• Adam Stubbings

Taking Stock of the Rovers’ Squad

With Keshi Anderson suffering a serious injury in last weekend’s home defeat against Rochdale, and several others going down ill and injured in recent games, Rovers have a mounting injury problem and face further adaptations to the side as we head into a busy festive period of fixtures. Here I take a brief look at the situation across the field ahead of a tough trip to League One leaders Coventry City this weekend.

Striking at the Heart

Keshi Anderson has been a real livewire since his September arrival from Crystal Palace. The young forward clearly has ability in spades and offers pace and creativity to the attacking line, so his loss will be keenly felt. Boss Darren Ferguson has this week said that he feels we’re okay up top, and is instead looking for a midfield player to add to the squad, but of our four recognised first team strikers, Nathan Tyson has been afflicted by several injuries in his time at the club, and Curtis Main and Dany N’Guessan have struggled to get a run of games in the last couple of months.

Andy Williams is clearly the first choice forward, and after a tough start to life as a Rover has finally settled and begun to find the back of the net. Five goals in his last five games has put him top of the club’s scoring statistics and he is playing with more confidence each and every time he steps onto the pitch. Tyson netted his first goal of the season against Chesterfield, a rebound from a saved penalty, and he clearly works well up front alongside Williams but we cannot rely on just those two as attacking options, meaning that somebody else will need to show they can step up when asked as they surely will need to during the upcoming run of matches.

Main is very much a confidence player, and his recent cameo appearances from the bench have let much to be desired. But he is still a fairly young player who has shown flashes of brilliance in his 15 months in the Hoops, so this could be his opportunity. N’Guessan has remained somewhat of an enigma, performing well in his limited appearances, as well as offering a varied outlet as more of a physical presence despite also possessing pace, but those showings have been few and far between. Our best bet is to hope that the Williams-Tyson connection continues to thrive and both stay clear of the treatment room between now and the New Year.

Balancing the Midfield

Ferguson has employed a three-man midfield in his formation so far, with one holding man there to sweep up and distribute, and two further forward there to offer a creative outlet to the attack and work with the wide players, who have been attacking full backs in the last few games. James Coppinger looks reinvigorated in this new formation, and he has paired up well with Everton loanee Conor Grant who demonstrates a cool elegance about his play that belies his young age. This has meant that Harry Forrester has not been able to get near the first team, and the former Brentford man’s days in the Rovers shirt appear to be numbered. Richard Chaplow has been out recently but started to show why he’s spent his entire career in the higher divisions before this recent setback, including that thumping winner against Barnsley last month. Cameron Stewart scored from the bench in the dying seconds against Chesterfield, but was found wanting out wide in the 3-5-2 and his abilities may be better served as an impact sub if he can’t be accomodated into this attacking line.

The places of Grant and Coppinger look in no doubt at the moment, but less certain is the role of the third man in midfield. Youngster Harry Middleton has been the preferred choice for Fergie but he is not yet the finished article. Whilst he looks much improved on his early Rovers showings, he still has a tendency to get lost in the game if faced with a talented, pressuring opposition, and maybe playing week in, week out is not quite what he needs at this stage in his development. The problem with this of course is the availability of Paul Keegan, a man who has largely thought to have been a big miss this season.

Keegan made the holding role his own last year, with his ability to break up play and start attacks seen as crucial to our success. Maligned for his lack of technical ability in previous seasons, it has become apparent when playing alternatives that his role is one that is hard to live without. As for fellow veteran Richie Wellens, there doesn’t appear to be much of a place for him in the team either now Ferguson has arrived. His near departure to Wigan in August left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, and his pedestrian ‘control’ over Rovers attacks left a lot to be desired. He was back on an otherwise very young bench against Chesterfield, but I don’t believe he’s the answer in midfield either. Defender Luke McCullough, currently injured, has also been touted as an option at the back of the midfield but this comes with little to no concrete reasoning either.

A Case for the Defence

It finally appears to be clicking at the back, after a calamitous start to the campaign. Rob Jones is yet to resurface in the side, but the switch to 3-5-2 has allowed the likes of Cedric Evina and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair to flourish. Evina has been superb in a variety of positions in 2015/16, primarily featuring on the left hand side of the pitch as a wing back, but also filling in in the back three, as well as at right back. His dynamism and speed has paid dividends under Ferguson, and he is currently being referred to as our most improved player of the season. Felipe Mattioni has begun to settle since arriving from Everton, also putting in a good showing against Chesterfield, and having stability in these positions can go a long way for Rovers and Fergie for upcoming games.

Andy Butler has also stabilised his performances at the heart of the back three, and it has coincided with three clean sheets in the last four league games, all victories. On his right hand side is new signing Craig Alcock, looking a shrewd signing with young defender Mitchell Lund also joining the injury list recently. It is a much more experienced back line now, and that counts for a lot in League One, especially for a Rovers side who have struggled to have any real leadership in defence for much of the season.

Taylor-Sinclair’s horror show at Sheffield United a couple of months ago still gives me the occasional nightmare, but he has improved no end since moving into the back three under Ferguson and can even be found marauding forward to set up attacks on a fairly consistent basis. McCullough captained his national U21s earlier this month but came back with a knock, and is yet to find his place under Ferguson but has shown the ability to play well in the centre of defence before. When asked to turn into a right back overnight by Paul Dickov, it was a different story but such ridiculous tactical decisions are thankfully behind us now. Gary MacKenzie has also fallen out of favour with new defenders coming in, but he looks like someone used to plug the occasional gap anyway.

Injuries are dictating much of the line-up at present, but the strength and depth that we have is evident when looking at the overall squad. The only problem with this is that every time a couple of players come back into contention, another couple seem to go down with something or another. Granted this seems to be the story every single year, but with a bit of a luck and perhaps one or two more additions over the next couple of months and we may see the Rovers starting to become capable of achieving the pre-set aim of competing for a spot in the Play Offs.