4 Things We Learned...and 1 We Didn't: Northampton 0-2 Rovers
Doncaster Rovers got back to winning ways in front of over a thousand fans at Sixfields Stadium on Saturday, earning a 2-0 win over Northampton that ultimately proved quite comfortable.
It was exactly what Darren Moore needed from his side after a defeat in midweek and the team had a tough challenge to navigate. Here are four things we learned from the victory…along with one thing we didn’t!
1. Game Plan, Executed
For the first time in several League One outings, Rovers succeeded in delivering the game plan worked on going into the match: dominate possession and exploit space in behind. This task was no doubt complicated by the early red card for Cobblers midfielder Shaun McWilliams, whose rash lunge on Andy Butler was completely unnecessary and merited the straight red card that referee Graham Salisbury handed him.
Northampton understandably sat off and packed their defence to try and minimise Rovers’ chances of working the ball into the box, meaning the visitors had to find intricate ways through the bodies in burgundy. In the end, a quick tackle by Joe Wright high up the field allowed the ball to break to Tyreece John-Jules, and he steadied himself before dinking the ball over goalkeeper Steve Arnold and in for the first half opener.
From there, Rovers were able to control proceedings with Ben Whiteman as a fulcrum and the defence pushing up to halfway whenever the ball came to them. They tired Northampton with patient passing and struck the killer blow from a Reece James cross just before the hour mark, turned in from close range by Joe Wright. Even Arnold’s penalty save from Whiteman late on was not enough to spur on the home side and Rovers ensured a second win away to a team welcoming fans back for the first time this season.
2. Threat from the Left
That second goal came about through persistence from Rovers in overloading Northampton down the left wing, with Reece James doing a superb job of stretching the Cobblers after moving to the wide position at half time. It seems James’ future lies in midfield under Darren Moore but he is clearly an asset from his favoured left side, and has taken well to playing a more advanced role.
His cross to set Wright up was far from the only dangerous ball he put in in that second half and with options returning in the middle he should be freed up to start there more often. Playing James on the left also allows Josh Sims to work off the right flank, which is his preferred side and a position in which he can also turn defenders inside out. As long as Jon Taylor remains sidelined, this set-up is surely the way to go for Rovers if they want to build on their strong wing play here.
3. Butler Leads Rearguard Resurgence
Clean sheets have come at a premium this season so far, but Darren Moore’s decision to start with four centre halves in the back-line and Brad Halliday in midfield paid off. Club legend Andy Butler made his first League One start of the season in a surprise change by the manager, and he shook off that horror tackle by McWilliams to boss the Northampton attack. The Cobblers spent the majority of the second half pumping high balls into the box but a Rovers head got it away almost every time, with Butler leading the way.
Joe Wright for his part was incredibly solid at right back, linking well in the second half with Sims and getting a nose to the ball for the second goal to cap a superb individual display. Joe Lumley appeared much more assured in goal and as an overall unit, the clean sheet was well earned between the quintet. Halliday was withdrawn from an unconventional right midfield position at the break but more due to tactical changes after the red card, and didn’t put a foot wrong further forward either.
4. Welcome Return for John-Jules
Tyreece John-Jules bagged a goal off the bench at Hull in midweek to get his comeback off on the right foot, and he fully justified being handed a start on Saturday with an accomplished centre forward performance. John-Jules kept Northampton’s defenders on their toes with constant movement and pressing, and when presented with the ball from Joe Wright’s tackle made no mistake in finishing to put Rovers a goal up before half time.
He kept that momentum going in the second half and almost added a second from a lovely right-wing cross by Josh Sims, but found the goalkeeper equal to his fierce effort after a deft touch took it out of the air and set up the shot from a narrow angle. Joined by Fejiri Okenabirhie as a dual threat at the break, John-Jules kept his pressing up until being substituted on 75 minutes to show he is close to full match fitness, and can be proud of making a vital contribution to an important victory.
Red Card Spoils Show of Progress
One thing we weren’t able to learn at Sixfields was whether or not Rovers had learned from the pitfalls of previous games in terms of showing more urgency and incisiveness in their play. McWilliams’ red card meant Northampton completely altering their approach to the game, packing the defence more so than they usually would and leading Rovers to adapt a patient build-up to avoid mistakes and wear the Cobblers down.
That strategy was smart in the circumstance and worked perfectly, but it did mean that we’re yet to see if Rovers have truly been able to address the problems that caused their malaise in recent matches. A full week without a game gives Moore and his coaching staff a good chance to work on those things in training further and hopefully next week against Gillingham, the players can put those ideas into practice and put this performance blip behind them.