• Adam Stubbings

5 Things We Learned: Sunderland 0-0 Rovers

It’s nice when a draw feels like a win. On Friday night, Rovers battled for a point in a very tough game against Sunderland. Not for the first time, the team showed up with a spirited display in front of the Sky TV audience and came away with their reputation enhanced. Here are five things we learned from the 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light.

1. Darren Does It Again

The manager has shown his tactical acumen throughout his tenure at the club so far, as we highlighted in a piece for Playmaker Stats last week, and he did it again to great effect in this game. Knowing that Sunderland would look to stretch the pitch and get behind our back-line with their marauding wing-backs – as they did in the reverse fixture last month – Darren Moore elected to play Cameron John at left back and push Reece James up into an unfamiliar midfield role, a bold tactic which paid off.

James committed himself well going forward, notably when setting up a great double-chance for Rovers in the second half, but was instrumental in keeping the home side’s threat minimised by doubling up with John against Luke O’Nien. Brad Halliday was his usual tenacious self and stood up to the challenge posed by Denver Hume on the opposing flank, and the set-up also allowed the midfield to flourish.

It is refreshing to see a Doncaster Rovers with a clear game-plan to combat teams. Previous manager Grant McCann often spoke of his philosophy that opponents should be adapting to his Rovers side, not the other way around, but Darren puts that prideful approach aside to instead find the best ways of stopping opponents of differing ability and style. It has led to some impressive results in the last month and bodes well for the future of Moore’s Rovers.

2. Another Defensive Masterclass

In what is quickly becoming a trademark of the team, central defensive duo Tom Anderson and Joe Wright were back to their towering best on Friday night. The pair are building quite a partnership at the back and the confidence that the manager must have in them surely helps him to put the responsibility of trying new set-ups into practice across the rest of the team.

Anderson and Wright have been at the heart of this recent run of form Rovers are enjoying, boasting only one goal conceded since the turn of the year and five clean sheets in the last seven games. The television audience got to see first-hand why we have the joint-best defensive record in League One, with Anderson earning the Sky Man of the Match Award for his imperious display.

Sunderland came with a barrage of deliveries from wide areas looking to find their big centre forward Charlie Wyke, but Anderson and Wright met most of them. They also dealt with Wyke’s gamesmanship well, keeping their feet and avoiding being lured into his physical game of brinkmanship. Anderson vociferously applauded referee James Adcock when he booked Wyke for diving after the striker had gone down after being tackled by him, showing again that he is not afraid to be vocal and stand up as a leader at the back.

Seny Dieng also cut his usual relaxed figure in goal and made a game-saving stop in added time from Duncan Watmore, whilst the work of the full backs mentioned above only augmented the complete team performance from this increasingly stubborn Rovers defence.

3. Mentally Sound Rovers Meet the Challenge

One facet of recent meetings with the Black Cats has been a seeming reluctance for Rovers to play the game their way when push comes to shove. Sunderland bullied us in the loss just after Christmas and profited from some seriously slack passing as too many players failed to meet their usual standards. There was a worry going into this rematch that the same would happen, especially in the setting of a large arena and the live scheduling on Sky.

Thankfully, the story was different this time around. Unlike in that prior meeting, or indeed last season’s 2-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light where a toothless Rovers lost their four-match winning run, the visitors stood up to the occasion magnificently and were the better side for large periods of the game, particularly in the first half.

They were strong in the tackle, brave in looking for attacking openings and unwavering in the face of constant pressure late on from the hosts; a welcome sign that the team has confidence and belief in themselves again.

4. Sheaf and Gomes Show Up

Two players who have often been singled out by fans for the wrong reasons this season are Ben Sheaf and Madger Gomes, who have at times shown their inexperience despite some promising moments. It is only fair then that the young midfielders are held up for their superb performances in this game, impressing Rovers fans and neutrals alike with their classy displays in a tough atmosphere.

Sheaf has had his detractors for the risky passing he employs at times but is clearly a talented player with the ability to influence games from his deep midfield position. He often made his counterparts in Sunderland’s central midfield look ordinary with his quick turns, fluid link-up play and incisive forward passing. He and Ben Whiteman marshalled their area of the pitch throughout and forced the home side to regularly bypass their own midfield as a result, earning praise from fans and pundits.

Gomes was drafted in to replace James Coppinger and arguably had his best game in a Rovers shirt, moving well and playing positive football throughout. His responsibilities in attacking areas were increased by the decision to play Reece James on the left of midfield, but Gomes didn’t let this faze him and caused Sunderland’s back-line plenty of problems. He also went close to scoring by forcing a good save out of Jon McLaughlin before Jon Taylor put his follow-up header just wide in Rovers’ best chance to win it.

Both Gomes and Sheaf have demonstrated what they can bring to this side and could prove crucial members of the team as the second half of the season kicks into high gear.

5. The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

The 0-0 scoreline tells two key stories from the Rovers perspective. The first “nil” speaks to the defensive solidity and quality that we possess, but the second “nil” tells a different tale. Although these last two blanks are our first since a 1-0 loss away at then-leaders Wycombe in November, Friday night’s match showed again why Darren Moore is keen to add bodies in the last week of the transfer window.

Creating chances in front of goal hasn’t been a big problem, with Rovers possessing one of the highest percentages in League One in terms of creation. The problem lies in how clinical we are when we get into those situations, and the reality is that we aren’t doing enough. Devoid of true striking options and that ruthlessness that marks out the best from the rest, it has been a struggle at times and this was evident again at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland’s back line coughed up the ball in dangerous areas several times but Rovers were unable to make them pay for them. Niall Ennis put his best opportunity over the bar and again lacked the composure in front of goal that is the only thing holding his game back, as he had another good game in terms of battling with bigger defenders and linking up with midfielders.

Jon Taylor was unable to stay upright when put clean through on the advantage from an Alim Ozturk handball and put his header wide on the rebound from Gomes’ aforementioned effort, whilst the final statistic of just that one shot on target from eight shots shows up where the team is lacking. It must be remedied for the team to be capable of achieving the success the rest of their play merits, so this week is an important one.

Monday’s announcement that Devante Cole has signed from Wigan is a big step in that direction then.


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