• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers Crumble at Oxford After Cobblers Blank

It has been a trying few days for Andy Butler and his Doncaster Rovers side, with players racking up injuries amidst a pair of poor performances that have left fans losing the feeling of optimism that came with the new manager’s opening victories in the dugout.

Rovers struggled to find inspiration in a dire 0-0 draw with struggling Northampton at the weekend and followed that up with a wretched outing at Oxford – seldom a happy hunting ground for this team – that saw them crash to a deserved 3-0 defeat. The stark reality is that, since beating the Us 3-2 in the reverse fixture, the team has gone on a run of relegation form with only eight points earned in ten games, and it is somewhat a minor miracle that Rovers remain in the Play-Off places at time of writing.

There is plenty to pick through from the last two matches, so here are five things we learned from the Northampton and Oxford games.

1. One Speed Rovers

It has been so frustrating to see Rovers go back to the ponderous, safe approach in games the past couple of weeks. When he took over as manager, Andy Butler espoused his philosophy of wanting the team to be quicker on the ball and in their attacking play but an encouraging start on that front has swiftly petered out. Against Northampton, efforts to get on goal were frustrated and it was rare to see the home side get a shot off from inside the penalty area, and the same was true at Oxford.

Mostly, shots have come from 20-25 yards out – invariably efforts straight at the keeper from Taylor Richards – after the team decided it could no longer find a way through an organised defensive front. Fejiri Okenabirhie cannot hold the ball up as a central striker, but without Omar Bogle fit he has been forced to, limiting Rovers in their 4-2-3-1 formation that surely needs to be altered with so many key players missing – players who are pivotal to the shape, such as Bogle and John Bostock.

Rovers have got to be more proactive in the final third, and cannot rely on James Coppinger pinging the ball in from deep as their only source of getting into the box. As was seen in the final days of Darren Moore’s reign, the goalkeeper and centre halves have spent far more time on the ball than they should in games, as lack of movement ahead forces them to play it between themselves, inviting pressure. Rovers are causing more trouble for themselves and that starts with this lack of invention in possession and when attacking.

2. Costly Errors Causing Problems

When you couple those issues further forward with an alarming increase in individual defensive mistakes, then you have a recipe for disaster. Fans don’t need reminding of the failures that led to heavy defeat at Sunderland last month, but there were plenty of hallmarks of that game in the first half capitulation against Oxford on Tuesday night.

Each of the Yellows’ three goals were avoidable from a defensive standpoint – Brandon Barker made mincemeat of Brad Halliday before Joe Wright, Tom Anderson and Louis Jones all failed to deal with the finish in the six yard box for the first goal, the second came from yet another set piece as Josh Ruffels was allowed to waltz in and not the ball goalwards, and the third came from Matt Smith failing to get the ball out of danger and losing it on the edge of the box, allowing Olamide Shodipo a chance which he duly took.

It just keeps happening, either through lax organisation as a defensive unit or through errors that shouldn’t be happening as regularly as they are. If not for the reflexes of Jones and a superb block by Danny Amos, Oxford would have been 5-0 up at half time and they could have had a clutch more in the second half, which really would have underlined the dire straits that the Rovers back-line finds itself in at present.

3. Injury Pile-Up Causing Grave Concern

As touched on earlier, certain key players being absent is causing a severe deficit in the capability of the overall team. Bostock and Bogle were both only signed in January, but have become pivotal to the style and approach of the Rovers team and without them, Rovers simply don’t have adequate alternatives in their role. Indeed, as many as six potential starters were missing at Oxford and it is imperative that Butler has more options to call on in upcoming games.

Scott Robertson appears the ablest deputy for Bostock, but is suffering from an infected toe which forced him off against Northampton. Matt Smith is the only other real playmaking midfielder in the squad but he is out of form at the moment, whilst wide options are also severely limited without Josh Sims and Jon Taylor. Jason Lokilo is showing promise but can’t be asked to take on too much responsibility yet, and Elliot Simoes has sadly flattered to deceive since joining on loan from Barnsley.

Perhaps the most crucial absentee though is Reece James. The converted full-back has been a revelation in midfield this season and is probably leading the way for Rovers’ Player of the Season award, and the way he knits things together between defence and attack has been vital to the cause. He took a nasty knock at Crewe and soldiered on through it against the Cobblers on Saturday, but couldn’t do that twice in four days and so missed the trip to Oxford. His return is much needed, wherever he is asked to play, as without him it feels as if the line-up has no glue to hold it together.

4. Academic Attempts Fall Flat

One thing fans were encouraged by when the starting XI was revealed ahead of kick-off against Oxford was the presence of several academy graduates. Whilst this is borne out of necessity, Andy Butler put his faith in his crop of promising youngsters which is incredibly rare for Rovers, who have struggled to bring players through from the youth set-up for the bulk of the past two decades. However, it was a mixed night for the young guns and a lack of experience played a role in the team’s first half collapse, as Butler eluded to himself afterwards.

Heads went down after the opener, it was plain to see, and the lack of senior experience running throughout the side was surely a contributing factor. It is a big ask to put the pressure of performing in League One straight on the shoulders of nearly half the line-up and that showed, even if individually there were positive points for each of Louis Jones, Danny Amos, AJ Greaves and substitute Branden Horton.

It is worth remembering too that many of the more senior players are also still young and relatively inexperienced themselves – Richards, Simoes, Smith and Lokilo are all under 23 – so when you tot it all up it makes for a team with plenty to learn. It wasn’t all gloom either, with Jones making a few smart saves, Amos a goal-saving block and Greaves showing some nice touches and interplay even if he struggled to keep up with the game at times before going off injured, whilst Horton performed impeccably at left back in the second half on his senior debut.

Each of these young players have the talent to make it and be assets for Doncaster Rovers but it may be a case of too much to ask, and too soon to ask it of them, to put so many in the spotlight together at once with a Play-Off place on the line.

5. Tired Bodies and Tired Minds

It isn’t an excuse, but it is now becoming apparent that the heavy fixture schedule and condensed nature of this season is having a big impact on the squad. Rovers are not the only team affected of course – look at the problems besetting formerly high-flying Lincoln at the moment as well – but there is something to be said for how the 2020/21 campaign has pushed this young team to its breaking point.

Playing almost every midweek as well as Saturday is taking its toll on the players, both physically and mentally, and not just in terms of the packed treatment room Rovers find themselves with at present. Performances in recent weeks have been laboured, very few individuals have been able to go at full-throttle for 90 minutes and that is a problem for a side who like to be busy on and off the ball.

The mental toll is taxing as well. Too often in both games this week, the boys in red have been laborious in their attempts to move the ball up field and often find themselves running out of ideas and options all too quickly. It has been a long, testing season in many respects and it appears as if the players are running out of steam, and finding a way to get some juice out of this ailing squad is arguably the biggest task Butler and his staff face in the final dozen games of the campaign.