Saturday’s victory over Barnsley by no means convincing, but it was another 3 points in the bag, 3 goals scored, and moves us on to 21 points and up to 17th in the league – 7 points from relegation, and 8 points from the play offs; but at 1-1 and 2-2 on Saturday was the first time there’s been noticeable and audible discontent at Mowbray on the side-lines.
At the start of the international break, the home tie to Barnsley looked like a certain 3 points, but you never know what you’re going to get when a new manager comes in, and Barnsley didn’t look like a side rooted to the foot of the table. In the first half in particular they passed the ball around better than Rovers without really creating anything. Then, as always happens when you are at the foot of the table, one mistake and the opposition are in and Rovers took the lead. That should’ve been the game and we should have been able to push on and put them to the sword, perhaps even giving Big Ben Brereton some time game without the pressure of needing to score – but it wasn’t to be.
As Barnsley equalised once and then twice, the crowd vented their frustrations towards Mowbray – mainly by calling for Graham to come from the bench and change the game. It wasn’t quite back to the Coyle or Kean days, but had Barnsley taken the lead, I don’t think we would have been far off. So, what is the issue?
To start with, away form. It doesn’t seem to matter how much of a lead we build up on the road, it only takes one goal for us to seemingly capitulate – case in point, Preston away. Earlier in the season we were able to hold on to one goal leads at the likes of Hull, but that steely determination and resolve seems to have waned. At the time I put it down to the experience of the likes of Downing and Johnson in the middle keeping the ball turning over and stopping us from dropping back, but they have played in games since when we have thrown leads away. For me, Mowbray’s problem is that he doesn’t know his best 11 and hasn’t settled on a first choice throughout the team – perhaps with the exception of Dack.
Starting between the sticks – Mowbray made the decision to cash in on Raya and bring in Walton on loan as stop-gap. At the time I thought this was a step backward as Raya had the potential to be our keeper for the next decade, with the better option being to bring in someone experienced to bring him along. In Walton we have gone backwards. For such a big lad he doesn’t command his box, isn’t a great shot-stopper, and looks like an accident waiting to happen every time there is a ball in to the box. I have seen nothing so far to tell me he is any better than Leutwiler – I’d much prefer to see Leutwiler given the job between the sticks with young Fisher getting first team experience on the bench, and then look at an experienced keeper on a permanent move or a loan deal in January.
The biggest blow so far this season has been the loss of Cunningham. In the games he played for us before his injury he showed us how important a good left back is, and he has been a massive loss. Mowbray has put Bell back in and even tried Bennett, but this is an area we need to strengthen in January, perhaps with a loan move, and I’d be looking to snap up Cunningham even if he is still injured. At right back I don’t know who Mowbray sees as his first choice – Bennett isn’t a right back but I feel he gets slotted in there because he ‘can’ play there and as captain needs to squeeze him in somewhere; but in terms of the best player for that position at the club I think Nyambe gets the nod, but he’s looked better at times at centre half, so right back is another week spot we need to strengthen in.
Which brings us on centre backs. When everyone is fit – Lenihan, Williams, Adarabioyo and Nyambe – I’d be interested who the starting pairing is; it will be Lenihan plus another, but who usually depends on injuries. For what it’s worth, Lenihan should be wearing the captain’s armband. A solid keeper and back four are the key to any good team and the key to consistency – at the minute we change the back four every week and that is creating problems for us. Although most of the time this is due to injuries and out of Mowbray’s hands, we do have players who always seem to be one over-stretch away from two weeks out.
When everyone is fit in the centre of the park, in the system Mowbray plays, he has to pick two from: Travis, Evans, Rothwell, Smallwood, Downing, Johnson, Holtby (and Gladwin, LOL). It’s no easy pick as each have their merits, but Mowbray needs to pick a partnership and stick to it. Travis looked like sure thing last season when he broke through and was all action for 90 minutes, breaking play up, carrying the ball and starting attacks, but he looks like he’s only playing at 80% in comparison now and that lowers the intensity across the pitch.
Wingers / Attackers
Prior to Saturday I would have said that Armstrong is probably the second name on the team-sheet to play one of the wide attackers but then Mowbray played him through the middle. I can see his thinking – get the ball in behind and use his pace, but when that isn’t working, he doesn’t offer much in terms of winning headers or holding the ball up to bring others in to play. Almost immediately after being switched out wide he beat the full back with his pace and created a chance – something Gallagher had struggled to do all game. Who plays on the opposite side has varied almost weekly with Downing, Gallagher, Bennett and Rothwell all spending time out wide.
This position poses one question which is possibly more key than any other: Where is Harry Chapman? When we re-signed him last January, we knew he was still working his way back from a bad injury and it was going to take time, and it would be better not to rush him. But then we saw him at the end of last season, and it looked like he was well involved in the first team. Fast-forward 6 months and there is no sign of him. With Armstrong on one side and Chapman on the other that is one hell of a one-two punch with pace and trickery – like the days of Wilcox and Ripley getting the by-line and crossing for Shearer, only now it would be Gallagher or Graham. Imagine the lift it would have given the crowd on Saturday if, struggling at 1-1 or 2-2, Chapman is brought from the bench?
The number 10 spot looks like it is Dack’s whatever, even though I think we lose the impact of Holtby by playing him deeper, you can’t argue with Dack’s stats and contributions. Maybe the answer with Holtby is to play him as a wide 10 (i.e. attacking midfielder but not a winger as such). You could see on Saturday that Dack was the one getting the players back going after both equalisers, and he was the one pleading with the referee that the second goal was hand-ball – he obviously cares. Mowbray could do worse than give him the captains armband.
It is fairly clear now that Mowbray only has space for one striker. On Saturday he played Gallagher out wide but its evident he isn’t a winger or a wide forward. Yes, he wins the flicks and can run with the ball, but he often tries to do too much when he gets it, and he doesn’t provide the cover going the other way (Barnsley left-back had a relatively clear run all through the first half). What must be frustrating for Gallagher is that he, a no.9 is farmed out wide for 60 minutes, then when Danny Graham comes on the pack is shuffled so he can play through the middle. I’m not saying that Graham isn’t our best option in that position, but Mowbray is asking a young centre forward to play out of position and contribute to the tune of the £5m Rovers spend on him. Graham and Dack have a special relationship on the pitch and the key to moving up the table towards the promised land of the play-offs depends on getting the most out of Graham whilst we still can – Mowbray doesn’t currently have the luxury of playing blooding Gallagher in – he needs results now. Play Graham, put the game to bed, and then bring on the likes of Gallagher and Brereton.
This coming Wednesday against Brentford is a tough game, made tougher by the fact David Raya will no doubt be looking to prove to Mowbray he was wrong to sell him, but Mowbray needs a fast start or else the crowd will turn and once that happens, it’s a long way back. I don’t agree with those saying he needs to move on for the club to progress, I think he has earnt at least until the end of the season, but football is a fickle game.