5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-1 Sunderland
Fejiri Okenabirhie’s late goal earned Doncaster Rovers a point from a game they thoroughly deserved to lose on Saturday, as Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland did a job on the home side but failed to kill them off.
Here are five things we learned from a match that was very much a point gained rather than
1. Halliday Makes It Happen
Right back Brad Halliday was restored to the starting line-up after a couple of league games spent appearing from the substitute’s bench, and he took his chance to impress with both hands. The Redcar-born defender had a solid game defensively as part of the only unit of the team not suffering major problems, and played a key role going forward that ultimately led to him being the main instigator for Rovers’ late, late leveller.
As Sunderland sat off in the second half and stopped pressing Halliday and left-sided counterpart Cameron John as much, Halliday took the initiative to operate as a focal point down the right flank. He often moved inside on attacking runs to act as an inverted full back and linked up well with Josh Sims once the loan winger had moved to operate off that side after Jason Lokilo was withdrawn.
All of this added up to his involvement in the goal, turning beautifully to wrong-foot Denver Hume and get the ball across the six yard box from the byline for Okenabirhie to turn home in the 93rd minute. Halliday was the consensus Man of the Match amongst Rovers fans and rightly so – if he can keep showing this level of play then he will surely keep his place for a long time to come in Darren Moore’s starting XI.
2. Moore Throwing Shapes
Speaking of the manager, it may be time to stop the experimental selections that have become an increasing feature of his tactics this season. Whilst it is clear why Moore felt the need to opt for some of these unorthodox moves – namely injuries to key midfield players like Madger Gomes and Taylor Richards – it has not worked as well as he might have hoped, and this was never truer than in watching Reece James operate as an advancing central midfielder against Sunderland.
James is an excellent player, operating with dynamism and clinical ability off the left-hand side. He has done well as a makeshift winger at times - including at the Stadium of Light against his former club last season, and in his match-winning display at Portsmouth last month – but he is not comfortable in the middle of the park and cannot play with the range of skills needed at what is a very demanding position.
He was often the highest presser against Sunderland out of possession and was unable to adequately help Ben Whiteman to get his passing game going, something which the Black Cats clearly game-planned for and successfully stifled. Putting James back to his natural position would also take the burden off Cameron John, who has done admirably but is not as dynamic at all as a full back.
3. No Room for Passengers
Another reason that Rovers failed to get much going beyond the halfway line on Saturday was the limited contribution of winger Jason Lokilo and, until the goal, striker Fejiri Okenabirhie. The pair were too often found wanting as attacking threats and struggled to hold the ball up and pull play further forward for the home side. With two of the front four players below par and Whiteman nullified, it made for tough viewing from sofas in South Yorkshire.
Lokilo was hooked after just over an hour and couldn’t have complained if he had been withdrawn earlier, as besides a couple of decent crosses and a shot narrowly wide of the post in the second half, he offered nothing in possession. Most of the time the ball came to him he went to ground or gave the ball away cheaply, and his runs were not incisive enough to support his teammates.
For Okenabirhie, who did notch his sixth goal of the campaign at the death to earn a scarcely believable draw, this display was for 92 minutes far less than what we have come to expect from the striker. Whilst he can point to a lack of support from midfield, when he was able to show for the ball he often miscontrolled it and was unable to craft a clear shot on goal against a steadfast Sunderland back-line.
4. Returning Players Must Inject Fresh Ideas
The side desperately needs players back from injury, so it is welcome news that both Jon Taylor and Tyreece John-Jules are close to a return. Taylor’s direct running was sorely missed on Saturday, as was his experience in a big-game scenario and if he can get back into the side on the right wing for Tuesday’s visit of Blackpool or the FA Cup trip to Carlisle it will be an immediate boost.
John-Jules may be the most important of the absentees to come back in, however. The Arsenal loanee showed signs of brilliance in his half-dozen appearances before getting injured on international duty and is the diverse tonic the front-line needs right now. Whether it is as a central striker or foil for Okenabirhie, John-Jules will add quality and ambition to an attack lacking in ideas against Sunderland and it could also spark a change-up from the manager.
Moore has generally stuck to his 4-2-3-1 formation emphasising patient build-up and quick running in behind from wide areas, but adapted to a flatter 4-1-4-1 set-up on Saturday. It didn’t work thanks to the efforts of a strong opponent but also due to a lack of initiative from players, and injecting either John-Jules or a more attack-minded Madger Gomes may provide the opportunity to switch to a two-striker formation or attacking 4-3-3 with Gomes as a dedicated #10.
5. Lumley Assured On Debut
To end on a positive note, goalkeeper Joe Lumley had a strong debut in goal having only arrived the day before. The QPR loanee looked confident and dealt with everything he needed to, beaten only by a long-range strike right out of the top drawer from Grant Leadbitter that would have beaten any stopper in the country. He kept out fierce efforts from Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire and looked at home behind a back four that has proven consistent and calm this season.
Lumley is in a difficult situation and came away as one of few players with credit for Rovers in this one. It is to be hoped he can keep that going against a former club in Blackpool on Tuesday. The loss of Joe Bursik is a blow to the squad but Lumley looks a capable replacement and his added experience can only be a benefit to the development of teammate Louis Jones for however long he is here, even if the rules around emergency loans do force Darren Moore to leave Jones on the bench for the time being.