Written for WalesOnline,
Cardiff take a long trip to Yorkshire on Tuesday night, looking to bounce back from a disappointing defeat at Wolves. Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley present a second consecutive tricky away-day, who will still be brimming with confidence following a stoppage-time equaliser against rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
Here’s all you need to know on the Tykes…
Style of play
Heckingbottom’s side have all the marks of a proficient Championship outfit; adventurous in the final third balanced against a composed defence. Setting his team up in a 4-4-2 formation – a rarity in modern football – the Tykes play with a sense of endeavour, seeking to impose their passing style. Barnsley will look to get the ball wide, with the wingers responsible for carving out chances for the front-men. Barnsley have scored more than the current crop of teams in the play-offs: Huddersfield, Leeds, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.
The Tykes eagerness to attack does not come at the expense of rash passing, however, as they have the 3rd best ball-retention in the league. Only a highly-talented Newcastle United and possession-based Brighton boast better stats in keeping the ball.
Heckingbottom has imprinted his Barnsley side with a clear identity: a focus on assured and accurate passing coupled with an enthusiasm to trouble opposition defences.
It has been quite a ride for Heckingbottom since taking over from Lee Johnson, who departed for Bristol City last season. Guiding Barnsley to their first cup final win since 1912,The Football League Trophy, securing promotion to the Championship via the play-offs and retaining second tier status are considerable feats for a man who is in his first ever managerial job.
Heckingbottom, aged 39, has been grouped within the new breed of young British managers looking to make their mark on the game. Hungry, determined and fresh-faced, the former Manchester United trainee has been tipped for a bright future.
Having played for Barnsley in 2006 and aiding their promotion to the Championship – a 4-3 penalty shoot-out win over Swansea, City fans will rejoice at – Heckingbottom understands the club, sharing a genuine connection with the fan base and the surrounding community, also having grown up in Barnsley as a child.
Bradshaw has been on the periphery of the Welsh set-up for a while, but has yet to be given a real opportunity under Chris Coleman. However, 24 year-old has all the attributes necessary to cement a place in Coleman’s plans. Bradshaw has netted eight times in the league this season, having adapted to the increase pace and quality of the Championship as opposed to League One.
Bradshaw’s trade is very much that of a goal poacher, playing on the shoulder of the last defender and looking to run in behind when possible. The Welshman will float around City’s penalty box and will be alive to any sight of a chance. With Gareth Bale absent from Wales’ trip to Serbia in June and the need for goals an ever-pressing concern for Coleman, Bradshaw will be looking to impress for the remainder of the season.
Another Welshman, another one biting at the chomp to be included in the upcoming Welsh squad. Returning eight goals himself, Watkins too has a clear eye for goal. Marry this potency with his creativity – Watkins has turned provider seven times – and Barnsley possess a forward capable of causing havoc for the City defence.
Watkins’ energy and directness coupled with Bradshaw’s positional instincts have the potential to disrupt a Bluebirds defence that has impressed in its discipline and organisation.
By the end of January, Barnsley were 9th and hoping of a play-off push. Fast forward three months and they are level on points with Cardiff who, whilst the Tykes were dreaming, were struggling to leave the vacuum-like nature of the bottom. Where Cardiff have progressed, Barnsley have stagnated. A Bluebirds side invigorated by the presence of Warnock, intent on proving their worth for a promotion charge next season, should be able to exploit the general lethargy and staleness pervasive at Oakwell.
Tactically speaking, however, there does not appear to be little wrong in Barnsley’s play, with Heckingbottom having implemented a sustainable and impressive style. Yet, the Tykes’ attacking tendencies mean there often exists a considerable gap between the midfield and the defence. Reluctant in deploying an obvious sitter, there is little protection for Heckingbottom’s back-line. Therein lies opportunity for Joe Ralls and Aron Gunnarsson to break rank and exploit this space and drive at the Barnsley defence.
Whilst Warnock’s side have divorced themselves from the direct, hoof-ball they were playing to escape the relegation scrap, introducing a more aesthetically pleasing way of attacking, Tuesday’s trip to Oakwell might-well be decided on a ball over the top. With Heckingbottom’s men looking to play a high-line at home, in keeping with their attacking philosophy, Barnsley have often been left vulnerable to balls over the top this season. This could be a game where City’s wingers look to play on the last man and receive the ball in-behind.
Bluebird fans will not want to be reminded of the last time Cardiff met Barnsley. Warnock’s men had valiantly fought back from 3-1 down to 3-3, only to have a point snatched away in the last minute through a devastating Tykes counter-attack.
That result put Cardiff just three points above the bottom three, as the promise shown by City under Warnock was yet to materialise into tangible safety. However, such potential was soon realised, and Cardiff travel to Barnsley with all-but guaranteed Championship status.
With both teams having little to lose, or little to play for, depending on whether your glass is half empty or half full, this game could go either way; fans could be treated to a rollercoaster of a game, similar to one early on in the season, or it could be a dreary stalemate.
Let’s shed some optimism following City’s 3-1 crumble at Wolves and go for an entertaining 2-2 draw.