Unrecognisable Rovers

Sunday, 18 February 2024

Only three games in, and for now at least, this looks, and feels, a Rovers side unrecognisable from the Jon Dahl Tomasson era. The ceiling felt high under Tomasson, but equally they could have fallen through the trap door had there not been a willingness to change.It has taken a change in head coach to seemingly bring that about.

New head coach John Eustace has made reference to the fact that points are all important, so drawing too many conclusions from the style of play we’ve seen so far would be premature.

Though for now at least, it feels like Rovers have adapted to become more safety first, aware of their weaknesses, often at the cost of their previous sparkle.Not that there isn’t any issue with that. If there were extra points for style, then Rovers wouldn’t be sitting on just 37 after 32 games.

There are two sides to every story.

While Rovers have completed just two more passes (621) in the last three games than they did Tomasson’s penultimate league game in charge against Huddersfield (619), more direct play has forged many of the better goalscoring opportunities since the change in the dugout.

Equally, it is worth noting the fact that Adam Wharton, so pivotal to the way that Tomasson went about things, is no longer around and without suitable replacement, not at least until John Buckley gets fit and back to his best, the Dane would too have had to do things a little differently.

A preference of style of play can be unique to each individual, though as the reaction to defeat at Birmingham City showed, being pleasing on the eye can make defeats a little more palpable, though results are often the main judgement of how a team has played.

Rovers deserve credit for lining up a credible successor while dealing with the ongoing situation that was Tomasson’s future in the wake of the transfer window closing.

That work reportedly being done by the chief executive (Steve Waggott), with the director of football (Gregg Broughton) seemingly left in the background, however, doesn’t fit much into the project model which is all about longer-term planning. Nor too has the recent recruitment.

There was clearly a feeling in some quarters that things had been allowed to drift under Tomasson and needed rectifying quickly. Eustace has clearly felt that MO and operated accordingly, setting up a side that puts substance over style, looking to pick up as many points in a short a period as possible.

Rovers named their oldest team in three-and-a-half years, and had Scott Wharton not got the nod over Ben Chrisene, then it would have been the first time since October 2016 they had gone without an Academy graduate in the starting line-up.

But where so much has changed in such a quick space of time, others have stayed the same, at least the feeling of a fragility in mindset.

There is little belief when Rovers go behind, and not now the same confidence when taking the lead as there once was. 

Ten of the 11 wins that Rovers have picked up this season have come when scoring first.

While it may not feel like it, they have managed 32 points from a possible 45 when scoring first, this only a fifth occasion in which they haven’t gone on to take maximum points when taking the lead. However, four of those have come since December 23.

Squandered leads are nothing new at Deepdale, so at least on this occasion Rovers managed to restrict any further damage in a second half which could be argued was quite a solid, professional display, with few alarms.

Without going all Tony Mowbray, I would admit to having not looked at the league table for some time. One look yesterday showed the points difference to the bottom three is too close for comfort, though the saving grace is the number of (poor) teams that are now becoming embroiled, and dragged in, by poor runs of results.

Four points from three games is about the same average as Rovers have been going over the course of the season, and similar from their remaining 14 games will be more than enough to keep them comfortably in the Championship.

Though avoiding an anxious April, where games look particularly tough, with a run of positive results would help take any stresses out of the situation. Then the hard work starts in the summer.

The Rovers squad now feels bloated in some areas, and short in others. With five loanees, two players signed on short-term deals, two more out of contract (albeit with options) suddenly a big revamp is required.

Again, that is not in-keeping with the project which is more about succession planning, and incremental gains in the transfer window. Factoring in the financial issues, it may be the project itself which requires a rethink.

The biggest sellable asset is gone, and while there is still value in the squad, not to the same level as Wharton, a generational talent whose situation was a case of when, not if, he would move in a multi-million deal.

Billy Koumetio hasn’t made the last three matchday squads, and even with Rovers moving to three centre halves, given the options available, game-time is likely to be at a premium for the Liverpool loanee.

Yasin Ayari too didn’t ever feel in the reckoning for a central midfield start at the weekend, even with Joe Rankin-Costello out injured.

The centre of the pitch where they controlled and dominated previously now feels a little lost.

However, credit is due to Kyle McFadzean who has settled in seamlessly to the heart of the back three, despite his lack of match minutes this season, showing every bit of his experience in reading the game.

One thing Rovers haven’t struggled for in recent times in goalscorers. Since relegation from the Premier League they have managed at least one player reaching 14 league goals in all but two of their 10 seasons in the Championship, even if that has resulted in only four top 10 finishes.

Sam Szmodics’ clinical first-time strike against North End was that of a man at the peak of his powers, and now in Sam Gallagher, he has a player to combine with at the top end of the pitch. Whether it is Eustace, or simply a return to fitness, that has seen Gallagher flourish since coming back from injury, his influence cannot be understated.

He seems to bring panic to the opposition, the manner of goals against Wrexham and North End would attest to that, though Rovers must be mindful of his recent injury struggles and not flog him too hard.

There is playing to his strengths, and then there is asking too much.



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