• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-1 Milton Keynes

It was another tough afternoon for Rovers this past Saturday as they laboured to a draw with relegation battlers Milton Keynes, extending a run of games in which Darren Moore’s side have been unable to muster a performance to match those at the start of the season. Here are five things we learned from the 1-1 stalemate.

1. John’s maturity shines through

Cameron John marked his first league appearance since September with a decisive goal to earn Rovers a point, capping a Man of the Match performance that reminded us just how good he had been before suffering an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for over two months. The Wolves defender is only 20 years old but plays with a maturity belying his inexperience and is surely the certain choice to partner Tom Anderson in central defence when the big man returns from suspension in a week’s time.

He was sharp at the back both on the ball and in the tackle against MK, bailing out team mates after errors multiple times and arguably doing a better job than playmaker Ben Whiteman at bringing the ball out into midfield on occasion. His tenacity to turn home the late goal as the ball pinged around the near post from Reece James’ tricky delivery showed guts too, and it marked his third goal in only ten outings for Rovers.

Everyone should be delighted to have him back fit, as he improves the team immeasurably.

2. Threadbare squad stretched to break point

Jon Taylor is the latest key player to suffer an injury, pulling his hamstring in training late last week, and was sorely missed on Saturday. His direct style and lively demeanour would have been a game-changer against an MK side content to play at a slower pace, and whilst Alfie May performed admirably in his stead despite suffering a personal loss this week, he simply doesn’t bring the same level of quality to the attacking third as Taylor.

Taylor joins a growing list of players who are or have been absent for chunks of time this season, and it is causing problems for Darren Moore. The squad is thin to begin with, and the manager has admitted as much on several occasions, so additional selection woes starkly illuminate the lack of depth and quality behind the first XI.

Tom Anderson remains suspended, Matty Blair hasn’t been seen in months, and Niall Ennis is just returning from an injury that, coupled with Kazaiah Sterling’s continued absence, has left us devoid of options up front for far too long. It has directly contributed to our loss in form throughout the past month or so, and a run of games into Christmas now represents a significant challenge to the rigours of this young, small squad.

3. Off-day for Whiteman highlights Captain’s influence

Ben Whiteman has been brilliant this season, handed the captain’s armband and given the freedom to truly become Rovers’ primary playmaker in the new manager’s 4-2-3-1 system. However, on the rare occasion he has an off-day, it really shows up the lack of effectiveness the rest of the team possesses. Saturday was one such day, as Whiteman misplaced passes with uncharacteristic regularity, and midfield partner Ben Sheaf’s confidence appeared to plummet as a result.

Sheaf struggled to keep hold of the ball, find team mates with it or transition play competently, perhaps rocked by Whiteman dropping from his usually assured high standards. A Milton Keynes side boasting very little in the way of midfield quality – outside of goalscorer Alex Gilbey – was able to contain the duo comfortably and so it was left to Rovers’ full backs to provide much of the attacking impetus, with predictably barren results.

This assessment isn’t intended to burden the entire responsibility upon Whiteman, but with the continued lack of attacking prowess in the side, his role is amplified somewhat in terms of creating opportunities to score and so his dip in quality meant a less imposing performance from the team. It is surely just a one-off, as Whiteman has far too much quality to make a habit of playing below average, but it did show the need for better support around him from the squad.

4. Bingham, not the answer

Moore has opted to start Rakish Bingham as the lone striker in the past three games having been impressed with his goalscoring cameo off the bench in the FA Cup win over Wimbledon. Bingham has a bit about him and has contributed, but he is clearly no line leader. He doesn’t quite possess the strength or guile to lead the team from the front, and it is unfortunate that he is simply one of several strikers on the books who do not have these required qualities.

He may yet prove to be a fruitful squad pick-up down the line, but Moore must now take Bingham out of the firing line for next weekend’s league trip to Wimbledon. Kwame Thomas did as much in five minutes against Milton Keynes as Bingham did in the whole game, truthfully, and offers a physical presence that makes him a more worthwhile selection as the #9, as he has shown capable of winning aerial battles and bringing others into play.

He too is yet to demonstrate enough quality to merit holding the position long-term, but the imminent return of Niall Ennis to the team plus the January transfer window looming on the horizon mean that hopefully Moore won’t have to rely on either Thomas or Bingham for much longer in that important position.

5. A pressing matter

One of the major tactical talking points after this game was the lack of urgency from Rovers, both in and out of possession. Earlier in the campaign, a high press paid dividends for Moore’s young charges, as the front four did an excellent job of pressuring opposing defences and winning the ball back high up the field. This seems to have deserted the side in recent weeks, and MK profited from it as there patient build-up play yielded plenty of time on the ball and was a key factor in Gilbey’s opening goal.

The ability of the #9 does make a difference to this tactical style, so perhaps the absence of the energetic Ennis has led to a temporary rethink from the manager. However, sitting back and allowing MK’s defence to play the ball out with ease was a poor move and was only highlighted by the fact Rovers keeper Seny Dieng and his defenders often found themselves pressured into hurried, sloppy clearances as a result of their high press. It is a tactic which works on multiple fronts and Rovers must return to it from next week.

Moore spoke of tiredness among the players after a busy week, but these three games have come after a spell of barely playing games at all due to circumstances out of our control. Such a problem must be dealt with swiftly with five important league games coming up between now and New Year’s Day.