• Adam Stubbings

Musings from the South Stand #19: Banishing a Bad Week

What a difference seven days can make. Last weekend, Rovers saw off Oxford United to make it nine wins from ten games and move dead level with the automatic promotion places, but a week later two bad defeats have seen the momentum come to a screeching halt and worries run throughout the fanbase. Just how have things gone so badly wrong against Fleetwood and Sunderland, and how can Darren Moore and his players rectify the problems that arose in those two games?

The Big Man’s Absence

Tom Anderson has easily been the biggest miss, going off injured early in the defeat to Fleetwood on Tuesday night with a worrying concussion after being completely wiped out by his own goalkeeper. Ellery Balcombe caught him flush in the side of the head whilst going to punch clear a high ball into the box, and Anderson’s loss has severely affected the defence.

Rovers shipped seven goals over the two games after losing the captain, as many as they had conceded in the previous nine League One matches with him, and the manner of those goals showed up the fragility of the defensive unit when forced to play without their centrepiece. No individual player was responsible for all seven of those goals of course, but collective responsibility means whoever is chosen to anchor the back-line must step up and improve going forward.

The first step Moore must surely take to address this – regardless of whether or not Anderson is fit to play against Accrington in midweek – is to move Reece James back to the left side and give Cameron John a break. James has been effective in midfield but his influence has waned in recent weeks and he is a far more accomplished full-back than John, who is now really suffering from playing out of his natural position and has become a target of opposition attackers.

Midfield Manoeuvres

Moving James out of midfield shouldn’t have an adverse effect on the area, particularly now that John Bostock and Scott Robertson are available to play there. Matt Smith has been a rare bright spot in the last three games and is a no-brainer pick for the role of playmaker, and Bostock should be a capable anchor once fully fit. Taylor Richards remains the liveliest player on the ball for Rovers too, so the big problems do not lie in this area and Reece James becoming a defender again will probably benefit the cohesion in the centre of the park.

Josh Sims returned off the bench in the second half of the defeat to Sunderland and should inject the quality needed to get Rovers firing again further forward. Too many players tasked with playing on the wing are out of form at the moment, but Sims has been reliable throughout his loan spell and will surely be chomping at the bit to contribute again and try to influence a return to better fortunes for the team.

Restoring Attacking Confidence

The truth is that the likes of Jon Taylor and Jason Lokilo are simply not consistent enough, and as Fejiri Okenabirhie has run himself into the ground since the New Year it is time for new signing Omar Bogle to step up and contribute. Bogle was a little underwhelming at Sunderland but did have physicality to get himself about, and if he can add sharpness in the box to that then he can be a threat.

Rovers have not threatened enough in the last couple of games but remain one of the division’s best goalscoring teams. Clinical finishing got them the win over Oxford, and was a big factor in the rear-guard display to earn three points at Lincoln the week before, but the team cannot solely rely on the precocious Richards to bring the goods. Wide forwards are supposed to bring goalscoring ability as well as creation and the stats don’t measure up for anyone other than Sims this season. Thank God he’s back.

Keep the Knives in the Drawer

Two bad defeats then, but no need to panic…yet. Darren Moore has largely managed the squad through the busy season very well and form remains good despite back-to-back losses and the worst league defeat of his tenure in charge. The League One table remains very promising for Rovers, who sit one point off the top two with games in hand despite this bad week.

Games don’t get any easier, with a tough trip to a formidable Accrington Stanley team up next before a clash with Hull City at the Keepmoat Stadium next Saturday, but there is no team to really fear in this league. Sunderland trounced us on Saturday and the players showed the fallen giants too much respect for the fifth time in six meetings over the past few seasons, but they are not objectively a better side than Rovers.

On the balance of the season so far, the team is performing very well and has more squad depth now than at any stage in quite a number of years. The return of Tom Anderson allied to Josh Sims’ re-emergence, along with the chance to freshen up the likes of Okenabirhie, gives Moore a nice footing to build again and shake off what has admittedly been a disheartening few days.

We are barely past the halfway point in the campaign, so if Rovers can repeat their efforts up to this point over the remaining 21 matches then they will reach the Play-Offs (at bare minimum) and be credited for a very successful season.