5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-1 Gillingham
A respectable draw to open the season gets Doncaster Rovers up and running under Darren Moore, with an unfamiliar set of hooped players providing plenty of talking points. Here we look at five things to glean from Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Gillingham.
1. Possession is 9/10ths of the law for Moore
Two big decisions by Darren Moore made in his first few weeks as Rovers manager are central to how it appears we’ll look to play the game this season. His first signing, rubber-stamped less than 48 hours after his arrival, was that of versatile midfielder Ben Sheaf. The Arsenal academy graduate can play at the base of the midfield or in central defence, but throughout pre-season he has impressed as one of two holding midfielders. His foil is the new team captain Ben Whiteman, a player who has made himself integral to our plans and fully justified the board finding extra money to fund a permanent move from Sheffield United 18 months ago.
Rovers had 64% possession of the football against Gillingham, and these two were at the heart of it all. Whiteman was the playmaker, leading the passing stats and acting as the constant director of proceedings for the home side when on the ball. It was Whiteman who laid the ball on for James Coppinger to set up Kieran Sadlier for the equaliser, and Whiteman also went close on a couple of occasions with chances of his own, including one that flashed narrowly wide in injury time. Sheaf grew into the game as it went on, recovering from a couple of bad errors conceding possession when he thought he had more time on the ball than he actually did, and played some excellent cross-field passes to launch attacks particularly down the right hand side.
If these two can build a strong understanding together, we may be in for a treat this season. Rovers looked to play precise passing football wherever they could and a solid, technically proficient midfield is vital to making this method of play work. In Sheaf and Whiteman, Darren Moore may have found the perfect combination to maximise the effectiveness of his preferred footballing style.
2. A centre forward is crucial to our hopes
There is a dearth of traditional strikers at the club currently. Portsmouth’s move for John Marquis on the eve of the season has left Rovers in a bit of a bind, but they have coped admirably so far. Kieran Sadlier was played as the makeshift centre forward against Gillingham and he justified that selection by scoring a sumptuous volleyed goal in first half stoppage time to even the game up after Alex Jakubiak had opened his account for the Gills earlier on, but we cannot expect to operate with Sadlier as a ‘false 9’ for the duration of the season.
Sadlier reverted to the familiar role on the outside of the attacking midfield trio when Wolves loanee Niall Ennis was introduced for the last half hour of the match, and here his movement and ability to combine with team mates highlighted why he could be such an asset in support of a dedicated centre forward. Ennis himself appears to be more of a fluid front man in the mould of Mallik Wilks, showing off his pace, strength and determination on numerous occasions along with a helping of youthful confidence in his own technical abilities, but he didn’t lead the line like a lone frontman often does. Marquis excelled at this, spearheading the Rovers attack with his busy, needling style and finding a more comparable replacement will be top of Darren Moore’s list when approaching the final weeks of the summer transfer window.
3. Alfie May can find a place in this team
The nature of our attack still being missing important pieces of the puzzle could be a blessing in disguise, particularly for Alfie May. The diminutive southerner has been something of a marmite player among fans since bedding in to the team two years ago, with his infectious energy and underdog story endearing him to many despite a lack of goals and occasional dramatic losses of form. The truth is, May has not been afforded much in the way of a sustained run as a first team regular to blossom into a more rounded contributor but may now be able to carve out a place as an attacking midfielder rather than as a striker, despite joining the club with a remarkably high goalscoring rate in non-league.
May’s biggest assets are his energy, movement both on and off the ball, and his intelligence to link-up play in the final third. These are all strengths of an attacking midfielder or supporting forward than of the main target man, and with May’s size counting against him when tasked with leading the line for Rovers, it is surely imperative to play him to those strengths. He excelled on Saturday and was many people’s pick for Man of the Match, a constant thorn in the side of Gillingham’s defence with his sharp movement, short passing range and willingness to attack the channels. He also came closest to winning the game for Rovers with an excellent cut inside and shot from 20 yards in the second half and went close again from close in late on.
Even if Jamie Ward or another wide forward is brought in, there is no reason why Alfie May can’t seize the opportunity given to him out the gate by Darren Moore and make a place in the starting line-up his own going forward.
4. New full-backs provide balance and width
One thing the new boss didn’t need to do when he came in to the club was scout for new full backs. Predecessor Grant McCann had already moved to replace Danny Andrew with Reece James, bought from Sunderland the week of his departure to become Hull manager, and recruited Brad Halliday to solve the right back conundrum that had been an issue since the sacking of Niall Mason. Having a natural balance to the back four makes a huge difference to the overall positional discipline of the team, and both James and Halliday contributed well on their league debuts for the club.
James was adept at linking up with his midfield counterpart (which alternated between Madger Gomes, Alfie May and Kieran Sadlier throughout the game) and held his position well off the ball aside from being part of the collective concentration slip that let Gillingham in for the opening goal down James’ side. Halliday was one of the more noticeable players in the game, surging forward at every opportunity and carving out a number of good chances, particularly in setting up Gomes for an effort that nearly put Rovers ahead. He was strong in the tackle and marshalled his winger expertly, demonstrating a maturity beyond his years and experience level.
Given time to build a rapport with the rest of the squad, these two could be real assets for the club as we look to build an almost completely new defensive core under Darren Moore.
5. James Coppinger is still the man
He will be 39 by the end of this season, but James Coppinger shows absolutely no sign of slowing down as he embarks on his 16th season in a Doncaster Rovers shirt. Coppinger remains one of the most technically gifted players in League One and picked up where he left off last season – contributing 15 assists – by setting up Kieran Sadlier for Rovers’ goal. It was vintage Copps, swivelling away from a defender and putting a pinpoint cross onto Sadlier’s boot as he ran across his man and volleyed in from the edge of the six-yard box. Coppinger was the only man on the field capable of that ball and he provided it to underline his lasting importance to the side.
Coppinger played 80 minutes against Gillingham and maintained his influence on proceedings throughout, ghosting past opposition players with consummate ease on multiple occasions, drawing fouls at least three times setting up free kicks in dangerous positions. He was also a set piece provider, most notably in the second half when his delivery found the head of Alex Baptiste, who headed just past the post in search of the winning goal. Most of us don’t need reminding, but it is plain to see that age is just a number where Coppinger is concerned, and it appears he has already made himself indispensable to new manager Darren Moore just as he did the previous seven that he has played under for this club.