Abysmal, awful, terrible, shocking. Just four of the words used by friends, and myself, to describe Rovers showing in this fixture, and four of the kinder ones at that. Asked what positives he could take from the game Dean Saunders could only highlight the work rate of James Hayter, on as a 70th minute sub. In the build-up to the game I suggested that tonight would finally show us what Saunders’ plans for the side were. If that is what this was then we can be very worried about what lies ahead.
Rather than head to the Keepmoat I watched this match on television, and the introduction to S*y Sp**t’s coverage fixated on the notion that Dean Saunders’ arrival had made everyone smile. They showed a montage of him grinning to camera and celebrating goals backed by Morecambe& Wise singing Bring Me Sunshine, and reiterated over and over again how he had lifted spirits at the club. He’s got them laughing in training, he’s got them smiling again. The dark era of oppressive overlord O’Driscoll is no more they appeared to intone. We’ve changed manager and had a bit of luck, it’s hardly the glasnost Peter Beagrie would have us believe.
Tonight that luck would desert Rovers, albeit with help from a resolute Leeds team who did the simple things well in possession and worked hard to win the ball back when they lost it. But whilst Leeds were steady and effective Doncaster were, frankly, rubbish. And that despite making their best start to a match under Saunders thus far. Much of the early exchanges of this game were played out in the visitors’ half, but there was to be little in the way of end product, a Brian Stock free-kick smashed into the wall being as close as Rovers came. At the other end Leeds could have felt unlucky not to be awarded a penalty as Andy Keogh sent in a low cross from the right and Ross McCormack at the near post fired wide under challenge/assault from Richard Naylor.
Rovers continued to prod around the United area and a chipped ball in almost fell for Billy Sharp, whilst a free-kick sent in from the Rovers right had ‘Keeper Andy Lonergen just about clearing his lines under pressure. The absence of cutting edge would be further emphasised by the visitors as they took the lead on the twenty-minute mark with their first meaningful chance. George Friend was penalised for the merest of nudges in the back of McCormack in the corner and the resulting free-kick found Danny Pugh unmarked at the far-post to volley home unopposed. Replays would show the reason for the scorer’s freedom as poor communication in the back-line, Naylor inadvertently blocking off Pugh’s marker James O’Connor.
The rest of the half would offer little of note. Jamie Coppinger could count himself harshly done by to pick up a caution on the half hour mark as he matched the challenge of Adam Clayton in a fifty-fifty and was then kicked by the Leeds man and shoved by one of his team-mates. More disappointing was the fact that this was Coppinger’s only real meaningful contribution to the game. McCormack was the first to test new Rovers ‘keeper Chris Kirkland with a drilled low free-kick from distance, but he saw it all the way and smothered the ball well under pressure. Five minutes before the break came Rovers best chance of the half, and it would transpire, the match; O’Connor’s cross picking out Jon Parkin in the middle, but he failed to connect properly with his header and it fell harmlessly wide.
If the first half had brought a shortage of meaningful goalmouth action for Doncaster then the second would offer an out-and-out drought. It took Leeds just six minutes to add to their tally, working the ball across the edge of the area before it came toward McCormack, his first touch nudging the ball into the air, to allow for an impressive overhead kick with his second that sailed over Kirkland and in.
With Rovers struggling to muster anything approaching possession Saunders made a couple of changes on the hour mark as John Oster and Jamie Coppinger gave way to Ryan Mason and Kyle Bennett respectively, but the switches would add little. Just after the second goal I suggested on Twitter that a 2-0 defeat would be the best Rovers could hope to gain from the game. I was duly slammed for my negativity, but it would be only a matter of minutes before my tweet looked decidedly optimistic. Just after the hour Leeds increased their lead further. A corner from their left flank picking out Tom Lees who planted his header beyond Kirkland to make it 3-0.
Somehow despite prolonged periods of inactivity in front of him United ‘keeper Lonergen managed to injure himself, saving Rovers only real effort of the second half a close range strike from substitute Hayter with quarter of an hour to go. His replacement Paul Rachubka was to be as involved on the field in that closing fifteen minutes as he had been off it in the preceding 75 minutes. Seven minutes from time Leeds came close to adding a fourth goal as Keogh turned his man to get in on goal but his shot from just inside the area rattled back off the bar and away. The replays of the chance showing great swathes of empty seats at the other end of the stadium; what had been an impressive crowd already having decided their evening was better served elsewhere.
So where did it go wrong? The easy answer is everywhere. The presence of Jon Parkin up front of course lends itself to the occasional direct ball into the box, but Rovers looked to this option far too often, bypassing the midfield and negating their impact on the game. The arguments about this not being Saunders’ squad are immaterial, they are the players he has at his disposal, and so he has to be utilising their strengths more. We have an assembled squad of talented footballers who have always caused opponents problems with the ball on the floor, so that has to be incorporated into the style of play.
The reversion to a flat midfield four has also limited the midfield’s options on the ball. Where in previous systems, including those employed by Saunders in his first two games in charge, we have had a more staggered, pentagonal midfield shape which gives the man on the ball plenty of options, the flatness of the shape adopted on Friday limited the outlet ball. On the rare occasions Rovers did get it down and try to play their options were limited, resorting in Sharp coming out of the centre to look for the ball, and subsequently isolating Parkin when the ball did get cannoned into his vicinity. What was of great concern was that whilst Saunders changed personnel in the second half to try and counter what was happening, he did not offer any new instructions to the rest of the side, and so they continued to look long before looking short, a tactic unlikely to pay-off when employed with the diminutive targets of Sharp, Hayter and Bennett.
In his post-match interview Saunders told the BBC “Have we got the right players for what I want us to do? We’ve lots of nice pretty footballers, but we’ve not got many Roy Keane types.” Given that it was when with the ball that Rovers struggled, I would argue that he should be focussing on getting more from the strengths of his existing players rather than adding more members to his squad, particularly given that the transfer window is closed, and his budget is reportedly the same as O’Driscoll’s. These players have survived in the Championship for three seasons by keeping the ball from opponents, rather than kicking them off it.
Man of the Match: Donny Dog; solid throughout, held position well and wasn’t tempted into any ill-thought out and frankly creepy publicity shots. Much improved.
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-4-2): Chris Kirkland; James O’Connor, George Friend, Richard Naylor, Herita Ilunga; James Coppinger (Kyle Bennett), Simon Gillett, Brian Stock, John Oster (Ryan Mason); John Parkin (James Hayter), Billy Sharp
subs not used: Neil Sullivan, Pascal Chimbonda
booked: Jamie Coppinger (challenge for a fifty-fifty ball)
Leeds United line-up (4-4-2): Andy Lonergan (Paul Rachubka); Paul Connolly, Tom Lees, Darren O’Dea, Aidan White; Robert Snodgrass, Jonathan Howson, Adam Clayton (Mika Varyrynen), Danny Pugh; Andy Keogh, Ross McCormack (Luciano Becchio)
subs not used: Patrick Kisnorbo, Mikael Forssell,