Darren's Revolution: How Moore Must Build In January
It may only seem like two minutes since the furore over Rovers’ perceived shortcomings in the summer transfer window died down, but in under seven weeks’ time January 1st will arrive and with it will come a renewal of that anticipation, hope and speculation that follows football clubs around during the active market.
Both manager Darren Moore and club CEO Gavin Baldwin have spoken recently of implementing a long-term vision for the playing squad, and so after a difficult, truncated summer period attempting to put the first pieces in place, the upcoming transfer window represents a great opportunity to strengthen a team that isn’t yet where it needs to be to achieve success.
At A Glance: A DRFC Depth Chart
Before looking at what the club need to do in terms of recruitment, it is important to assess the state of play of the current squad. Darren Moore has done his best to bolster a threadbare group, even working outside of the transfer window to bring in two forwards in recent weeks to cover injuries, however there are still problems to solve.
As the below depth chart shows, the squad has decent numbers but little in the way of experience and this is something that must be addressed in January.
Doncaster Rovers Squad Depth Chart
The glaring issue in terms of numbers is at full back as, behind consistently performing duo Brad Halliday and Reece James, there is no back-up. Matty Blair has proven a capable fill-in on the right but this cannot be considered a solution for a player most adept as a winger, whilst it would be risky to ask too much of prospects Danny Amos and Branden Horton, despite Amos putting in a Man of the Match display in the FA Cup last weekend and a new contract for Horton being announced yesterday.
Quality-wise, everyone in the town must know by this stage that Rovers are lacking a proven striker. Niall Ennis has performed admirably as a lone frontman but is new to senior football himself, whilst an injury to Kazaiah Sterling – also a young loanee – has forced Moore to opt for short-term stop-gap players Kwame Thomas and Rakish Bingham.
Bearing this in mind, here are three key aims that Doncaster Rovers must look to solve in the January transfer window.
#1: Sign a striker…
It seems obvious to all onlookers at this point, but the need for a striker is most pressing. When we posed the question on Twitter, every response indicated that that is how Rovers fans feel too, but the work behind the scenes to make this happen has surely been ongoing since the day John Marquis was sold to Portsmouth.
Although Marquis has had a tough time replicating his sparkling form in front of goal for his new side – he has only four goals in 18 appearances this term, compared to nine at the same stage for Rovers last season – it is without question that Darren Moore’s side has missed a centre forward of his calibre.
Niall Ennis has plenty of hustle but doesn’t fulfil the role of a focal point in the same way and hasn’t scored many goals. In truth, he is probably better suited to an inside forward role at this stage of his career akin to Mallik Wilks, with less responsibility in a supporting position, however the lack of alternative options means Ennis is our best option up front when fit.
Some of the Marquis money must still be available for Darren Moore to use in the transfer market, and it would be asinine if the club hadn’t been thoroughly scouting potential signings during the autumn months. The club need a player with a proven goalscoring record at a competitive level, preferably someone with the physical attributes to capably lead the line on his own, and they need to be reasonably affordable.
…but who, exactly?
All of this is easier said than done of course. But there are players out there. Talk of a move for Sheffield United forward Leon Clarke went nowhere in August but looking to experienced players from higher level clubs is a viable avenue, especially with so many young players already on the books, including current first choice strikers Niall Ennis and Kazaiah Sterling.
Whether it be Clarke or another out-of-favour forward such as Cardiff’s Gary Madine, Huddersfield’s Collin Quaner or Millwall’s Tom Elliott, there are several players with plenty of experience and goals in their locker that Darren Moore could turn to. Keeping on the veteran road, ambitious moves for the likes of Jordan Rhodes at neighbours Sheffield Wednesday or even Stoke striker Mame Biram Diouf could be assessed depending on the financial clout the club will have in the window.
Two other players with good records at this level who could also be of interest are Luton’s Elliot Lee, who has barely figured for the Hatters this season despite netting double figures in the side’s title charge last year, or Charlton summer signing Chuks Aneke, who has scored plenty in the lower leagues for MK Dons and Crewe but has been unable to find his way past the Addicks’ established forwards. These are options who are in their mid-20s, just as Marquis was when he signed for Rovers, and who could hit their peak in the next couple of years.
Likewise, lower down the pyramid, physical options with solid records do exist even if they would take some prising away from their clubs. Armand Gnanduillet is known to Darren Moore after netting the late winner for Blackpool at the Keepmoat in September, whilst Bristol Rovers’ talisman Jonson Clarke-Harris, a one-time Rovers loanee, was also talked up plenty in the summer for a potential return.
The players are there, they just need to be assessed and acquired in timely fashion by the club once the window opens. It sounds so straight-forward, doesn’t it?
#2: Sign experience to bolster squad depth
As the depth chart shows, Darren Moore has around two dozen legitimate first team options at his disposal. However, many members of the group are on the younger side, whilst there are also a clutch of players with little game time at this level in addition to six loanees, three of whom are currently set to return to their parent clubs in January. There are exciting young prospects waiting to push through, but striking the balance is important.
This heavy emphasis on unproven youngsters could cost Rovers down the home stretch, and so adding some wise old heads akin to the signing of Andy Griffin in the 2013 title-winning season would be an astute move for Moore. Shedding deadweight like Alex Kiwomya or Will Longbottom, or dropping a loanee such as Donervon Daniels, would give Moore room to manoeuvre in terms of his squad.
As it stands, we are one injury to a full back away from a selection crisis in defence, with very little in the way of relief for first-choice pair Reece James and Brad Halliday. Both have grown into their role as the season has progressed so far but the only alternatives are, respectively, development squad member Danny Amos and winger Matty Blair, who is out with a long-term groin injury anyway.
Bringing in someone with know-how in the league and years of playing at a good level would be invaluable to provide cover and help bring on these bright young defensive talents. Similarly, Madger Gomes is literally the only senior back-up for midfield duo Ben Whiteman and Ben Sheaf, meaning one of the best passing central midfield units in League One is extremely vulnerable in the event of an injury.
Sheaf is also one of the three loan players who will need to sign an extension to stay past New Year, along with first-choice keeper Seny Dieng and Donervon Daniels. Whilst Daniels is expendable providing Cameron John and Joe Wright are fit, Sheaf and Dieng have become integral members of the first team and so Moore must make extending their stay in DN4 a priority or face more mid-season headaches than he already has.
If Moore can sort his loanees out early and decide who isn’t worth keeping from the back-up brigade, his ability to quickly improve the squad with experienced players in these key areas can set Rovers up for a proper Play-Off tilt to the end of the current campaign.
#3: Key players need new contracts
Finally, short-termism must be thrown firmly out the window once the January window opens. Gavin Baldwin recently acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining the club’s long-term player policy with successive summers of forced upheaval, and that is completely understandable. Now that things have stabilised once more in the manager’s office, ensuring this squad has space to grow together is absolutely pivotal.
That must start with bumper new contracts for our existing star men. The club resisted good offers for Ben Whiteman in the summer, and that can now be followed up by handing the captain a wage increase to tie him down for longer. Whiteman is contracted beyond this season, unlike most, but it isn’t enough to kick the can down the road anymore when it comes to player contracts.
Whiteman has become the nucleus of this team under Moore, but he isn’t the only prize asset. Kieran Sadlier and Tom Anderson in particular have stepped up into roles of increased responsibility this season and deserve new contracts that reflect that, as does Alfie May for showing distinct improvement in his ability to work for the team and provide quality from a deeper attacking role. Whilst we’re at it, it goes without saying that James Coppinger should be granted whatever he wishes to extend his career past his 40th birthday.
There is also the matter of short-term signings Kwame Thomas and Rakish Bingham. Both are still vying for the chance to earn a stay beyond January but have acquitted themselves well in their first few weeks at the club. Moore brought them in to fill gaps created by injuries to Ennis and Sterling, so if the latter pair can get back to full health and contribute, they may not be needed. However, the next few weeks may prove that Thomas and Bingham are better bench options to call upon than the likes of Alex Kiwomya.
The Bottom Line
Everyone at the club knows that the current squad is still in a state of flux. There is plenty to improve upon, but solid foundations are in place. Identifying the next main striker for Doncaster Rovers may prove the making of Darren Moore, but adding that experience, sorting the best from the rest and ensuring the best pieces of this squad stay intact and develop together will all go a long way towards turning Rovers from pretender to contender in the next year or two.