Rovers Report Card 2019/20: Dec - Jan
Our bi-monthly look at the ongoing fortunes of Doncaster Rovers continues, with the verdict of previous editions so far showing the up-and-down nature of what has been a tricky campaign with plenty of new faces trying to bed in.
Winter brought with it renewed belief as an inconsistent and often frustrating autumn period gave way to encouraging football and some terrific results from a group of players beginning to truly buy-in to Darren Moore’s philosophy.
Through a busy festive period into a crucial transfer window, where do Rovers sit as they stare down the home straight towards the end of the season?
The Results: 8/10
As December began, there was no denying Rovers were in a funk. Fixture misfortune meant only two league games were played in November and neither were won, and December did not immediately bring about a turn in the tide for Darren Moore and his hard-working side. The month began with an end to Rovers’ cup ambitions for the season, with defeats at Gillingham in the FA Cup and against Leicester U23s in the EFL Trophy making for a miserable start to the run-up to Christmas.
Being able to focus on League One did not initially foster much momentum either, as a late Cameron John equaliser salvaged a 1-1 draw at home to a Milton Keynes outfit stuck in the relegation zone, leaving Rovers sat 13th in the table albeit with as many as four games in hand on some teams. The winless league run eventually stretched to two months following defeat at Wimbledon and another drab, difficult draw at the Keepmoat, this time against Accrington, but a welcome Christmas present would finally spark the revival.
Moore quelled the growing discontent in some corners with an emphatic Boxing Day win at Peterborough as Kieran Sadlier scored twice to once again see off his former club. Posh began the day in an automatic promotion place but were completely undone by the slick counter-attacking of Rovers, who added a ruthless edge in front of goal seldom seen all season. Another bump in the road came with a home defeat to Sunderland three days later, but the result at London Road clearly stuck with the players more.
It was “New Year, New Me” indeed for the Rovers as Oxford were despatched 1-0 on the first day of 2020, Reece James’ strike knocking Karl Robinson’s Us out of the top two and sparking a downward spiral that saw them below Rovers by the end of the month, and that was followed up by two excellent victories over Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers, completing a run of four wins in five with four clean sheets in the process for Tom Anderson, Seny Dieng and co.
Defeat at home to Coventry courtesy of a long-range strike by Jordan Shipley may not look so bad by the end of the campaign as Mark Robins’ side continue their march into the title race, whilst a 0-0 draw in the return fixture with Sunderland in front of the Sky cameras felt more like a victory than anything due to the rear-guard brilliance of the defence, before Rovers got back to winning ways by completing the double over hapless Southend, Sadlier bagging another brace to put Moore’s men 9th in League One.
An overall record of five wins, three draws and three defeats over this two month period represents a strong return to form. Indeed, Rovers continue to exhibit Play-Off form in 2020 and have moved much closer to the top six than at any other stage since the season really got going, all of which is encouraging enough to hope for some excitement late in the year.
The Squad: 7/10
It was plain to see from the state of the squad through the first few months of 2019/20 that Darren Moore was fighting a battle just to put XI top-line players out for Rovers. Turnover was expected in January and so it proved, with short-term fixes Kwame Thomas and Rakish Bingham departing to little fanfare having failed to ignite their careers in the hoops, although they both provided the odd goal where it counted.
Alfie May was also let go, sold to Cheltenham to kick-start his own career revival, and May’s blistering start to life with the Robins only serves to add to the pressure of the forwards brought in to score the goals for Rovers. The club left it late in the window, meaning the impact on the pitch of these players can’t really be assessed for this Report Card, but the arrival of strikers Devante Cole and Fejiri Okenabirhie, the latter signed as Rovers’ new #9 from Shrewsbury, feels like an immediate upgrade.
Those permanent signings were augmented on Deadline Day by the loan additions of Jacob Ramsey, an attacking midfielder from Aston Villa, and Crystal Palace winger Jason Lokilo. Ramsey netted twice on his debut against Tranmere whilst Lokilo is yet to feature, but these additions to the loan ranks also mark an improvement to the overall quality of the squad replacing Donervon Daniels and Kazaiah Sterling, the former of whom struggled to maintain performance and the latter who barely feature at all due to an unfortunate injury.
Wolves duo Niall Ennis and Cameron John both returned to fitness, bringing with them top form at both ends of the field as Ennis finally found his scoring boots with an opportunistic header against Shrewsbury and a superb turn-and-shot to open the scoring against Southend, whilst John found a new role at left back in which he has shown promise through inconsistency, but excelled at Peterborough and Sunderland.
Although the true difference these changes to the squad will ultimately make cannot be judged yet, all the signs are that Darren Moore and Adam Henshall have significantly improved the overall quality in the ranks and given the club as good a platform as possible to compete for a Play-Off place to the end of the season.
The Playing Style: 8/10
Time has brought about far greater definition in the playing philosophy of Darren Moore’s Doncaster Rovers, with the benefits of months in League One under the belt paying dividends the longer the season has progressed. Rovers initially went away from the high-pressing style implemented earlier in the season during December, but this was perhaps down to the personnel available to the manager, and as the games wore on through the festive period, it became clear that a return to the successful style of the early season games was on the cards.
That high press has proven pivotal in taking the fight to side’s lower down the table, more functional outfits such as Shrewsbury and Southend seen off in a comfortable fashion unlike earlier in this period when physical but limited teams like Accrington and Milton Keynes came away from DN4 with a share of the spoils. An upturn in creative output from the likes of Kieran Sadlier and Jon Taylor has also helped this immensely, with the side looking a far more cohesive unit from front to back.
The manager has also shown a keen tactical nous to combat different types of opponents, pulling off masterclasses to defeat high-flying Peterborough and Oxford over Christmas and New Year playing a modified form of the developing “Mooreball” style. He has been bold in his selection decisions to make this work too, notably playing Reece James in midfield to combat Sunderland’s wing backs and find space behind, a tactic which worked well and could have been a path to victory had Rovers found their shooting boots on that night.
Above all, the defence has shone with Tom Anderson in particular rising to the occasion magnificently. The towering centre half has barely missed a step on the ground or in the air since returning from an autumn suspension, whilst Joe Wright has finally found form again alongside him having banished his injury woes. Brad Halliday is the most improved player in the side whilst Seny Dieng has brought an air of calm behind the back-line, barely putting a foot wrong.
These factors add up to make Rovers a genuinely exciting prospect. They may not be the finished article yet, but the signs of progress are obvious to see and in another few months this team could really be cooking on all cylinders, hopefully just in time for a last-minute Play-Off push.
The Bottom Line
Every aspect of this team has moved forward over the past two months. Goals are coming more easily, performances are much more consistent even if results still have that air of unpredictability about them, and there is no denying Rovers are a much better top six prospect than they were at the end of November. At the very least, the team now sits in a much more realistic position in the league, firmly entrenched amongst the Play-Off chasers.
The trend is upwards, even if that is not with quite the curve that may be needed to sustain a serious promotion push this season. The arrival of several new signings should boost Rovers further into the next couple of months whilst Darren Moore appears to be adapting gradually to the intricate demands of League One management. There is cause for optimism amongst supporters which will hopefully be proven justified by the time we revisit the Report Card at the end of March.