• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Blackburn 0-1 Rovers

Doncaster Rovers got back out on the pitch in the FA Cup on Saturday, and what a return to action it was. Darren Moore’s depleted side sprung a surprise to dump Championship Blackburn out of the cup courtesy of Taylor Richards’ well-taken goal just before half time, making it a fine start to 2021.

Here are five things we learned from Rovers’ Ewood Park victory.

1. Defence As Strong As Ever

This 1-0 victory owed much to the efforts of the defence, who weathered a storm against a team with strong attacking intent and came away with as creditable a clean sheet as we have seen in quite a while from this team. Tom Anderson was an absolute force at the heart of the back four, heading away everything and showing up for crucial moments, including a key block to deny substitute Adam Armstrong and a header onto the crossbar that kept a Stewart Downing corner from flying straight into the goal.

Anderson led by example and looks the consensus candidate to be the team’s next captain, but fellow defenders Andy Butler, Cameron John and Joe Wright impressed in handling Blackburn pressure for 90 busy minutes. Late in the game, when Moore brought on Danny Amos and moved to a back five, the unit adapted to restrict Blackburn’s access to the penalty area and see the win out, aided by makeshift central midfield duo Reece James and Brad Halliday.

Darren Moore was a great defender in his playing days and he demonstrated once again here how he can find ways to shape his defence and be effective against different opponents.

2. Seeing the Best of Taylor Richards

Rovers fans have seen the good and the bad from Brighton loanee Taylor Richards in his spell at the club, often across one 90-minute performance, and that was the case again at Ewood Park. Richards had a lively first half in the attacking third, first laying on Tyreece John-Jules in a superb passing move for a chance that was well saved by Blackburn goalkeeper Aynsley Pears and then putting a shot wide himself from a narrow angle. Richards also had a few wayward passes and squandered a rare set piece opportunity for the visitors.

His key contribution though came in the 42nd minute, when Richards drove forward through midfield and took advantage of the space left by a retreating Blackburn back line, letting fly with a shot from 20 yards that went through the arms of Pears and into the bottom corner. That was the youngster’s third goal for Rovers and it proved the crucial moment of the match, as well as spurring Richards on to a good display that had a lot more positives than negatives to enjoy.

Twitter account @F0cusPlayer highlighted the performance of Richards this weekend

If he can find consistency on a more regular basis, Taylor Richards can be a truly top-drawer talent. His footballing ability is unquestioned, his physicality is impressive for a player only just 20 years of age and he has shown plenty of desire to tie all of that innate skill together.

3. New Boys Put a Shift In

Rovers lined up with two new signings in the starting XI on Saturday, with goalkeeper Ellery Balcombe starting in place of the now departed Joe Lumley and Elliott Simoes playing on the wing in place of the absent Jon Taylor. Balcombe is another England youth international with a high ceiling in the eyes of his parent club, Championship promotion contenders Brentford, and he showed some signs of that potential here despite struggling with his kicking.

He has the presence to control his penalty area, appeared solid in distribution and notably made an excellent double save to first deny Harvey Elliott from distance and then get up to brilliantly keep out a close-range rebound by Bradley Dack, as good as earning the win for Rovers. Barnsley loanee Simoes had a quieter afternoon but that is to be expected in a game which saw Rovers on the backfoot for large spells, but he did graft hard to make sure Blackburn didn’t have an easy route past him and he was useful at winning free kicks to relieve pressure on the defence.

It is very early days yet for the pair but the early signs are positive and there is no reason to believe they won’t be solid additions to the squad and able replacements for Joe Lumley and Rayhaan Tulloch.

4. Halliday Shines in Whiteman Absence

The absence of three key midfielders – Ben Whiteman, Madger Gomes and Matt Smith – left Darren Moore with a headache in the centre of the park for the FA Cup tie, forcing him to turn to Brad Halliday as a makeshift midfield option alongside fellow converted full back Reece James. To their credit, the pair performed admirably in the role with Halliday especially bringing vital qualities to a rearguard winning effort.

Halliday is strong in the tackle ordinarily anyway and was a key proponent of breaking up play and turning the ball back into Rovers’ possession, whilst his positional discipline was better than might be expected of a right back asked to play centrally too. He has filled in on the wing at times this season but the differences in playing off the touchline and in the crowded middle of the field are stark, and the Redcar-born player passed every test asked of him.

Deploying Halliday and James together in midfield is not likely to be a long-term solution, especially as Rovers will rarely have to play so defensively again this season, but they stepped up when called upon and should be praised for that.

5. Strike Duo Can Work Together

Although it was indeed more of a backs-to-the-wall display from Rovers in this game, the forwards still showed a degree of promise for their prospects looking ahead. The manager has tried to find ways to effectively incorporate both Fejiri Okenabirhie and Tyreece John-Jules in recent games and he may have worked out a way to do just that if Saturday is anything to go by.

John-Jules came close to scoring in the first half and generally led the line competently as a lone striker, even if he didn’t have a great deal of time on the ball. Okenabirhie meanwhile was excellent as a tracking wide midfielder, holding up the ball superbly at times and working hard to aid the defensive efforts on the flank, where Blackburn often tried to overload Cameron John.

Okenabirhie is clearly more effective in a central attacking role but is another player who stepped up when asked to perform in a role he isn’t as used to, and that is credit to both him and the coaching of the manager and his staff. There is more to come from both of these players and their contribution to an excellent 1-0 away win should not be overlooked.