Rovers Report Card: Oct - Nov 2019/20
It has been a strange couple of months for Doncaster Rovers, with postponements offering up unwanted free weekends and the squad suffering numerous misfortunes. Record-matching highs have been accompanied by worrying lows whilst the club attempts to iron out some stability after another period of upheaval.
In our first Report Card of the season, the tone was optimistic after Darren Moore started life in the manager’s chair admirably in the face of plenty of obstacles. Now that he and his new-look side has settled in to the season, how are things shaping up?
The Results: 5/10
Form over these two months can only be described as a mixed bag. Not helped by postponed fixtures against Tranmere and Shrewsbury, Rovers’ league campaign has slowed dramatically with only six games played in October and November.
October got off to a frustrating start with late defeat at home to Portsmouth, a result that showed up Rovers’ inability to make dominance count as they peppered the Pompey goal only to go down to an injury time winner from Ellis Harrison. He had replaced former hero John Marquis at half time, with the Rovers alum’s high-profile return falling flat.
Next, Moore witnessed his side put in their worst performance of the season as Oxford ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at the Kassam Stadium, but the team bounced back with a fine 2-0 win over in-form Bristol Rovers courtesy of goals from Kieran Sadlier and Jon Taylor, as well as a penalty save by Seny Dieng from Tom Nichols with the score at 0-0.
Rovers ended the month in spectacular style, annihilating struggling Southend 7-1 on their own patch with new signing Kwame Thomas notching twice. Things looked rosy at this point but a late call-off of the Tranmere game halted the momentum and Moore hasn’t been able to keep any rhythm with his charges since. Burton were unfortunate to come away from the Keepmoat with only a 2-2 draw at the start of November and then the FA Cup came along.
League One rivals Wimbledon were the opponents with the first game in London ending goalless. Rovers did earn victory in the replay, seeing off Glyn Hodges’ side with a comfortable 2-0 win but it meant three weeks between league fixtures as Rovers ended the month away at surprise leaders Wycombe. Tom Anderson’s red card and a late winner from the penalty spot for the Chairboys unfortunately meant a sour end to the autumn.
Two wins, a draw and three defeats mean little progress has been made with the team slipping from 9th to 14th in the table, albeit with more games in hand on those above. A couple of narrow late defeats leave a bitter taste as well, but Rovers must rediscover the winning knack if they are to make anything of this campaign.
The Squad: 4/10
As was feared after a stunted recruitment drive in the summer in the wake of Grant McCann stripping the squad bare before leaving himself, a lack of experience and strength in depth has started to bite as injuries take their toll.
Veteran utility man Matty Blair has been out injured since September, loan striker Kazaiah Sterling never returned from a seemingly innocuous leg injury and Cameron John, arguably the stand-out signing of the opening months, didn’t figure once in this period either with Donervon Daniels a rudimentary replacement and Joe Wright still on the comeback trail.
Some key players have been inconsistent too, with Kieran Sadlier drifting in and out of the side in recent weeks despite being top scorer, and Ben Sheaf blowing hot and cold between accomplished technical displays and games where he makes a series of baffling fundamental mistakes. However, Seny Dieng has been a success since replacing Ian Lawler in goal, inspiring confidence and composure at the position that has been lacking for years.
Darren Moore simply hasn’t been able to call on a consistent XI that he can mould sufficiently and it is to be hoped that January breathes new life into the squad. The striker problem is the chief concern, as injury to Niall Ennis in addition to Sterling’s disappearance necessitating Moore dipping into the Free Agency pool for reinforcements.
Kwame Thomas joined in October and made an immediate impact with his two goals against Southend but has flattered to deceive since despite bringing the physicality that has been absent since Marquis left. Rakish Bingham then came in a month later but hasn’t offered much in the way of quality aside from a goal in the FA Cup win over Wimbledon. Truthfully, we need better than either of these two are able to provide.
Perhaps more young players will earn their stripes in upcoming games but in order to push on and repeat last season’s Play-Off run this squad needs to be improved so the arrival of new Head of Talent Identification Adam Henshall from Shrewsbury is a welcome one. Henshall can now work with Moore and CEO Gavin Baldwin to make sure the right players come to Doncaster Rovers to help achieve the goals set out in the summer.
The Playing Style: 6/10
Darren Moore’s philosophy of relentless passing football and high pressing from the front worked superbly in the opening weeks of the season. Opponents were caught off guard by how slick such a young side could be, particularly with so many new players still gelling together. It led to wonderful victories over Lincoln, Rotherham and Peterborough in particular, but the intensity seems to have tailed off.
Either sides have worked out how to put enough pressure to disrupt on Rovers when in possession, or else the team just hasn’t kept up the same physical and mental energy levels as injuries begin to bite. Available personnel may be dictating Moore’s willingness to commit to a high intensity tactical remit but this shouldn’t be an excuse.
Niall Ennis was a focal point of that high press so his absence perhaps explains some of it, likewise Alfie May, something of a terrier on the field, has not been starting games. In a front four of Sadlier, Taylor, Coppinger and either Thomas or Bingham, there is only really Jon Taylor who is capable of high energy off-the-ball work for 90 minutes. The return of Ennis then cannot come soon enough.
Positives are there if you look for them though. As mentioned Seny Dieng has been excellent in goal, usurping Ian Lawlor with a fine all-round game which has bred confidence in the defence. Although not fully settled, the back four has improved with each game as Tom Anderson marks himself out as a true defensive diamond and summer signings Brad Halliday and Reece James have improved greatly.
Central midfield is the beating heart of this team thanks to the “Two Bens”, Whiteman and Sheaf. Although Sheaf isn’t yet the finished article, the Arsenal loanee has put in several excellent displays and begun to contribute to attacking play more. Crucially though his prowess in the holding role has allowed captain Whiteman to flourish as a bona fide playmaker marking himself out as a stand-out in League One.
Moore’s words that this side is a work-in-progress must be kept in the front of the mind. Tweaks are needed, improvements could be sourced in several positions in the upcoming transfer window, but the raw pieces for success are there. Extending the contracts of key players and assessing the situation with loanees will be vital to determining where Rovers finish this season and next.
The Bottom Line
It may be a case of one step forward, one step back for Rovers in this tricky autumn period, so expectations have to be tempered a little. Building momentum through a busy December schedule is important ahead of a pivotal January transfer window so Darren Moore will want to start putting the work in to ensure Rovers don’t start to drift.
A lot can and will change between now and the next Report Card at the end of January. Players will come, some may go, and a more refined starting XI should emerge from the efforts to keep developing this young side. Time will tell whether or not that development kicks on in the next two months.