A victory that won’t go down as a season highlight but as one of the most important

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On the night that Blackburn fans took Sky Bet to the cleaners, Rovers were dragged through the mud but came out shining in a narrow victory over Barnsley. Andy Watson gives his verdict as Mowbray’s men make it six wins in a row.

Realistically, this won’t go down as one of the highlights of the season, but is still one of the most important victories so far because of that. You would’ve lost count of the number of close matches that we came out the wrong side of last season, but on this occasion, Rovers found the answers required.

In truth, though this was nothing but a deserved victory. The numbers and the eye test would agree that the better chances and the sheer volume of chances were ones for the Blue and White halves – the expected goals (xG) breakdown was 1.36 v 0.31, with at least three big chances to zero in Rovers’ favour.

From an opening 20 minutes in which it appeared that neither team’s midfield got off the coach, Rovers found a change of gear – the gear went by the name of Joe Rothwell. The midfielder burst through the Barnsley defence, thanks in no small part to a beautifully weighted short pass from Harry Pickering, and he really should’ve scored then, but instead he found the very inside of the post.

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The fact that he had the chance to slot home confidently minutes later was testament to the fact that the Rovers pressing traps were beginning to snare their prey. Time and again in the second quarter of the game, Rovers’ dynamic midfield and forward players lay in wait for a pass into the midfield and then they sprung together as a unit. The coaching of this group has been top drawer and it was most evident in this period of the match. Three times in quick succession Barnsley were robbed in their own half, Buckley was unlucky with a left footed effort just sneaking wide, but Rothwell was able to finally break the deadlock.

How Rovers weren’t even further ahead at half-time was due to questionable decisions in the final third plus some decent goalkeeping from Brad Collins. The equaliser was undeserved for Barnsley’s first-half efforts and it was very scrappy at that. However, it gave the Yorkshire side the impetus for an improved second-half display.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 29: Blackburn Rovers’ Ben Brereton Diaz celebrates scoring his side’s second goal with teammates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Barnsley at Ewood Park on December 29, 2021 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)

The better chances still fell to us though and relief was felt all round when Brereton sent the Sky Bet bettors into raptures with his 20th league goal. It is a season that none of us saw coming, but I feel nothing but delight for those people holding those slips. I hope those people and their families have a great time with the money!

The spine of this team was then on display in the remainder of the match. Darragh Lenihan has been a leader in that defence for a few years now but this new system has elevated his performances to a new level. He is able to demonstrate his footballing skill but time and time again last night, he was the one heading the ball back down the pitch. He gave his opponents no time and he really did lead by example. If he doesn’t sign a new deal, it would be a shame.

Just finally, I wanted to touch upon coaching and tactics. We were unfortunate not to come out with a sixth consecutive clean sheet from this match. FotMob have us conceding only three big chances in the last five matches, and we never look out of control defensively at the moment. 

This isn’t to say that we just sit in and deny the opposition space though. We are able to spring attacks from deep, but also from that second quarter of the pitch zone. Our actual high pressing numbers aren’t high, we allow teams to have it at the back, but we lie in wait for a midfield pass. We keep a high defensive line to be aggressive as well which suits Lenihan, van Hecke and Wharton. They are all mobile players who love to challenge for the ball, and when they win it, all are also capable of distributing the ball effectively.

Mowbray has found the perfect shape and set of tactics for this young, hungry group of players and he, plus the set of coaches that he manages, deserve great credit for this. If they can do as they suggest and take things match by match and not think about the occasion then it seems unlikely that they fill fall away this time.

Thanks for reading.

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