Barnsley’s seven-match winning run in the Championship was brought to an end by Derby County in a dire goalless draw at Oakwell.
The hosts have shot into the play-off places with their staggering form but were frustrated on a wet and windy night in South Yorkshire, with Wayne Rooney setting his side up to frustrate their direct and physical approach.
Barnsley’s best chance saw Conor Chaplin denied from point-blank range by Kelle Roos while Derby, who are now seven points clear of the drop zone in 18th, came close to a late winner only for Graeme Shinnie’s effort to hit the post and fail to cross the line.
Story of the match
If there is one compliment that can be paid to Barnsley on their tremendous run up the table, is it being paid by opposition sides increasingly ditching their own styles to stop Valerien Ismael’s juggernaut. That was the defining theme of this match as Rooney changed Derby’s formation to match the back-five of the opposition, prioritising height and physicality over style.
It allowed them to do a fine job of frustrating the in-form side, though the best chances of the first half were still all on the away goal. Callum Brittain and Cauley Woodrow both missed the target and Daryl Dike couldn’t make the most of two headed opportunities, the first poorly connected with at the near post, the second tamely knocked towards Roos.
Derby’s set-up gave them very little threat of their own going forward, their best attacking weapon the long ball. A better first touch might have seen Lee Gregory on goal early on, but they had to wait until added time for their first shot as Teden Mengi blasted a free-kick which was blocked by Alex Mowatt.
The second half could hardly have been any duller than the first, and there was happily more excitement to be found in the opening 50 seconds. Barnsley should have a rapid breakthrough as Mowatt’s cross picked out Chaplin with just the goalkeeper to beat from point-blank range, but Roos somehow blocked with his foot before watching the ball squirm across goal and beyond the post.
Derby were soon getting in on the action themselves after that let-off, finally hitting the target with a Shinnie effort directly at Collins, while Kamil Jozwiak had a penalty appeal turned down by referee Keith Stroud after going down under pressure from Toby Sibbick.
Barnsley’s substitutions have so often turned matches in their favour of late, but they failed to find that impact this time and instead Derby were in the ascendancy. The opener should have come when Colin Kazim-Richards managed to find Gregory in behind with a cross, only for the Stoke City loanee to take too heavy a first touch which allowed Collins to rush to his feet and block the subsequent effort.
If Chaplin had been unlucky at one end, Shinnie must have been wondering what he’d done to displease the footballing gods when his stunner from range curled onto the far post and all the way back across goal without crossing the line. A closer effort could not be imagined, and a better chance would not be found in the final stages.
Rams show versatility and fight
Derby have shown a willingness to try different formations and tactics in recent weeks but took that to its latest extreme against Barnsley, matching the 3-4-3 formation of their hosts with a big team focused on winning the battles against their direct and intense opponents.
Only a crystal ball can tell whether another approach could have yielded a win but on the available evidence of watching Ismael’s side this season, especially at home, it appears fair to agree with Rooney that this was the best way to approach proceedings, taking Barnsley on at their own game.
In that sense this was a success, not just in doing what none of the previous seven teams to come up against the Yorkshire side have done and actually taking something from the game, but possibly in finding some characteristics in his side that were yet to be demonstrated, at least to this extent, since he took charge.
Still just months removed from Philip Cocu’s reign, this is a team that can now battle with the toughest of them in the Championship when necessary, and seemed to genuinely relish the fight. As well as the versatility that some of the late January business has offered them, Derby now also have a steel and roughness to them that will prove useful in other surroundings beyond Oakwell, not least the visit of Millwall on Saturday.
No reason for Reds concern
Such has been Barnsley’s form, not just in the past month but ever since Ismael’s arrival, that any points dropped are considered a disappointment. But this is a team still 10 matches unbeaten in the league, a quite remarkable run for a club punching considerably above its weight.
Besides, this point might still prove a valuable one. They cannot win every match and to still come away with a point against a decent side when they are not at their best, albeit with one particular slice of fortune keeping things level late on, is by no means a bad result.
Boss Ismael admitted afterwards that fatigue played a role in the under-par performance, and the relentless schedule appears to be finally showing some cracks in his charges. His team will run through a hundred brick walls if asked, but the Frenchman’s job now will be to manage the workload of his players accordingly.
This being their game in hand means Barnsley remain sixth and are two points ahead of Bournemouth, ahead of a trip to the south coast at the weekend. They will certainly not find a team adapting like Derby did here, but freshness will be key to getting a result and staying in the play-offs, as it will be for the rest of the season.
Man of the match: Brad Collins (Barnsley)
On top form as a sweeper-keeper, dealing with everything sent in behind by an unfamiliarly direct Derby, as well as making a crucial intervention to deny Gregory.