• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 0-1 Coventry

It couldn’t last forever. Rovers made the perfect start to 2020 with three straight wins and no goals conceded, so it was perhaps no surprise that the team came unstuck against an impressive Coventry side on a very good run of form themselves. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s frustrating 1-0 home defeat.

1. It All Breaks Down In The Box

This game showcased a familiar flaw in Rovers’ game this season: that for all the intricate passing play we often see in the middle of the park and down the flanks, it usually breaks down once the need to get the ball into the penalty area comes. Rovers simply do not create gilt-edged opportunities for themselves often enough, leading to a near-constant struggle to turn general superiority into goals.

The name of John Marquis is one that we discuss far too much for a player who left six months ago now, which speaks to the difficulty in finding fresh ways to play without that focal point at centre forward. Niall Ennis is an excellent route-runner, striding into channels frequently and linking up well with the attacking midfielders, but the goalscoring hasn’t come for him and his style has a lot to do with that.

This is no criticism of Ennis, who is obviously best suited to either a wide forward role in the mould of Mallik Wilks, or he could function as a support striker in the manner of which we haven’t really seen since Chris Brown and James Hayter were at the club. Rovers frequently rely on efforts from distance, usually from Ben Whiteman or Kieran Sadlier, and this simply isn’t enough to do the damage against the very best League One sides.

Saturday’s game typified this, with Rovers’ best opportunities coming from range: Jon Taylor got into the box on a great right-wing run, laid on by Rakish Bingham, but saw his effort saved. Bingham himself also worked the space for a long-range effort which ex-Rovers stopper Marko Marosi kept out. The team often scores from creating clear-cut opportunities in the area – see Reece James’ winner against Oxford or both goals at Bristol Rovers last week – so Darren Moore must find a way to do this with more regularity.

2. Stand-Offish Rovers Made to Pay

The Rovers rear-guard seemed caught in two minds in their approach to defending against Coventry’s busy attacking front on Saturday, which is uncharacteristic. The recent upturn in form has been built on a foundation of resilience and intelligence in the back-line, but there were numerous guilty parties for the visitors’ best attacks in this game.

Jordan Shipley’s finish for what proved to be the winning goal was an excellent one, striking true into the far corner from 25 yards out. The issue from a Rovers perspective though was that he had so much time to line his shot up, and it came from what was merely a hopeful punt forward from the keeper.

Forward Matt Godden won the header and Shipley simply strode forward as the defence retreated. Joe Wright in particular gave him far too much room in an effort to maintain a defensive line against the run of Godden, who had taken Tom Anderson out of contention. Ben Sheaf failed to track Shipley from the jump and made no real effort to catch him as he broke to score.

This behaviour repeated time and again, with the defence struggling to deal with the Sky Blues in their 3-4-3 formation. Shipley and Callum O’Hare had room to manoeuvre too easily, and the wing backs flourished too, particularly Dominic Hyam who gave Reece James a torrid time, even with the additional support from Sheaf. Rovers must do more when they come up against these good footballing sides who have multiple creative ways of inflicting punishment.

3. The Two Bens Conundrum

Ben Whiteman and Ben Sheaf were off-colour as a unit again against Coventry, a fact which few seem keen to admit. Whiteman has become something of an untouchable figure among the media and many fans alike, and he has been a top performer all season. His status as captain and undoubted quality are not in question, but his influence has grown to the point that when he is not at his best, it affects the whole team.

Saturday wasn’t the first time that the midfield duo have been outmatched, indeed it is threatening to become a worrying trend in home matches. In our previous defeat at home to Sunderland, Whiteman and Madger Gomes (Sheaf was omitted to accommodate James Coppinger) were run ragged by Lynden Gooch and matched blow-for-blow in the physical battle by George Dobson.

Coventry posed the same problem, with O’Hare flitting effortlessly around the Two Bens whilst Mark Robins’ answer in the form of the Two Liams, Kelly and Walsh, showed robusticity and poise in stifling Rovers’ passing game. This allowed O’Hare the time on the ball he needed to influence proceedings, and it worked to a tee. The best example of this came when O’Hare evaded a challenge from Sheaf and created the space to run on and go within the width of a post of doubling the lead.

Clearly, the midfield duo have been a big part of our successes this season, as evidenced in the superb passing sequences that led to the decisive goals at Bristol Rovers which had Whiteman and Sheaf at the heart of them. Adapting to these different physical and technical challenges in games is another conundrum for Darren Moore to ponder, particularly with the transfer window still open.

4. Preaching Patience

This may have read like a negative assessment of the team so far, with Coventry’s victory indicative of some of the ongoing issues plaguing the team. The crux of it though is that these problems are only preventing Rovers from being true promotion contenders, which is not a bad position to find ourselves in at this stage of a rebuilding season. Darren Moore has done a fine job up to now, so why does there seem to be so much discontent brewing among fans?

It would take blinkers of seismic proportions not to see that the squad is thin on depth and, behind the first XI at least, quality. The difficulties of the summer window have been laid bare and debated to death, with no shortage in excuses found for why the club failed to bring a striker in. Moore and the team have done their best then with somewhat limited resources this season, that cannot be denied; reason enough to apply some consideration and be patient with the reshaping going on.

On the pitch, the signs are encouraging. Rovers may not be the swaggering force they became last term under Grant McCann, but without players like Wilks, Marquis and Herbie Kane that is no surprise. Moore has shaped his team into one that can dictate possession for long periods of games and be patient in their probing manner to create. That patience needs to extend to the stands as Moore works his players into the style he desires.

5. Signings, Signings, Signings…

Yes, it’s a broken record at this point, especially with not a single addition materialising in the full three weeks that the January transfer window has been open. Consider then where the pressing needs are in this side, as outlined in the points above regarding the side’s current deficiencies.

Any striker that comes in needs to have a physical presence about them and an ability to link with team mates whilst focusing their attention mainly on finding space in the box. John Marquis is this type of player and is almost impossible to replace for his sheer potency in front of goal, but this sort of player doesn’t have to be a 30-goal striker. Somebody who fits the bill could just be that vital missing ingredient that leads the likes of Ennis, Taylor and Sadlier to higher goal returns themselves.

Behind that, a more physical midfielder would help to alleviate the issues around Whiteman and Sheaf’s somewhat patchy form. It could also provide a better option in matches like against Coventry, where we perhaps have to concede the possession edge and work to create quicker transitions on the counter. Additional depth up front and out wide would allow Moore to make more in-game moves to change games that aren’t going in the team’s favour.

Nobody should expect wholesale changes to the squad in a notoriously tricky time for getting deals done. But a couple of quality, necessary additions between now and the end of the window next week will push Rovers on into real Play-Off contenders instead of the midtable nearly-men that they are threatening to become at the moment.