skip navigation

What Barnsley FC fans should expect from new Head Coach Neill Collins

By JOHN MORRISSEY, Special to, 07/06/23, 1:00PM EDT


USL tactical expert John Morrissey runs the rule over how the Scottish manager transformed his club’s fortunes

Since the start of the 2019 USL Championship season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies have posted a league-high +124 goal differential as Neill Collins has led the side to success with his sharp coaching acumen. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

Neill Collins will depart the Tampa Bay Rowdies after this Saturday’s game against Oakland Roots SC to take the helm at Barnsley FC, one of England’s historic clubs, as it prepares for the new EFL League One season.

The 39-year-old has achieved much in the five years since his appointment as Rowdies Head Coach, leading the club to two USL Championship Eastern Conference titles and winning the league’s Coach of the Year award in 2021.

We’ve asked USL tactical expert John Morrissey for a guide as to how Collins achieved this success, and what Barnsley fans could expect from their new manager as he arrives at Oakwell.


Since Neill Collins took over the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2018, his teams have averaged 1.8 points per game with a +0.78 goal difference. In a given match, you could essentially spot Tampa Bay a goal by default – that’s dominance. The success of Collins’ teams led to two USL Championship Eastern Conference titles and a USL Championship Coach of the Year award in 2021.

The unifying factor behind it all? The manager’s ability to implement a clear tactical identity.

1. High Pressure, Counterpressure Achieves Control

After being appointed midway through the prior campaign, the 2019 season was the Scotsman’s first full year at the helm and his first chance to test that identity. In that season, Tampa Bay moved from a back four to a three-at-the-back system, a template that Collins has continued to perfect since then. The Rowdies allowed the fewest goals in the USL Championship in 2020 and 2021 because of Collins’ changes, winning the Eastern Conference twice. More recently, Collins experimented with formations that combine elements of back threes and fours; his ability to make tweaks and outthink opponents has been crucial.

The Neill Collins system values control rather than raw possession. Coaches often talk about “tilting the pitch” in their favor, and his Rowdies do so by keeping danger firmly in the opposing half and away from their own net. His sides press fairly high, pinning opponents deep and making it difficult for them to build up or counter with composure. Collins-era Tampa Bay was even more aggressive after turnovers, counterpressing fiercely to regain the ball and keep the impetus or at least deny fast breaks.

2. Central Figure Provides Defensive Foundation

The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Forrest Lasso won two USL Championship Defender of the Year awards as the centerpiece of Collins' three-at-the-back system. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

Typically, Collins’ Rowdies teams have been based out of a defensive 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. The back line is anchored by a physical presence in the middle. Collins likes a strong, aerially competent player in the mold of Forrest Lasso at the base of his defense – at 6-foot-3, a player such as Liam Kitching could move centrally into this role for Barnsley after making 45 appearances in the league last season and recording 70 headed clearances out of 122 clearances overall after the departure of Mads Andersen to Premier League-bound Luton Town FC.

This central figure is flanked by more mobile defenders that can carry the ball forward in possession and recover well in one-on-one situations. For the Rowdies, this was typically Aaron Guillen and this season Freddie Kleeman, with Guillen’s suitability in his role on the left side making him one of the league’s top defenders in recent seasons.

With Barnsley having played a three-at-the-back system throughout the 2022-23 campaign, Collins’ vision should have a chance to take hold quickly at his new position.

3. Speed on the Flanks, Solidity in the Center

Ahead of the three center backs, Collins uses wing backs that are expected to drop into a deep-block back five. More often, the wing backs are found higher up the pitch as they advance to create danger in the final third. These players are required to get end-to-end with speed.

The wing backs are also a key source of fluidity for Collins. In 2023, Ryan Spaulding, used as the left wing back, would sit low in a defensive 5-4-1, but he would become the left winger in an attacking 4-2-3-1. In both 2022 and 2023, right-sided Conner Antley would often move into the central midfield from the wing back spot, initiating similar shape changes.

In the midfield proper, the Scotsman usually employs a double pivot with two deep-lying central players. Even so, Collins doesn’t often use a true No. 6 or “destroyer.” Instead, he wants players that can dictate play in possession while communicating well and showing effort at tracking back.

4. Freedom, Movement Define Attacking Third

Charlie Dennis (center) has shifted into the attacking midfield role for Tampa Bay this season to great effect, recording six goals, one assist and 41 chances created so far this season. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

Ahead of the preferred central midfield pairing, Collins uses a No. 10 defined by tight control on the dribble and an eye for a killer ball in behind. This player must have the ability to shoot with quality from distance to keep opponents honest and open space, and in turn they’re allowed to roam from sideline to sideline with freedom.

Free-wheeling triple-threats like Leo Fernandes, the 2022 USL Championship Player of the Year, and Charlie Dennis, a breakout star in 2023, capture what Collins wants from his central attacking player. A player like returning Barnsley midfielder Adam Phillips would appear to fit this profile, with five of his eight goals in the past campaign coming from outside the penalty area in addition to his nine assists.  

Collins isn’t dependent on a prototypical scoring No. 9, preferring a more complete profile up top. His strikers are strong in hold-up, allowing teammates to make runs and create overloads around them. These forwards lurk on the back shoulder of the opposing center backs, doggedly pursuing rebounds and distracting opponents to let the No. 10 or wing backs find space.

5. Summary

There was variance within the shapes and player archetypes that Collins employed, but the ability to dominate games and play on the front foot always remained. The manager was confident in his philosophy, but it was a penchant for considerate tweaks and player-specific fine-tuning that made the system work. Tampa Bay has been a constant at the top of the table in the USL Championship, and Neill Collins’ brilliance on the sideline is the main reason for that success.

Follow the USL Championship

Most Recent News

Most Read News

Latest Videos