The Case For: Darren Moore and his Square Pegs
Darren Moore has built up a reputation for tactical tinkering over his nearly 18 months at the helm of Doncaster Rovers, with his propensity for moving players around the pitch and challenging them to fulfil unconventional roles coming into sharp focus this season. The strategy has paid off at times but also creates obvious problems and a recent dip in performance has been blamed on this squad shuffle in some quarters.
So, what is the case for tinkering to such a degree? Can it lead to success for Rovers or does it need to be consigned to the bin?
James Stars in New Role
Moore asks a lot of his players but also imbues them with belief and trust to perform in an unfamiliar position or role, and works on these alternative game plans diligently in training. That approach is behind the success stories in this “square pegs” phenomenon, best seen in the use of full back Reece James in a more advanced midfield role in 2020/21.
James was originally deployed as a left-sided midfielder last season in games where Moore felt the defence needed extra protection, and was deployed perfectly in the 0-0 draw away to Sunderland in January, in which James combined with Cameron John to nullify the wide play of the Black Cats whilst his positional play stretched the field and allowed Rovers to create through the middle, allowing both Madger Gomes and Ben Sheaf to have excellent performances up there with their best for the club.
Moore has taken it to another level this season, starting James either on the left or centre of midfield in eight of the 12 games he has started in League One so far. This has unlocked something in the Bacup-born player and allowed him to shine, as seen in his match-winning display at Portsmouth and his crucial role in the comeback win against Blackpool, in which he showed the ruthless quality of a forward to score the equalising goal.
A New Way to Defend
Pushing James into midfield has also been a way for Darren Moore to utilise Cameron John alongside fellow central defenders Tom Anderson and Joe Wright, with John playing so much more often at left back than he might have expected to when he re-joined the club on a permanent deal in the summer. John has been generally preferred to Danny Amos in the position for his added strength and height, as the manager looks to adapt how his team approaches defending in the third tier.
Although he would clearly like to play cultured, expansive football starting from the back and building forward, Moore has recognised that many teams in League One look to dominate in the air in attacking areas, and plenty of teams have had success doing exactly that – see Josh Magennis at league leaders Hull and Charlie Wyke at Sunderland – leading Moore to add John to the power of Wright and Anderson as opposed to rotating the trio in the two central slots.
This strategy was taken a step further at Northampton last Saturday as Andy Butler came in for his first start of the season and Rovers lined up with a back four entirely made up of centre backs. This saw James start in central midfield and Brad Halliday on the right flank, with Wright behind him as the right-sided full back. To his and the manager’s credit, Wright had performed well in this role against Lincoln and it is perhaps no surprise that Rovers earned their first clean sheet since that win over the Imps against the Cobblers, with Wright adding a goal and an assist too.
Frequency, the Sticking Point?
It is certainly strange to start a game with as many as four players out of their natural position, but it was done to try and combat the physicality of Northampton and it worked well, even if Shaun McWilliams’ early red card for the home side changed the approach somewhat. Butler was excellent and the entire team did their jobs well enough, but it hasn’t always been this way in Moore’s experimentations during this campaign.
Rovers were dreadful at times in the loss at Hull last midweek and John struggled at left back up against Mallik Wilks, whilst the team performance in previous games has also been severely lacking at times. It is easy then for fans to point the finger of blame at the regular chopping and changing of the team, even though Darren Moore has been steadfast in asserting his belief in “horses for courses” and game-planning for each opponent in a bespoke way.
It is Moore’s job to get the best out of his players and the team on the whole. Unlocking the versatility in certain players is a great way to do just that, and whilst it may not be on the same level it is worth remembering that big names like Gareth Bale and Thierry Henry moved from different positions and roles in order to unlock their full potential and become the world stars that they have.
The manager will continue to ask James, John and Wright to play out of position if he feels it will help combat an opponent and trusts them to perform, and he will continue to live and die by how well those decisions pay off. As long as Rovers continue to trend in the right direction and compete for a Play-Off place, he will continue to be justified in doing as he sees fit with his team.