Rovers Report Card: Aug - Sep 2019/20
Two months and nine games into the season, it feels a reasonable time to assess the capabilities of this new-look Doncaster Rovers side.
Pre-season fears brought about by the loss of both the manager and many key players from the Play-Off side of last year alongside a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to recruitment have largely dissipated thanks to a stellar start to life under Darren Moore on the pitch.
Now nearly a fifth of the way through the League One campaign, Moore has fostered a strong team spirit around vibrant, youthful talent and has only suffered one league defeat in his first two months as manager.
This team will ultimately be judged on its ability to match last season’s achievements, so how close to hitting those heights are we as the bedding-in period of the new manager and his players comes to a close and that old cliché of the table “starting to take shape” gets trotted out in the media?
The Results: 8/10
There is no arguing against the start that Rovers have made to the season. After a steady opening few games yielding two draws and an unfortunate cup exit at the hands of Grimsby, things began to click. A hard-fought last-gasp victory over Fleetwood kickstarted the Darren Moore era and further home wins followed against well-fancied opposition.
Danny Cowley’s in-form Lincoln hit the skids on Lakeside as Niall Ennis and Jon Taylor notched their first Rovers goals in a deserved 2-1 win before the returning to lose 3-1 in the EFL Trophy a week later. A comeback victory over fierce rivals Rotherham followed and Rovers extended their unbeaten start in League One with an arguably more impressive result, coming away from Portman Road with a 0-0 draw against an Ipswich side who look to be the title favourites at this early juncture.
A first taste of defeat followed, Rovers agonisingly falling to an injury time goal at home to Blackpool whilst chasing victory but hit back in style by dispatching Peterborough 2-0 a few days later. The Posh are the league’s top scorers but were shut down completely by a resilient and classy Rovers side inspired by the creative talents of Kieran Sadlier and James Coppinger.
Rovers lost a lead late on this past Saturday, drawing 1-1 with Coventry but that draw is still a solid result against a side flying high who had won all five of their previous home games this term. It leaves us 9th in the table, knowing that if we had played and won the cancelled tie at Bolton in August we would sit in 5th spot at time of writing, more than matching the standard set last season.
With only one defeat and good results against teams mostly situated in the top half of League One at present, there is no doubting Darren Moore has found an effective way through in his first two months at the helm. There is plenty of reason to feel confident about a sustained Play-Off push going forward based on this evidence.
The Squad: 7/10
No topic is debated more fiercely among fans than that of the playing squad, and perhaps that’s no surprise after such a high turnover this summer. As many as nine key players from last season have gone, crucially including leading scorer John Marquis – who returns to DN4 this Saturday with his new Portsmouth side – as well as loan stars Herbie Kane and Mallik Wilks plus defensive rock Andy Butler.
Added to the departure of manager Grant McCann to Hull, things looked bleak in mid-July before the club pulled off the appointment of Darren Moore, a universally-acclaimed coup that got people around the footballing landscape talking. Moore set about building his squad, having to do almost from scratch, and ran into roadblocks finding suitable replacements for Marquis and Kane in particular.
The loan market has proven vital for Moore and it his here that he has done his best work to date. Wolves duo Niall Ennis and Cameron John arrived to little fanfare but have already earned a place in the hearts of fans with their committed, quality performances, whilst Ben Sheaf has been a virtual ever-present in midfield.
Those that do remain from last season have stepped up to the plate, Moore building his side around Ben Whiteman, now sporting the captain’s armband, and increasing the responsibility of forwards Kieran Sadlier and Alfie May. This has been arguably Moore’s biggest success with the squad, getting more out of players like 'Sads' and Tom Anderson turning them into valuable, game-changing assets.
The squad is far from the finished article though, and Moore knows it. This is starkly apparent up front, where Rovers failed to secure a firm replacement for Marquis despite having all of August to do so. Ennis has filled the role ably but is young and raw, not yet able to command the front line in the same way Marquis did.
Aside from Ennis, fellow loanee Kazaiah Sterling is the only other recognised centre forward at the clubs, whilst experienced striker Victor Anichebe is also training at Cantley Park. Moore will have to rely on what he has until January where money must be invested into a dedicated #9 or else the best intentions of a team hungry for success may have to wait another year.
The Playing Style: 8/10
We may not like to admit it, but Rovers fans expect a certain level of quality in terms of the technical proficiency of the squad and the overall style of play. Stemming from the glory years under Sean O’Driscoll in which the side was dubbed the “Arsenal of the North”, tactical innovation and football that is easy on the eye is almost a necessity of any Doncaster Rovers side.
The board had this in mind when appointing each of the last three managers and, despite his relative inexperience as a manager, Darren Moore came with that promise to play possession-based football and it has been implemented to that effect already. Moore has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation so far with Ben Whiteman at the heart of play, technical forward players who press high and a back line that is confident in distributing the ball on the floor from the back.
The best display of this was last week against Peterborough when Rovers played former manager Darren Ferguson’s relentless Posh off the pitch at the Keepmoat Stadium, running out deserved 2-0 winners with a display of technical confidence reminiscent of the best days under McCann last year. It helps when you have James Coppinger as a focal point, but the whole team is ready to play to this style and Moore is clearly getting his methods across in training.
He is committed to improving this all the time as well, shown in his decision to drop Ian Lawlor in favour of Seny Dieng in goal after the loss to Blackpool. Lawlor put in some excellent displays in the opening weeks but Dieng offers far more confidence to come off his line and distribute the ball accurately and swiftly, something which Lawlor struggles with and is vital to playing total possession/pressing football.
It remains a work-in-progress, as is always going to be the case when a new manager comes in and has to craft his tactical style with a group of new players, but the early signs have been good and the rate of progression of many first team players is really encouraging. Take right back Brad Halliday as one example, putting in several sterling displays of late after a very shaky start.
The Bottom Line
People are slowly starting to take notice of Darren Moore’s Doncaster Rovers, and nobody will be writing us off again as quickly as they did before a ball was kicked this season. If key players can remain fit, a run of fixtures after Portsmouth visit DN4 this weekend that look favourable on paper could see the side building momentum into Christmas that would set us up for a sustained promotion push, especially if Moore can use that momentum to recruit strongly in January.
A summer of discontent has morphed into an autumn of optimism. Can Rovers keep moving in the right direction as the nights draw in? We have reason to believe so.