• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Shrewsbury 1-0 Rovers

Doncaster Rovers’ season took another downturn this weekend, as Shrewsbury ended a ten-game winless run in the league by defeating Darren Moore’s side 1-0, compounding a miserable week which has seen the task to reach the top six become a gargantuan one.

Last week’s loss at Gillingham was galling enough, with Rovers having squandered a lead with two own goals and a needless red card, and the importance of earning something in Shropshire increased when the Gills and Oxford both won in midweek.

Alas, Rovers looked disjointed and lacking impetus at the Montgomery Waters Meadow, eventually going down to David Edwards’ 76th minute header. Having braved the blustery weather to witness the game, here are five things we learned from Rovers’ 1-0 loss to Shrewsbury.

1. The Trouble with Tinkering

Manager Darren Moore changed it up again following the Gillingham loss, opting for a fresh formation and making two changes. One of those changes was a forced one, with Devante Cole replacing the suspended Fejiri Okenabirhie, whilst James Coppinger retured to the starting XI in place of Matty Blair, who himself was a surprise inclusion against Steve Evans’ outfit.

The system change was more of an eyebrow-raiser though, with Moore opting for a 4-4-2 Diamond that morphed into something of a fluid 4-3-3 out of possession, with Coppinger the spearhead. The switch worked in respect to possession, with Rovers enjoying space in midfield throughout the game, but a two-pronged front-line of Cole and Niall Ennis did not offer much in the way of goalscoring opportunities.

Indeed, the gaffer is becoming something of a “Tinkerman” as his first season at the club progresses, with the Shrewsbury game marking the tenth straight game at least one change was made. This is down to a number of factors, including injuries and the integration of new players, but it does represent a growing issue for Rovers as form has faltered through recent weeks.

Inconsistency has plagued the side throughout the campaign, with Saturday’s defeat even marking the first time in that ten game stretch that the result has matched the previous one, and it was back-to-back league defeats for the first time since October to boot. The constant chopping-and-changing cannot be helping matters, particularly along the front four where nobody has really had a good run of starts lately.

Darren perhaps needs to take things back to basics, especially as reverting to the tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 formation worked in the second half at Shrewsbury. Top scorer Kieran Sadlier, a baffling omission from the starting line-up again, stretched the play when he came on, and his introduction alongside Jon Taylor in altering the formation led to more space, more incisive play in the attacking third and more outright chances to score, even if Rovers failed to take those opportunities.

Experimenting to find your best combinations and assess new arrivals is all well and good, but the Ranieriesque tinkering is not doing the side any favours of late and should perhaps be abandoned in favour of a consistent set-up and selection until such times as the Play-Offs are completely out of reach.

2. Sinking to Their Level

Another conundrum from the manager in his tactical approach is that of combatting the opposition. One of the chief reasons Darren Moore has given throughout the season for the regular alterations discussed above is that he picks a side to stop the next opponent rather than simply picking his best 11 players or keeping a winning side the same. This is a noble approach and it has absolutely worked at times, but we saw the worst side of the philosophy against Shrewsbury.

Rovers’ best tactical displays this season have almost all been against sides high up the table. Peterborough have been completely outplayed twice by Darren Moore’s boys in 2019/20, whilst Oxford left Lakeside with nothing on New Year’s Day and the team’s efforts in stifling Sunderland last month were praised widely. It is against so-called lesser teams that we seem to have more of an issue and where Darren should rethink his priorities when it comes to the tactical approach.

The truth is that Rovers have made a real meal out of earning wins against basement sides for the most part this season. Bolton were gifted a route back into a game they had no right to be in just a few weeks ago, whilst Rochdale, Accrington and Milton Keynes have all come away from the Keepmoat with draws they scarcely deserved. Instead of setting our stall out and daring the opposition to stop us, we have instead descended to the level of more rudimentary sides and lost the ability to play our own brand of football.

Although the windy weather played a major role in the first half stalemate at Shrewsbury, the fact that Rovers players got drawn into the physical, churlish game deployed by Sam Ricketts and his charges is a mark against the mentality of our squad. The Shrews lacked imagination on the ball and were riling up as many red-and-white shirts as they could off of it, and it worked. We struggled to find any rhythm and as a result floundered in front of goal.

Perhaps it would pay to be braver going forward. Grant McCann had his flaws, but he always set his Rovers side up to go out and play fearless football with a swagger, saying “we’re coming at you, try and stop us”. Darren Moore is a different sort of manager, a more cerebral thinker of the tactical game but how he sends his players out mentally is still a bit of a mystery.

3. Ramsey Has Room to Flourish

A valid reason for the team’s recent inconsistency comes from the fact four new players have been bedding in to the squad for the past four weeks, but Jacob Ramsey in particular has hit the ground running. A bold young player with the air of freedom always present in elite level academy stand-outs, Ramsey showed again on Saturday why he is so highly thought of. His display in central midfield was one of intelligence and guile, something Rovers have lacked all too often in that area in the past.

Darren Moore singled him out as the best player on the pitch afterwards, and he was right to do so. Ramsey constantly found pockets of space to take up threatening positions in the opposition half, was unafraid to run with the ball towards the penalty area – a vital attribute with Kieran Sadlier sat on the bench – and was unlucky to see a second half driver cannon back off the post. On another day he would have been the match winner.

Ramsey is far from the finished article, no surprise for an 18-year-old, but he is someone who should be persisted with in the final 12 games of the season. He was a passenger against Rochdale but took control of the game at Tranmere and looks well capable of doing that more often than not at this level. If Rovers are to start next season still in League One, they could do a lot worse than bring Ramsey into the fold for a full season to develop under Darren Moore.

4. Defensive Posture

Although Ramsey was the gaffer’s stand-out, we awarded our Man of the Match award to Joe Wright. In a game where the back four had to constantly deal with robust physical players looking to cause trouble, Wright stood up to it time after time and gave a good account of himself with a mature individual display, particularly in the first half when the wind was causing havoc with every high ball.

Wright is growing into his role alongside Tom Anderson all the time and it was no different at Shrewsbury, with Big Tom having to settle with being the second best player in the unit for a change. The back four on the whole continue to thrive as a collective, but question marks do remain over the left back position now Reece James is sidelined by the nasty shin injury he received against Bolton.

Darren Moore was right to stick with Cameron John after the Wolves loanee’s horror show at Gillingham in scoring two own goals, as his confidence would have been shattered otherwise. However, John is clearly not comfortable in the full back role defensively and was caught in a tangle on several occasions again. In attack, John contributed well and would have equalised late on if not for the excellent reactions of Shrews keeper Max O’Leary, but he is becoming a target on the back foot.

It is out of necessity that John is playing this role but Danny Amos is waiting for his chance, and he has shown already that he has the attributes to step up to the senior level. As Rovers’ hopes of the top six fade away, it may be wise for Darren to take John out of the firing line and give Amos a go for an extended spell in the team.

5. An Ambition Adjustment?

These two defeats coupled with results elsewhere have left Rovers staring down a premature end to their season. A fortnight ago, we were eyeing up the top six with genuine anticipation. Now, six points off the Play-Offs and down to 11th in the table, the situation looks far more difficult. It was already a challenge to break into the promotion pack but the form of others coupled with a return to the inconsistency which dogged Darren Moore’s men prior to Christmas has only made that challenge all the more daunting.

Expectations have risen and fallen regularly throughout the season, with Rovers proving a very streaky side and issues regarding squad depth and experience recurring to make for some truly frustrating spells. The woes of last summer are well, well documented now and don’t need a retread, but they are justifiable reasons why a return to the post-season shake-up has been unlikely from the jump.

Is it the end of the world if we don’t finish in the top six? Not at all. A solid, respectable finish in and amongst the chasing pack, at least in the top ten, should be classed as a successful season in terms of laying the foundation for what’s to come. Plenty of positives have been borne out of the 2019/20 season so far and a good run between now and May would set us up nicely for next season and bring some genuine widespread optimism back to the club that has been sorely lacking for the past eight or nine months.