ANALYSIS: Where it went so wrong for Doncaster Rovers at Oxford United
Nervy, disjointed, toothless, one-paced.
At no point in the first two months of the season could those labels have been thrown at Doncaster Rovers.
But on Saturday, in comfortably their poorest performance so far this term, all of that could justifiably said as they slumped to defeat at Oxford United.
There was very little of the typical fast paced, incisive and slick play that has become associated with Rovers this term.
Instead, they struggled to get out of their own half and offered very little deep in opposition territory, created very few chances of real note.
The root of the problem at the Kassam Stadium was the excellent job done by the hosts in shutting Rovers down, which also paved the way for Oxford’s own superior threat.
The approach of Oxford certainly appeared to be shutting Rovers down at the source, which translated into making it as difficult as possible for them to play out from the back.
Whenever Ben Sheaf or Ben Whiteman dropped deep to receive the ball out of the defence, they were closely tracked by Oxford.
And the same happened as Rovers’ full backs opened themselves up for a pass further up for the pitch, with Oxford’s wide men quickly pressing too force them to play backwards rather than starting attacks.
Rovers were bogged down in their own half and, barring some moments of real quality from skipper Ben Whiteman, struggled to get the ball up the pitch to their own men.
But Rovers persisted with the intent to play out from the back despite Oxford’s close attention. And arguably, they played themselves into greater danger.
There were times when going longer would have been the most sensible option, despite Darren Moore’s determination to stick to his principles.
It was the first time they had in the side a real outlet for such a direct approach with Kwame Thomas handed his league debut for the club.
There was a first opportunity for Thomas to show what he can really bring to the Rovers side.
But on this showing, there is plenty of work to be done for Thomas to gel with his new team mates – and more specifically for them to gel with him.
While he won a few flick-ons during his debut in the Leasing.com Trophy at Rotherham United, here he struggled to impose himself on the Oxford defence throughout his 64 minutes on the pitch.
Most concerning was the fact, in the most part, that there was far too much distance between Thomas and the supporting three, meaning hopes of linking up were just as distant.
Thomas could have made a bigger impact had he shown more conviction to meet Reece James’ excellent cross with the score at 2-0 but his poked effort was deflected over the bar.
Oxford enjoyed much more success in attacking terms as they capitalised on the lack of cohesion from Rovers in their own half.
Much of their success came in wide areas, particularly down the left as they found plenty of space to look for crosses in to striker Jamie Mackie.
Rovers’ full backs dropped incredibly narrow as Oxford pushed forward, affording the hosts the space they needed.
The opening goal came from a more central position and, just like the second that would follow, was gifted by a lack of close attention from Rovers.
James Henry was allowed far too much space 20 yards out to smash a shot which deflected in off Donervon Daniels for a goal which changed the complexion of the game in first half stoppage time.
Two minutes into the second half Sheaf failed to track the run of Cameron Brannagan as he darted into the box to meet a cut back from Chris Cadden and fire into the bottom corner.
Rovers had a mountain to climb but improved their own attacking play, without ever really troubling the Oxford goal.
And the game was put to bed after Tom Anderson had been harshly adjudged to have handled inside the box, allowing Henry to slam home from the spot.
It put an exclamation mark on a comfortable win for Oxford and highlighted just how far off Rovers were from their typical standard.