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Opposition Report: Barnsley

Middlesbrough travels to bottom side Barnsley searching for a third win in five games.

Middlesbrough turned around a defeat to Bristol City with a 2-1 win over West Brom in midweek, thanks to an excellent second-half performance from Marcus Tavernier. In winning against West Brom, Boro has positioned itself in an ideal place to build up another good run of form. A good run of form could establish itself if they take all three points against Barnsley.

Meanwhile, Barnsley has had a drastic change in life this season. Under Valerian Ismaël, the South Yorkshire-based side were dark horses for promotion. Now, they are propping up the division and facing a severe battle for survival. A turbulent head coach situation this season has not helped matters. Marcus Schopp was appointed at the start of the season, but poor performances led to his sacking. Then Jo Laumann took over the role as a caretaker but struggled to better Barnsleys' predicament. Finally, the position seems to have settled with former Sweden Under-21 head coach Poya Asbaghi joining permanently.

Despite the recruitment of Asbaghi, Barnsley remains at the bottom of the league. However, the Iranian-born manager will recognise the importance of picking up points as soon as possible. He may relish the challenge that Middlesbrough possess, and adding three points to their tally could significantly improve their predicament.

Owner: Chien Lee (and others)

Chien Lee is a Chinese entrepreneur and investor with a considerable proportion of his portfolio based in football. Our primary focus in this article may be Barnsley, but Lee distributes his attention across six separate clubs in six different countries.

His footballing investment has mainly been focused on the European markets. As a result, his geographical parameters have remained the same. Still, the remit of the clubs he targets has changed considerably since his first investment.

The first club he owned was OGC Nice. A club with considerable reputation and a near-consistent recent history in Ligue 1 and European competition. However, he soon recognised the limitations of such a large club, selling it to the richest man in Great Britain, Ineos owner, Jim Ratcliffe.

When he changed tack, he looked towards the more minor leagues in Europe. Barnsley was one such club. Alongside the South Yorkshire-based side, Lee would buy Switzerland's Thun FC, Belgium's K.V. Oostende, France's A.S. Nancy, Denmark's Esbjerg fB, and Netherland's F.C. Den Brosch. He would implement the same system at each club, albeit with different aims.

Chien Lee is often regarded as one of the figureheads of Moneyball. It is a system of finding undervalued talent in a sport, giving them a platform to perform for the club's benefit or for financial help. The term and methodology were made famous by Baseball and Billy Beane, who turned a team on limited funds into a serious contender for the cup. It has since been adapted to other sports, including football, with some great success. The primary example here is Matthew Benham and Brentford's recent success story.

Chien Lee has adopted and adapted Moneyball in each of his own clubs. The extent to its' possible success was seen in Barnsley's near-promotion miss last season; despite having the youngest and cheapest squad in the league.

In clubs such as A.C. Nancy and Barnsley, the aim is precise: 1) use Moneyball to develop the club into a successful side. 2) Improve the club's value. 3) Allow it to be sold on for a profit with limited outlay from the owner.

Meanwhile, for clubs such as Thun, Oostende, Esbjerg and Den Brosch, the maximum value that can be extracted this way is capped by the considerably lower financial potential of their country's respective leagues. This development remains a crucial fixture of Lee's aims, but he primarily aims for profit in the transfer market. By signing undervalued players and then helping them flourish at these respective clubs, Lee's sides can profit from their signings, providing a financial stream for the entrepreneur.

The problem with Moneyball has been reflected in Barnsley's current season, though. Instead of bringing in established talent, these clubs are essentially gambling on an untapped potential, which is perhaps why Matthew Benham spearheaded the movement in English football. Sometimes this can pay off with significant effect. Sometimes it falls flat, and the club finds itself in a difficult predicament. This is what has happened at Barnsley so far this season.

Finally, Chien Lee should be a person of interest for Middlesbrough fans. In 2017, the Chinese businessman attempted a takeover of the club, which was rejected by Steve Gibson. In Barnsley, we can see indications of what alternate reality would have been like should the sale have gone through.

For me and many other Boro fans, though, we are happy that Steve Gibson decided to stay at the helm of the club that he saved from extinction.

Manager: Poya Asbaghi

Barnsley took to the managerial merry-go-round in November to snatch up Poya Asbaghi. The Iranian-born Swedish head coach has been of long-term interest to the club. In fact, reports claimed that he rejected the role before Ismaël took over.

Barnsley is seemingly playing a role in bringing championship coaching into the future. At just 36 years old, Asbaghi is the second oldest head coach in the Championship. Nonetheless, he has impressed in his roles to date, making him an exciting addition to the club.

Asbaghi had a dramatic start to life as, at a tender age, his parents fled Iran due to political persecution. He arrived in Sweden and remained there for most of his formative years.

He would break into coaching at the lower levels of Swedish football with Dalkurd FF. An assistant coach from 2014-2015 would be given a promotion to the top job in 2016. Yet, he would move on in 2017 for Gefle IF. However, his next job at IFK Götenburg would really garner intrigue. He would earn a significant personal accolade as he was named manager of the year in 2019. Before he led Götenburg to the Swedish Cup and UEFA Europa Qualifiers.

He would be relieved of his duties in 2020, but it would only take two months for him to return to management. Having impressed the Swedish F.A. during his stint at Götenburg, he became Under-21 manager. He would win 70% of his fixtures with the Swedish youth side.

The outline of Barnsley's interest in Asbaghi for so long is reflected in his career to date. First and foremost, under the Moneyball philosophy, Barnsley aims to recruit players and coaches that are undervalued per their ability. This often comes about due to lack of exposure by playing their trade in a more minor league. Asbaghi has arguably only managed at a top national level once, in Sweden, for Götenburg. Meaning that while his market value would have grown since his stint at the Allsvenken side, he remains a cheap option. There is a reason why Barnsley have a manager that most people reading this know little about.

Secondly, as reflected in Barnsley's impressive run last season, they typically build a young squad. Therefore, they must have a head coach to deal with younger players. The Swedish F.A.'s recruitment of Asbaghi as a youth coach reflects how comfortable he is with this new generation of footballers.

Thirdly, and somewhat associated with the previous point, the importance of strong leadership was recognised following its supposed absence during Struber's reign. His last award for coaching indicates that he could be capable of filling this gap.

Finally, he must fit into the club's playing philosophy. Traditional club hierarchy powers place the manager in control over the style he deploys at a club. Many sides now look for head coaches that can assimilate to their identity in the modern-day. Or, to put it simply, the head coach is now a piece of the jigsaw rather than one of the people shaping it. Asbaghi can adopt the high-press style of play while the club will warp the other dimensions to better the club's outcomes. Providing this freedom to Asbaghi is also vital as Khaled El-Ahmed reflected upon his tactical nous following his appointment. It would hinder his potential success if they handicapped that from the sidelines.

Middlesbrough fans can expect to see a side that will try and stretch play while in possession with emphasis down the flanks. This can open space between defenders if the lines get stretched or open opportunities for balls into the box.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his points return since his arrival in England has been far from stellar. Shown by him has averaged a shocking 17%-win ratio. This is a concern for Barnsley and a concern for Asbaghi, who had yet to dip below 30% in his career.

He did enter the job in an awkward situation. The club was already in a difficult predicament. It has lost all but one of their early fixtures under Struber and that form continued under the temporary charge of Laumann. This kind of poor run of form can be self-sufficient regardless of the aptitude of the coach in charge. Morale can be low, and atmospheres around the club can grow toxic. The longer the club lingers at the bottom of the league, the harder it is to free itself from the rut. This challenging situation has produced managers that are dubbed relegation survival experts. Sam Allerdyce and Toni Pulis have earned considerable sums and built impressive reputations out of survival charges. It takes a specific type of mettle and a particular management style to turn these situations around. Only time will tell if Asbaghi is capable of this turnaround. But, regardless of whether he is or not, we will probably see his best work after a whole summer transfer window and pre-season under his belt. The question is whether he will be doing so in League One or the Championship.

One To Watch: Michal Helik

Barnsley is struggling across the pitch this season, but their defensive record remains markedly better than their offensive one. Michal Helik has played a crucial role in stopping their defensive record from slipping further.

At 26, Helik is one of the club's most senior players. He has excelled from this weighty position despite stepping into the role prematurely. Barnsley's low possession numbers, averaging 46.3% per game (17th in the league), means they are often under the cosh making his influence even more critical.

The clubs' defensive output is highlighted by the side having the 4th highest expected goals conceded. So, the Polish international's interventions have been vital in reducing Barnsley's blushes this season.

While Helik comfortably passes the eye test as a severe defensive talent in the Championship, his statistics back this up too. First, defensively, he primarily sits at the heart of the defence allowing other players to commit themselves to tackles. Nonetheless, he is comfortable when he is called upon to take the ball away from an attacker averaging a 58% success rate from his 1.6 tackles per 90 (11th in the team). Instead, his excellent positioning and reading of the game allow him to be the first to many balls into the box. In doing so, he can make 5.4 clearances per match, markedly higher than the second-best in the side with 3.7. Having such a good return at the team level is impressive, but these make up for a 4th of the team's clearances.

Furthermore, Barnsley is the 7th ranked team for clearances highlighting that he holds his own throughout the Championship with these numbers. His positioning and reading of the game return to the fore with his outstanding 2.7 interceptions per 90. Finally, he has played a more direct role in the reduced goal conceding deficit by blocking an excellent 0.8 shots per game. Overall, Helik is a brilliant player especially accompanied by a more physical player that can take on the brunt of Championship defending. This dynamic helps to free Helik up to sweep up passes position himself to block shots and clearances to reduce the actual side goals against (46) from their expected goals against (54.7).

His involvement in the side goes beyond the defensive, though. Despite playing from the heart of the defence, Helik averages the most successful passes in the side. His success rate maybe is only 68%, but his involvement in possession cannot be understated. In getting involved in control, Helik provides a good option in deeper positions to progress the ball forwards with relative success. On the other hand, the alarming defensive nature of the side's top four distributors indicates a lack of progressive and intelligent passes, as reflected on their dismal chance creation statistics.

To summarise, Michal Helik is a talented defender. His experience with the Poland first-team reflects his abilities. So he could pose a severe challenge to Middlesbrough coming into this game. Personally, for Helik? He has had long ties to Barnsley and will likely continue to fight for survival. However, Helik will not be short of Championship admirers who will want to acquire his services if they suffer the drop.

Prediction: Barnsley 0-2 Middlesbrough

The gap between these two sides in the table is considerable, so Middlesbrough will go into this game as undoubted favourites. Nonetheless, Barnsley is the kind of side that often presents a stumbling block for Boro. As such, it remains far from an inevitable outcome. However, in this instance, Middlesbrough should have enough quality to beat Barnsley on this occasion with their excellent run of form.


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