his Barnsley side follows the same style and system that Duff developed at Cheltenham.
Michael Duff prefers to line up his side in a 3-4-1-2 formation with a sturdy spine populated by eight outfield players and the width provided by the wingbacks. This can make them vulnerable out wide, but it is a trade-off that Duff is willing to accept to congest the central areas off the ball.
Michael Duff subscribes to the Cruyff School of football, dominated by passing triangles and control of possession. Therefore, he primarily targets his attacks down the flanks, either resulting in a cross or an opening in the central zone through which his midfielders can attempt a shot.
Last Time Out
Duff's tactical identity is recognisable within their early fixtures. Still, the system lacks cohesion, and they have subsequently suffered at both ends of the pitch in the first two games of the season. Nonetheless, the early signs are promising, and, with more time on the training ground, they could become serious contenders for promotion to the Championship.
However, Barnsley has suffered mixed results due to their early teething problems. They lost their first league game to Plymouth Argyle 1-0. Then they bounced back against Duff's former side, Cheltenham, winning 1-0. Both games were tight affairs with little between the sides statistically or on the scoreboard, with a single goal separating the sides on both occasions.
Nonetheless, their win over Cheltenham Town showed a steady improvement over the Plymouth Argyle opener, and Duff will hope to continue this development as his side take on Middlesbrough.
Middlesbrough could face a different side to the one that beat Cheltenham Town as Duff will likely use this low-pressure but competitive game to familiarise his backup players and reserves with his system.
Mads Juel Andersen
It's hard to predict the side that Duff is likely to field at the Riverside tonight. He could look to play a strong XI inspired by the advantages that can come from a long cup run, or he could look to, as explained above, play a less experienced side. So, there is no guarantee that Mads Juel Andersen will take to the field, but if he does, he is the player to keep an eye on.
The Yorkshire Post listed him in League One's most expensive XI at the start of the season, but there is merit in his lofty £2.25m transfer value.
A towering centre-back, Andersen is an aerial presence in both boxes, helping to defend and attack crosses. He is a good reader of the game, and his positioning is some of the best on show at League One level.
However, Andersen is rarely called into tackles, instead opting to position his massive frame in the way of shots and passes. Andersen's statistics highlight that he has successfully deployed his hands-off approach, averaging an impressive 2.5 interceptions per 90 and 2.5 clearances per 90. This defending style also limits the chances of a foul being awarded against him, stopping the team from facing undue pressure and reducing the number of disciplinary actions against him (only averaging a yellow card every 4.8 games). While Andersen is undeniably strongest at centre-back, his brief appearances at right back, left back, and central defensive midfield has furthered his tactical understanding helping him support these positions better than the average defender.
Barnsley has to consider the transfer of Mads Juel Andersen a real coup. Since signing for a free transfer in 2019, Andersen has made 126 appearances for the Tykes, quickly becoming an indispensable feature of the first team. His near-ever-presence and success coincided with a growing market value which peaked at £4.5m. However, his form suffered alongside the team's struggles causing it to drop to £2.25m. While the transfer value doesn't directly affect Andersen, it indicates his reputation in world football. As with most players, Andersen will have aspirations to play at a higher level, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, he will have to perform to make that a reality if it doesn't come into fruition with Barnsley.
In the short term, Barnsley has one of the best defenders in League One, and he may prove to be a formidable opponent for Middlesbrough in the upcoming clash.
It has been a chaotic year for Callum Styles. The versatile midfielder has gone from catching the eye of premier league scouts and being a star in the Hungary side that toppled England to relegation and playing in League One due to little fault of his own.
Despite a plethora of interest in the 22-year-old's services, Styles remains a Barnsley player, and he has started in both of the side's early league fixtures. Whether he remains at the Tykes at the end of the window remains to be seen but as long as he is contracted to the club, Duff intends to use his talented midfielder in the league.
However, in all likelihood, Styles will be benched for the cup game as the club see him as either a crucial player for the league or a saleable asset following their recent relegation.
An athletic player that has put in impressive performances across the midfield and as a wingback, it's little surprise that Styles has garnered interest from Championship and Premier League clubs. Styles has the talent to be the first choice on most championship teamsheets but with the flexibility to be a utility player.
Callum Styles is at his best playing as a roaming playmaker in central midfield as he has established himself as the lynchpin in the Barnsley system. An intense player that gets through a lot of work each game, Styles will show for a pass from his teammates, dictates the tempo, carries the ball forward, provides creativity in the final third, and stands up to be counted defensively. Styles has struggled to add the end product to his performances though, providing just four direct goal contributions last season. He will want to improve that output regardless of whether he remains at Barnsley or moves elsewhere this summer.
Middlesbrough fans can sympathise with Barnsley's anxious wait over Callum Styles' future as Chris Wilder's side has suffered a blow with the departure of Marcus Tavernier to Bournemouth. The 23-year-old shares a near-identical profile to Callum Styles as a roaming playmaker capable of filling numerous roles (most notably wingback). While Tavernier had a more of a mixed reputation at Middlesbrough than Styles does at Barnsley, his absence was glaring in the first two opening games of the season, forcing Boro to add the left central midfield spot to their summer shopping list despite originally hoping to cover the position with the two in-house options (that have different profiles as players).
Interest in Styles could become feverous as the window begins to draw to a close, and offers that are too good to turn down may cross Barnsley CEO Khaled El-Ahmad's desk. It may suit the club to sell the player, but it would also be wise to have a like-for-like replacement lined up should he leave.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 2-1 Barnsley
If both sides get into their stride tonight, then it will be a game between two teams trying to play good football. Middlesbrough's lack of depth could be a concern as Wilder will look to rest some of his first-teamers, but they should have enough firepower on the bench should they need it to progress.