Following the 2-1 defeat away to Huddersfield exactly one year to the date of the same result last season, Glenn Entwistle looks at where Rovers are in comparison to a year ago both on and off the pitch, and what the rest of the season could look like especially with the January Transfer Window fast approaching.
It seems a strange thing to say given how 2020 has gone, but it only feels like two minutes ago that I was walking away from the John Smith’s Stadium on 29 December 2019, disappointed and frustrated having just seen Rovers throw a lead away and go on to lose 2-1, bullied by Steve Mounie, with that coming on the back of two disappointing home draws.
Fast-forward 365 days and Rovers have again been beaten 2-1 by The Terriers, however, this year in a much different fashion having seemingly snatched a point only to throw it away late, on the back of a disappointing home draw to Sheffield Wednesday and loss away to Stoke City.
The question is, has anything changed in those 12 months on the pitch to show signs or offer hope of progress? Or have we become a fair-to-middling mid-table Championship side prone to a good run of form to raise expectations, only to fall back down to earth following a similar run of poor results?
When we played Huddersfield away last season (29/12/19), this was the 25th game of the season and Rovers found themselves in 13th place with 36 points, three points off the play-offs, with ten wins and six draws, and a goal difference of +1. After three games less this season at the same date, Rovers are a place lower in 14th, seven points worse off (having played three games less), eight off the play-offs, having won eight and drawn five and with a goal difference of +9.
On paper, it looks as though we have regressed, we are further away from the play-offs and every stat looks worse other than the goal difference column. However, if we pick up three wins from our next three games, suddenly, the season looks comparable, if not better. A look at the fixture list shows Birmingham (away) followed by Stoke and Swansea at home – not the easiest three fixtures on paper and certainly not three games you would expect nine points from, especially given the latter are above us in the table at present and we all know the stat doing the rounds about the lack of victories against such teams.
But, stranger things have happened and in recent yearsm Rovers have been known to, like Scrooge, take away all optimism about top six over the Christmas period, only to rally in January and February and bring back the optimism – after the defeat to Huddersfield last season, followed by an away defeat to Nottingham Forest, Rovers then went on a run of losing only one game (against promotion chasing Fulham) in the following ten.
Another cause for optimism is the return of key players from injury. Last season, Christmas was ruined for Rovers fans by the loss of Bradley Dack for the rest of the season, and longer. When he went down in agony and had to be stretchered off against Wigan two days before Christmas, Rovers lost their talisman and their creative spark – Dack was soon followed by Holtby and Evans on the side-lines and things went from bad to worse. Mowbray had already implemented his much praised/lamented (you decide) system of 4-3-2-1 and we were seeing less and less of Danny Graham, a man we saw even less of without his partner-in-crime Dack on the pitch. This season, things are (hopefully) different.
We come out of the hectic Christmas schedule with Dack returning to the first team and appearing from the bench; Lewis Travis isn’t far from a return and we already have Ben Brereton back from injury and impacted upon games again. The return of Travis and Dack is like having a spine transplant – two of our most influential players returning just when we need them.
Mowbray hasn’t been shy following the Huddersfield defeat about lamenting the soft underbelly of the team and I have to agree – as I saw Jonathan Hogg tearing about the pitch, getting in players faces and generally implementing the dark arts, I looked at our team and thought who is doing that for us? Who is in the oppositions’ faces? Who is in the referee’s face after every tackle? Who is backing Brereton up when Hogg clatters into him? It’s not pretty, but every team has someone. We’re used to having Travis fulfil that role. We’ve had the masters at it in the past with Robbie Savage, El Hadji Diouf, Paul Dickov, David Batty etc, but in this injury savaged team, we don’t have anyone.
I’m not saying we should be steaming in to challenges recklessly at 100mph, but at the minute, we seem to just roll over and take it and don’t stand up for ourselves. With Travis back, we have that player who invites it and is happy to play the victim and get other players involved, whilst dishing out his fair share. With Dack back, we have the loud voice of a winner back on the pitch who won’t settle for defeat and who will get in the face of the opposition as well. Perhaps most importantly for Rovers at the minute, both players get the ball and move us further up the pitch to draw these fouls. In a worst-case scenario, we may get Corry Evans back at the end of March as well as the international fixtures return – a player who has often gone under-appreciated but who can make a tackle but also pick a pass.
Although every team in every division is suffering from injuries during what is a hectic and strange condensed season, I can’t help but feel that Rovers have been particularly unlucky in the position we have experienced most injuries – defence. In midfield, we play a system that suits three central midfielders, a position where we have no less than 11 players who can play in that role. In defence, we have two established players who can play right back, three who can play left back, and four who can play centre half.
The list of injuries currently reads as follows: Williams (CB), Ayala (CB), Wharton (CB), Nyambe (RB). Rankin-Costello (RB/Midfielder), Travis (CM), Evans (CM), Bennett (RB/CM). I don’t imagine Rovers have fielded the same back four too often this season.
Therein lies the problem – if a team is to have a good season, they generally need a steady and stable back four; something Rovers haven’t had all season. Douglas came in to rave reviews at the beginning of the season and has yet to deliver both defensively or from set pieces; Bell is still somewhat of an enigma as to whether he is the man for the left back role. At times, Nyambe has been dropped in favour of what Rankin-Costello can do on the ball, but defensively Nyambe is a solid option, and if he could get his final ball sorted, who knows how high he could go?
The real problem for Rovers lies at centre back though – Rovers have tried combinations of Lenihan, Williams, Ayala, Wharton, Johnson and Carter as a result of injury, but the best combinations involving Lenihan, Williams and Wharton, are unlikely to be seen again this season due to injury.
For me, Lenihan and Ayala are too similar – both have shown they have a mistake in them, and both look like they have a penalty or a red card in them when the red mist descends, or the light bulb goes out. I’m also not sure either of these fit Mowbray’s preference to play out from the back – there’s been a few “hearts in mouths” moments already this season. With Ayala joining Williams and Wharton on the treatment table, and Nyambe who could slot in at centre back also potentially joining them, it would take a brave man to bet on what the back four will be against Birmingham on Saturday. For what it’s worth, I think Mowbray will drop Bradley Johnson back along side Lenihan with Buckley on the right and Bell on the left.
The solution to the defensive problem may have to come from within. EFL rules state that you can only have a maximum of five loan signings in the matchday squad – at present, our loaned players are Elliott, Trybull and Douglas. Whilst that leaves two slots free in a starting eleven, the bigger problem is finding the finances to pay the wages of loan players and any loan fee that might be incurred. Gone are the days where top-flight clubs would loan out players purely to get playing time in to youngsters’ legs or those returning from injury, as loan deals now come with the club receiving the player paying a percentage, if not all, of their wages, and quite often a loan fee.
We are likely to see fringe and U23 players go out on loan for game time like Harry Chapman – who has recently joined Shrewsbury – but this is unlikely to free up the wage budget to bring in quality players to improve the defence. The only scenario whereby we could look to bring further loans in to bolster the defence is by terminating existing deals – Trybull looks like the only option here – or by using money from player sales to either purchase new defenders, or pay loan fees and wages.
That said, we are short of defensive numbers at Ewood, but we have Tyler Magloire and Charlie Mulgrew both out on loan and playing relatively regularly. Wharton stepped up this season as has Lenihan and Bell before him – and now looks like the ideal time to me to bring Magloire back and give him a run of games.
Unlike Lenihan and Ayala, he has pace to get himself out of trouble and by all accounts, he played well against Leicester in pre-season. Rather than gambling and spending money we don’t have on a new defender, or scraping the barrel for loan signings, I’d much prefer to see Magloire given a go.
Mulgrew is another, albeit different, option – he brings experience and composure on the ball as well as adding another dimension from set pieces; arguably three things Lenihan has lacked at times this season. I thought two years ago his legs had gone and the Championship by-passed him a little, but when he played last season, he didn’t look out of his depth. Given the way Mowbray wants to play out from the back, Mulgrew suits this system off to a tee, but he would need Bell/Douglas to be ready to provide cover and pace should the opposition counter, something which goes against Mowbray wanting his full backs further up the pitch. How Mowbray solves this defensive dilemma could very well dictate how our season goes from this point.
To throw another question in the mix – do we not also need to bring in another striker to bolster the attack? Yes, we have scored three or more goals on five occasions this season, but we are yet to win a game one nil, and the goals seem to come in flurries (5-0, 4-0, 4-0 etc). What we have seen throughout the season so far is that to win a game we are more than likely going to have to score at least two goals due to our defensive frailties.
Adam Armstrong has 15 of our 36 league goals with the next highest scoring players being Elliott and Gallagher – where we to lose Armstrong to injury or transfer, I’m not sure Gallagher could step in to that striker role and provide the same number of goals, or whether Mowbray would even play him there. Bradley Dack may be the man to pick up the slack but it remains to be seen where he fits in this new system, especially when he has been most effective playing off Danny Graham during his time at Ewood Park – a style of play you can’t implement with a small pacey striker like Armstrong, and a style I don’t think Gallagher has all the attributes for yet.
My heart says letting Rudy Gestede go to Melbourne Victory for nothing from Middlesbrough was a massive opportunity missed, but my head says if no-one else was interested there’s probably a reason for that. If money is again the problem, I’d like to see some of the up and coming players from the U23s like Dan Butterworth, Sam Burns, Jack Vale and Connor McBride given first team game time.
Early in the season, we were playing good football, scoring goals and keeping clean sheets – in our first five games, we scored 11 goals, conceded just 4 and returned 7 points. At the time, it was evident that if we could get an early goal, it would mean the opposition would have to come out and attack and with our pace, we could exploit the gaps on the counterattack. What we are lacking now is getting that first goal, and preventing ourselves from shooting ourselves in the foot with mistakes and the opposition getting one chance and taking it, and then sitting in and asking us to break them down – something our team doesn’t seem cut out for at the minute.
We need to get back to that balance of stretching teams early on and getting a goal, and then being defensively solid to provide a framework for the side to counter attack from – all too often over the last month or so, teams have done to us what we did to them early in the season. At the minute, the opposition’s team talk could just be “keep it tight at the back and let them have the ball 30 yards out, they’ll eventually make a mistake and we just have to capitalise on that and then dig the trenches”.
Getting Bradley Dack back goes a long way to solving the problem of breaking teams down when they do sit in, and Dack, Elliott and Rothwell is a threesome that has be purring – but we can’t rely on Dack to come off the bench with 30 minutes to go and ask him to dig us out of trouble. Against Sheffield Wednesday, Dack came on and we got the ball in to his feet and his quick passing created options and opportunities; but against Huddersfield, we may as well not have bothered bringing him on as I don’t think we got the ball in to his feet around 25 yards out once.
For the Birmingham game on Saturday, I’d start Dack from the first whistle and give him a blank canvas to go and paint his return – no pressure to salvage a point or nick us a win; give him the opportunity to start a game and grow in to it organically rather than being thrown in when it’s already travelling at 100 mph. As is often said when sides rest players for cup games and then have to bring them off the bench to rescue the tie – why not start your key players, get the game wrapped up and then take them off?
Birmingham City go into Saturday’s game on the back of four defeats in five, including three consecutive home defeats where they have conceded a total of nine goals. Aitor Karanka was scathing in his post-match interview after the most recent defeat (4-0 to Derby – who have hardly set the world alite this season), so Birmingham fans will be expecting a response and Rovers will hope Birmingham approach the game with an attacking mind to allow them to counter – an open game is likely to suit Rovers style of play.
However, that all depends on whether we can defend against an attack-minded Birmingham. They scored first in their home game against Middlesbrough and went on to lose 4-1 and came from behind to lead 2-1 against Cardiff before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat – so them scoring first doesn’t necessarily mean they will, or can, sit back and absorb pressure. Given Rovers’ defensive frailties and casualties, combined with our ability to score goals in open games, this could be a seven or eight goal thriller, hopefully with Rovers coming out on the winning side.
At the 22-game stage last season, 14th position was occupied by Hull City with 30 points – in the January window, they sold their two best players and plummeted down the league before being relegated to League One. This should be a cautionary tale to both Rovers and their fans – the Championship is a highly competitive league with games coming quick and fast, all you need is a good run to lift you up towards the top six, or a bad run to drop you down towards the bottom six. If an offer came in for Armstrong in January, we would have to seriously consider it to balance the books and also provide options to strengthen elsewhere in the side, but, it also isn’t easy to replace 15 goals in 22 games, and this Rovers side are currently proving that in order to win games, you have to score goals – usually more than one of them.
Armstrong is a variable Rovers may not have much of a say in because of the financial implications and also the ambition of the player to play at a higher level. Tony Mowbray is the variable Rovers can control. Using Hull as an example, the 30-point mark at 22 games in is now a precarious position – you are placed to still compete for the play offs or better, but you also sit atop the area of the table where you can still get dragged in to a relegation battle. Changing the manager at this point would likely bring with it a change in system, backroom staff and potentially the entire ethos and playing style of the club from top to bottom – something it has taken Mowbray 4 years to instill at the club. Rovers would also have to find the right person to replace him, something they haven’t been too great at doing in the last decade (8 managers in 10 years), mid-season, and expect them to provide relatively instant success to get up in to the play-offs.
For me, the risk of not getting the appointment right and it having the opposite effect are too great, especially during this COVID-19 impacted season where there is less and less money coming into the club. People will have their opinion, which they are entitled to, that it is time for Mowbray to move on, and to progress the club you do have to gamble from time to time, but in my opinion, now is not one of those times where you gamble – the stakes are too high. As pessimistic and unambitious as it sounds, I don’t think a mid-table finish this season would be the worst outcome, especially if we managed to get key players signed up to new contracts as we have already seen with Dack.
As frustrating as it may feel, as Rovers fans we are in it for the long haul and I’d rather we build a squad on solid and sustainable foundations which allow us to achieve our goal of promotion and then maintain our place in the top flight, rather than a brief fling with the Premier League, however welcome the money it brings would be, before dropping back to the Championship and starting again.
I feel as though Mowbray is setting those foundations with his style of play, recruitment and perhaps most importantly with the youngsters coming through the Under 23s. At the very least, for everything he has given this club during his tenure, the off the field issues and the never-ending injury list, he should be allowed to see the season through. After all, it is thanks to Mowbray that we now see ourselves as top six contenders and not the relegation fodder we were when he first arrived.
Thanks for reading.
Featured Image: rovers.co.uk