• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Doncaster 1-1 MK Dons

Football is back and Rovers are up and running having earned their first point of the new season in a 1-1 draw against Milton Keynes Dons last Saturday. Keepmoat Stadium played host to behind-closed-doors league action for the first time ever with fans watching along on iFollow.

It made for an unusual experience, but the advent of online streaming did allow the ITEN team to see the game live from over 950 miles away in Prague (thanks to a badly-timed but much-needed holiday) so here are five things we learned from the 2020/21 curtain raiser.

1. Rovers Unready in Midfield

Russell Martin’s MK outfit made for tough opponents out the gate, a side who came with a clearly defined playing style and plenty of desire to compete, quickly negating any semblance of home advantage by getting on the front foot and dictating play from back to front. The stats tell a worrying story for Rovers as the visitors dominated possession and turned that superiority in play into chances, enjoying 16 shots on goal to Rovers’ 5 and bossing 65% of the play overall.

This is uncharacteristic for the boys in red and white, with Darren Moore’s careful, possession-based style usually resulting in his team enjoying the lion’s share of the ball in games. MK made that impossible on Saturday and were full credit for the draw - probably deserving a win in all honesty - with Rovers unable to impose themselves on proceedings largely thanks to the one glaring need still left in the team after a flurry of summer signings: central midfield.

Madger Gomes is developing into a fine player and deservedly took his first league goal well but his best qualities are served with him on the front foot and playing further forward, as seen in his improved displays last season. Whilst he showed willingness to put a tackle in against MK, Gomes simply doesn’t possess the range of physical attributes former loanee Ben Sheaf had in the central role, nor does he have the synergy with midfield partner Ben Whiteman.

Until the team can add that player capable of sharing duties with Whiteman in Moore’s 4-2-3-1 set-up, expect more games where Rovers are overrun in midfield and unable to stamp their authority on opponents.

2. Pitfalls in Bespoke Approach

A big talking point amongst fans coming out of the game was the surprise decision by Darren Moore to name loan duo Rayhaan Tulloch and Tyreece John-Jules in his starting line-up instead of James Coppinger and Fejiri Okenabirhie. Although Copps’ age means he is unlikely to start every game during what is sure to be a busy final season for the club legend, Okenabirhie looked impressive in pre-season and is the most experienced out-and-out striker in the squad, so his omission raised a few eyebrows.

Moore explained after the game that he felt the young pair gave the team an out that they needed against such a strong footballing side, despite only joining Rovers in the days leading up to the game. There is merit in that view and Moore is paid to make these decisions, but the team badly missed Coppinger’s ability to put his foot on the ball and Rovers spent vast swathes of the match struggling to get hold of the ball for any meaningful length of time, meaning chances were few and far between.

Okenabirhie did little once introduced as a 78th minute substitute but his abilities are surely not in question so soon into his Rovers career, after a bright start and a strong run of performances in the games leading into last Saturday. John-Jules led the line ably and carved out a chance or two but was one of the players who visibly tired into the closing stages of the game, whilst Tulloch struggled to affect play outside of his crucial contribution to lay on Madger Gomes for his goal.

The manager reiterated his “horses for courses” philosophy regarding team selection after justifying the changes, so fans need to get used to this rotational approach, but even the big man himself must admit it didn’t really work to full effect against MK.

3. New Boys Show Desire

Tulloch and John-Jules did show pace and some good touches during a solid debut display for the four loan debutants in the Rovers line-up. Joe Bursik made an expected first start in goal and Brighton starlet Taylor Richards essentially took Coppinger’s place in the attacking triumvirate behind the striker, playing as a fluid #10. Darren Moore looks closely at the character of the players he brings in and on early impressions it appears he has recruited a crop of hungry young players to augment the squad this season.

Tulloch assisted Gomes after showing good skill to evade Regan Poole on the left flank but otherwise didn’t play too big a role in the game, which is perhaps understandable for a player who only joined the day before, whilst John-Jules was one of the only players in a red shirt to enjoy clear-cut attempts on goal.

Richards was a busy presence in midfield and showed more of the clever footwork he displayed in the Carabao Cup loss at Blackburn two weeks prior. His defensive output was impressive as he made seven tackles including a superb last-ditch slide to deny Carlton Morris an open goal after Bursik had failed to stop him outside the area. With the right role and players around him, Richards in particular looks an exciting player who could become a real favourite before long.

4. Bursik Looks The Business

It was 20-year-old goalkeeper Joe Bursik though who impressed the most on his Rovers debut. Seny Dieng has left considerable boots to fill between the sticks after a successful spell on loan from QPR last year, and Bursik has come in amongst much fanfare owing to his reputation as one of the best young stoppers in England, but he excelled against MK. In general play he appeared confident, strong and eager to distribute the ball into intelligent areas, and he wasn’t afraid to get stuck in to physical battles in his penalty area.

His shot-stopping was the highlight however, and MK Dons gave him plenty of opportunity to show it off especially in the first half. Bursik made three particularly good saves in that opening 45 minutes, notably denying Stoke academy team-mate Lasse Sorensen who struck a fierce volley from the left side of goal, as well as proving equal to efforts from David Kasumu and Baily Cargill. He also did enough to unbalance Carlton Morris before Taylor Richards denied a goal on half time after Bursik rushed out of his box to challenge the advancing forward.

Possessing a composed, talented goalkeeper relieves one headache for Darren Moore and on the evidence of this game, Bursik does just the job for Rovers.

5. Confidence Will Come

The team is almost perpetually in a state of development, a constant work-in-progress owing to the high squad turnover and number of young players involved in the Rovers set-up. The club have recruited some truly exceptional young players this summer and they will take time to develop, with enough evidence on show both here against MK and in the display at Blackburn to demonstrate to fans that Darren Moore will get them where they need to be with a little fine-tuning.

Young, hungry players should be confident in their play and there were flashes of that on Saturday, but more is to come from the likes of Tulloch, Richards, John-Jules and others such as Jason Lokilo and Cameron John. If Rovers can hit the ground running in League One and get a couple of wins under their belt in the coming weeks, we should see these players start to show what they can do on a regular basis and that is a prospect we should all be excited about.