Two wins on the bounce has breathed momentum into the campaign, providing a level of confirmation that we not only can survive at this level, but thrive. Now that we’ve pushed ourselves towards a comfortable mid-table position, this upcoming game is a test of whether we have the motivation and quality to push-on further or are content with finishing around about where we are.
An away trip to a Bristol Rovers side that has won just once this season is, in theory, a good opportunity to put some more points in the bank before we head into a run of three games in seven days against Sunderland, Portsmouth, and Charlton. However, we are going to be up against a side looking for a reaction in front of their own fans after a poor run of form, which makes this a tougher game than the current league positions suggest.
The missing ingredient of energy and intensity in our performances earlier in the season seems to have been solved via the addition of Conor Chaplin to the attack. While there was room for improvement at both ends of the pitch last week against Barnsley, this was a team trying to do the right things – press the opposition, link-up with team-mates, keep a good defensive shape – in a way that we can believe that there are further improvements to be found.
The biggest possible selection decisions are whether to take Jordan Shipley out of the side after an underwhelming display last week, as well as whether, and where, to bring Liam Kelly back in. Shipley plays an important role in providing balance to the team, especially as there isn’t anyone else in the squad that can replicate that role on the left of midfield. Bringing Kelly back in is likely to lead to shoe-horning Tom Bayliss into a wide position, which takes our most talented player away from his preferred position.
With no injuries having been picked up over the past week, any changes to the side are likely to be tactical. Now is not the time to change things up, don’t do it, Mark Robins.
Last Time We Met
Having secured a first win in Mark Robins’ second spell in charge of the club the previous Tuesday night against Port Vale, our last meeting with Bristol Rovers was important not only in a late attempt to salvage League One status, but to inject some momentum and confidence heading into the Checkatrade Trophy final against Oxford United the following week.
With Bristol Rovers bringing a sizeable – and ‘boisterous’ – away contingent in the belief that a win would boost their hopes of making the play-offs, the Sky Blues put in a committed and energetic performance belying the teams’ respective league positions. It was a performance that was rewarded late on in the game via a goal from an increasingly confident George Thomas, soon to cement his status in Coventry City folklore with that goal at Wembley.
How Are They Doing?
It’s been a case of diminishing returns for Bristol Rovers since returning to League One. In their first season, they came close to the play-offs and sold their star striker, Matty Taylor, in the process. In their second season, they finished smack-bang in mid-table, selling their star winger, Billy Bodin, in the process. This year, they’ve lost another key player in striker Ellis Harrison and are currently mired in the relegation zone.
With a manager in Darrell Clarke who was so recently viewed as one of the top managerial prospects in the Football League – he did, after all, lead Rovers to back-to-back promotions from the National League – performances have been better than results have suggested. They are yet to lose a league game by more than a single goal and their underlying statistics indicate they are performing as a mid-table side rather than a relegation-threatened one.
Unfortunately for Rovers, decent performances are being let down by a lack of a reliable presence in front of goal, which can be often be the difference between mid-table and a relegation battle. Their current options up front, Stefan Payne, Tom Nichols, Alex Jakubiak, and Gavin Reilly, are all serviceable players at this level but not prolific goalscorers. Payne is the most convincing option of the lot, having gotten into double figures for Shrewsbury Town last season, but was a player that the Shrews were relatively content with seeing leave.
The quality in this Bristol Rovers side comes in central midfield, where the talismanic Chris Lines remains an important orchestrator. Although getting on in age, Darrell Clarke has surrounded Lines with more mobile operators in the form of Ed Upson, Liam Sercombe and Ollie Clarke who can take some of the workload off Lines. Upson and Sercombe in particular are, in theory, players who can get into the opposition area and take some of the goalscoring burden off the strikers, which is yet to happen this season.
An issue for Bristol Rovers this year has possibly been a lack of a holding midfielder, making it easy for teams to get around Chris Lines and a forward-thinking midfield and expose the lack of pace in defence. Welsh international Tom Lockyer in central defence is a classy ball-playing defender, but is possibly being asked to do too much from those around and in front of him.
Bristol Rovers are likely to be highly-motivated in this game to cast off their frustrations in their opening weeks of the season. We’ve got to be ready for a reaction and need to approach this game in the same manner as we’ve approached Oxford United and Barnsley over the past two games. If we can do that, then we can look to play off against Bristol Rovers’ lack of confidence and this should be a winnable game.
I’ve got a feeling that we might not quite hit the heights in this game as we’ve done in recent weeks. I can see us drawing this 1-1.