Gerhard Struber joined Barnsley with the club sitting bottom of the Championship in late November. Since then, Barnsley’s form has improved, with the club now sitting four points away from (temporary) safety, but it hasn’t been a typical survival attempt so far from Barnsley, with no entirely defensive approach and no focus on getting draws, which is in part a testament to the Barnsley board for not just appointing a survival specialist manager. Since the first game, we have been able to see Struber’s tactical philosophy clearly, which I also covered back in November prior to his appointment, and in this tactical analysis, I will analyse the tactics used by Barnsley since his appointment and also look at one problem Barnsley have suffered from recently.
The midfield diamond
From looking at the shape Barnsley have used in the games under Struber so far, the midfield diamond is obviously a key factor. But why do Barnsley play a diamond, and what’s good about it?
Firstly, in terms of pressing, the shape of a diamond is beneficial, as it allows for numerical superiority in a variety of directions. The most obvious point about pressing within a 4-4-2 diamond is the central overload, in that having four central midfielders occupies the centre of the pitch and therefore makes it difficult for the opposition to play through the centre. Below we can see Barnsley’s pressing scheme, which follows the usual scheme for a 4-4-2 diamond. The two strikers press the centre backs, while the two widest central midfielders (or number eights), press the full-backs should they receive the ball. The number ten, marks the opposition pivot and prevents them from receiving the ball. The strikers have the choice of pressing while cutting the passing lane to the full-back, or to cut the passing lane to the central area, with Barnsley usually opting for the latter option, if teams don’t just boot the ball upfield in fear of losing it. Therefore, having centre backs who can push high and dominate in the air makes your team a real problem for the opposition, for example Liverpool.
If the ball is played into wide areas, the diamond offers the ability for intense pressure on the ball carrier, while still protecting the central areas, as we can see in this comparison between the diamond and a conventional 4-3-3.
In the conventional 4-3-3 seen below, pressure from a central midfielder can still be applied to the opposition, however the lack of bodies occupying the central areas means that the inside lane cannot be as well protected. The number ten (wide player) can shuffle backwards at times to protect this inside lane, but if a press has occurred and they are too high, it’s much easier for the ball to be played inside.
We can see here, with the midfield diamond, that the ball has progressed quickly and missed out the full-back. Due to the starting position of the Barnsley eight, pressure can be applied directly to the opposition wide player, and the inside lane can be better protected due to the number ten now being a central player. This strategy forces the opposition down wide areas, where they can almost be locked into the wide-area and pressured tightly, with little good options for ball progression.
If the ball goes back to the now unoccupied full-back, the eight can jump to press the full-back, and Barnsley’s full-back can push on and press. If close enough, the striker can also move across to press this full-back, or another option would be for the whole diamond to shift on one player, but this leaves Barnsley vulnerable to a switch in play.
We can see an example of this here against Swansea, which occurs just after a switch of play. There is immediate pressure on the ball carrier from the right-sided eight, and protection of the middle from the six pushing further forward to mark a midfielder, and the dropping number ten also reducing this central space. The striker can also move across to press the centre back if needed. Later in this article we’ll come back to Barnsley’s counter-pressing and how this is helped by their system.
Verticality and build-up
Much of Barnsley’s build-up relies on verticality, or building by playing forward passes. This is again helped by the overload of the central area, as this opens up passing lanes in the centre for passes to be played into, as we can see in these examples below.
We can see here against West Brom, Barnsley create a central overload, with a 2v1 on the central most player allowing players to receive the ball freely from forward passes. One of the central midfielders still maintains width, in order to occupy a player and stretch the West Brom midfield, but they still have three central players due to the dropping Conor Chaplin.
We can see a very similar situation here from the same game, with a 2v1 created on the same player. The good spacing again allows for Chaplin to drop and receive the ball in the same area.
Because of the nature of forward passing, vertical build-up often has to be received with players back to goal and dropping movements, as you may have noticed from the images above. This means the teams overall height deepens, and therefore, more combinations tend to be needed in order to progress the ball to a goal-scoring area. Therefore, teams with vertical build-up rely on quick, short combinations with forward movements in order to progress the ball.
One of the most common combinations in vertical build-up tends to be the up, back and through movement, with many of these involving third man runs, which we can see some examples of here below. Here, the ball is played inside to the dropping striker, who lays it back to the wide player. T
The striker then makes a movement wide, which increases the space for the dropping number ten, who can play the ball into Chaplin to cross to his fellow striker. The keyword in all this is support. There has to be support around the player receiving the first forward pass, and again, the nature and shape of the diamond helps to ensure this support is there, with passing options to the left, centre and right.
To best support the ball, the team in possession has to offer width, depth, and height. Depth allows for passes to be played backwards in order to be played through, height allows for those through passes to be received, and width allows for the opposition to become stretched and for passing lanes to open. We can see this principle in play here below, with a player receiving with his back to the opposition goal. Depth is offered by the number six, and so the ball can be played backwards, and height is offered by one of the strikers, so the ball can be played through. This completes an up, back and through combination.
The only problem with this kind of combination at times is how deep the striker now is, and therefore a team may need multiple combinations before they are near the goal. As a result, support is needed from the whole team, and once the ball is played forward, forward movements have to be made in order to receive the ball again.
For example here, we see poor support play from Barnsley in their game against QPR. There is no lateral support for the ball carrier to play into, and being the last man there is no height either. The backward support is poor as no angle is created by the receiver, and so the straight pass backward is easy to be intercepted. Runs in behind could be made by midfielders to provide height, but the distance between the two here is too large, and would require too much hold up time by the ball carrier due to the lack of lateral/sideways support.
In this example below, we see these principles performed better. Depth and width are supplied by the full-back, who receives a lay off from Cauley Woodrow. Lateral support is provided by the six, and Woodrow continues his movement forward.
Woodrow makes a run at an angle where he is able to be found by the six (Kenneth Dougall), and depth is provided again by the full-back. Striker Callum Chaplin is able to provide the height in a central area out of shot along the opposition backline, and the width by Woodrow stretches QPR and the full-back Clarke Oduor is able to find a central pass to him.
Different footed personnel benefits verticality
Something which becomes apparent when watching Barnsley is the number of left-footed players they have, with their best one being Conor Chaplin. Chaplin rotates sides with strike partner Jacob Brown regularly throughout games, and this has its advantages within Barnsley’s build-up.
In short, Chaplin rotating sides allows for progression down either the centre or down the line depending on the side he is on. We can see in this first example, and in previous examples such as the West Brom examples, that Chaplin drops to receive. A left-footed player on the right side allows for the player to cut in, therefore looking to penetrate the central areas. This benefits Barnsley in progression into the centre, as a right-footed player on the right side receiving with their back to goal can’t access the centre as well, as we can see in the previous West Brom examples.
On the other hand, a left-footed player on the right finds it more difficult to play passes down the line, as we can see in this example below where Chaplin gives the ball away.
In this example, we can Chaplin on the left, which allows him to get down the line and deliver crosses for his strike partner, something he wouldn’t be able to do on the other side. Therefore, this constant rotation prevents Barnsley’s build-up from becoming too stale and gives them different options most of the time. However, Barnsley’s surrounding players have to read the situation better and make their supporting runs accordingly.
I mentioned quick, short combinations as a key part of the build-up phase for Barnsley and Struber, and this immediately should make people interested in pressing jump up. The reason for this is counter-pressing, and the pre-requisites for it- one of which is a side’s compact shape in possession in order to press the ball immediately after it is lost.
Relying on short passes and forward movement’s from the midfield means the teams overall shape in possession is compact, and so when the ball is lost, they can counter-press immediately in a tight structure, as we can see in the examples below.
In this example, the ball is lost and immediate pressure can be applied, and passing options forwards or sideways are blocked.
Here again, we can see how compact they can be. There is quickly immediate pressure from the front by Barnsley, which prevents forward passes, and there is also the ability for pressure from every angle, and so Barnsley can win the ball or force a long ball. Players who don’t counter-press in a man orientated way can also counter-press in a passing lane orientated fashion, and so cut lanes and intercept passes.
One unexpected problem has occurred so far for Struber at Barnsley, and it was something which I actually picked out as a strength for his Wolfsberger AC side – defending throw-in situations.
We’ll start with how to defend a throw-in properly, with an image from my Wolfsberger AC analysis. Immediate forward options are marked tightly, looking to make it difficult for the ball to be received, while a spare player marks nobody and waits in order to press the thrower. Another player is also spare in order to adjust depending on where the ball is thrown.
Barnsley have made errors from throw-ins this season, and many of which have led to goals being conceded. We can see a very basic error here below, where Chaplin switches off with the throw-in taken quickly, and doesn’t leave himself in a position to press the thrower after the ball is thrown. Therefore, a simple lay off allows a free cross for Huddersfield, who score from the second ball from the clearance of the cross.
Here again, a similar problem occurs. The player marking the closest opposition player to the thrower switches off and loses his player, who pulls back.
This forces the free man to move to try and press the closest player, therefore leaving the thrower free to deliver a cross, which Milwall score from.
Here, Barnsley can’t adjust quickly to a run from the opposition, with everybody too slow to recognise the situation, and again the opposition get a chance from it.
These fine margins at set-pieces, which I’ve written another Barnsley analysis on, can lose/gain valuable points in the season, and could be the difference between staying up or going down.
This has been one of the most enjoyable articles to write due to Struber’s style of play and focus on high-intensity football. Credit has to be given to Gerhard Struber for such a quick turnaround in a league that allows such little time between games, and I think given time, Barnsley should only get better playing within this system, which has hopefully been detailed within this analysis.