5 Things We Learned: Portsmouth 0-1 Rovers
It was a move of the highest quality that decided Saturday’s game at Fratton Park as Doncaster Rovers came through a challenging test of their credentials to win 1-0 against Portsmouth. Reece James struck a well-taken goal 11 minutes from time to seal it, leaving Darren Moore and the fans watching from afar in buoyant mood come full time, even if Rovers didn’t have it all their own way throughout the game.
Here are five things we learned from the side’s third win over the Hampshire club in five trips to the South Coast.
1. Three Combine for Clinical Goal
Rovers were not in free-flowing form going forward but, in contrast to their wasteful display against Wigan, when the big chances came they did their best to make them count. Fejiri Okenabirhie ran off the shoulder superbly and caught the Portsmouth defence out on several occasions, forcing two good saves out of goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray early in the second half. The passage of play that resulted in the winning goal however was all down to three players finding precision at the perfect time.
In the 79th minute, debutant Josh Sims showed mettle to win possession back around halfway before laying it off and making a run. Ben Whiteman found him down the right wing with a superb pass and the Southampton loanee faced up his defender before squaring for Reece James, who had managed to eek out some space in the penalty area to turn and fire on goal to cap a brilliant move with an excellent winning goal. James will be proud of the finish and of his overall performance - a Man of the Match display in a more advanced left wing role.
2. Subs Make The Difference
Sims was the player at the heart of the goal, and his 63rd minute introduction (alongside Taylor Richards) breathed new life into a Rovers team which had very much been on the backfoot since the second half began. Sims showed the traits expected of an out-and-out winger, tracking up and down the right flank, making a nuisance of himself with opponents and providing the quality in his delivery to the penalty area.
Richards injected a fresh flavour into the performance as well, coming in to the #10 slot in place of James Coppinger to get Rovers onto more of an aggressive footing. He achieved that in two ways, first in his excellent pressing off-the-ball to aid a tiring Okenabirhie and then in the way he got onto the ball and turned defence into attack in a meaningful way, whilst easing some of the distribution burden on Whiteman in order for the captain to pull the strings in possession.
Darren Moore has not always found it easy to transform a game through his substitutes but the decisions made at Fratton Park here paid off handsomely.
3. Bursik Leads Firm Defensive Front
One thing that former centre half Moore has managed to instil within his Doncaster Rovers team is defensive resilience, making the team harder to beat than most others in League One. Rather than managing this by utilising a compact shape in order to stifle, he has made the players at his disposal dogged warriors with energy to burn and a keen willingness to put their bodies on the line. Goalkeeper Joe Bursik typified this latter quality in his best performance to date for the club, appearing confident in the air and alert to save any real chances Portsmouth carved out for themselves.
Tom Anderson and Joe Wright stood up to the challenge once more as well, with Anderson taking a nasty bump over the advertisement hoardings for his troubles and Wright in a constant battle for physical supremacy with striker Ellis Harrison. Full backs Brad Halliday and Cameron John brought tremendous energy and are both improving in their positional and footballing intelligence with each game that comes along. Soon enough, pundits will have to take notice of just how consistent and formidable this Rovers back-line is becoming.
4. Don’t Doubt Darren
Eyebrows were raised at the sight of Darren Moore’s team selection when it was announced at 2 o’clock - including by our editor over on Instagram - yet Moore proved himself a shrewd operator once more by deploying left back Reece James as a winger in his 4-2-3-1 formation. This gambit paid off handsomely as James put in a superb display from wide and scored an excellent goal, also going close in the first half from a tight angle. Leaving new signings Sims and Matt Smith out of the starting line-up also proved worthwhile as the pair came on to good effect when most needed later in the game.
Moore tried this same idea - with James as a winger backed up by Cameron John - away at Sunderland back in January, and it worked that night too as Rovers gave the Black Cats a rough ride and were unfortunate not to win in front of the Sky cameras. Perhaps it is time to give our trust fully over to the man paid to make these calls and accept that such unpredictable moves have paid off more often than they have gone wrong in the year-plus he has been in charge.
5. Marquis a Forlorn Figure
One man fading from view in the eyes of both sets of fans appears to be John Marquis. The striker left an indelible mark during his three years in South Yorkshire but has not found life so smooth on the South Coast. He did net 14 goals last season but only 8 of those were in the league, and he has now lost his place in Kenny Jackett’s starting line-up to Ellis Harrison, but got his chance just after the hour mark when Harrison pulled up with cramp.
Despite playing just as long as the game-changing Sims, Marquis was unable to do a great deal with his time on the field and cut an isolated, forlorn figure by full time. He no doubt would have wanted to impress against his former team, but aside from one half-chance where he found himself crowded out by no less than six Rovers defenders after a save by Bursik from Marcus Harness, the Portsmouth #9 barely got a kick and this underlined the home side’s lack of cutting edge. Would he have thrived in Darren Moore’s Rovers team? Unfortunately we will never know.