Since Barnsley's return to the Championship in 2006, the team has clearly lacked in defensive options. Year on year, the Reds have ended the season with a negative goal difference, often only just staving off relegation from the league.

It was perhaps Mark Robins, the Reds' former manager who departed in the summer, who was the first to give the defence any credibility, when for two seasons in a row under his stewardship the Reds finished well clear of the relegation places. However under Keith Hill, the Reds have found arguably some impressive defensive form, with Barnsley currently on a zero goal difference for the first time, even at this stage of a season, for a long time, which has gone a long way in the eyes of many to push the Reds on for what has been a rather impressive unbeaten run.

This brief report will analyse exactly what the Reds are doing in order to close the floodgates of seasons gone by.

The Formation
This season Keith Hill has adopted a formation which has brought many a good team, and bad, the results. 4-2-3-1 is clearly the way forward, which Reds' fans might have seen used effectively previously by the German and Spanish national teams in the 2010 world cup. The formation relies upon the tested formula of a back four, however perhaps the genius of it lies in what happens ahead of the defensive unit.

In the past, the given formation if you were not to use 4-4-2 was most likely the traditional Barcelona 4-3-3, with a static defensive midfielder protecting the back four, and certainly in Barcelona's case, the rest going forward. However, in recent times, even Barcelona have scrapped the 4-3-3 in favour of 4-2-3-1, which brings a greater balance to the team. Why? The answer is simple - movement.

When Keith Hill joined the club, he said he wanted to recruit hungry and intelligent players, which appear to have more than arrived in the form of David Perkins, and Manchester United loanee Danny Drinkwater. Although naturally a more attacking midfielder, Drinkwater is key to the Reds in terms of his intelligence and positional awareness, with the ability to make tackles high up the pitch to turn what can be a calm passage of opposition possession into a threatening Reds' attack.

With him in the holding midfield roles is the tenacious David Perkins, who has impressed many since his arrival from Colchester, where he picked up last season's club player of the year award. Perkins is not the most skilful of players, however he is key in Hill's plans for the team. His main attributes are his work ethic and his tenacity to win the ball. Despite being a midfielder, perhaps Perkins is one of the most important aspects of the Reds' defence, as when he has the ball he can spread several varieties of passes, both quick and slow, as well as hold onto the ball to send to a more talented and creative teammate. It is out of possession where Perkins comes into his own however, where he immediately closes down the man with the ball, and will continue to chase the ball until the Reds are in possession.

No one man is bigger than the team, however it appears to have been Perkins' work ethic which has really rubbed off on team mates such as Jim O'Brien and Andy Gray, who despite having poor seasons last term, have found a new found determination and confidence, giving everything for the cause, both offensively and defensively.

The most beautiful part of the new formation is the balance. The formation relies on one thing, hard work, however it allows something that others seldom do, which is the quick transition from defence to attack. With Keith Hill valuing clean sheets very highly, the hard work involved in the formation allows for the constant pressing of the opposition high up the pitch, with quick turnovers into Barnsley attacks, with the added protection of the holding midfielders who can contribute to the attacks but also get back and press the opposition when we lose the ball, to add yet another turnover to allow us to attack again.

The Competition
Perhaps another main contributing factor to the Reds' defensive success this season is the competition for places. In the past, the Reds have had relatively few defensive options, with usually only one or two options in the remainder of the squad to fill the voids created by injuries and suspensions. Now however, the Reds have not only the strength in numbers but the versatility of the players in the squad to fill in gaps within the defence.

Keith Hill has more than plenty of choice in all of the defensive positions, with Bobby Hassell, Jay McEvely, Rob Edwards, Stephen Foster, Scott Wiseman, Jim McNulty, Miles Addison and Luke Potter available for selection as natural defenders, as well as Nathan Doyle and David Perkins who can both slot into the defence when required. All but one of the players are multi-positional also, with Wiseman and Hassell able to play across the whole back four, as well as McEvely, Mcnulty, Foster and Addison being adept at more than one position in the defence. Rob Edwards is the only player who has not been described as multi-positional, although this may prove false in the future.

The Reds have definitely needed the multitude of options this season, with an injury crisis plaguing the Reds early on. Jim McNulty and Bobby Hassell have proved to many why versatility is key, with several impressive performances coming from both players in multiple positions. McNulty, who was signed from Brighton in the summer is traditionally a left back, however has had the majority of his game time in the centre of the Reds' defence filling in for the injured Rob Edwards. Although Edwards is expected to be soon fit again, McNulty has more than staked a claim for his place in the team, which he may look set to keep alongside Stephen Foster, who looks to be having his best season since claiming the player of the year award back in 2008. The defence are certainly providing Mr Hill with plenty of selection headaches when the injuries are relieved.

What about the lack of clean sheets?
By looking back at the last few games, Barnsley fans will see a lot of 1-1 draws, which had been described in my reports as having being down to sloppy defensive errors. On reflection, it does seem harsh when you look at the goals that Barnsley did not keep the clean sheets.

In all honesty no one man can be blamed for the majority of the goals conceded, with luck coming into play for the opposition on many occasion and the majority of the Reds' defence enjoying the form of their lives. Taking the four 1-1 draws in a row prior to the Reds' 2-0 win over Coventry, you could say that the Reds have in fact been robbed, on 3 of the 4 occasions at least, of 3 points.

Firstly was the Leicester game, where the Reds dominated the first half, only for the Foxes to send a high ball to Jermaine Beckford from the 2nd half kick-off, which appeared to be going out, only for it to be sent to goal poaching midfielder Andy King to slot away. Next was Watford, where Marvin Sordell appeared from nowhere to have the ball drop right in front of him, where he couldn't miss. Then was Birmingham, where Chris Burke scored a stunning goal, although it did take a massive deflection, meaning Steele was unable to get to it. Finally was Derby where a dubious penalty was awarded, one has to ask themselves, would that have been awarded at home?

The key contributing factor to many of the Reds' concessions in the past few games has boiled down to one thing - luck. However with the Reds' defence tightening up to keep a clean sheet against Coventry to take the unbeaten run to 7, who knows what could happen if luck was to be on the Reds' side?

Despite having the strength in depth, the right formation and the determination to remain unbeaten without having the rub of the green, the key to this season's defence in my opinion is loyalty. Both to the team and the club.

Keith Hill's recruitment in my eyes is some of the best seen in years at Oakwell. Hill has certainly not bought the most gifted players available to the club, but instead has bought determined and loyal players. Some of the most impressive performances have come from players such as Perkins and McNulty, who at many clubs had been overlooked. However with their determination and willingness to work for each other, the team have battled and ground out results, with some impressive football in the process.

Most importantly though he has added these new recruits to three loyal servants to the club in the form of Stephen Foster, Luke Steele and Bobby Hassell.

Everyone knows the loyalty of 'Sir Bobby' who has made over 250 appearances for the club overall. Despite what might have been a shaky start to an Oakwell career, as well as a spell out of favour under Simon Davey, Hassell has flourished into one of the Reds' key assets and now has a more than deserved club captaincy. He is certainly not the club's best defender in terms of skill, however Hill has quickly discovered like many managers gone by that the 31 year old has plenty to offer, and has quickly become one of the hardest players yet again for the manager to drop.

Despite not being immediately touted as loyal players, much credit has to go to Luke Steele and Stephen Foster, who themselves are under their 3rd manager. After impressing on his debut - a famous win against Liverpool, Steele signed the following season only to find himself down the pecking order behind Heinz Muller. After a season in waiting, Steele became the Reds' number one keeper the following campaign, although faced criticism from many fans for a spell of mistakes throughout the season. Despite the criticism, Steele has gone on to become a fans' favourite also, who is now seen as one of the best goalkeepers in the championship as well as a key player for the Reds.

Another player who has impressed this season is Stephen Foster, who again had an impressive start to his Oakwell career only to fall by the wayside slightly. Despite being a regular throughout his stay, Foster's place became seriously under threat in Mark Robins' first season when Ryan Shotton managed to stake a claim at centre back alongside Darren Moore. However an injury to Hassell at right back saw Shotton move into the right back's position, with Foster regaining his place and keeping it ever since. Foster has consistently performed well this season and has appeared to regain his confidence, which was lost when he had a bad spell as Mark Robins' first captain, leading him to being dropped as skipper following the arrival of Jason Shackell last summer.

This article I hope has served as somewhat of a tribute to both the loyalty of club stalwarts and the work ethic of new recruits alike. With this impressive defensive mix and a little more bite upfront, I believe this team has what it takes to be successful, and it all stems from the back.

As always feel free to leave any thoughts below in the comment box, or you can add me on Twitter @MichaelRoach55 as well as via @OnThePontyEnd on Twitter.

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Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more Michael. If we'd had a bit more luck in front of both goals, after a shaky start & a few less injuries, we could be sitting in a play-off spot. And now the players seem to adapted to the new playing scheme, I still believe The Reds can be there or thereabouts come the end of the season!