A backward step for toothless Doncaster Rovers in damaging derby defeat to Rotherham United

It was a match that laid bare exactly where Doncaster Rovers find themselves right now - and it was uncomfortable viewing.

Sunday, 29th August 2021, 7:36 am
Matt Smith played as a false nine against Rotherham United

As they arrived at the New York Stadium for the derby with Rotherham United, there were few doubts over Rovers’ shortcomings during this first month of the season.

As they left, there were no doubts at all.

Another toothless performance only exacerbated the fatal lack of attacking options currently available.

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Worst of all, there were the first signs that the issue is starting to have a negative impact on the good work elsewhere in the team.

A Rovers side that has impressed with their work in possession, particularly in midfield, lost cohesion and composure when presented with the opportunity to dominate the ball.

Having established a two goal lead and witnessed the obvious lack of threat from Rovers, Rotherham were more than happy to sit back and soak up pressure after Mickel Miller was sent off for a hefty challenge on Kyle Knoyle on 53 minutes.

Every outfield player barring Ro-Shaun Williams pushed into the Rotherham half, with Knoyle and Cameron John venturing forward from centre half.

But as time wore on, the threat only diminished, with Rovers looking devoid of ideas and inspiration as they attempted to find a crack in the Millers’ armour.

Richie Wellens revealed afterwards he had instructed his players to just get crosses into the box and look to punish the hosts from second balls.

But there was a general hesitancy to send in the deliveries, and a disappointing lack of quality in the execution of too many of those that were.

It was as if the wide players were hanging on for the perfect moment to cross, or waiting to spot the beginnings of movement that were going to lead to success.

In short, there appeared to be little confidence that a cross would lead to anything but possession for the opposition.

For the first time since the opening day of the season, Rovers looked particularly unsure of themselves, and that is a big worry.

For the first time a performance suggested the ills will not be cured with the return of the key attacking trio that have been absent so far this term.

Alarm bells are ringing as Rovers head into a pivotal final few days in the transfer window as well as a vital fortnight both in the treatment room and on the training ground.

Jon Taylor and Jordy Hiwula will not be ready to roll by the time Rovers next kick a ball in League One action. A cameo off the bench is the best that can be hoped for from either man at Wigan Athletic.

So reinforcements are desperately needed - and ones that can make a real difference, and quickly.

While there have been few strides forward, the performance at Rotherham was the first backward step of the season for Rovers.

There is still time to prevent them from shuffling further in the wrong direction but it will take a significant improvement in attacking output to do so.

The players to whom the responsibility is currently falling are highly unlikely to deliver the rapid improvement that is needed.

So it is in the transfer market where Wellens must find the inspiration.

The ability to add players is currently tied up in multiple scenarios involving several figures, all playing a game of who blinks first.

Someone needs to twitch to open up the door for difference makers to arrive at the Keepmoat.

With no strikers on the pitch and a deeper lying midfielder playing as false nine, there were few expectations that this would be the afternoon where they would find their ruthless edge in front of goal.

It was a tricky first half but, in the main, Rovers held their own.

There were times when it seemed as though the pattern of the game was all wrong for them, when Rotherham made things scrappy in the middle of the park and quickly pushed the ball into attacking areas.

The hosts had the greater threat, moving the ball into wide areas where Kieran Sadlier was particularly dangerous against his former club.

And they always looked to find Michael Smith and Freddie Ladapo - understandable, as the former would prove during the game.

But Rovers defended well to deny as many clear cut chances as the pressure could have delivered.

They also grew into the game and took possession in the middle of the park, enjoying steady spells of passing football that slowed the game to their tempo.

They were undone however with the sort of ruthlessness they could only dream of.

Smith won a header and then darted in the box to meet a low ball through from Miller before finishing confidently past Pontus Dahlberg.

And on the stroke of half time, Smith struck again, this time lashing in a volley from the edge of the box after Rovers failed to deal with a Rotherham attack.

Given the options available to change things for Rovers, you could have been forgiven for automatically assuming the game was over at the break.

Miller’s dismissal for diving in with both feet on Knoyle offered a crack in the door for Rovers to potentially exploit.

Tiago Cukur’s introduction off the bench saw Wellens switch to a back three - though in reality it was more of a back one as everyone pushed forward.

Ethan Galbraith was tasked with dictating play from inside the centre circle and did a remarkably good job for a player as young and inexperienced at senior level.

But as much as he succeeded in putting players ahead of him or out wide into space, there was not nearly enough quality on show from then on to break down the door.

It was a difficult watch for the remaining time.

Here is hoping there is a more palatable experience the next time Rovers are in league action.

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In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.