Stoke City v Barnsley: Poland’s Michal Helik has plenty to offer at Oakwell

Every day is a school day at Barnsley, and in Michal Helik they are fortunate to have someone who can teach them about the very best.

Barnsley defender Michal Helik. Picture Bruce Rollinson

The season is more than a month old but still the Reds are in the early stages of learning on the job, getting used to a very different style under Markus Schopp and in the case of some players, a very different league.

One of the Championship’s selling points is it is so varied and whilst Schopp insists talk of the contrast between Saturday’s conquerors, Bournemouth, and tonight’s hosts Stoke City is overplayed, it will certainly test them. Unlike Barnsley, both teams have entrenched methods.

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The Reds want to be a developmental club, progressing by taking promising youngsters and polishing them, but the learning has been disrupted this season.

Work permit issues delayed summer signing Aaron Iseka’s debut until half-time at Bournemouth. Similar problems, compounded by fitness issues, means fellow Belgian striker Obbi Oulare is still waiting. Claudio Gomes, a 21-year-old midfielder on loan from Manchester City, also made his debut as a Dean Court substitute. Remy Vita, signed from Bayern Munich’s junior ranks, only arrived on Monday night, training for the first time yesterday.

Add knee injuries to Ben Williams and Mads Andersen (Williams’s is not as bad as first feared although he is unlikely to feature this week), Liam Kitching’s suspension and Josh Benson’s Covid-19 and Barnsley are having it tough, as reflected by one win in their opening seven matches.

Schopp needs patience from others but has plenty himself.

“With Remy it’s about talking to him, getting him to interpret his position,” he explains. “Claudio is unbelievable in possession but the last game was about working off the ball, how he has to protect certain spaces.

“We’re trying to figure it out with a lot of talking, especially in training, and watching (video) sequences. They have quality but they have to adapt to how we want to play. They are young players with a lot of quality but it takes a lot of time to adapt.”

At least Schopp is not making it harder with a bloody-minded determination to plough his course regardless.

“Against Bournemouth we adapted a lot,” he points out. “You have to find different solutions and we always try to adapt to the players we have.

“We want to keep it really, really easy in the way we plan the games but Bournemouth didn’t happen the way we planned it. We started well, the problem was we were losing the ball high up the pitch. We have to handle certain situations in a better way. It’s not about age, it’s about thinking.

“We want to be very intense and very aggressive but in the last game we struggled to get into the last third and when we were there we didn’t finish it.”

It all puts more pressure on Barnsley’s experienced players.

Polish centre-back Helik makes his 50th Championship appearance tonight fresh from training with Robert Lewandowski and marking Harry Kane in the last international break.

“It gives me some confidence,” says the 26-year-old.

“The thing I learned most is I need to realise I’m not in the Championship and I should not be so aggressive. At international level I need to calm down a little.

“In our national team there are a few players from the top level of the world and I’m trying to learn from them. I speak to them about tactics and movement.”

There are few if any better centre-forwards than Lewandowski, though marking him in training is not quite the same as it was for Harry Maguire and John Stones.

“There is less contact,” Helik points out. “Lewi’s always looking for that movement to send you for a hot dog as they say. It’s more about movement without the ball, always trying to find space. He doesn’t let you defend close.”

The hope is it rubs off on Helik’s Oakwell club-mates.

“Every young player working with guys like Helik learns,” says Schopp. “An experienced player like Helik or Cauley Woodrow is a good example.”

The beauty of the Championship in 2021 is even an unheralded squad like Barnsley’s has so many world-class influences. Schopp is a product of Ralf Ragnick’s Red Bull school of coaching, Vita, Gomes and Bradley Collins of Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Chelsea’s youth systems respectively. Iseka and Oulare are Belgium Under-21 internationals. The list goes on.

“We don’t have to talk about where certain players come from,” insists Schopp. “We at Barnsley want to have a certain style so we have to bring them with their qualities into our style to give us something different.

“Remy and Claudio have come from big clubs but didn’t play for the first team so it’s about getting them to a higher level. If they bring their quality to the pitch they will be really good players.”

If Barnsley’s players listen and learn, they all should be.