After over two months with no football, Doncaster Rovers get back out onto the pitch in the public domain tonight away to local NCEL side Armthorpe Welfare. It kicks off a schedule of seven first-team games for Darren Ferguson to get his players up to match speed and give him a better idea of who he wants to spearhead his push up the League One table and where he wants them to play.
Whilst tonight’s fixture won’t be the best indicator, upcoming clashes with Championship sides Derby and Sheffield Wednesday at the Keepmoat should give both club and fans a chance to see the new-look squad against ormidable opposition, whilst visits to Guiseley and Chesterfield later this month also offer variety. As the team gets set for the inredibly short trip across Sandall Beat Wood to Armthorpe this evening, ITEN selects just a few things to look out for in these pre-season fixtures.
In almost two years at the helm now, Fergie has attempted to implement a number of different formations with varying levels of success, and the way he elects to set up the team (particularly in the home games against superior opponents) should serve as a key indicator of how the Scot best feels he can utilise the talent at his disposal in the league campaign. Much has been made of his propensity for playing with three at the back, focusing on attack more with emphasis on wing play, but this style did not yield much success at all last time we played in League One. The case for giving it another go is of course that it did work in spells last term, along with the fact that Fergie was still getting used to new surroundings in 2015/16 without the desired personnel to play this way, and his recruitment thus far this summer suggests he is keen to try 3-5-2 again.
The arrival of Chelsea forward Alex Kiwomya plays into this, the former Crewe loanee known for his explosive pace and danger from the touchline, along with the versatile full back Danny Andrew who could be put on the left hand side of a fluid back five. Add to this Matty Blair coming off the back of a hugely successful season tasked with playing at right wing back and the options are there to make the most of the wings. The other crucial component to this style is the shape of the back three, with most observers of the opinion that Rovers will need to bring in another centre half in order to properly improve what has been an inconsistent back line for the past couple of years. Mathieu Baudry is the linchpin of the unit and, whilst Andy Butler, Joe Wright and Craig Alcock all clearly have their part to play, another strong, composed head alongside will allow Fergie to get his Rovers team playing solid, confident attacking football with a strong spine from back to front.
Creativity going forward is just as important as defensive solidity of course, and these pre-season games should see an intriguing battle for supremacy in this department as several players both in midfield and attack look to stake their claim for a starting berth against Gillingham in just under four weeks time. The pace of Kiwomya and Blair is certain, but in the middle of the park there is a debate to be had. Tommy Rowe is a versatile, talented individual but had a tendency to drift out of games at times last season and will need to show in the coming weeks that he is driven enough to make that central attacking role his own and have a big influence on our fortunes going forward.
Meanwhile, the creativity of captain James Coppinger remains unquestioned, but the caveat now is his advancing age. Fergie did well to manage his game time in 2016/17 and he remained his consummate self, but with another year on his record and a higher standard of opposition means that his stamp on the team is highly likely to diminish even if only by so much. With that in mind, Fergie has recruited Sheffield United’s Ben Whiteman on loan to pick up the slack, but can the youngster live up to his potential and deliver on a weekly basis? We also have forward Liam Mandeville coming back into contention after an injury-plagued 2017, the academy graduate demonstrating his ability to change games coming from the slot behind the striker and driving forward.
Big Man Up Top
It is becoming the story of the summer at DRFC, but where will John Marquis factor in to the pre-season games? One day after our article urging calm on the matter, it emerged from the manager that Marquis had refused the new contract offered to him by the club, although negotiations apparently continue. Marquis’ presence, determination and commitment will all be under a microscope from the media at games and certainly from fans. Will he show that it’s merely a hiccup in table negotiations, or a sign that his immediate future lies away from South Yorkshire?
Tonight may not be the best indicator of any of this, but at home to Derby County a week from today we should see what role Marquis is likely to play on the pitch through the rest of the summer. If given a prominent position in the game then Fergie clearly feels able to plan with Marquis as a central figure in our season, and if he doesn’t, or he doesn’t give the fans the usual respect and affection we’ve seen from him, then something may well be amiss. If that does turn out to be the case then the club must act quickly to find a suitable replacement for the significant goals return that Marquis provided last term. In addition, the form and fitness of Alfie May, Liam Mandeville and Andy Williams will be interesting to see especially by comparison to their fellow forward.
Ultimately, let’s just enjoy having our team back out on the field as we continue to count down the days to the season getting underway on August 5th.
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