Squad Goals: Assessing Richie's Rebuild (So Far)
Three defeats on the spin to kick off the new League One season is hardly the start anyone wanted for Richie Wellens. His new-look Doncaster Rovers side is very much ‘work-in-progress’ but that work has been made all the more difficult by a number of injuries to key forwards and the disruptive force of Covid still running through the squad.
Wellens has been up against it so far in his managerial tenure at the club, but it was rightly acknowledged in the summer that this rebuild would take several transfer windows to get right. Despite that, Wellens has brought in 11 new players at time of writing and has put together a squad he believes is capable of competing in the third tier this season, but discontent is rising after a run of losses leaves Rovers in the relegation zone and yet to register a point in 2021/22.
Although nearly two weeks remain of the transfer window, it feels like a good time to take a look at the new regime’s rebuild to date and assess where Doncaster Rovers still need to strengthen if they are to meet their aims for the current campaign.
When he took the reins at Cantley Park, Richie Wellens set out his stall with his early business and made sure he prioritised defensive additions. This was a sound approach to the summer as Rovers had lost almost their entire starting back-line around captain Tom Anderson, with Reece James, Brad Halliday and Joe Wright all departing – Wright due to a long-term injury and the other two taking contract offers elsewhere - and needed to build a new backbone to the side.
Before July had arrived, the back four had been rejuvenated around Anderson with the signings of Kyle Knoyle, Tommy Rowe and Ro-Shaun Williams, set to be deputised by existing defenders Cameron John and Charlie Seaman, plus youngster Branden Horton, who surpassed Danny Amos last season (meaning Amos’ place at left-back did not need replacing with a new signing) and who has justified his spot in the senior squad to Wellens already this year.
Even in defeat through these opening games, Knoyle and Rowe have looked like good acquisitions, so Wellens appears justified in using his budget to bring the pair to Doncaster. Knoyle, who was tipped for a Championship move after a successful spell at promoted Cambridge, has been a driving influence on the right flank for Rovers and Rowe, a popular player from his first spell at the club, is clearly the experienced head needed to knit things together between defence and attack, and is versatile in his positioning too, just as his predecessor James was.
Ro-Shaun Williams has had a less impressive start, but it takes time to build a rapport between centre halves and he does look the pacey, athletic foil that Wellens wanted for the strong-and-sure Anderson, and if he takes some time to get up to speed the manager knows he has Cam John ready to step in and step up. Andy Butler is the only departure not covered yet in defence, and whilst losing his experience and leadership is a blow, Wellens clearly felt it best to part ways with the hometown favourite reasoning that, if others stay fit, his game time would have been very limited anyway.
That leaves Rovers with seven senior defensive options: experienced first choice players with capable back-up in the middle and at full-back, meaning Wellens and fans alike should be more than satisfied with the make-up of the defence, a key area of the team which needed extensive reshaping this summer.
Goalkeeping Groundhog Day
The emergence of Louis Jones in the back half of last season was a bonus for Richie Wellens upon his arrival. He spoke in strong terms on handing Jones the chance to claim the #1 shirt, and whilst he has literally now got that shirt, some shaky performances in pre-season led the manager to take young Jones out of the firing line and bring in some competition for the 22-year-old.
After bringing in the defensive reinforcements he wanted, along with a key midfield piece to be discussed later, Wellens outlined his approach for the goalkeeper position – that he felt the bulk of his budget was better spent elsewhere and that he could find a player of good quality in the Premier League loan market for a fraction of the cost that signing a more experienced permanent option would be. There’s logic to that thought process, but Rovers fans know all too well what happens when it doesn’t work out.
Darren Moore had the same method, and whilst he struck gold with Seny Dieng in his first season at the club, the loan keeper policy devolved into a total mess last year. Joe Bursik, who flattered to deceive in his initial appearances, was recalled by Stoke outside of the transfer window leaving Rovers in the somewhat farcical position of having to constantly re-sign Joe Lumley on a week-long emergency loan deal, and he too struggled for consistency despite obvious quality.
Moore ‘solved’ the issue in January by bringing in Brentford prospect Ellery Balcombe, but he dropped a few clangers and found himself out in the cold once Andy Butler took over, with Jones getting the nod and performing well. Four goalkeepers used in one season is simply not conducive to a successful team, and so it proved. Plus, having two younger players in the position breeds uncertainty in a specialist role that demands a level of nous and experience, and that issue has already reared its head again under Wellens.
Pontus Dahlberg is the latest loan stopper through the door. The Swede is the same age as Jones, albeit with far more experience at senior level which includes senior international caps, and of course is another temporary solution. Not since the days of Neil Sullivan have Rovers been blessed with a bona fide, undisputed #1 between the sticks that is a contracted player, and without having such a player it naturally lessens the solidity and familiarity in the defensive unit.
Dahlberg compounded the discussion by dropping an almighty clanger at Accrington on Tuesday night, and that early mistake proved to be the deciding moment in a 1-0 defeat, but Dahlberg has also looked good at shot-stopping and has size and presence to his game. He may yet prove to be a find akin to Dieng, but at some stage Rovers have got to ensure they have a permanent, steady #1 in goal or they will always be fighting an uphill battle with this area of the team.
Philosophy Shift in Midfield
The spectre of Ben Whiteman still looms large over the Rovers midfield unit, with the team’s struggles since his departure often being put down to the fact there is nobody to fulfil his role properly. In reality, it was never likely that Rovers would be able to replace Whiteman like-for-like, which is why Darren Moore signed both John Bostock and Scott Robertson upon Whiteman’s sale to Preston, but neither worked out last season and Wellens has stated that he sees Bostock in a more advanced role in his team.
How a manager sets his midfield up is paramount to how his whole team plays, and it is difficult to just plug gaps like-for-like, unlike in other areas of the field. Moore had a good thing going with Whiteman and Ben Sheaf together, but couldn’t find an alternative set-up once they had gone, whereas Wellens had his Swindon team playing with a physical holding player and two more advanced technical players, not unlike Rovers in the Ferguson era.
The big problem at the moment then is that Wellens has not been able to sign that physical presence, so has instead opted to load up on technically proficient, footballing midfield players. Nothing wrong with that of course, providing you can get the balance right, and he may well have done that by adding Manchester United loanee Ethan Galbraith to adopt the holding role, with Close, Bostock and Arsenal youngster Matt Smith available to complement him and work as link-up men or playmakers.
Wellens does have a potential ‘destroyer’ in AJ Greaves, but the academy graduate is still developing and clearly has a naivety in his play at present – as evidenced by his ridiculous red card in the Carabao Cup game at Walsall – so it would be unfair to ask Greaves to be the first choice holding midfielder despite the promise he has shown at times. Dan Gardner has also been added for depth, but he too is a more advanced operator and is more likely to be used as a utility player in the front three for the time being.
Moore’s midfield make-up from January onwards last season never looked coherent anyway, with Wales international midfielder Matt Smith the only real bright spot as Scott Robertson struggled and Madger Gomes faded into obscurity following a bright start to the last campaign. In terms of passing central players, the trio of Close, Galbraith and the new Smith look a perfectly capable set of replacements for Robertson, Gomes and the old Smith, but with last season’s midfield already deficient due to the loss of Whiteman, it feels as though there is still something missing.
In addition, a driving attacking force remains absent from the centre of the park so long as Tommy Rowe is used at left-back. Last season, Taylor Richards was a gem in attacking midfield despite being a bit rough around the edges in his play, and of course James Coppinger was always able to pull things together from the #10 position. Wellens so far has operated without such a player, preferring a flat 4-3-3 set-up, and lacking this sort of player may be a contributing factor to the team’s failure to create chances in these first few games.
However, there is no reason why a midfield based more on technical interplay than bite or guile won’t work once new ideas are bedded in, as a similar philosophy certainly did under Grant McCann, and as Galbraith and Bostock get up to speed we should see a marked improvement in how Rovers build attacks through midfield in games.
Hunting for Goals
No area of the team is in sharper focus right now than the forward line, and Richie Wellens knows he has been dealt a bad hand by fate on this front. The presence of Fejiri Okenabirhie meant finding a #9 was not a priority in the summer, being that the former Shrewsbury man netted 14 goals last season and performed well when put in the right position to do so, and with senior support in the shape of Omar Bogle, Wellens rightly looked to other areas of his squad to spend his budget on.
He then augmented the attacking ranks by signing Jordy Hiwula, an experienced and exciting player to bring pace and fluidity to the front-line, and added Watford starlet Tiago Cukur on loan as a physical foil and hold-up man. Aidan Barlow was also brought in as a depth option after a prolific pre-season trial period, and Wellens already had senior winger Jon Taylor and squad option Ed Williams in the ranks.
Seven players to fill three positions, five of them senior pros with good experience, should always be enough up front to compete at this level. The problem is that Wellens has been shorn of the entire first-choice attack he has at his disposal through injury, and is now scrambling to stretch the final bit of his budget to cover the gaps. Taylor and Okenabirhie both entered pre-season with ankle injuries and have suffered setbacks, whilst Hiwula went down with a similar injury in a pre-season game.
Compounding that, Barlow and Cukur simply don’t have the experience to lead the line as they have been forced to in the opening fixtures, and both Bogle and Williams have not shown that they are up to the job thus far. That last one is squarely on the shoulders of Darren Moore for signing them, and the outlook would look vastly improved if the pair of them were replaced by more capable players on equivalent League One wages, but this is sadly not Football Manager and so Wellens is having to try and adapt to that.
In the meantime, it leaves Rovers with no meaningful attacking options, resulting in the ugly display at the Crown Ground in midweek. Finding the funds for a new signing may be a short-term fix, but the attacking front is perhaps the only area of the team that will need much more than just this transfer window to fully fix. Rovers have been up against it since selling John Marquis two years ago, because finding a player of his calibre is extremely difficult anyway.
Okenabirhie is sorely missed, and the hope is that he, Hiwula and Taylor will make a huge difference once fit. Cukur and Barlow are gambles at present, and are perhaps not the calibre of last season’s loanees Tyreece John-Jules and Josh Sims, but those two were so frequently injured that they missed far too much gametime to influence the season anyway. Wellens has more of a headache at present with his striking options than anywhere else on the field, and it will take time to remedy, but Rovers are not a million miles away from making it work providing luck starts turning in the coming weeks.