Systems, tactics, team shape, deep splits, inverted wingers, trequartistas, false nines, back threes…the list goes on. But all of this is rendered irrelevant if you can don’t match the tempo and desire of the opposition during certain key periods of the game. Cliché or not, the start of the game is one of those key periods in which you must, if not necessarily go out and win your personal battles, then at least offer your opponent an introductory handshake and a smile. While the Barnsley players worked the room, charming all and sundry by offering a winning smile and a free pen that works, we seemed to skulk around in the corner staring at our shoes. It was this, as much as anything, that put us into a bit of a pickle from the start. We knew this too – this is what Barnsley do, especially at home, especially when they are yet to pick up any points at home and especially against us – just like they did back in November.
Barnsley’s opening goal was one of those moments that you could see coming, a bit like Omar Sherif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia – growing clearer and clearer each moment until it’s right there in front of you – clear as day. We seemed to bunch up in a tight pack on the edge of the area to defend the free kick. At which point, two Barnsley players decided to play the role of two miscreant school boy smokers at breaktime and wander off to the far post and hang around for a bit since it looked nicer and there was more space over there and even better, the teachers weren’t going to bother to check on them. The teachers decided that it would be too much paperwork and ballache to bother catching them and so turned a blind eye. One down after four minutes.
With a back three of (from left to right) Michael Mancienne, Matt Mills and Joe Worrall, Barnsley boss Paul Heckingbottom pushed his two wingers as high as possible at every opportunity in order to exploit the space in the Forest full back areas. It worked a dream as they raked precise balls up to them or played dinky little one-twos in the middle of the park with a view to releasing them. Mancienne especially – who has always looked uncomfortable on his left foot – looked horribly exposed, especially with Barrie McKay more interested in going forward from his wide left side position. Eventually, the situation was addressed by adopting a back four.
With Barnsley chucking all their eggs into a very high and wide wingers shaped basket, Forest were allowed to rip through the Barnsley midfield at will with Keiran Dowell, McKay and Ben Osborn weaving some beautiful tapestry. Dowall looks like precisely the player Everton fans told us he would be – his left foot as cultured as a Shakespeare essay written by Ian Woan’s left foot and boasting the most graceful body position while receiving the ball on the turn. Barnsley were no mugs either in this respect and as such, the game played out like a mini tidal wave in the bath with each side attacking in beautifully formed little waves yet leaving a void behind them, exploited as soon as their own surge reached the other end. At times, each team was the other’s reflection: pretty going forward yet ugly when defending.
While some baulked at the fee paid for a 34 year old striker who hadn’t played an awful lot of football last year, Daryl Murphy showed us what he can bring to the table. Unlike the game against Millwall, he was involved in the play the ball stuck with up when we found him. Given his lack of pace, the ball often went wide to our raiding wing backs in order to come back in again – a move epitomised by the goal. On occasions, it seemed as if Dowall, having exposed the space in the Barnsley defence, wanted to thread a ball through the middle for his striker to run as free as the wind yet at the last minute, realised it would be the wrong choice given Murphy’s lack of pace. Now, if we can find a professor to fuse Ben Brereton’s pace and direct running with Murphy’s know-how, we will rule the world.
The game continued in much the same vein throughout: turnovers in play were executed at lightning speed and each team looked just one misplaced pass away from conceding a goal. Yet arguably Forest produced the more clean cut chances and one sensed that a late equaliser was on the cards. It was more a case of making the wrong finishing decision rather than snatching at the chances fashioned or looking to burst the net. On another day, at least one of these goes in and Barnsley’s impressive spirit is eventually crushed.
It worth reiterating – and it’s a point that will probably require revisiting after every game this season – that Mark Warburton likes his teams to play the ball out from the back. This is how it will be. Sure, on occasions, it will be as frustrating as hell, especially when once again, Jordan Smith passes to Mancienne stationed deep left on the edge of his penalty area and under pressure, he then panics and passes to either David Vaughan or Andreas Bouchalakis right on the edge of the area while two opposition players bear down on him with the speed and desire of ravenous lions. By all means, convert that panic you feel in the pit of your stomach to a vocal noise – frankly, it will be difficult not to. Just don’t have a go at someone when they do indeed ‘get rid’ for not being able to pass the ball to a red shirt. We can’t have it both ways. One wonders how Brentford fans or going back further, Swansea City fans reacted when their teams adopted such a specific brand of passing football in order to work their way through the leagues. No doubt it took some getting used to and patience was required.
You left Oakwell feeling frustrated that the team couldn’t convert the pretty patterns and possession into goals and concerned at the nature of the goals conceded. Briefly, you wondered to what degree this replicated the chaotic opening games under Philippe Montanier but then took comfort in the knowledge that this was different since each time this season, there has been an identifiable way of playing football in order to win the game. It’s never been a case of chucking the players onto the field in the hope that they somehow score one more goal than the other team. Perhaps the worst thing you can say about this current team is that they are sent out to pass the opposition into submission. That, I can live with.