As much as it pains me to say it, as a Blackburn Rovers fan, it almost feels as if only we are somehow capable of figuring out a way to get relegated, retain most of our better players – some of whom are internationals – enhance our squad further and then very fittingly find a way to bring supporters’ hopes crashing down with an underwhelming 2-1 loss away at Southend on the first game of the season.
The sun was shining brightly on the south coast, you could almost smell the excitement and optimism of the new football season around the ground. After learning Phil Brown was Southend manager, it also guaranteed the away Rovers support some half time entertainment to look forward to – providing Rovers found a way to be 4-0 up at the break of course.
Even though the quality of the ground was probably something Rovers fans haven’t experienced for a while, it certainly felt like a special occasion. But then again, in comparison to the underwhelming feeling of voluntarily turning up at Ewood Park to watch a clueless, Owen Coyle driven Blackburn Rovers side last season, even falling asleep would feel like more of a special occasion.
After the full time whistle, reality set in. Not only had Rovers’ new look, Mowbray architectured side succumbed to defeat… but other than a moment of magic from Mulgrew which really emphasized why he shouldn’t be playing in League One but rather at least a league above… adding insult to injury, the winning goal for Southend was scored by an ex-Burnley player. The less said, probably the better.
So, where exactly did it all go wrong for Tony Mowbray’s men? Or rather, should I say, did anything other than the Mulgrew free kick which brought back memories of the 1-0 win over Newcastle at Ewood last season, actually go right for the boys in blue?
Rovers started out in a 4-2-3-1 shape, a shape that most of us were expecting. Graham up top on his own, Dack playing just off him in more of a playmaking/shadow striker-like role, similar to Marvin Emnes of last season, aiming to be the main connection between who was a very isolated Danny Graham last season and what was an even more technically isolated central midfield last season.
The starting back four was the same as the back four we finished last season with, many including myself surprised that Ryan Nyambe got the nod over experienced new signing Paul Caddis at right back. New signings, Peter Whittingham & Richie Smallwood (apparently also known as the king of Ewood nowadays?) started in the middle of the park with ex-Reading youngster Dominic Samuel strangely locked and loaded on the right wing with Elliot Bennett down the opposite side. Bennett would provide versatility on the left hand side, capable of utilising his pace to run both on the outside of the Southend right back as well as cut inside and shoot on his favoured right foot while Samuel being a more direct, faster player would obviously provide something else on the other side. Now, I have a rough idea of what that something else should be… but unfortunately on the day, Samuel didn’t as he looked as clueless as everyone else in a Rovers kit on the pitch.
Cutting to the chase, what went wrong? Well, we seemed adamant on wanting to play a possession game, which is fine. After all, if Southend don’t have the ball, they can’t score right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, most of Rovers possession in the first half – before we resorted to an Allardyce-esque panic of hoof ball in the second half despite having over half an hour to go – was mainly just amongst our back four. Southend were sitting deep and narrow. They knew our creativity came through the middle of the park and realistically, our most favoured way to goal would probably look a bit like Mulgrew carrying the ball out of defence, giving it to our deep playmaker in Whittingham who would make an effort to either thread the ball through to a wide man or find our other main technician in the form of Bradley Dack.
The Rovers players were forced to constantly pass the ball in to the wide areas. Samuel was finding himself coming deep, considering he is naturally a striker, incredibly out of his comfort zone and you could certainly tell that by watching the youngster. Nyambe & Williams – even when 2-0 down – were refusing to bomb forward and overlap which was even more baffling – yet strangely reminiscent of last season at times. Particularly strange given the times where Samuel & Bennett were being forced central to try and help us hold on to possession which made plenty of room – despite the small pitch – available in the wide areas for an overlapping full back.
Smallwood made himself available to protect what was an incredibly high Rovers back line, standing in the hole between Mulgrew and Lenihan, Rovers’ style of play was crying out for the overlap to help infiltrate Southend’s final third. Without it, they couldn’t outnumber Southend’s bus behind the ball and would just end up passing the ball backwards to Mulgrew. What exactly were some of the Rovers players envisioning would actually happen by constantly passing backwards to Mulgrew, I still do not know.
Regardless of whether it was the short intricate passing from the first half, or the long ball from the second, Danny Graham was isolated. With Dack being marked out of the game before being substituted off with an injury and Rovers finding no luck in the middle of the park and full backs neglecting their offensive duties, there wasn’t much the ex-Sunderland man could have really done.
It also makes me wonder whether the long ball forward to Graham was really the solution, particularly considering both Southend center backs like many of the center backs we will come across in this division at times looked almost twice his size leaping for and winning headers coming their way. Plenty of Graham’s goals from last season under he who shall not be named came from his intricate and intelligent movement in the box to meet crosses from the wide areas… unfortunately, we forgot what a wide area was throughout the game.
The pace was slow, almost like we were the side who had gone there to play a steady game and grab a point. If Rovers are to win games this season, even if they want to play a technical, possession oriented game, they have to be able to believe that this will come naturally due to the individual quality they possess. However, once the ball reaches the borders of the final third, they also need to be able to utilise the physical ability we also possess as a result of having – on paper – the best side in the league. Higher pace, more urgency will cause opposition defences more problems than passing it sideways in front of them to watch.
The second half saw Williams & Nyambe get forward a few more times and it looked like Rovers underwent a surgical half time team talk from Mogga when they looked like a different team after Mulgrew’s stunning free kick goal. Unfortunately, that period of play lasted only 10 minutes. Unfortunately, Williams lacked crossing ability & Nyambe, even though his pace allowed Whittingham to find him in isolated space out wide on numerous occasion with long, diagonal balls as we would come to expect from the creative midfielder, the Rovers full back would often find himself in the final third and to the dismay of most spectating fans, instead of whipping the ball in to the box, would play it backwards and allow Southend to recompose themselves. It doesn’t matter what level of football you’re playing at, when you’re in a position to cross the ball in to the box… you do it. It isn’t rocket science and unfortunately, I couldn’t help but get flash backs to the much loved quotation in the IT Crowd – “The problem with Arsenal is, they always try to walk it in” – and it certainly looked like we wanted to do that against Southend despite being 2-1 down.
I don’t really care whether the cross is floated or whether it’s drilled in to the six yard area or even pulled back to the edge of the box for your Bennett, Dack or Whittingham to pick up on and smash in – dare I say it, Cairney-esque style. Just not bloody backwards.
If it becomes clear that Rovers’ full backs are duds offensively for whatever reason this season – even though at times both looked promising under Tony towards the last few games of last season in a higher division – then it not only makes me question whether Tony’s 3-4-3 which he also wants us to line up with (which emphasizes wide play on the wing backs again) is really a potential solution to change games – then we have to have a plan B… or C in this case. Despite Liam Feeney… well, being Liam Feeney, he, Chapman or Conway would probably actually be able to cross a ball when in the final third. The issue is, Mowbray seemed adamant on wanting the front three to play narrow, coming inside and this is the case for both the 4-2-3-1 approach or the 3-4-3. So, should push come to shove – e.g. anything but a positive, convincing win and performance at home against Doncaster – then it will be interesting to see how the Rovers boss shuffles his cards. I’d also suggest we let Caddis loose on teams until Nyambe shows a willingness to get forward more, show more confidence and improve his crossing.
If it still seems like our full backs aren’t capable of providing the insurgency in wide areas we need to succeed in this league, then due to his apparent tactical stubbornness I’ve witnessed since he took the job last year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tony keep his beloved 3-4-3 shape as all our full backs except Jack Doyle have experience playing center back as well as Elliot Ward also being available and then utilise players such as Feeney, Chapman, Conway or Bennett (who played there in his brief stint at Bristol City) as wing backs. Defensively, it would initially raise doubt, however swapping two incapable full backs in terms of the width required from them in the 4-2-3-1 for a single center back would balance things out and also allow us to utilise as many of our better attacking players on the pitch at the same time. Even if we brought in Caddis who turned out to be capable going forward – which he is – I still need to see more from Williams to convince me he will provide enough going forward as opposed to a winger in a wing back role. However, as fans we need to also understand that this process will take time and that the transfer window hasn’t even shut yet.
Oh, can we also stop playing Samuel down the right wing as well please? We have a million midfielders in our squad now – wow, how strange does it feel saying that as Rovers fan in this era? – so let’s keep our strikers playing up front and our wingers playing… well, down the wing.
Another issue that comes hand in hand with most possession oriented styles of play too that rely on full back involvement, is the high defensive line that comes with it. The high line is used for many reasons which include trying to constrict the space your opposition have in their own half to allow you to get more men forward and thus increase your ball retention. The full backs are also closer to the opposition final third which allows them to increase the number of runs they can make forward due to the pitch essentially becoming smaller. However the disadvantages quite obviously include the counter attacking potential you hand the opposition team and Southend constantly looked dangerous on the counter attack, which in a way we was what they wanted to do, how they wanted to play and what we let them do.
Either way, rant over. If you’re a Rovers fan, all I can say is, get that seat belt buckled up because we’re all in for what is going to be a bumpy ride. These things take time… but I also feel like we’ve been telling each other exactly that ever since Lord Voldemort succumbed us to relegation from the Premier League.
This weeks Rovers Rant was written by @KYAN1TE.
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