• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Rovers 2-0 Shrewsbury

2020 is treating Rovers well so far. Two games have brought two wins and two clean sheets to propel Darren Moore’s side into the top half of the League One table.

Several have talked of the “false position” Rovers have been in owing to their games in hand but Tuesday night’s comfortable win over Shrewsbury in the first of those games has changed the outlook of the season for the better. Here we look at five things worth discussing from the latest victory.

1. Quick off the mark

Scoring early is a trait well worth having in a team, so the sight of Niall Ennis heading in an opener in the fourth minute was a welcome one. The goal was comfortably Rovers’ earliest strike of the season, with only two other goals coming inside the opening quarter of an hour in any game. Ennis scored his only other goal for the club after 13 minutes against Lincoln back in August, whilst Kwame Thomas netted after 12 away at Wimbledon.

In both games Ennis has notched in, the side went on to win the game, and it is thanks in no small part to that early jump in front. Rovers have struggled to break down sides who come to the Keepmoat and look to soak up pressure, often coming unstuck with uninspired attacking play and vulnerability to counter-attacks and set pieces. Quickly going 1-0 up here allowed Rovers to settle into a rhythm and maintain control for large spells without having to take unnecessary risks.

It also meant that Shrewsbury had to come out and play a different game to the one they had planned for. Starting with five across the back and one up-front, Sam Ricketts’ side were forced to engage in a midfield battle they were ill-equipped for, meaning a fruitful night for Ben Sheaf who was able to strangle Ollie Norburn and Sean Goss – positionally and in the tackle, not literally – allowing Rovers to dictate play on both flanks, an area in which they have become formidable.

A composed, sensible display throughout the team was a key factor of course, but all of this was made so much easier by that early goal, fortuitous though it was in parts. If Moore can motivate his players to grasp the initiative from kick-off more often, it will surely lead to more crucial wins.

2. Ennis makes the difference

It is no surprise that Rovers’ recent return to form has coincided with Niall Ennis getting back to full fitness. Although we are yet to find that elusive proven goalscorer to replace John Marquis, Ennis has been head-and-shoulders the best striking option when fit this season. His energetic, exuberant demeanour pulls the entire attacking unit forward and this was sorely missed during his injury absence.

Bagging his second goal for the club against his only former side, the goal spurred Ennis on to what is becoming a trademark busy display. He got at the wobbly Shrews defence time after time, demonstrating how well his reading of the game has come along even since his summer arrival to the club. He also carved out opportunities on goal and was unlucky not to add a second when Max O’Leary made a good save to prevent him slotting home in the second half.

This is the only area where Ennis has not yet excelled, needing to add goals to his excellent all-round play to become a real threat. His ability to link with team mates is superb and will surely lead to many more goalscoring opportunities, but it will take time for a young player. Whilst fans are crying out for a true line-leader to fill the shoes of Marquis, Niall Ennis is showing that he can capably fill that role until such a forward is found.

3. Playing out is the way forward

Another bone of contention for fans to gripe at recently has been the implementation of a dedicated short-passing game from the back. This new style has seen some growing pains, not least when Donervon Daniels failed totally to get to grips with it and conceded a soft goal and an even softer penalty against Burton in the autumn, but Darren has stuck to his guns and it is now beginning to pay dividends as the players learn how to improve upon it.

The motivations for persisting with the short game were there for all to see against Shrewsbury, as Rovers dared their cautious opponents to come at them with several instances of keep-ball between Dieng and his two centre halves. Whilst they didn’t always take the bait, when they did they were duly punished. It drew a defensive side forward and created plenty of space for Rovers to attack – and attack they did.

One instance in the first half saw Seny Dieng get the ball back from Tom Anderson after Shrewsbury sat off. At this point, with murmurs growing in the home crowd, Dieng saw the Shrews’ front-line advance on him and pinged a ball to Reece James on the left wing. No more than ten seconds later, Rovers had worked the ball down the flank in the space created and won a corner.

Darren Moore has continued with this method of distribution since arriving for good reason, clearly signing Dieng on loan to fulfil his need for a modern “sweeper-keeper” and bringing in a ball-playing defender in Cameron John. Playing out from the back is a smart way to draw out cautious teams, and something that Rovers will only get better at the more they do it. Even Pep Guardiola had teething problems implementing it in his first months at Manchester City, but look where they are now with it.

4. Bingham not the answer to Rovers’ bench woes

January is now over a week old and the only movement in the transfer market for Rovers has been outgoings. Three players have left (four if you count forgotten man Kazaiah Sterling) whilst none have come in. An already thin squad is down to the bare bones behind the first XI, so something has to give in the coming days and weeks.

Alfie May’s departure to Cheltenham is an understandable one even if it is sentimentally difficult. Donervon Daniels’ return to parent club Luton is harmless owing to our strong core of central defenders, whilst it was confirmed after the Shrewsbury game that short-term signing Kwame Thomas has also left the club. Nothing vital has been lost but it has left the bench looking as bare as ever and this is something that must be rectified.

The subject of Thomas and fellow patch-up signing Rakish Bingham has been hotly debated among fans. Much derision has befallen the two players, perhaps unfairly at times because they have been brought in to do a job and both performed to their best of their limited abilities. Darren Moore could do little else other than blood youngsters not yet ready for the step-up.

Bingham remains a Rovers player and came on late in the game on Tuesday night. His one impact saw him latching on to a through ball to go clean through on goal in injury time but somehow his pace, or lack thereof, allowed a tired Shrews defence to catch up to him and the chance was completely fluffed, demonstrating why he simply is not the answer.

That Bingham was the most senior player on the Rovers bench says it all. He has not got the quality nor the experience to make a difference during a tough second half of the season, and so reinforcements must be brought in. This goes for several other areas of the team too, with Matty Blair’s return to fitness a much-needed first step towards improving on this issue.

5. Big Tom fast becoming a leader

It has been said a lot lately but it bears repeating: Tom Anderson is a rock. The big defender has come into his own more than any other player this season, stepping into the void left by the loss of Andy Butler superbly. His strength, composure and burgeoning leadership on the field have been vital components of a defence that is now the fourth best in League One, with better still to come it would seem.

Marking his new contract with a gladiatorial display under immense pressure on New Year’s Day, Anderson followed that up against Shrewsbury by marshalling forward Daniel Udoh out of the game to help Rovers to a third win in four, proving his mettle once again by shaking off yet another blow to the face to score a lovely headed goal. It typifies his exemplary attitude to his craft and if he keeps this momentum going will fast become an icon of the club.

Those three clean sheets in four games can be attributed heavily to Anderson’s contribution. In back-to-back home wins now, he has put his body and soul on the line for the cause and is fast becoming one of the premier central defenders in League One. His influence in this team is growing and he has now formed a formidable partnership with Joe Wright to match the one he had at the start of the season with Cameron John.

Darren Moore need not worry about his defensive ranks at present thanks to how they have gelled together and developed around Anderson. They say the best teams have several captains – think of Brown, Quinn and Coppinger assisting Rob Jones in 2013 – and Anderson joins Copps and team captain Ben Whiteman in forming a new leadership group in the current incarnation of Doncaster Rovers.