Rochdale boss Keith Hill won the tactical battle as Doncaster Rovers wasted an opportunity to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time since 2010.
Hill’s carefully planned decision to flood the midfield strangled Rovers and contributed to a below par first half performance.
Dale, whose confident and organised display belied their lowly position in League One, gained a foothold in the game and made it count from a set piece on 18 minutes when Calvin Andrew headed in what turned out to be the winner.
Rovers improved after the break but despite throwing the kitchen sink at the visitors were unable to find a way through.
HILL DOES HIS HOMEWORK
Hill had referred to his own team as ‘sitting ducks’ after they were comfortably beaten 2-0 at the Keepmoat Stadium just eight days previously.
After watching that game back he formulated a tactical plan to ensure his side were more competitive - and it worked a treat.
Matt Done supported lone striker Andrew but in essence Rochdale lined up in a 3-6-1 formation, congesting the midfield and limiting the space for Doncaster’s diamond.
Playmaker Jordan Houghton, at the base of the diamond, was given no time on the ball by the busy Done. Alfie Beestin, at the tip, seemed to be surrounded by blue shirts every time he got the ball.
Rodney Kongolo, who produced one of his best performances yet in a Rovers shirt, did well to find pockets of space and troubled Dale with his direct running.
But with right-footed Niall Mason at left back, and horribly off colour, Rovers not only found it hard to play through Dale but they lacked balance and width.
Ferguson is famed for his flexibility in terms of his formations and it was a surprise that he stuck to 4-4-2 for the vast majority of this game. On this occasion, Hill had his number.
MISSED CHANCES PROVE COSTLY
Regardless of tactics, Rovers had the chances to at least force a replay.
The best of them fell to Beestin ten minutes after the restart after Tommy Rowe got in down the left and squared it.
At first glance, from just a few yards out, it looked easier to score.
However, in Beestin’s defence the ball was behind him and it was also an excellent save from Josh Lillis.
Rowe himself should have done better later on when, following a lovely move started by Kongolo, he blazed over with only Lillis to beat.
John Marquis was incredibly unlucky to see his low shot come back off the inside of the post.
Rovers also felt hard done by as referee Andy Woolmer waved away no fewer than four penalty appeals. The one on James Coppinger looked the best shout.
It was one of those days for Doncaster. It just wasn’t meant to be.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
1) Rovers are far from the finished article and they need to be right at it right from the off in games if they are to continue their good run of form in League One.
This team is at its best, and most productive, when they swarm the opposition from the first whistle, take control and go ahead in a game.
To their credit, Rochdale did not allow that to happen.
2) On this showing, Mason is not the answer at left back.
He looked uncomfortable there from the outset, having to continually cut in on his favoured right foot.
With Joe Wright, one of this season’s most consistent performers sat on the bench, there is a strong case to play three at the back.
3) Kongolo could step up following Ben Whiteman’s unexpected return to Sheffield United.
The Dutchman was a pleasure to watch at times, he just needs to work on his final product.
Rovers will unquestionably miss Whiteman’s goals from midfield but Kongolo certainly put his hand up with this performance.
A GAME TOO FAR?
Following Rovers’ superb Christmas period, which saw them win 10 out of a possible 12 points, Ferguson went to great lengths to ensure his players had as much rest as possible in the build-up to this game.
But on reflection a fifth game in 15 days might have been a bridge too far.
Andy Butler, Mason, Rowe and Marquis had played every minute over the festive period and none of them were at their best on Saturday.
They weren’t the only ones.
And a number of unenforced errors, and the missed chances, suggested that Rovers were somewhat jaded - not that anybody from inside the camp was using that as an excuse.
This defeat was a tough one to take. On the flip side it might just keep people’s feet on the floor following the good recent league form.