• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned From Festive Period

Darren Moore spoke regularly of the need to manage players through a gruelling fixture schedule closing out 2019, showing his awareness of how tricky the festive period of four games in twelve days would be. Tricky it was, with a mixed bag of results typical of Rovers’ inconsistency this season, however encouraging signs did show up in impressive wins against promotion-chasers. Here we pick through the last fortnight and discuss five things we learned over Rovers’ Christmas and New Year games.

1. Adaptive, not proactive…but it works

Having struggled through the final two months of the year, Rovers faced a daunting task over a packed festive fortnight of games. Home games against high-flying Oxford and North East giants Sunderland, plus a trip to face a Peterborough side also going well and still scoring goals for fun. Kicking off with a laborious draw at home to Accrington didn’t help matters, with that outing showing up an issue that has plagued Moore and his charges for a while now.

Teams have worked out the playing style which bore fruit in the form of impressive early-season wins over Rotherham, Peterborough and Lincoln. Our quick transitions through midfield after possession build-up have been stifled, the high press pushed back against; it has led to some frustrating performances as the players look to find a coherent Plan B. The team struggled to create against Accrington without the creative drive of Ben Whiteman in midfield, and so Rovers were unable to break down an unambitious, rudimentary visitor to the Keepmoat once again.

Five days later at London Road however, it was a completely different story. Knowing full well that Peterborough under Darren Ferguson would give up the middle of the park in order to flood the flanks and push through to the potent strike-force that leads the division’s goal charts, Rovers played the perfectly planned game to combat them by squeezing Posh’s three-man back line and playing to devastation on the counter attack. The result was a 3-0 drubbing that owed plenty to the tactical nous of Darren Moore, who can now boast a league double over Peterborough without conceding a goal.

Back at home, the same issues regarding breaking down stubborn defences occurred again when Sunderland visited on Boxing Day, with their 5-4-1 formation largely negating Rovers’ technical prowess once again and forcing a change of plan. Attempts to exploit the space behind their wing backs might have worked if enough players had been playing to their level, but instead the Christmas sherry had the bigger effect and a sluggish, inept Rovers were brushed aside, losing 2-1.

Redemption could only come with a victory on New Year’s Day, against an Oxford side who really were flying. Up to 2nd after three straight wins, Karl Robinson’s outfit are now bookies’ favourites to win League One in May, and showed they are well capable of promotion with a fine performance against Moore’s boys. However, Rovers did indeed earn that vital victory to start 2020 in style, running out 1-0 winners against a backdrop of constant pressure – pressure that a resolute defence repelled with aplomb.

Just as he had at Peterborough a week earlier, Darren Moore set up to hide his side’s limitations and accentuate the strengths. Oxford were always going to want control of the ball, so Rovers let them have it – up to a point – and played the waiting game. Quick breakaways were effective on the rare occasions they came, and a back four spearheaded by Tom Anderson answered every question posed by the U’s attack. It resulted in one of the most impressive wins of the season courtesy of Reece James’ goal, a fitting conclusion considering the willingness of the defence to win Rovers the game.

2. Defence stands up to scrutiny

The defence deserves a spotlight of its own after the past few weeks. Maligned at times this season, the back four have not been able to foster a run of consistency due to selection headaches brought on by injuries and suspensions. Tom Anderson, who signed a new contract on New Year’s Day, may well be the MVP of the season so far and Cameron John has shown why he was missed so badly since returning from a long injury lay-off.

Full backs Reece James and Brad Halliday have come on significantly since the start of the campaign, when both were still finding their feet in Moore’s line-up, whilst John himself has filled in admirably at left back when called upon for tactical reasons against Accrington and Peterborough. Indeed, it was John’s marauding wing play that created a host of chances in the latter game, playing a key role in a resounding victory.

Seny Dieng meanwhile is the true catalyst for all of Rovers’ good play out of the back, a philosophy that has been debated fiercely by fans but which is beginning to bear fruit since Darren Moore implemented it. Dieng is every bit the modern goalkeeper, adept with the ball at his feet and commanding in the air, a force to be reckoned with between the sticks. If not for his fine play, an off-colour Rovers could easily have suffered a heavier defeat at the hands of Sunderland, and he made crucial diving saves at key moments of the Peterborough and Oxford wins too.

All the signs are there that this defensive unit can become a real asset going forward, providing they can maintain some consistency. With Anderson’s new deal and Dieng’s loan extension both confirmed early in the transfer window, no obstacles should now stand in the way of Rovers’ defence going from strength to strength through the coming months.

3. This squad simply cannot be stretched further

Defence may be an area which is well equipped for the challenges that face Rovers from now until the end of the season, but it is impossible to say that midfield or attack are. Certainly the club needs to do serious work to remedy the striker situation now that January has arrived, and the heavy exertion on the squad over the Christmas period has only amplified that fact.

In too many games this season, Darren Moore simply hasn’t been able to call on sufficient replacements from his bench to change games that need a fresh injection. It is a direct cause of disappointing home results against the likes of Portsmouth, Milton Keynes and Accrington, and it is a hangover from another summer of upheaval that the club must learn lessons from. Alfie May’s departure to Cheltenham has – at the time of writing – weakened the attacking ranks further and now the pendulum must swing back the other way.

Niall Ennis ran himself into the ground in the past fortnight and it showed in his valiant but ultimately toothless display against Oxford. He is without a doubt the best striker on the books at present but is being tasked with too much to do on his own out of necessity. Rovers finished that game with a front four of Kwame Thomas, Kieran Sadlier, Max Watters and Madger Gomes – as clear a sign as any that what we have in reserve simply isn’t up to snuff.

This is not to denigrate anyone individually: Gomes is developing and, like Ennis, has simply been asked to do a little too much above his current capabilities due to a lack of alternatives. Watters looks bright and strong but is only 20 years old, he can’t be expected to light the league up this early in his career. Players like these two should only need to be called upon every so often, steadily coming on as senior pros, but the lack of foresight in the summer means they have been thrown in at the deep end and asked to swim.

Sadlier and Jon Taylor have both stepped up superbly and been productive of late, something which Rovers have needed from their more senior players. Keeping these key men fit and adding crucial experience and end product in the transfer window is pivotal to any lingering hopes of a Play-Off push, something which is not yet out of the question after these encouraging results in the past two weeks.

4. Midfield lacking serious bite

Ben Whiteman’s absence against Accrington severely compromised Rovers’ attacking capabilities. His midfield partner Ben Sheaf struggled mightily and was eventually dropped for the Sunderland game, but then we missed his ability to break up the play in a game that saw Rovers bullied all over the pitch. Any team hoping to compete at the top end of the table cannot be so reliant on two players alone in midfield.

This speaks to squad depth once again, but also to personnel choices. Matty Blair’s injury cannot be helped, whilst the sudden departure of Ali Crawford on Deadline Day in September left many wondering what the thought process was. Either way, the current midfield is lacking a serious bit of bite and physicality, and it is perhaps the second biggest priority for Darren Moore to rectify in January.

Madger Gomes is clearly a project player, someone who needs time to find his feet. But his role has grown of late due to the fact the squad simply does not have the means to do anything else. If a central midfielder gets injured or loses form, Gomes is the only replacement. If Coppinger needs a rest or an attacking midfielder goes down mid-game, Gomes is the only real option. He needs time to develop and learn his best role, not be chucked around the side to fill whichever gap has opened up each week.

It’s easy to ask for a Richie Wellens-type to come in, or a “proper mester” as some like to say. Boxing Day’s defeat to Sunderland should have told Darren Moore all he needed to know about what was missing in the middle of the park, as Whiteman and Gomes got shoved around mercilessly and were unable to do much on or off the ball. Pressure needs to be taken off Gomes and Sheaf, if the Arsenal loanee is staying until the summer, and a player to compete with the more robust opponents in League One needs adding to complement Whiteman’s technical abilities.

5. Moore’s got the goods tactically…so can he build the squad?

The manager has shown the doubters why he is in the position that he is with excellent, unexpected wins over Peterborough and Oxford. He outwitted two of the most experienced coaches in the EFL to deliver strong results and demonstrated how he can read an opponent and work around them to get the best out of his squad, something which should not be taken for granted by the Rovers faithful.

That he has us batting just a shade behind where we were at this stage last season in terms of points speaks to his ability to get more out of a team with clear limitations. We were flying last season under Grant McCann and Moore has sought to find the best way back to that excellent form without almost all of the weapons his predecessor had at his disposal. No line-leading striker like Marquis, no wing wizard like Wilks, no cultured companion for Whiteman like Herbie Kane.

2020 then represents the chance for Moore to really put his stamp on the side. Developing his vision for the club on the pitch, he needs to work with Gavin Baldwin and new recruitment guru Adam Henshall to find the right players that will take this squad up a level and make this a squad ready to compete for promotion. Several key pieces are missing despite the obvious talent at the forefront of the Rovers ranks, and it is up to those key figures to sort it out.

The summer was filled with disappointment and misfires in the transfer market, something which we cannot see repeated. To dissuade the naysayers, a central striker with experience and ability must come in whilst the depth of talent behind the first XI must be increased. Options in attack, midfield and perhaps out wide – either at full back or on the wing – would make Rovers a different prospect in games and bring this side back towards something resembling the strength of last season.

Darren Moore has shown he can deliver on his promises on the field, so can he now deliver on the promises off of it to make the improvements necessary? Time will tell.

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