5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-0 Lincoln
Just like that, Doncaster Rovers are back on the up. Darren Moore needed to see change in his charges after two disappointing defeats in the week leading up to Saturday’s clash with rivals Lincoln and he got exactly that as an unusual looking Reds team saw off the league leaders courtesy of a top class goal from captain Ben Whiteman.
There is plenty to unpack from the game so without further ado, here are five things we learned from the victory over the Imps.
1. A Holy Trinity Begins to Form
Rovers edged a tight game with a moment of magic in the first half, and three of the four players at the heart of that winner are fast becoming a deadly trio across the midfield. Josh Sims started the move with an astute pass off the left into midfield for Ben Whiteman, who played a first time ball forward to Jon Taylor. As the captain ran on, Taylor flicked it up for Matt Smith to chest on back to Whiteman, who took a touch before rifling a beauty of an effort with his left-footed over the keeper and into the net.
It was a goal worthy of winning a game at any level, and whilst it owed a lot to the skill of Taylor in the midst of it, it is the overall efforts of messrs Whiteman, Sims and Smith that stood out most throughout the game. The Deadline Day duo have added so much in terms of creativity and guile to Moore’s side and provided vital options in the wake of a clutch of injuries to midfield players over recent weeks, with Smith in particular shining bright against Lincoln in a more advanced position than we’re used to seeing him operate in.
Sims went close with a measured effort aiming for the far corner early on and also squandered a golden opportunity when placed to head home at the back post from a Smith cross but elected to play it back across goal instead, but his overall contribution is undoubted in these opening few games for Rovers. Whiteman meanwhile continues to shine, demonstrating quality at both ends of the field to make vital contributions that earned him ITEN’s Man of the Match award for the third game running.
The chemistry between these players will only continue to improve which spells danger for the rest of League One.
2. Okenabirhie Makes the Best of It
Fejiri Okenabirhie meanwhile was something of an unsung hero against Lincoln, providing plenty of admirable work in pursuit of the victory even if chances rarely came his way. He did skew a header wide in the second half after a good jump but was otherwise limited in front of goal, but held the ball up superbly against composed Imps defensive duo Adam Jackson and Lewis Montsma and put in a real shift, knowing he would have to do so for 90 minutes once again with no fit alternative to come on from the bench in attack.
Rovers weren’t as clinical as they’d like to be again when the chances came, but this was far from Okenabirhie’s burden to bear. Jon Taylor showed his usual tenacity on a number of excellent runs and got in behind left back Tayo Edun to latch onto a perfectly weighted through ball from Whiteman only to be denied at close range by Lincoln keeper Alex Palmer, whilst Sims missed a couple of chances and Reece James put a pair of chances off target when well placed.
In truth, Okenabirhie looked isolated as the game wore on, perhaps missing the presence of a dedicated #10 due to the reworked midfield featuring James in the middle and Matt Smith further forward. On another day, the influence of a James Coppinger of Taylor Richards could have borne fruit in front of goal for Fejiri.
3. It's Almost Like Watching Brazil
Moore took the opportunity to rotate his squad again, opting for a couple of unorthodox selections in playing left back Reece James as a central midfielder - his third dedicated position of the season - and centre half Joe Wright at right back, a position he has very rarely played but notably did well in at Charlton in the Play-Offs after a lengthy injury lay-off. The choice bewildered many observers yet led to victory and only a second clean sheet of the season, proving once again that the manager is right to be bold in some of these tactical decisions.
The defence particularly should take major heart from how they played, standing up to a quality footballing side who asked many questions of them and looking robust in the process. Cameron John looked comfortable finally back in his dedicated central role, whilst Danny Amos played well on his first start of the season. Wright was asked to do a lot but outstripped expectations to continue what has been an impressive start to the campaign for the Monk Fryston native.
It wasn’t quite like watching Brazil but it was much more than a functional display, and Moore was clearly out to play some tricks on his opposite number (and good friend) Michael Appleton with this set-up, as noted additionally by the fact the players warmed up in a completely different defensive order.
4. Bursik a Work in Progress
Goalkeeper Joe Bursik comes highly rated but his loan spell has been one of comfortable indifference so far. The qualities undoubtedly are there but Darren Moore and goalkeeping coach Paul Gerrard clearly have some polishing up of this rough diamond to do. Yes, Rovers fans were spoiled by the sheer consistency and quality of Seny Dieng last season, as proven by the fact the Swiss stopper is now first choice at QPR in the Championship, and Bursik is only 20 years old, but he is beginning to show patterns of behaviour on the field that may cause concern.
He is one of the modern breed of keepers which Moore likes in his team, but for every inch-perfect goal kick sent to the winger he sends one hurtling into the stands, with a couple at crucial times on Saturday when Rovers needed to alleviate growing pressure from the visitors. He also can make poor decisions - as any young player tends to regardless of position - such as in completely missing a cross in the second half that allowed Theo Archibald a glorious opportunity to equalise which he did not take.
These are all things he can iron out but if Rovers are to compete for promotion genuinely this term he will need to find that extra level, especially with homegrown talent Louis Jones waiting in the wings for his chance in the league.
5. Rovers Capable of Beating Anyone...But Need Consistency
Add Lincoln to the growing list of fancied teams coming away defeated from a battle with Rovers. Charlton were soundly beaten away from home, Portsmouth dispatched in kind and Ipswich decimated in the end a couple of weeks ago. On their best day, Rovers can see off any side in League One but they are yet to find the key to consistency to make themselves bona fide promotion contenders. This week has shown up the true Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team at this point in their progress, but there is much more to shout about than grown right now.
Rovers were unfortunate against Crewe yet abject in defeat at Plymouth three days later. Very little good came out of that performance, and Brad Halliday paid the price with his first time on the bench in the league since signing over a year ago, but Moore’s alterations worked a treat against a side in top form and ahead of the rest going into the game. If key players can get (and stay) fit, if Moore can find his best XI and if they can all pull together to get on a real run of form soon, then it is all to play for in 2020/21.