Andy Watson provides his verdict as Rovers score five in victory over Cardiff City…
In May, I released the 20/21 Blackburn Rovers Season Review & Recruitment document. In research for the 139-page beast, I came across a statistic that was pretty shocking and asked questions that required answers: Blackburn Rovers haven’t won a game when situated in the top 8 of the division under Tony Mowbray.
I speculated that the team may have something of a mentality problem. Some of the explanation for this statistic was clearly down to variation, the end of a good run that can only last a certain amount of time. Some of the games lost/drawn were clearly winnable so there was definitely something that needed addressing. I thought it may have come from bringing in some new players with experience and a winning mentality, but no, something else has happened here.
The game on Saturday showed Rovers fans that this team does have something different to its previous iterations. It was a magnificent victory and the quality that we showed in technique and decisive forward play was built upon competitiveness and fight. When you welcome Cardiff to Ewood you know that you have to match them in those areas first before you can assert yourselves.
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Tony Mowbray and his staff may have stumbled upon a winning formula – the exact opposite set of ideas to last season. The mass exodus of experienced pros over the summer did the job of reducing the wage bill considerably but also left the club in the position of having to rely on a smaller group of players that bring a youthful exuberance to the table and clearly want to play for the shirt and for each other.
This has distilled itself into a very settled XI. Injuries and suspensions will come, but at the moment you could easily name nine or ten of Rovers’ starting XI with confidence. The more they have played together the clearer it has become that they are gelling and know each other’s game inside out. Nowhere is this more evident than in central defence. Where Darragh Lenihan was asked to perform with a revolving door of partners alongside him last season, his partnership with the revived Daniel Ayala has been the rock upon which Rovers have built their success.
The Spaniard has reduced the load of leadership on the Irishman. You see Ayala on the pitch constantly talking and organising those alongside him and in front of him. This really helps the likes of Pickering, Travis & Rothwell, each of whom require help for slightly different reasons. His role at set-pieces is also extremely important. Usually given a free role to seek the ball, he has been responsible for the most headed clearances for Rovers this season.
The consistency from front to back though is impressive. Lewis Travis is having an excellent season, though usually asked to be more disciplined than I (and probably Lewis) would like as the most defensive of the three but has performed his role brilliantly. This has allowed Rothwell and John Buckley to be more expressive, and Rothwell deserves so much credit for adapting his game though, he has become much more tactically aware and takes up better positions defensively.
However, it is the player that came into the club in the junior sessions as a child that I want to concentrate on. John Buckley was the name-dropped by Jason Wilcox (Man City Head of Academy as well as Rovers title winner) when I asked him who out of the Rovers Academy sides had impressed him the most on the Rovers Chat podcast last summer. At this stage, Rovers fans were generally busy criticising his lack of physicality, lack of impact in matches & doubting his quality, perhaps similarly to Wilcox himself back in the late 80s/early 90s. Gradually he has won over the fans though and Saturday was the picture of a man who knows exactly his role in the side and was able to produce a performance of great control, technique and decision making to pick the right passes. None more so than a magnificent assist for Sam Gallagher’s opener.
I realise that all the goals came from our front three, and Ben Brereton Diaz’s hat-trick hasn’t even had a mention here. The movement and running power of the front three was excellent and gives us hope of a continuing threat for the rest of the season.
As for the rest of the season, is this sustainable? We sit inside the top 6 with a 3 point gap back to Huddersfield. We have a run of fixtures that doesn’t contain any games that look scarily tough and it seems as though players are coming back from injury rather than departing the scene with them. Now is the time to build on the momentum and really put that statistic from the last few seasons to bed.
This team is building its own mentality. They are growing together and us fans can grow our confidence with them. I don’t think I have ever seen a Rovers team so easy to get behind in my 30+ years of supporting the club. They fight. They play. They are young and full of promise. Let’s get to the games and let’s see what they can do.
We have one win now when in the playoff positions – I suspect there will be more where that came from in 2021 and 2022.
Thanks for reading.