The Breakdown: Doncaster Rovers 0 Charlton Athletic 1
For much of the season they were among the elite of deadly attacking forces but Doncaster Rovers have become maddeningly meek and mild in recent weeks.
As they shot blanks against Charlton Athletic they ensured they completed a fifth game out of six without finding the net.
And that meant a 12th minute strike from young Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen was enough to hand all three points to a Charlton side that became the latest to leapfrog Rovers in the League One standings.
It was another fingernail-breaking frustrating afternoon for Andy Butler’s side who are not so much a shadow of their former selves but rather unrecognisable from the vibrant attacking force that began 2021 with automatic promotion firmly in their sights.
Now they face an uphill struggle to secure a play-off place that looked set to be the bare minimum of what they would achieve this season.
And with their attacking faculties failing them, the hill they are now forced to climb is reaching Himalayan proportions.
Barring a decent effort from Omar Bogle in the first half, Rovers failed to truly trouble Charlton keeper Ben Amos throughout.
Slow, ponderous play in the final third fed straight into the hands of a grateful opposition, who did not have to work too hard to come away with the win.
Charlton were gifted the winning goal. Tom Anderson was beaten in the air by towering forward Jayden Stockley but Rovers failed to deal with the follow-up. With the ball allowed to bounce, Maatsen nipped goalside of Reece James and held him off before rifling past Louis Jones from close range.
Rovers’ response to falling behind was more whimper than roar with players appearing frightened to take risks. Hesitancy ensured chances were gone before any sort of positive move was made.
And that only heightened fears that the decline in form is irreversible - one that will quickly dash any remaining top six aspirations but also will be difficult to shake off over the summer.
EXPLAINING THE CHANGES
Butler had suggested he may tweak his favoured system without abandoning his principles - and he did just that.
The difference was indeed only a slight one, involving pushing one of the two sitting midfielders alongside the more advanced central player.
“Building the attack and creating the attack have been very good, it’s just been finishing the attack that we’ve been stuttering on,” Butler explained.
“My thought process was to get two number eights high and in pockets of space which they were on but we just didn’t find them as much as we could.”
It was a move that looked to be effective in the early stages of the game with Rovers looking full of energy as they moved the ball quickly and took up space high up the pitch.
But it did not continue after they fell behind and they were too easily snuffed out in opposition territory.
John Bostock, who sat in front of the back four, dropped far too deep too often to make a major impact as he found his route to team mates blocked off by the press of the Charlton forwards.
It was an approach that relied on quick movement of the ball and a swiftness of thought - with Rovers demonstrating neither.
THE SLIDES OF MARCH
At the start of March, Rovers had the second best strike rate in the division, scoring only 0.03 goals per game fewer than Peterborough United at that time. Having now failed to score in five of their last six matches, they are now the sixth top scorers on goals per game - 0.27 goals per game fewer than Posh.
Rovers sat eight points off the automatic promotion places with two games in hand as the sun rose on March 2 and had a two point cushion inside the play-off places, with at least one game in hand over the chasing pack.
Still holding two games in hand, they are now 15 points off second spot. They sit three points off the final play-off place with no game in hand over Blackpool who occupy that spot.
Rovers have failed to win in their last six league matches, something they have not done since February-March 2019 under Grant McCann.
TIME FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT?
Would a more drastic switch in system deliver more positive progress for Rovers?
It would be misguided to suggest that it would bring an automatic upsurge.
The affliction currently holding Rovers back is deeply rooted in minds and is proving to be exceptionally contagious.
It was difficult to pick out any player who reached the final third and did not suffer from a severe bout of stage fright. Passages of play were brief but it was clear to see players questioning themselves over the best course of action, and such a lack of quick-thinking and instinct made it all too easy for the opposition.
Rovers are going nowhere painfully slowly as long as there is an absence of risk-taking across the board. And sticking an extra man up front will not solve that.
A Bank Holiday Monday trip to Bristol Rovers awaits Rovers and a clash with a side sitting second bottom in League One, three points from safety having played more games than all the sides around them.
Joey Barton’s side have lost five consecutive matches and have taken only seven points from 33 since he took charge.
This is a game Rovers should win and, at this stage, must win.