After the perfect Christmas period, this season feels like it has taken off at last. The away hoodoo over, three wins in a row, third in the division with a game in hand over the top two, a free-scoring centre-forward, things are suddenly looking very rosy.
An FA Cup match away at a side we’ll face in the league within a month’s time is hardly most the attractive prospect, but this trip to Bristol Rovers is nonetheless important in maintaining momentum and generating some funds were we to advance and secure a glamour tie in the Fourth Round.
There may have been signs of tiredness during the second-half against Tranmere Rovers, but four day’s of rest should be enough to avoid the need to freshen things up – Bristol Rovers will be entering this game having played the same schedule, plus an extra game on Boxing Day.
What was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the victory against Tranmere Rovers was how Mark Robins was able to change things up from the bench. The introductions of Amadou Bakayoko and Callum O’Hare gave us a counter-attacking threat to relieve pressure on the defence, while the current starting line-up and formation helps us control possession.
With Maxime Biamou and Jamie Allen laying in reserve also, it highlights the genuine strength in depth there is in this squad at the moment. Perhaps the recent good form obscures some of the issues this team has had this season, but we enter January with little need to make key signings. An out-and-out winger could prove useful if Robins needs to change things up later on, but we could get by without making any additions, provided we don’t lose more than one or two players.
Last Time We Met
Bristol Rovers’ visit to St Andrew’s back in August was one of a handful of early performances in our temporary home that set the tone for the campaign. In control for long periods of the game, meaning the opposition were limited to few chances, a breakthrough was eventually found through Jordan Shipley just before half-time. The second-half saw the introduction of Gervane Kastaneer, who smashed home a thunderous effort late-on to seal the win and suggest he may have the talent to be a match-winner at League One level.
Manager – Ben Garner
At 39 years old, Garner is one of the youngest managers in the Football League, having taken over at Bristol Rovers in the wake of Graham Coughlan’s surprise departure for League Two Mansfield Town. A well-respected coach from spells at Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, he has lost two of the three games he’s had in charge, fortunate to draw the other, with the only goal scored coming from the penalty spot.
It is far too early to truly assess what kind of manager Ben Garner is and whether he’ll succeed at Bristol Rovers. He hasn’t been helped by the lack of time on the training pitch over the Christmas period to implement his ideas, with an injury crisis only making his task harder.
Who To Look Out For?
Top-scorer on 11 goals in all competitions, former Sky Blue Jonson Clarke-Harris is clearly someone we’ll have to play close attention to. Clearly reveling in the role of main man since moving to the club 12 months ago, Clarke-Harris’ physicality and technical ability have made him the perfect attacking spearhead for Bristol Rovers.
There is support for Clarke-Harris in the forms of pacey Sheffield United loanee Tyler Smith and the intelligent, but goal-shy, Tom Nichols. Further back, Liam Sercombe has shown that he can step up with goals from central midfield and is a key creative link in the centre of the park.
Further creativity comes from the wing-backs Luke Leahy and Alex Rodman. Both are better going forward than defensively, with Rodman having played most of his career as an out-and-out winger. Bristol Rovers tend to focus a lot of their play around creating space and opportunities for Leahy and Rodman to put quality deliveries into the penalty area.
Where The Game Will Be Won or Lost
Bristol Rovers’ injury crisis deepened on New Year’s Day, when they lost star goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola to injury. Jaakkola’s shot-stopping ability has been a crucial element in how Bristol Rovers soak up pressure, with understudy Jordi van Stappershoef yet to demonstrate that he is of a similar standard. It may be a good idea to try and put him under pressure early on from set-plays and looping crosses.
What may be most interesting about this game is whether Bristol Rovers boss Ben Garner changes things up having had a bit of time to work with the squad after some poor early results in charge. Thus far, he has largely stuck with the template set for him by his predecessor, Graham Coughlan, but may be tempted to change things up – albeit limited by the injury situation – which could catch us out if we’re preparing for the hard-working, physical approach Bristol Rovers have generally played this season.