5 Things We Learned: Rovers 1-2 Portsmouth
Attacking deficiencies were laid bare as Rovers fell to a third late goal in four games, with Ellis Harrison’s superb header giving Portsmouth a victory they barely deserved on the balance of play.
Despite having 62% possession and registering 26 shots on goal including two efforts off the crossbar, a Rovers side devoid of any true striker in the squad of 18 couldn’t make dominance of the play count bringing to an end a seven-game unbeaten run against Pompey, who will be hoping the win kickstarts their stuttering season. Here are five things we learned from the 2-1 defeat.
1. Pushing too hard?
As was the case when searching for a winner against Blackpool, Rovers were caught cold pressing high up the pitch for both goals against Portsmouth. Gareth Evans’ opener was a classic counter-attack, as a lightning break started by Marcus Harness and primarily carried forward by Ben Close was finished by Evans under the onrushing Seny Dieng on the hour mark. Rovers conceded this goal from their own corner, a criminal lapse in solidity that speaks to the overwhelming desire of Darren Moore’s team to press forward as often as possible.
Blackpool’s winner came from a misplaced pass into the attacking third by Ben Whiteman, and it was the captain who again set this opposition sucker-punch in motion. Waving a leg at a 50/50 high ball with Harness and losing, Reece James then ran under the flight of the bouncing ball forward allowing Close a free run up the pitch, easily combining with Evans as Brad Halliday and Tom Anderson couldn’t quite get back in time. Two momentary errors from Rovers players cost dear here, undoing plenty of excellent good work during the rest of the game.
After James made the pressure tell and equalised with an opportunistic half volley in the 82nd minute, it looked like only one side would win it and that was Rovers. Portsmouth managed only one foray forward after that but it resulted in the winning goal, as Pompey enacted a bit of patient play across the field akin to how Rovers had controlled possession for much of the afternoon, before right back James Bolton sent over a tricky cross to the edge of the penalty area and Harrison looped a fine header into the far corner over the powerless Dieng.
The defence has largely been very solid and composed so far this season without registering many clean sheets, but moments like the ones that cost both goals here need ironing out. More cohesion between the back line and the eager midfield, who do so much to support the attack but as a result leave these gaps behind, must be fostered in the coming weeks or else the excellent work done to improve our proficiency on the ball will count for little.
2. Pass, pass, pass…
It is a largely positive story when it comes to the team’s technical and physical ability when in possession. In just a few short months, Darren Moore and his coaching staff have refined the in-your-face, direct style implemented by Grant McCann to craft a side that is eminently comfortable in possession and always on the front foot. Switching to a more balanced 4-2-3-1 set-up has allowed Ben Whiteman to really flourish as a playmaker alongside the protective but dynamic Ben Sheaf, whilst the direct running of the forwards surrounding James Coppinger and his incomparable technical talents has made for some exciting, effective displays.
This was in full effect on Saturday as Portsmouth struggled to live with us at times, particularly Coppinger, who left opposition players trailing in his wake on multiple occasions. It made for an afternoon of ample chances on goal and plenty of possession, but once again failed to yield the number of goals the performance up to the penalty area deserved. The best sides turn these sorts of performances into consistent victories so it is telling that Rovers are yet to find themselves winning with regularity and troubling the promotion places in the table.
3. Attacking options too limited
Primarily, the above issue has been caused by the lack of experience in attack which has been written about ad nauseum since the season began. John Marquis’ goals having departed for Portsmouth at the end of July combined with the failure of the club to land a suitable replacement in the month they had to do so has hampered the side and will unfortunately continue to do so until at least January when the transfer window re-opens and Darren Moore can get to work finding that elusive centre forward to finish off these chances.
Injuries are the other factor, an inevitability that was always going to rear its head at some stage this season. Only two out-and-out strikers currently exist within the senior squad, and they are both injured. Niall Ennis has been a bright spark playing as the #9 this season but the youngster is no natural finisher, with only one goal to his name so far, and his deputy Kazaiah Sterling has been sidelined by a dead leg since going off in the derby against Rotherham.
Kieran Sadlier took up the mantle on Saturday but was not able to have a fruitful afternoon, squandering his only clear-cut opportunity by failing to get a controlled shot off after a great run to the back post from a Coppinger cross in the first half, and finding himself far more effective at his usual role of providing others with chances. He laid on Alfie May to rattle the crossbar and generally did well with his back to goal but was operating slightly deeper than a central striker ordinarily would and is a much bigger asset to the team playing wide.
Rovers signed Kwame Thomas to bolster the attacking ranks last Friday and he is likely to debut in tonight’s EFL Trophy game at Rotherham. Standing 6’3”, Thomas is a different sort of option that we are crying out for but his pedigree at senior level is lacking despite earning international honours for England at youth level. Behind that, the brightest name in the development squad is Rieves Boocock, currently on loan at Frickley, whilst Alex Kiwomya remained seated on the bench against Pompey with Moore preferring to throw centre half Joe Wright on as an emergency striker in injury time.
4. Marquis a forlorn figure on return
The goals and endeavour of John Marquis are sorely missed then, but the man himself did not show much of the battling quality that made him a firm favourite over the last three years upon his return. Starting as the lone striker for Portsmouth on Saturday, Marquis struggled to have an impact on the game with a meek effort straight at Dieng the best he could muster. Hooked at half time to ironic cheers from a home crowd relieved he hadn’t punished us, manager Kenny Jackett later revealed a bruised toe had forced his withdrawal.
His replacement Ellis Harrison netted the winner in the end but didn’t have it all his own way himself. For the majority of his 45 minute display he was kept quiet by Tom Anderson, who won almost every aerial duel with the physical forward. It was Donervon Daniels who Harrison got across to head home the winner and in truth, few defenders would have been able to do any more to stop him as a difficult short cross was guided expertly over the keeper by Harrison.
5. Individuals improving
To end on a positive note, the individual displays of several players are clearly improving with each passing game which can only bode well for the future. Brad Halliday is beginning to show why the club picked him up from Cambridge in the summer, overcoming a shaky start to life in a red and white shirt to excel as one of our best performers of the last few games.
Halliday is solid positionally compared to when he first arrived and is contributing regularly to attacks, as is left-sided counterpart Reece James who took his first Rovers goal well to equalise here. Aside from his error leading to the Portsmouth opener, James had a good afternoon marshalling Marcus Harness and got in behind right back James Bolton on numerous occasions to lay on attacking moves.
Ben Sheaf, meanwhile, looks a more mature player each week. He is still making naïve errors with his short passing at times but this is usually occurring higher up in the opposition half rather than in areas of immediate danger, and his auxiliary support for his midfield partner is allowing Ben Whiteman to exert growing influence on attacking proceedings too. The most consistent of our young loanees so far, Sheaf looks every bit a student of the Arsenal academy and could yet prove a very shrewd acquisition.