• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-1 Accrington

Another home draw, another lead squandered. As form continues to decline and performances fail to satisfy, the questions mount for Darren Moore and how he and this frustrated Rovers team find a way out of the hole they are digging themselves. Here are five things we learned from the 1-1 draw with Accrington Stanley.

1. Whiteman too important to miss

The manager had little control over his biggest problem yesterday – that being the absence through injury of Ben Whiteman. The captain’s unavailability was a surprise when the teams were revealed but Moore’s trait of keeping his cards close to his chest was a smart one in this instance, as Accrington had clearly game-planned for Whiteman’s presence and so did not do much to capitalise on Rovers’ compromised midfield.

Even so, Rovers simply did not have the poise that Whiteman brings to the middle of the park with deputy pairing Madger Gomes and Ben Sheaf. Sheaf clearly benefits each week from playing alongside such an accomplished League One player and he did not have this safety net on Saturday, leading to an error-strewn and difficult performance from the Arsenal loanee.

His short passing remained a major issue, with the simplest of balls not finding team mates and some slow thinking leading to turnovers in possession on several occasions. Sheaf is clearly a technically good young player but in nearly five months of regular game time for Rovers he is yet to understand the difference in time on the ball and decision-making between the U23 league and senior professional football. This has to be a concern which is the only obstacle to him earning an extension to the end of the season on his current loan deal.

Gomes on the other hand grew into the game and showed his willingness to contribute at both ends of the field. Whilst he struggled to impose his qualities in an inconsistent first half, he came on strong in the second half as a midfield presence and crucially made sure he won the ball – not once but twice – outside Rovers’ own area to set away the breakaway which led to Jon Taylor’s goal.

His link-up play was stronger than Sheaf’s on the whole and, whilst he suffered from the same lack of nous and confidence in the final third that is afflicting most of the side at present, he deserves credit for stepping into a difficult role and performing solidly. It is clear to see however that he and Sheaf between them are unable to match the contribution that Whiteman brings on his own.

2. A side devoid of cutting edge

Whilst it certainly isn’t anything new that this Rovers side sorely misses a proper, effective centre forward, the responsibility for finishing chances cannot fall solely on the striker. Debates over Kwame Thomas and his actual quality (or lack thereof) aside, this team just cannot work out how to be a true threat in the attacking third and it is something that currently runs throughout the whole team.

Build-up play into the front line is often good, with movement and passing through the middle and transitions from defence to attack causing numerous problems for opponents. It has been a source of success all season and led Rovers to having the highest chance conversion rate in the division at the start of November.

However, our loss of form has coincided with a real inability to get the ball into the penalty area enough, as the team struggles to be incisive or direct enough to carve out high percentage opportunities on goal. Thomas barely gets a shot off in games, whilst Jon Taylor has accrued a number of misses from fantastic scoring opportunities this season. Ben Whiteman and Kieran Sadlier, who remains the team’s top scorer, are largely restricted to shots from outside the box.

Simply put, this side cannot turn creation into goals. January presents a chance that Rovers must take to find a goalscorer, and if possible, someone to unlock defences in a way we haven’t seen since the departure of Mallik Wilks. The current crop of forwards just doesn’t have enough to do either and without these additions Rovers’ hopes of a Play-Off push – and perhaps even a top half finish – will remain unattainable goals.

3. Sadlier still out of sorts – why?

He is the team’s leading scorer this season but Kieran Sadlier hasn’t scored in four games, all fixtures Rovers have failed to win. After a blistering start to the campaign in front of goal playing as a makeshift centre forward, followed by an inconsistent spell on the right-hand side that saw him briefly dropped to the bench, many felt moving the Irishman back to his favoured left wing position would yield dividends.

Initially this proved the case as Sadlier netted in three consecutive games coming in off the left flank, but the goals have dried up and so have the chances. Jon Taylor has seen his importance grow but whilst he is more of an up-and-down winger who relies on tenacity and running in behind defences, Sadlier should be a creative spark that stretches opposing back-lines. Right now this just isn’t happening.

It was Sadlier who went closest to opening the scoring for Rovers in the first half against Accrington, unleashing a snap volley from the edge of the area that was well saved by Josef Bursik. This was the best chance he got throughout the afternoon though, which sums up his recent contributions. He has not been able to get into the area, somewhere he is clearly potent, and Darren Moore needs to rectify this and get Sadlier firing once again.

His confidence appears to be dropping, and it is to be hoped this is solely down to the lack of productivity on the field rather than any off-field issues (such as a new contract which is expected to be in the pipeline) which may be affecting him. He is now playing in his most suited position but has not linked up with Reece James behind or the striker ahead of him well enough.

Fortunately, the fixture list may have handed Sadlier the motivation that he needs to get back to his best. His former club Peterborough are up next, an opponent who Sadlier has torn to shreds on two occasions in a Rovers shirt this year. A chance to stick it to the Posh and give Rovers a late Christmas present is one he will surely want to take on Boxing Day.

4. Cameron John will go far

Obvious deficiencies in another lacklustre team performance aside, there are still positives worth gleaning. One such plus is the continued good form of Cameron John, who has not missed a beat since coming back from a long injury lay-off a couple of weeks ago. The Wolves loanee was imperious again at centre half and stepped up admirably when asked to play at left back in the second half.

Boosted by the return from suspension of Tom Anderson, John showed why he and the man dubbed the “Burnley Beckenbauer” by John Coyle yesterday are our strongest pairing in the heart of defence. Composed on the ball and in the air, John was solid as a rock and unflappable in the face of a nuisance Accrington forward line.

After the break, John shifted to left back as Darren Moore withdrew Reece James, and John committed himself well to get forward frequently in an unfamiliar role. His accuracy and decision-making in the final third was not what it needed to be to justify this tactical switch, but this is no knock on John himself as it is not his strength.

Retaining him for the rest of this season is pivotal to Rovers’ chances of making anything of the 2019/20 campaign as his ability and mentality shine through in every outing he gets. Much like recent loan stars Herbie Kane and Mallik Wilks, there is plenty to suggest the materials are all there to lead John on to a very fruitful career at a high level in the game.

5. Rovers need an attitude adjustment

Accrington Stanley are a tough side to play against, as John Coleman augments his side’s technical abilities and togetherness with a large dose of gamesmanship. This has always been the case, as fans who remember a war at Belle Vue in 2006 against Coleman’s Stanley can attest, but the constant chipping away at Rovers in this latest clash highlighted something intangible that disappeared from the side when Grant McCann departed the manager’s chair.

McCann made Rovers a bullish, cocky side and it paid off. What started as simply a tactic that earned yellow cards in abundance became a calling card for McCann’s “blood and thunder” style, as a side full of quality also had an attitude to it that caused opponents as much of a challenge as stopping the football abilities of the team’s better players.

Every game was a battle. Us against them. It got the best out of personalities like Wilks, John Marquis and Andy Butler. Darren Moore has instilled a level of respect and tactical discipline in his fledgling Rovers side but it appears to have come at the expense of that mental “edge”.

This is not to say that Moore is inferior to McCann as a manager, he simply has a different style, but it would help Rovers in breaking down sides like Accrington better if they competed in this side of the game as well as in technical areas. A young side is likely to be more naïve than one filled with experienced pros, so it could just take a couple of well-placed older signings to bring back something resembling this attitude and push the team on to a higher level of performance and results.