Analysis: Flexibility can help Doncaster Rovers compensate for loss of Jordan Houghton

Jordan Houghton
Jordan Houghton

Sticking with three at the back for too long was widely cited as one of the contributing factors to last season’s horrible relegation from League One.

Even Darren Ferguson has since admitted as much.

But now, following a season-ending injury to midfield lynchpin Jordan Houghton, that same system could prove to be key to Rovers sealing an immediate return to the third tier.

Houghton’s best performances - and arguably Rovers’ too - came when he played in a 4-4-2 at the base of a midfield diamond, protecting two centre halves and helping his team play out from the back.

The Chelsea youngster’s ability to read the game and find a teammate made him an ideal fit for that important position following an injury to Luke McCullough in pre-season.

His influence, however, was perhaps less obvious when Ferguson favoured three centre backs. With an extra centre half employed down the middle, acting like a sweeper, there was less of a requirement for Houghton to just sit there and protect.

There is also an onus on the two wider centre halves to do the playing out from the back - something Mathieu Baudry has excelled at.

So it was interesting to note that against Luton last weekend Houghton appeared to play more in a conventional midfield two, side by side with Conor Grant.

It was more of a partnership - rather than Houghton being the only defensive shield. Behind them were three centre backs and in front roamed James Coppinger.

The point is that playing three at the back reduces the need for that deeper-lying midfield man, a role that Houghton has shown requires very specific qualities.

So if Ferguson feels that he does not have a player who matches Houghton’s skill-set, one option is to carry on playing a midfield pair in front of a three which would continue to give the side a strong base.

He switched to three at the back at the start of the year to freshen things up to make sure Rovers were not too predictable to play against.

Robbed of the services of one of his most consistent and important players in Houghton, he might have to tinker again now against Accrington Stanley tomorrow. But at least he is not short on options.

One of Rovers’ strengths this term has been their flexibility, an ability as a team to switch comfortably from system to system, and for certain players to operate in different positions.

If they had simply played a 4-4-2 midfield diamond every game then Houghton really would be difficult to replace.

But those different options - including the much-maligned three at the back - could now be vital for the last 14 games.