Stoke City head to Barnsley looking to make it three league wins in a row for the first time since 2016. Michael O’Neill has been delivering the latest team news before setting off for Oakwell.
What type of game are you expecting from a Barnsley side unbeaten in five, winning their last three?
Michael O’Neill: Clearly just from the results you said, a tough one. They’re a team who have done very well in the league this season and have given most teams a good task. We drew 2-2 at home and were hindered by the red card (retrospectively overturned for Nathan Collins). I still think we had enough to win that game but I think they’ve improved since then.
They’re a high energy team, a team that likes to press you and make you make mistakes, particularly in your own half. We have to be ready for that and try to be at our best to win the game.
Have you been surprised by their upturn?
Nothing surprises me in this league. When you look at results at times, teams can go on various little runs at different times of the season and teams can fall into a lull and struggle.
Barnsley, certainly since the new manager came in, have done very, very well. They’ve adapted to the style he wants to play and it’s been very, very effective for them.
I think they also have a lot of players in their squad who are really keen to prove themselves at this level. That’s a nice thing to have. Hungry players who are keen to do well. We certainly have to match their appetite for the game.
Given the schedule and their intensity, will you be looking to freshen up your team?
It’s something for us to consider. We have to look at what options we have in terms of how we can freshen it up.
But if you look at the past week, we freshened it up between Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday so there are a number of players who have only played two games and a number who maybe haven’t played a lot in recent times. As opposed to just the week, you have to look at it on a slightly longer basis.
Players want to play and you want to get a consistency in your team. It’s about getting the balance right between freshening it up and not disrupting it too much.
Are you tempted to return to a midfield three?
We either play with a holding midfielder and two 8s or more of a two and Nick Powell as a 10. They are different things tactically to think about.
If we play with a three we have to include Nick as one of the three or we play him off the left… or we don’t play him at all! At this moment in time he’s a player who is in very good form for us so it’s about fitting the system around the players a little bit as well.
I think Joe (Allen) and Jordan (Thompson) did very well on Saturday in terms of giving us control of the game and did well for second balls as well, which will be a big part of the game at Barnsley.
We just have to make sure we pick a team for the right type of game and get the performance we want.
Have you given Nick Powell and Steven Fletcher scoring targets?
Hopefully they will set targets for themselves rather than have me set them for them. It’s good to see Nick in double figures, Fletch now looks like he’s going to score in every game and I think he’ll be in double figures soon himself. Confidence is high.
They have a good understanding, you can see that in training. Unfortunately we were restricted a lot to get them on the pitch as often as we would have liked earlier in the season but we’re seeing the benefit of them now.
As long as they both continue scoring I’ll be happy.
In terms of keeping as close as possible to the top six, is this week pivotal with two tough away games?
The most important thing is to continue and get consistency in our results. On the back of two wins, having lost at Norwich, we had a good reaction.
We’re not really getting carried away in terms of where that may or may not propel us. That’s for other people to look at, and the gap between ourselves and the top six.
We know we are going to have to be more consistent between now and the end of the season than we have been at any point in the season to give ourselves a chance of that. We may as well focus on being as consistent as possible and that’s what the focus is for the players; to continue to work, continue to look to improve.
There have been a lot of changes, the squad has been stretched, the injuries again are starting to creep in a little bit, which hurts us. Every team is the same really.
The mid-week games are always a challenge but we’re just aiming to get that real consistency in our play and we know if we can get that in our play and in our results we will be able to push up the table.
Adam Davies back on the bench on Saturday – any reason for that?
You have to be fair to the goalkeepers. Adam lost his place because he got injured and Angus was ahead of him in terms of returning to play when we decided to take young Joe out.
There is very little between any of the goalkeepers. It’s not a reflection on Joe that we did that but it’s being fair to Adam as well.
Any other injury news?
Obviously Morgan Fox and Nathan Collins are still out and we have doubts about James McClean and Sam Clucas, who came out of training.
Rabbi (Matondo) is still another week away. He had a small injection and he’s been working with the fitness guys. Hopefully we can drop him back into training at the start of next week but he won’t be fit for this game and probably not the weekend either.
There won’t be fans in for league games this season – how disappointed are you?
It’s disappointing but, to be honest, what we expected. I didn’t expect we would get fans back before the season would end.
We’ve kind of accustomed to playing without them. It’s not ideal and we’ve said that many times but it’s good that at least there seems to be a way out of this and for all sport to get people back in venues. If that’s small steps at a time at least they are steps in the right direction.
I think we’ve got to prepare ourselves to play in empty stadiums between now and the end of the season and hopefully then we can look forward to next season and be close to full capacity by then.
Back to back wins and clean sheets is a great starting point?
Yes, it is. We have had a good reaction to losing at Norwich and two wins and two clean sheets helps us, builds confidence and puts points on the board. It gives us the chance now to really get momentum between now and the end of the season.
We will lose games between now and the end of the season, I’ve no doubt about that, but the key is to make sure we lose as few as possible and get winning runs and unbeaten runs that last us for a number of games.
The two back-to-back wins give us a platform to do that.
It’s all about momentum at this stage of the season?
If you look at the teams above us in the league they’ve been more consistent, that’s why they’re above us, and equally you can move up the league quite quickly – you can see that with Cardiff, who have stringed (five) wins together and suddenly put themselves into a position I think a point above ourselves.
Without getting ahead of ourselves and without making statements that we are going to finish in the top six, we are trying to make sure we maintain our confidence.
We know what we’ll need in ourselves and we know that we have to continue to win games, home and away, and if we can do that we’ll see where it takes us between now and the end of the season.
Barnsley are in the top half on merit aren’t they?
They’ve done well. They had to fight to stay in the league last season and did a good job to do that.
This season they had a difficult start but they’ve been consistent, certainly since Christmas. They are a very hard working, high intensity team and what they do have is a lot of players who are keen to prove themselves at this level.
It will be a tough, tough game on a difficult pitch. They’ve been tough opposition for anyone who’s played them and we’ve reinforced that to the players, what to expect.
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They’re a hard-pressing team – you’ll have to match that?
We’ve got to play smart. More importantly is to understand how they play. They get a lot of joy out of forcing opposition into making mistake. We have to start the game at the right times and be prepared for a game when there might be a lot of second ball and competition in the middle of the pitch than we might normally expect.
That’s part of the game. We have to match their appetite for the game. That’ll be the most important thing – and there’s no reason why our appetite shouldn’t be there to match theirs and obviously try to win the game.
How important is rotation?
You have to get the balance right. Sometimes when you bring players in who haven’t played for weeks it can take them a couple of games to adapt.
That’s always a dilemma for you as a manager: will the players you bring in if you rotate hit the ground running?
We have had difficulties with that. We tried to do it earlier in the season at Swansea, protect some players, and it didn’t work for us so it’s getting the balance right.
Injuries force that and we’ve had injuries in recent weeks again. The squad is smaller than at any point with players going out on loan.
Players are probably at a point of the season when they’re a little bit more prone or fatigued. There’s been a lot of mid-week games.
This is where you see character of players in terms of what we can achieve between now and the end of the season.