Doncaster Rovers began the season with a narrow defeat away to Accrington Stanley, who finished fourth last season in League Two. It wasn’t the start we’d hoped for at all, but for better or worse here are five things we can take away from the curtain raiser.
2 + 2 = 4, not 3-5-2
Darren Ferguson loves the 3-5-2. This is clearly his preferred formation, but the problems with it last season cost us dearly. Back then, he had a great excuse for why it wasn’t working however, and that was that he was deploying it with the wrong personnel, not players he had signed himself to fit the system but rather a team he had inherited and therefore would need time to adapt to the new formation. Now he has had an entire summer to recruit appropriately and teach the ways of 3-5-2, but injuries have meant that we are still plugging squares pegs into round holes.
Fergie cannot be blamed for the injury crisis, but he can be blamed for his stubbornness causing a detriment to our performance at Accrington. The 3-5-2 was used despite the lack of several players key to the set-up, and it showed. Riccardo Calder had an impressive pre-season but struggled mightily in his defensive duties whilst playing in the pivotal wing back role, whilst captain James Coppinger looked muddled and helpless in the centre of the park playing in the midfield three. Both were hauled off after 66 minutes for their ineffectiveness, but by then we were 2-1 down. The defence struggled to deal with the fast pace of Accrington’s attacks, and without two new signings brought in to play in a back three – Mathieu Baudry and Joe Wright – as well as Craig Alcock, Fergie should have played safe and opted for a flat back four.
The manager needs to play to the strengths of what he has available, not ask players to do things they aren’t capable of. We saw this with Calder and Coppinger, whilst Mitchell Lund in particular also struggled with his positioning on the right hand side of the defensive three. In addition to the losses of Baudry, Wright and Alcock, Luke McCullough is also out meaning that Fergie is realistically without four of the players he has planned to play this 3-5-2 with. On Saturday this meant academy graduate Lund and three young loanees filling the positions vacated by the injured quartet, and it showed as we were vulnerable time and time again from Stanley’s attacks.
Keep it tight
Time and time again last season, Rovers were caught cold by goals at the very start and end of games. Such problems downright plagued us, and led to costly defeats in the run that ultimately consigned us to relegation. Late goals caused defeats at home to Blackpool and Peterborough along with an agonising 96th minute goal costing us victory at Rochdale. These all add up and despite a summer of training, the players still seem incapable of keeping things tight both at kick off and when trying to close out a game.
The opening few minutes were a disaster for Rovers at Accrington. First a great opportunity to go in front inside the first two minutes was squandered when Andy Williams saw his penalty saved by debutant Aaron Chapman, then we were undone minutes later by a through ball as Rommy Boco broke the defensive line and slotted home coolly to put the home side in front. Then, having fought back to level twice, Rovers failed to hold out for a draw by conceding a 91st minute winner from Sean McConville that meant all our efforts on the day were worthless.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Williams
Andy Williams was our top scorer last season, notching 16 goals after a highly anticipated move north from Swindon Town. Williams stated that he wanted to be playing in the Championship, and clearly has the finishing ability to do so, but having found himself leading the line for Rovers in League Two this season, this match proved a microcosm of his time at the club so far. Williams missed a penalty early on, not the first time he has done so, and from there seemed to do his regular ‘gone into my shell’ act.
The head goes down so quickly for Mr. Williams, one setback can knock him off his stride for weeks on end, and so it was again at the Crown Ground. He hit several tame shots at goal when we had carved out good opportunities, and had a constant tendency to stroll back from an offside position taking himself out of potential counter attacks on more than one occasion. Despite this Williams did score his first goal of the season, but it was another tame effort that only just crossed the courtesy of a ridiculous fumble from Accrington keeper Chapman.
Williams is a very talented player and is one of the national favourites to win the Golden Boot in League Two this year. He is fully capable of doing just that, especially in a team with as much attacking intent as the new-look Rovers seem to have, but his biggest enemy remains his own mindset. He needs to learn to shake off knock-backs much better, and keep his concentration for a full 90 minutes. If Gary McSheffrey is fit soon, then Williams should at least be released from the burden of penalty taking, something he never looks wholly confident in doing, and if you couple this with a good scoring run early in the season, then Williams will be a huge asset for Rovers in 2016/17.
It was not all doom and gloom in the summer sun this weekend, far from it in fact. We did manage to score two goals and had lengthy spells of dominant possession against one of the better teams in the division last term, and several players earned rightful praise at full time. Tommy Rowe has been hailed as a major coup for the club, signing on a permanent deal after an encouraging loan spell in the spring, and he showed what he is capable of here, netting Rovers’ first equaliser with a very well taken strike into the corner early on.
Debuting striker John Marquis also committed himself very well, putting himself about and putting in 100% effort alongside Williams up front. Marquis showed excellent hold up ability and threatened with the ball at his feet in the penalty area too, and it should be noted that he followed up Chapman’s fumble for our second goal by slamming the ball into the bottom corner to make fully sure the goal stood. Matty Blair also demonstrated lightning pace down the right flank and adapted to unfamiliar defensive duties solidly.
One man who did not have a good afternoon on his Rovers debut meanwhile was Ross Etheridge. Playing on the ground he had made his name at last season, Etheridge struggled to find his feet and was beaten too easily for Accrington’s goals. Matty Pearson’s long-range pot shot should not have troubled him, yet an awkward bounce fooled him completely, a flat-footed sprawl not enough to keep the effort out of the net, and in injury time the winning goal exposed a positional flaw for Etheridge. McConville’s hooked effort sailed over and past Etheridge into the far corner to snatch a point away from Rovers, and he will be hoping to improve from this point on.
The only consolation for young Etheridge is that he was still the best keeper on the pitch in this match. Aaron Chapman turned in arguably the worst goalkeeping performance I have seen in 17 years watching the sport, enduring a nightmare afternoon right from the get go. A sliced clearance in the opening seconds set the tone, and with the game barely a minute old Chapman bundled Matty Blair to the floor for a penalty. He did redeem himself to make a save from Andy Williams’ low effort, but his struggles were still not over. More dodgy clearances followed, along with a strange collision with one of his own defenders, and the icing on the cake came when he dropped Williams’ tame shot over the line to make it 2-2. All the work he’s done in pre-season to beat Elliot Parish to the #1 spot was undone in comical fashion here, but he did still end up on the winning side.
That is all that matters at the end of the day: no points for Rovers in the season opener. Fortunately the schedule means we have a great chance to put this defeat behind us and push on with four games in the next fortnight to prepare for. Tomorrow night we face Championship side Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup, and then it is on to our first home game of the league campaign when Crawley Town head to Lakeside. Let’s hope lessons are learned from our 3-2 loss at Accrington by that point.