Disappointing losses away to local rivals Preston and Wigan have left Rovers with just one win in six, and what was turning in to a season of optimism for a play-off run is in danger of false-starting and turning in to a relegation battle. Mowbray has been in charge for 21 months and has seen the team relegated and then promoted, but the current situation could be his biggest challenge at Ewood.
In the words of 1993 Graham Taylor: “This is a test”. With just one win in six dropping Rovers down the league to 13th and the bottom half some 5 points of the play-off places, the period running up to and including Christmas could be the most crucial and difficult of his Rover reign to date.
When Mowbray took over in February 2017 Rovers were deep in the mire and many fans had already resigned themselves to relegation – yes, he was under pressure to try and save us, but the damage had been done by Coyle’s time in charge and there was very little by way of expectation of avoiding relegation.
Rewind to August 2017 and although there was pressure on Mowbray to achieve an immediate return to the Championship and an expectation that he would achieve it, given the players and squad that we had, it was a test, but one that Mowbray would have felt comfortable of passing.
What Mowbray faces now, as Rovers seem to have lost all momentum, is his biggest test to date – he has to halt a slide before it turns in to a full-on relegation battle. Perhaps most worrying from the display against Wigan was the lack of heart and commitment – something Rovers fans have come to expect as a bare-minimum. From the middle of the first half it looked as though the majority of the eleven had been booked the way they were avoiding 50/50s and shirking challenges. Mowbray had promised a reaction following the defeat to Preston, but we are still waiting for it.
In the same way winning breeds confidence, losses result in the loss confidence, and the losing run needs to end as soon as possible. Rovers sit 9 points above the relegation zone, but in a league where you regularly play 3 games in 7 days, with a week we could find ourselves deep in the mire, with the heavy Christmas schedule only serving to heighten the importance of stopping the rot. Three games in a week though also means three wins in a week could propel us up the league and all will be forgotten.
Perhaps Mowbray’s saving grace is that the two defeats have come away from home and the next game sees the side return to home comforts with a game against Sheffield Wednesday. It’s not the easiest of fixtures against a Sheffield Wednesday side with similar lack of form to Rovers – one win in seven and sitting 3 points and positions below Rovers in the table – but Rovers have to take advantage of the home support, and the home support needs to get behind the team. The last thing Rovers need is for the crowd to revert back to pre-Mowbray days and get on the players backs from the start – that said, Rovers need to be quicker out of the blocks than they have been recently.
The crowd can, and hopefully will, play their part in pushing Rovers towards a victory, but on the evidence of Wednesday’s loss to Wigan, other changes are required. Dack looks out of sorts, whether teams have worked out how to play him or whether Mowbray is asking too much from him to influence games, it just isn’t working at the minute; Bell looks a liability whenever he gets the ball – in the whole game against Wigan I think I only saw him complete passes with his head, and his stray pass resulting the third Wigan goal as we were pushing for an equaliser; the defence in general looked like they had never played together before at times against Wigan; and the fact Rovers haven’t won a league game by more than one goal all season shows the fact that we don’t score enough goals, which on more than one occasion has meant conceding late goals has cost us points – don’t get me wrong though, I’d take a scrappy 1-0 on Saturday. In my opinion now would be a good time to change things with a reshuffle.
We don’t score enough goals partly because we play with one striker and Dack just behind – if Dack to create or link up with Graham, which he hasn’t been doing, the number of chances we create are limited. Playing two defensive midfielders behind a 3 and 1 is supposed to offer protection for our defence, but we’ve conceded 7 in 2 games – this obviously isn’t working. A change in formation to a traditional 4-4-2 on Saturday might offer us more going forward with two focal points who can play off each other and two more old-fashioned-type wingers providing width and service to the two frontmen, whilst also offering more defensive cover tracking back. This would allow Mowbray to stick with the two defensive/battling midfielders but with the added support of wingers to track wide men rather than the two central players being pulled out wide.
What this change system would also necessitate is a change in personnel. If Lennihan is fit he obviously goes back in to the centre of defence alongside Mulgrew, which means Williams can slot back in at left back, taking Bell out of the limelight; if Lennihan isn’t fit I’d put Williams in at centre half and think about playing either Travis or Bennett or left back, with Nyambe on the opposite side. In the centre of the field I’d stick with Evans and Reed, and on the wings I’d bring in Conway – a player who gives his all every time he steps on to the pitch is exactly what we need, and he does the dirty work tracking back. On the opposite side, I’d give Rothwell a shot or Bennett if he isn’t in at full back or central midfield – the reason I wouldn’t opt for Armstrong is because, like others, I think he is struggling for form at the minute, and he also doesn’t offer as much defensively; that said, if he does start I wouldn’t be disappointed as he has been at his best when allowed to run at defences from wide positions. Then up top I’d play Graham and Brereton – Graham as the war horse and foil to win the headers, hold the ball up and play off whilst also drawing free-kicks; with a play alongside him he would no longer need to win the ball, hold it up and wait for player to support him. Although I don’t think Brereton is an out-and-out striker, he has influenced games more often than not when he has come off the bench – the only problem being he is brought on to score goals but more often than not he finds himself leaving that centre forward position in search of the ball and to create. By playing up front with another striker this would take the pressure off him and allow him to play his game – he has yet to start a game since joining from Nottingham Forest and this looks like the perfect opportunity for him and for Mowbray to make an impact, Sheffield Wednesday won’t be expecting it which can only be a good thing.
Nothing controversial there then, apart from the omission of Dack. Yes, Dack may be our top goal scorer and he may have been involved in the creation of more goals than anyone else, but in the last few weeks he has been off the boil and has contributed little. He has had to drop deep to pick the ball up and that places him far to far away from where he causes most damage. He has also suffered from being Mowbray’s go to man when things aren’t working, deploying him as a lone striker which hasn’t helped him have an impact. I’d take him out of the limelight and take the pressure off him a little, but I’d have him on the bench to give us an option to change it both in terms of players and systems. With that in mind I’d also have Armstrong and Palmer on the bench, giving us three players who can all change a game.
The losing streak needs to end as soon as possible, especially before the busy period, and the tricky tie away to Middlesbrough, as two defeats could quickly turn in to one win in ten by the time Christmas arrives (and Rovers travel to Leeds). We are in a position of opportunity – turn it around before Christmas and a good Christmas puts us on course for a play-off run; but fail to arrest the slide and the rest of the season turns in to the relegation dog fight no one wants.
Tony Mowbray’s record in charge of Rovers reads: played 92, won 45, drawn 29 and lost 18 giving a win percentage of almost 50%. That’s somewhat better than my win percentage as a professional football manager, so in Mowbray I’ll trust to steer the ship back on course.