5 Things We Learned: Blackburn 3-2 Rovers
It’s good to have football back. Even without the presence of fans, Saturday’s curtain-raiser at Ewood Park was a comforting event as Rovers took to the field for their first competitive game in nearly six months and, although they ultimately came up short against their Championship opponents, the team gave a good account of themselves despite bowing out of the Carabao Cup at the first hurdle.
Here are five things we learned from Doncaster Rovers’ 3-2 defeat at Blackburn.
1. Magic Madger Shows His Worth
The optimism of fans ready to enjoy a game of football - albeit exclusively from their own homes thanks to the pandemic - was tempered somewhat an hour before kick-off when the first team line-up of the season revealed no Ben Whiteman in the squad. Fears of an imminent departure for the Rovers captain were quickly allayed as the press revealed he had a knock, and showed him at the game on the sidelines alongside trialist Andy Butler, but regardless of the reason for his absence it meant an unorthodox approach was needed in midfield from Darren Moore.
Central midfield is one area of the team with no depth beyond the first choice at present, so the void left by Whiteman was always going to pose difficulty for Rovers. Moore opted to stick with his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, handing Madger Gomes the role as midfield fulcrum alongside the more attack-minded Taylor Richards. The steel seen in last season’s Ben-centric tandem of Sheaf and Whiteman was nowhere to be found in the first half at Ewood Park as the home side ran rampant and Rovers struggled to get hold of the ball for any meaningful length of time, but from the moment the second period began Gomes stepped up to the plate.
The Spaniard began putting his foot in more, winning possession and linking play in the Blackburn half. His combination with both Richards and James Coppinger enabled Rovers to get a grip on proceedings and he was rewarded in the 63rd minute with his first goal for the club. Gomes took up a spot outside the area and scooped up a clearance, took one touch to set himself and fired a fierce shot through goalkeeper Andrew Fisher, a goal which put the underdogs in front.
Moore will know he needs more reinforcements in midfield but this performance from Madger Gomes will give the manager confidence in the midfielder’s ability to step up when needed. Richards for his part had a strong debut too, looking a capable replacement for Jacob Ramsey and showing off some truly excellent footwork and passing ability throughout his debut.
2. Fejiri is the Business, but Support is Needed
Gomes’ strike put Rovers ahead in the tie but it was the work of frontman Fejiri Okenabirhie that had drawn the men in black level soon after the restart. The #9 cut a frustrated figure in the opening 45 minutes as the team just couldn’t get the ball to him enough, and opportunities were rare in the extreme. Okenabirhie led the charge after the break though and began to cause numerous problems for the patchwork Blackburn defence, and he got the visitors level against the odds on 54 minutes.
Improvising after a lucky ricochet off his first touch from a wonderful pass into feet by Taylor Richards, Okenabirhie got his body between ball and defender and caused Darragh Lenihan to pull him back just inside the area, causing the referee to point to the spot. The former Shrewsbury striker picked himself up and coolly dispatched the penalty to make it 1-1, celebrating with a tribute to Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman one day on from his death - as did Gomes after his goal.
Fejiri is fast becoming a favourite amongst fans and it is easy to see why. He has strength, pace, intelligence and a ruthless ability to finish when in the right place. He will surely be a huge asset to Darren Moore this season but there must be reinforcements brought in over the next few weeks to share the burden in attack, with the Hendon-born forward currently the only true striker on the books at Doncaster Rovers.
3. The Art of Defending Not Yet There
One area of the team not in need of much reinforcement is the defensive unit, with Friday’s surprise return for Cameron John providing a boost to a back-line that was excellent for much of last season. John played a key role in that success and his arrival meant the entire back four on Saturday were regulars from last season. John deputised ably at left back with Reece James injured, but the cohesion and confidence you might expect to see in a group familiar with one another wasn’t apparent and two sloppy goals cost Rovers the game late on.
The group, consisting of John, Tom Anderson, Joe Wright and Brad Halliday and backed up by debuting goalkeeper Joe Bursik, admirably withstood a barrage in the first half as Blackburn dominated possession and crafted numerous chances. Bursik made some smart saves and forwards Adam Armstrong and Ben Brereton failed to find their lethality but the deadlock was broken on the half hour mark by Lewis Holtby’s sumptuous free kick. There was nothing anyone could do about that moment of brilliance but the goals that eventually won Tony Mowbray’s side the game were eminently preventable.
Halliday was simply unable to deal with the two-on-one situation down the left as Ben Brereton profited, taking the ball to the byline unhindered by the right back or substitute Ed Williams and cutting it back, causing chaos in the six yard box. Bursik and Anderson were unable to stop the delivery and, although Armstrong’s effort was blocked on the line, defender Joe Rankin-Costello did bundle the ball home to make it 2-2.
Halliday was the culprit again minutes later as he needlessly tripped Amari’i Bell, and Armstrong finally got his goal from 12 yards out to win the game for Blackburn. There are lessons to learn here for the defence ahead of the return to league football in just under two weeks, but we have seen plenty in the past to have faith in this particular group of players.
4. Confidence the Key for Lokilo
Winger Jason Lokilo is a player many Rovers fans are excited about, and the Congolese starlet got off to a decent start in his first 90 minutes for the club. Playing on the left hand side of the attacking midfield trio, Lokilo was busy from the off and stung the palms of Blackburn keeper Fisher with the game’s first meaningful chance before continuing his lively display throughout a first half that was tough for Rovers to find any attacking momentum.
He came on strong after the break too, getting more opportunity to put the ball into dangerous areas and enjoying a couple more efforts at goal himself, although he seemed to snatch at his best opportunity from a wonderful right-wing cross by Halliday and scuffed the shot wide. He did however have a hand in Gomes’ goal, facing up Scott Wharton and playing a dangerous low ball into the box that was cleared to the Spaniard to fire in.
There is no faulting Lokilo’s endeavour or creativity in this match but he was lacking in the final third and gave up possession too easily on a number of occasions. If Darren Moore can instil confidence in this young man he will quickly become a key player in the team and the Belgian-born wide man will surely be one to watch over the coming months.
5. Be Brave, Be Mean, Be Clinical
A lack of outright confidence ran throughout the team at times, especially in a timid first half in which Rovers sat off and made life hard for themselves in the face of a strong Blackburn team. The way the visitors approached the game in the second half showed that they had nothing to be afraid of and Darren Moore was perhaps guilty of giving the Championship side too much respect for the bulk of that first 45 minutes, but that isn’t to say they rolled over and accepted their position as underdogs.
Rovers officially committed 18 fouls in this match and saw three of the back four booked for intentional offences to stop breakaways and the forward momentum of the home side. Rovers gave as good as they got and whilst the refereeing left a lot to be desired in terms of fairness, the stats highlight something of a mean streak that will absolutely be needed in those League One games that become more about the war for attrition than the pursuit of silky football.
The players were excellent to a man in the second half and shook off the inevitable rust after nearly six months away to take the game to Blackburn. That 20-25 minute spell where Rovers turned the game around stands them in good stead for the rigours of League One and if they can find the right mix of bravery and ruthlessness, both in the battle for possession and in front of goal, they can compete for honours again in 2020/21.