Bradley Dack is a special footballer and his record during his time at Rovers backs this up – in two and half a seasons he has been involved in 66 goals in 109 games in all competitions. Losing him to a season ending (and longer) ACL injury would impact any team, but the downturn in form for Rovers suggests he was key to their success – but is this really the case?
When Rovers lost Dack to the ACL injury I remember thinking “it’s a horrendous injury and he’ll be a loss both on and off the pitch, but out of all the areas we were to lose someone, the number 10 role is probably were we had the most replacements”, and I fully expected either Holtby, Rothwell or even Downing to fill in there; but what came to pass in the Birmingham game was a sort of fluid front three with Holtby, Armstrong, Gallagher and Buckley all occupying the number 10 position during the game, and then at Huddersfield we seemed to play a mixture of 4-4-2 (which worked for the first twenty minutes) and then 4-2-3-1 with Buckley in the number 10 role. From what I’ve seen of Holtby at Rovers and before, he looked like the ideal replacement for Dack, so I think the timing of his injury after the Birmingham game couldn’t have come at a worse time. Combine this with Mowbray’s love of a “wide-striker” and that is where Rovers have struggled in Dack’s absence.
Mowbray has been loath to play Gallagher through the middle, opting to play him out wide, and Armstrong in the number 9 role more often. Arguably this has been somewhat of a success as Armstrong has bagged 3 goals in the last 5 games, but this has been to the detriment of Gallagher who has looked lost out on the wing in the Antonsson role.
At Huddersfield 4-4-2 with Gallagher and Graham through the middle worked for the first twenty minutes, but Huddersfield adapted and we couldn’t handle Steve Mounie who gave Lenihan and Adarabioyo a torrid afternoon, and never looked like getting back in to the game without Dack once Huddersfield equalised and then took the lead, with young John Buckley tasked with fulfilling Dack’s boots in what became a very physical game.
The main difference since we lost Dack has been our style of play. Dack and Graham have at times over the past two and half years had an almost telepathic connection, with Rovers profiting most when they line up in the 9 and 10 roles, so it is to be expected that the relationship and output with someone else in the 10 role might not be as effective. However, Rovers don’t seem to have used the 10 role in the last few games. With Gallagher out wide, he has acted as the target man (as did 5ft 8in Adam Armstrong against 6ft 3in Patrick Bauer against Preston) and we have bypassed the man in the number 10 role – against Preston, I don’t recall many instances where Holtby received the ball on the turn 30-40 yards from goal the way Dack has done so often. Instead we have played the channel balls (to quote John Beck) and expected our full backs and wide attackers to get the ball in to the box – 6ft 4in Sam Gallagher crossing the ball to 5ft 8in Adam Armstrong, it just doesn’t make sense. To be fair, in recent weeks before the winning run, Dack hadn’t been seeing as much of the ball, but when he did he was generally effective with it. If we are going to play Armstrong through the middle and use pace, surely this is by counter-attacking football like the goal against Preston, or by going through Holtby or someone else in the number 10 role to play him in behind. If we are going to go down the route of getting the ball wide and getting balls in to the box a la Ripley and Wilcox, would we not be better served with Gallagher and Graham attacking the crosses in the middle, and Chapman at least played out wide to supply the ammunition as part of a 4-4-2? We can survive and progress without Dack but we don’t need to change our footballing style or philosophy.
In the run up to Christmas, incidentally when we had our purple patch of form, Rovers had an almost 100% fit squad – even Gladwin was nearly fit. Fast-forward to the second week of January and the injuries are starting to pile up, with Evans joining Dack and Cunningham for an extended run on the sidelines and players picking up tweaks and niggles each week. One of the key reasons behind the good run before Christmas was the unchanged side – obviously this was going to change over Christmas as Rovers played 5 games in 12 days, but the sooner the starting eleven settles back-down and we have a sense of continuity the better. The crazy thing about the 5 games in 12 days is that in we will play just 5 games in the entirety of January; at least this should allow players to recover and get back to full fitness, the loss to Birmingham in the FA Cup could provide some respite.
So if we aren’t going to use the number 10 role effectively, and Mowbray doesn’t like the prospect of 4-4-2, does the return of Charlie Mulgrew from his loan spell at Wigan provide a creative alternative formation and style? In my eyes, Mulgrew had dropped down the pecking order at Ewood and was allowed to leave on loan because he was beginning to cost us more goals than he was scoring and/or saving, primarily as a result of his lack of pace and ability to recover. This rules him out of replacing Bell at left-back, where pace is a must, and he is unlikely to break-up the partnership of Lenihan and Adarabioyo and get in the team ahead of Derrick Williams. Yet Mulgrew’s composure on the ball and ability to pick a pass, not to mention his set-piece magnificence, mean he definitely has something to offer the team – we just need a way to fit him in without creating defensive problems.
Could Mulgrew be our very own Scottish Pirlo – sat in front of the back four, picking the ball up off Walton or the centre halves and picking passes out like a quarterback, with Travis and A N Other doing his running in the centre of the pitch? Against Huddersfield, and other games, I felt our passing let us down too often and thought there was the potential that Adarabioyo, arguably our best passer of a ball, could step in to that creative DM role whilst also providing a bit of steel akin to Yaya Toure – but obviously we would lose his impact and influence at centre half (although that has been questionable over the last few games). However putting Mulgrew in there makes sense – he has the ability to pick a pass and he is unlikely to bomb forward and leave us exposed at the back, and even if he isn’t in there to hassle and defend, he is another body protecting the back four. Holtby hasn’t received anywhere near enough of the ball between the oppositions box and the halfway line to be effective or influence games, so why not try something a little different.
Mulgrew has returned to Brockhall injured so he won’t feature against Sheffield Wednesday so there isn’t even a chance we will see this proposal in action, so we’ll probably win 3-0 with Gallagher getting a hat-trick from out-wide and Holtby putting a Dack-esque performance in from the number 10 role.
Here’s to hoping.