• Adam Stubbings

Does Fergie know his best XI?

Updated: Jul 16, 2019


Houghton Key to Spinal Fluidity

The most important thing to do when assessing any team of 11 players is to make sure that team has a strong spine. Not in the mental sense but in the tactical sense, as a consistent, capable centre of the side allows more focus to go to the creative outlets on either side that ultimately play the biggest part in scoring goals and therefore winning matches. There is no doubt that Ian Lawlor has claimed the #1 shirt for himself, and not just on the back of the programme. Lawlor has proven himself a strong all-round goalkeeper since his January arrival from Man City, edging out Marko Marosi despite the Slovakian’s emerging qualities. In front of him, the central defensive duo of Andy Butler and Joe Wright have made the best start to the season of anyone in the squad, with Wright in particular impressing having had to step into the considerable shoes of Mathieu Baudry due to injury.

Whether deploying a flat back four or a three-man central unit, the effectiveness of our defence in stopping attacks and minimising the opposition goal threat is heavily compromised if the midfield protection isn’t good enough. Unfortunately, Ben Whiteman has not appeared up to scratch in this role despite his obvious qualities on the ball, and it looks as if his best position lies further forward where he is better able to contribute to attacks, providing a central foil to the pace we now possess out wide. The deadline day return of Jordan Houghton from Chelsea has filled the need for a holding presence that has been missing since the popular young starlet saw his season cut short by injury last term. He was our biggest miss during the patchy run-in that cost us the League Two title, and his return to full fitness cannot come soon enough as we desperately need him shielding the back line, turning over the ball and utilising his excellent passing range.

Houghton has made a difference to the whole team’s performance upon his introduction from the bench in each of our last two games, and if he can hit 100% fitness in the next few days he should be able to spearhead a renewed Rovers going into the games against Scunthorpe, Arsenal and former club Plymouth.

Attacking Tweaks Needed

Darren Ferguson switched his front line again yesterday, recalling Liam Mandeville to the starting line-up in place of Alfie May only for the move to backfire and Mandeville withdrawn for May on the hour, the fourth time in five league starts that this has happened so far in 2017/18. Mandeville has looked short of fitness and with that, lacked cutting edge failing to find the net in any outing. May on the other hand is the club’s top scorer with four goals, brings an energy and resiliency that is missing whenever he isn’t on the pitch, and should really not have been taken out of the side yesterday. Until he is fully fit and able to show game-changing qualities from the bench, Mandeville simply should not be given a starting berth by the manager, whose faith in the youngster should be applauded, but not granted universally.

Strike partner John Marquis, the star of last season’s promotion netting 26 goals, is also off-form at present. Marquis has undoubted qualities and knows how to find the net, indeed he scored two very good goals in the games against Blackburn and Blackpool, but it isn’t quite coming together for him at the moment and, with a growing swell of support from the stands for the inclusion of Andy Williams, it may be time to take Marquis out of the firing line for a game or two and try something different up top. This of course is a question of form, rather than who is “best” for the starting line-up, and it shouldn’t ever be claimed that Marquis isn’t the first name for consideration up front when he is firing, as he has shown his excellent goal-scoring ability in spades since coming to South Yorkshire.

Behind the strikers, Fergie drastically altered his midfield over the last two games to put Matty Blair in his preferred right wing role, whilst giving a well-earned first start to Rodney Kongolo. Blair has been largely ineffectual in the opening matches but has been dealing admirably with the death of his brother Ross, and is unquestionably the fastest man at the club so remains an asset. With no return on the horizon for Alex Kiwomya as yet, Blair probably is still the best option in this position, but his is a supporting role alongside the outlet across from him that is currently occupied by Tommy Rowe. Rowe looks a different player when afforded the opportunity to put his foot on the ball in the middle of the park, rather than being stuck out on the left either of a diamond or the 3-5-2, but fitting him in alongside James Coppinger is proving difficult. Indeed, Copps was left on the bench to facilitate this yesterday, but it didn’t work and the veteran was introduced at half time to give us more impetus.

3-5-2 Needs Baudry to Flourish

I’m yet to tackle the issue of full backs as the selection hinges on what set-up Fergie opts to use in games. He likes to be able to switch seamlessly between the 3-5-2 and a more conventional 4-4-2 shape, but sometimes the available personnel doesn’t suit this, or the opponent doesn’t necessarily call for it. Playing three at the back worked as a deliberate ploy to match-up and negate Peterborough’s style last weekend, but it didn’t appear to work yesterday against Northampton’s straight set-up. Whilst he is still a few weeks away from being available, Mathieu Baudry is the vital component to a successful 3-5-2 formation. With his qualities on the ball, he is the only player at the club capable of spearheading a three-man central defence, preferably with Butler and Wright either side of him, allowing the wing backs to get up and down the pitch on both sides of the ball, and with the added support of Jordan Houghton in defensive midfield. Playing this way, the best possible XI the manager could select looks like this:

Lawlor Wright – Baudry – Butler Houghton Blair – Whiteman – Rowe – Garratt Marquis – May

The selection of teenager Tyler Garratt comes with the loss of Danny Andrew for the season in mind, a player signed specifically to play at left wing-back, along with a lack of knowledge about new signing Harry Toffolo. Controversially, this XI leaves out James Coppinger, still our most creative driving force at 36 years of age, but that is where the focus on 4-4-2 comes in, because Copps’ place in the side when deploying that formation is unquestioned. This is because a flat back four provides more standard protection at the back, and with Houghton sitting in still in front of that back four, the physical reinforcement that Ben Whiteman provides alongside lighter players in the above line-up is not as vital, so there is no need to sacrifice Coppinger’s creative talents. With that in mind, the best possible XI when using 4-4-2 looks like this:

Lawlor Mason – Wright – Butler – Garratt Houghton Whiteman – Rowe Coppinger Marquis – May

Yes, Whiteman is still present in the diamond, preferred to Matty Blair who just is not well suited to playing that far inside the lines, but the steady back four means the pace of the wing backs is replaced by the #10 role Coppinger has excelled in for years. This midfield also doesn’t include Rodney Kongolo, who could yet grow into an influential player in midfield if given the chance. Niall Mason is also probably the best right back in the squad, despite being used as a utility across a number of varying roles already this term. His best position lies in defence, as his showing in the holding midfield role against Peterborough highlighted flaws in his game that mean he isn’t well suited to such a dynamic position. His defensive qualities outstrip Blair’s by some distance, whilst Craig Alcock is yet to show any reason why he can be relied on again.

The Bottom Line

It is clear that Darren Ferguson is yet to work out his best starting line-up from the players he has available, but as is apparent from the rest of this article it is no easy thing to find a successful way to incorporate all of our best players in their best positions. Defensively, there are questions over who is best of the full backs, especially now Andrew is injured, whilst fitting the talents of Rowe, Kongolo, Whiteman and Coppinger into a midfield whilst adhering to Fergie’s unmoving preference of playing two strikers together brings plenty of issues itself.

Either way, It is by no means time to panic, despite a run of games without victory. The performances so far this season have been encouraging, with strong displays in every competitive fixture bar the woeful Wimbledon outing. Just six matches in to 2017/18, Rovers have plenty to be hopeful of and with the games coming thick and fast from this point on, there is ample opportunity to set things right. We have come through rough patches before and in Darren Ferguson have a manager well versed in the ups and downs of football management, having gone through every conceivable scenario during his decade-long career in the dugout. Next weekend we take on local rivals Scunthorpe before heading south for a huge clash with Arsenal in the EFL Cup, meaning there is still good reason for Rovers fans to get excited about what’s to come this season.



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