Rovers finish off positive opening month with draw

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Clear concerns in the squad but clear positives in the attitudes says Andy Watson as he delivers his verdict from Rovers’ 1-1 draw at The Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough.

Well, sorry to start on a self-indulgent note here, but what a feeling to be in the stadium live at a Rovers match again. When Sam Gallagher’s goal went in, I had to actually sit down after the celebrations as my chest tightened worryingly following my recent brush with COVID but thankfully that subsided.

Unfortunately, after that bright opening that was capped by Gallagher’s thunderous strike, Rovers also subsided. Boro’s 3-5-2 system was dominant and in Jones and Dijksteel they had fast, willing runners who stretched the pitch too wide for Rovers to cope with. Their stranglehold on the game in the lead up to half-time and for 15 minutes after the break was pretty absolute.

However, the reason that we struggled so much is actually very similar to the reason we struggled against this same team a year ago at Ewood. That night we played Tyrhys Dolan and Harvey Elliott together for the first time, also I believe that Joe Rothwell either got injured or was injured for half of that match too. That resulted in us being far too lightweight in our personnel, especially in midfield. It was the same again yesterday.

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Leighton Clarkson looks a terrific footballer. In the realms of PL2 and underage football, I can see that he would be able to dictate play, thread beautiful passes and create. I’m not even saying he doesn’t try to be competitive, he does, but against the likes of Howson and Morsy, he was always going to come off second best. I agree with Mowbray when he said that there will be times for Clarkson, I’m just not sure why he thought Saturday was one of those, surely Buckley was the better bet.

Ian Poveda, on debut, contributed to the lightweight issue but also contributed to some of the more positive moves. He clearly has great technique, as evidenced by his very first touch plucking a Kaminski hoof out of the sky with aplomb, and his persistence was key to the first goal. I think he is on a different level development-wise than Tyrhys Dolan, but the Rovers #10 will still get time to develop.

I have been critical in the past of Tony Mowbray’s in-game management but I must say that I have agreed with the vast majority of his in-game moves this season so far, and our points tally would suggest they have been effective as well (we will talk about actual performances in The Stats Show this week!). Some have criticised the move to 5-2-3 as a negative one, and in some ways, I understand that, but what I do know is that if the system had remained the same we would likely have lost the match. 

Similar to Millwall away, their wing-backs got so much joy against our 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system with no-one really sure who was meant to be picking them up. Carter and Pickering gave Jones and Dijksteel space to run at them, but I wouldn’t blame them entirely, it’s a tactical issue. I can see more and more managers playing wing-backs against us as the season progresses as it clearly causes us a lot of problems.

The issue with our squad as it stands is that we don’t have any right-backs – or right wing-backs – in the senior squad to call upon. Magloire, as much as I don’t think he’s up to it in the Championship, did a good job against Jones. He was clearly just asked to show him the line and make it a test of speed, smart management I thought. 

Mowbray was also able to shut down the counter-attacking threat from our own set-pieces. How that was allowed to occur in the first place is another matter. Throwing Carter, Ayala & Lenihan forward makes sense in an attacking way, but having Pickering as the last man supported by Clarkson and Travis a bit higher was a recipe for disaster that was clear from two or three previous set-pieces before the Howson goal.

The right-hand side should be solved by the Luton game with Rankin-Costello (potentially an awesome RWB) and Nyambe returning to the squad. However, other areas still need addressing, especially increasing the physicality in central areas. Bradley Johnson returning would help, potentially playing JRC in the midfield would too, a move I would be interested in seeing, but probably won’t happen. One more (strong) body in there from recruitment wouldn’t hurt either.

We all get a bit of a rest now for a couple of weeks. The start has been positive in terms of results, unbeaten away from home and only losing to West Brom. There are concerns too of course and we will discuss all the pros and cons and the differences to last season in The Stats Show out next week. 

For now, I’m just proud of our fighting spirit and competitiveness. Ayala has been key to that and him having two weeks off is probably a blessing as well. That’s all we ask for and the crowd’s support was obvious at Middlesbrough on Saturday. 

Thanks for reading.

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