SW Preview – What to expect from Bristol Rovers

Courtesy of Graham Burrell

Amidst all of the anger, disappointment and pictures of you with Danny on Twitter, there is an important game this weekend and that has to be the focus for the next 36 hours.

Whilst the club is in transition, three points are incredibly important. Actually, they’re always important, but for everyone’s peace of mind perhaps it’s even more crucial tomorrow. It is one of the games that would have been earmarked as three points; a home fixture against a side around our level. They’ve not started well away from home, three games played, no goals or points on the board. On the other hand, we’ve yet to concede in the league at home and have three wins from three; it’s an accumulator ruiner if ever I’ve seen one.

Had things remained the same as the opening weeks of the season, I would have predicted a Southend-style game here; maybe not four goals but certainly a match in which we look to seize the initiative and press forward for a win. Of course, Jamie McCombe was confident that things hadn’t changed and eager in his presser to suggest he’s learned enough during his time under the previous regime to ensure things go smoothly; it’s very much business as usual as far as the staff and players are concerned.

Rovers at the Bank, 2003/04

The truth of the matter is they have to say that. They have to paint a picture of normality, stability and focus. I don’t doubt that’s the intention and I would guarantee that everyone is working as hard as they possibly can to make sure things remain the same, but it will be different, there is no escaping that.

The opposition will come here looking to play against the same style and approach that we’ve had in the opening fixtures and that means keeping it tight at the back. In their opening three away fixtures, they’ve played 4-1-4-1 (Blackpool, lost 2-0), 4-3-1-2 (Coventry, lost 2-0) and 5-3-2 (Burton, lost 2-0). It’s worth pointing out all three of those sides are teams from the top half, all established League One sides with top-six aspirations. Not easy fixtures, not by a long shot.

My gut feeling is they’ll come here set up as they did against Burton, 5-3-2, looking to make it 3-5-2 on the counter. They’ve played that at home a fair bit recently, only just going more adventurous this weekend against Accrington; they played three at the back and conceded three goals. If they concede three against us, they won’t score three so Coughlan is surely not going to risk being attacking at all. That’s led me to conclude we’ll see them lined up as below.

There are questions in terms of some of the key areas here as well, which I’ll touch upon. The first is in goal. Anssi Jaakkola had been the number one for the opening few fixtures, he went out on international duty and was replaced by giant Dutch recruit Jordi van Stappershoef. He’s 23-years-old and stands at 6ft 6in tall, but didn’t seize his chance. It’s likely manager Graham Coughlan will recall the former Reading stopper and on average, he faces 3.38 shots per game, making 2.33 saves, 75% of which are classed as reflex saves.

The back five looks settled, but there is one big call to make. How much Leahy and Hare push up (or not) will dictate how attacking they end up being. Josh Hare has perhaps been the standout performer this season and if the Gas do play on the counter, which I expect, he’ll be a key figure for them.

In the middle, Tom Davies is a former Coventry defender and one of their big summer signings, whilst Tony Craig, Alfie Kilgour and Mark Little battle with him for the three slots in the middle. Davies and Kilgour will likely play, the possible rotation here is Little for Craig. Craig is 34-years-old and may be given a break, but Little is only just back from injury and may need to come from the bench. He’s won 50% of his aerial duels this season and if we’re going to find a way past them I suspect it’ll be with the ball on the deck, not long into Walker.

Ogogo was a Wembley loser (he’s not in this picture btw, before anyone says…)- Courtesy of Graham Burrell

The Gas have selection questions in the middle of the park as well. Abu Ogogo, a loser in the EFL Trophy against us with Shrewsbury, adds steel to their midfield and club captain Ollie Clarke will surely start as well. That leaves a choice of three for the final place. Alex Rodman, a winger by trade, played against Accrington in the absence of Ed Upson, who should be back for this fixture. He’s going to be pushed by Liam Sercombe, arguably the best player the Gas have had over the last couple of seasons, but only just back from injury himself.

I can see Upson starting for them; he’s a player I like the look of. He can add the attacking dimension to their play and will be an asset in any counter-attacking football they look to utilise. He’s not quite found his rhythm in terms of shots assists (0.4 per game), but he’ll surely be preferred to Sercombe, who will get a loud cheer from the travelling fans if he does get back on the grass. They could go with Rodman, he scored against Stanley but isn’t entirely comfortable in the centre.

Up top, four-goal Jonson Clarke-Harris will start, but the big question is whether he’ll be partnered by Tyler Smith, on loan from Sheffield United, or Tom Nichols. The latter has got the nod in recent weeks, but I think Coughlan will go with Smith. He’s a nimble, fleet-footed forward who again would be much better on the counter than Nichols.

As for us, I think the key will once again be the input of Jorge Grant. I called Jack Payne as the big signing of the summer, but in the early exchanges it’s been Grant who has impressed; he’s in the top five in the division for goals and assists. Five times he’s created a goal and he’s bagged one as well. He also has a ‘second assist’ (the pass before the assist) meaning of our 13 goals this season, he’s had a hand in seven.

I expect a game in which we have more possession and look to try to get through a brick wall at the back; think Cambridge and Northampton from last season. The difference here is they’ll have good players on the counter and will be a threat if they break, more so than both Fleetwood and Southend. Clarke-Harris will be a handful, we can’t come too far forward as possible pace from Smith could see them get in behind. In a foot race, their strikers will beat our defenders, but if we remain as focused as we did against Fleetwood then they’ll be getting nothing more than scraps.

The form says a win for us, my gut is finding it hard to predict. I’d like to say a win, possibly 1-0, but how much the last week has affected the players will be the key factor. If it’s not too much, if Jamie, Andy and the senior professionals have steadied the ship, then we’ll be finishing the day in the top six, which will be a huge achievement.

If not, then we could ruin many fans accumulators at 5pm.