Jigsaw Puzzling: Darren Moore's Big Dilemma
Three defeats on the spin have drastically altered the mood around Doncaster Rovers. After a remarkable winning run that moved the team to within a whisker of the automatic promotion places in League One, poor defeats to Fleetwood, Sunderland and Accrington have ground things to a halt.
A couple of months ago we made the case for Darren Moore’s propensity to rotate his squad with regularity and put players in positions they weren’t familiar with, with the bottom line that it was a worthwhile pursuit so long as the team maintained a Play-Off push. Rovers sit 5th in the League One table at present, so what is the problem? Well, performance levels have dipped in recent weeks and the results have gone with that dip, meaning Moore may need to reassess his approach.
New Players Bring Big Ambition
In that article from December, we highlighted the reworked defence featuring Andy Butler as a response to Moore seeing that his preferred method of building from the back to catch out high-press teams wasn’t going to work against a lot of the more physical, functional sides in the division. Adding Butler and utilising the athletic prowess of Cameron John at left back initially worked a treat, with steel and organisation at the forefront of the subsequent run of nine wins in ten games.
Since that ninth win, over Oxford at the start of February, Moore has tried to integrate a clutch of new signings to the side and the immediate effect has meant a change in approach that has proved disastrous. Against Accrington, Rovers steadfastly stuck with the “build-from-the-back” method but never found a rhythm with it, struggled to get out of their own defensive third and ultimately lost the game because of the poor execution and lack of willingness to change the tactic.
The loss of Tom Anderson has certainly had an effect on the back-line’s ability to be solid, but one player should not be so integral to any team that they lose all semblance of themselves without him. Our article advocating for the manager’s “square pegs” set-up pointed out its proficiency for stifling big strikers like Charlie Wyke, yet the Sunderland forward had a field day in scoring four headers to destroy Rovers at the Stadium of Light.
The manager must realise the limitations of his defenders and go back to what was working against the majority of League One teams if he is to solve the frailty that has crept into his defence over the past few games. He may want to switch to the cultured method of slick passing through the pitch but he still doesn’t have the quality at his disposal to pull it off well enough, and he likely never will in the third tier regardless of how good his squad is.
Patience: Virtue or Hindrance?
For all the focus on defence in this loss of form, Moore’s January signings were all further forward – save for goalkeeper Ellery Balcombe, who’s kicking has been a big part of the issues outlined above. The sale of Ben Whiteman has been offset with the addition of central midfielders John Bostock and Scott Robertson, but the manager is yet to work out how best to use them in conjunction with Matt Smith or any of his other options at the position, and has altered his line-up in that area in all four games since they arrived.
Smith has started with Madger Gomes twice, with Bostock once and Robertson has partnered Bostock once too. Rovers have had no control over games as they would like in any of the games and the only obvious factor in that besides the fact that Bostock is not yet fully match fit is Reece James. James was held up as the big success of the rotation policy earlier in the season and he has continued to impress further forward, but since being shifted to the left side to incorporate the new players our midfield has collapsed.
Moore is doing his best to manage the hefty fixture schedule and bring players like Bostock up to speed, both in terms of match fitness and cohesion within the team, but he appears to have done it at the expense of performance and effectiveness in the past couple of games. Smith looks the clear winner in the “Whiteman stakes” to be the new playmaker-in-chief, but Bostock has the qualities to knit things together – he just needs to build his match fitness – and Robertson looks a handy box-to-box option.
It would be nice to preach patience but with less than half the season to go and League One as open as it has been in years, Rovers have to be a threat now and, especially as several of the players discussed here are only on loan until the end of the season, there is no real room to wait and see if Moore can work out his best XI in time.
The Route Through
Something which cannot be doubted in all of this however is that Darren Moore clearly knows what he wants to do. He is not scrambling around for an identity or ethos to making Rovers successful, and his January additions should serve to increase his stamp on the squad that he has in front of him. It is simply about executing the plan and ensuring he fits the pieces together to form the complete picture. The team is surely not far off despite three losses on the spin.
The manner of those defeats means the superb run we were on only a couple of weeks ago feels a long time ago yet the reality is that we are not far off and, whilst it is disappointing to have slipped and lost momentum, Rovers remain well placed in the top six with games in hand on teams above. The last run began after a late defeat to our next opponents Hull, and a healthy dose of revenge on the Tigers would be just the kick-start needed to build again.
Anderson should be back in the next week, Josh Sims is almost back to full fitness and even the great man himself James Coppinger is in contention for Saturday. Darren Moore should have added squad options in Charlie Seaman and Lirak Hasani now that the non-league season has been curtailed below the National League Premier, and that can only be a good thing for him in working out that best and most effective line-up to utilise.
Hopefully, he and the players have learned where they have lost track in the last few games. The proof will bear out in performances and results in the coming weeks with a number of tough opponents ahead. If Rovers can navigate tricky waters to stay in the mix through March and April, 2020/21 could yet be one of the best seasons in the club’s history and this blip could be consigned to the back of all our minds with ease.