• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Argyle Downed & Crewe Confound

Andy Butler oversaw his second straight win as Doncaster Rovers manager on Saturday against Plymouth, but tasted bitter defeat for the first time at Gresty Road in midweek as Crewe took the points. The gaffer will have learned just as much from Tuesday’s defeat as he did the preceding victory, and here are five things we took on board after watching both games.

1. Copps, A Unique Vintage

Waxing lyrical about James Coppinger is the easiest thing in the world for Rovers fans and observers to do, yet the great man keeps defying expectations to extend his legacy further after all these years. Butler has made a point of putting the veteran midfielder at the forefront of his team and it has proved a shrewd move already, with the 40-year-old putting in a star turn against Plymouth by notching two assists.

Coppinger was the architect of both goals in the 2-1 victory, first sending a corner to the near post for Tom Anderson to steer home, then putting a delightful cross over in the second phase after another corner to find Omar Bogle for what proved to be the winning goal. His overall play was magnificent again, and he put in a real shift three days later against Crewe, albeit in defeat for Rovers.

That he played the full 90-plus minutes at the age of 40 is impressive in itself, but that he remains a key contributor when selected still proves how unique a figure he is and has been for this club. His creative input could be a big boost for the side going into this last dozen or so games, and you’d be remiss to write off his chances of playing a major role in any potential Play-Off run once again.

2. The Importance of Bogle

It was a tale of contrasting emotions around Omar Bogle in these two matches, chiefly because his absence through injury at Gresty Road stripped Rovers of their attacking outlet. Against Argyle on Saturday, Bogle was a strong presence as the lone striker and got just reward for his recent hard-working performances with the close-range header that won his side the points. Unfortunately though a hamstring injury took him out of contention on Tuesday night and, coupled with the fact that Fejiri Okenabirhie was not fit either, it meant a tough night for the visitors.

Rovers simply never found any rhythm or incision going forward, with Madger Gomes asked to play as a ‘False 9’ supported by three attacking midfielders. Playing such a formation – popularised by Pep Guardiola’s iconic Barcelona team some ten-odd years ago – relies on guile and work rate from all sides of that attacking quartet and unfortunately it just never clicked against Crewe, meaning chances were few and far between for Butler’s boys.

Gomes was a fish out of water and whilst Copps, Jason Lokilo and Taylor Richards all tried their best to support him, they didn’t find a way to break through Crewe’s defence more than once or twice and spent the majority of the game playing in front of the Alex back four, meaning little in the way of clear-cut chances came their way. Bogle was a big miss as a focal point and physical presence, and it is to be hoped his absence from the team is a short one.

3. Failure Through Defensive Frailty

The strength of Rovers’ defensive efforts, or lack thereof, is now a real problem. Eleven sides in League One have better defensive records now, which is concerning for a side pushing for promotion. More worrying still is that there have been only six clean sheets in 31 league matches in 2020/21, with three of those coming in a row during the winning run in January. Practically the same defensive players registered only 10 clean sheets in 34 games last season, yet those four-to-five players are all considered good quality for this level, so what is the issue?

Joe Wright was the guilty party against Crewe, crowded out when looking for a pass with a swift break resulting in the goal. The midfield though is not supporting the back four enough in games, meaning defenders are taking the blame for a collective team shortcoming. Niall Ennis scored from a left-flank cross for Plymouth in a game that Brad Halliday was constantly under pressure from Danny Mayor and Conor Grant, and the truth is that Halliday was not often ably supported by winger Josh Sims, leaving him stranded in two-on-one scenarios.

This continues to be a problem and is something that the whole team must work on. Tom Anderson is one of the best centre halves in League One, and both Reece James and Brad Halliday are quality full-back options, yet keeping clean sheets is proving impossible at the moment and the new manager must get to the bottom of it before Rovers’ promotion hopes fade away because of their propensity for leaking goals.

4. Jones Looks The Business

It is still very early days for Louis Jones, but he has now put in three solid performances as goalkeeper for the team and is showing all of the qualities that have made him so highly rated for the past several years. He could do precious little about a superb finish from Ennis on Saturday after the former Rovers loanee ran across Tom Anderson to shoot, and in fact Jones made an excellent reaction save to deny Grant later in the game, as well as rushing out expertly to block what could have been an easy chance for Luke Jephcott.

He was denied a clean sheet at Crewe thanks to a potentially offside goal after a defensive giveaway, and was again assured in his overall play. Soon after Rovers had a goal disallowed for a soft infringement on their goalkeeper, the referee was unmoved as a Crewe forward jumped into Jones and sent him into the net, with the 22-year-old managing regardless to clear the ball out of danger whilst being fouled.

Jones has demonstrated good shot-stopping ability, calm composure in difficult situations and is doing enough in aerial battles within the penalty area too. It will take time for him to develop as a professional player but the early signs are excellent, and it is effort that is not going unnoticed with many touting Jones as Rovers’ best player on the night at Gresty Road.

5. Injury Worries Grow

As disappointing as it was to be so toothless in defeat on Tuesday night, of more concern was the mounting injury list. Jon Taylor could be out a while after taking a nasty blow to the foot against Portsmouth when pulling for a shot, and the absence of both Bogle and Okenabirhie was the main issue going into the Crewe game as it left Rovers without a recognised striker available.

It won’t have helped Andy Butler at all then to see two more key first team players go off with knocks during the game – first John Bostock was an early second half casualty and then Reece James had to go off after taking a hard blow to his lower leg when preventing a breakaway from Charlie Kirk, and if either of those players are out for any significant amount of time it will represent a blow to Butler and his plans.

Cameron John can fill in at left back but he just doesn’t have the same attacking quality S James, whilst Bostock has stepped up as the new playmaker in the wake of Ben Whiteman’s move to Preston, and it is unlikely to expect either Scott Robertson or Matt Smith to perform the same role with as much quality. Most teams would struggle without half a dozen of their usual starters, so let’s hope Rovers can still count on the depth of the squad in the weeks to come.