Tuesday we take an interlude from our relegation battle to face league leaders Rotherham in a much-delayed fixture.
The Millers are in ferocious form this season. They are almost certain to obtain an automatic promotion, are at risk of running away with the league, and are into the EFL Trophy Final. There is no avoiding it, this is the sort of test you don’t want at the tail end of a difficult season. Let’s not dress it up. Coming away from the New York Stadium with anything other than thrashing could feel like a win. I was initially pretty low about the Ipswich game but, on reflection, we worked hard to keep them to two goals. Tuesday could be the same.
One of the things I’ve already learned writing these previews is that there is usually one encouraging stat. Something that creates a bit of hope. But I will be honest that’s just not true for Rotherham. On paper, they look like a team in a two-way duel to be Champions. Their xG at home, for example, is 1.99 and in fact, they are exceeding this (scoring 2.11 goals on average). They keep a clean sheet 40% of the time and get away six shots on target per match. By the way, that is just their home form, they also have the best away form in the league. In that light, our draw at the LNER in September feels pretty impressive.
I’m clearly a bit pessimistic. But there are glimmers of hope to cling to. Their form has dipped slightly in recent weeks, and not only against top teams. There was a draw away at Shrewsbury in early March for example. This is more of a sense, but looking at their results they seem to struggle most against teams who play a little more like us at our season-best. For me it comes down to this; at times we’ve thrived against the stronger teams who let us play our style of football. Of the top eight teams in the league, we’ve beaten four of them. Of the top ten, those we’ve lost to were excellent at breaking up our formation and leaving us unable to play (Ipswich, as a recent example). If we can carve out a bit of space and take the game to them then this might present us a chance.
Rotherham play with pace, quality, and strength. It’s hard to say how they will approach the game – we held our own at times in the reverse fixture and I hope that will be on their minds. Expect to see them hold possession and try to dominate the midfield. Ideally, we’d have Bridcutt back to give as good as he gets. In his absence, Maguire has an opportunity to find the sort of form he had against Sunderland earlier this year. I’d also like to see Fiorini start again. He has a real knack for getting between player and ball in the middle of the park which can help break up play.
Going forward they will be peppering our box. Chiedozie Ogbene is a real livewire and loves to run at the defence. I feel sorry for Wright, should he start. His debut(s) over the last couple of games have shown a promise that is tempered with the need to settle into the side. What I will say is that his distribution has been excellent – crisp and accurate. In September they blocked out all of our attacking play in the final thirty minutes and so it might make a difference. Poole will also be key. His recent form holding the line and chasing down every ball hasn’t quite converted into clean sheets but is certainly saving us conceding more.
Of course, their defence will be hard to break down as well. When we faced them at home, Gary commented that their formation (an aggressive 3-1-4-2) asked for two up top to put the pressure on. The combination of Hopper and Marquis is new and feels very unusual. They are not the traditional striker duo, operating quite independently, which might create an unexpected dynamic. I feel quite positive that if Marquis continues his excellent form in pressing the defence it will also block their advance quite a bit.
It’s worth saying, Rotherham have some high-scoring players – four of their squad have got more than five goals and their top scorer, Michael Smith, is on seventeen for the season. One face we won’t see, though, is Smith’s usual partner in the front two; Freddie Ladapo (eleven goals) is out for at least another month. That is a significant blow for The Millers as that strike pairing is worth nearly thirty goals this season. Against Wycombe, they played Ogbene as the second striker and before that Ben Wiles. Both of them are excellent players (Wiles has seven goals and five assists to his name this season, and Ogbene was a real handful against us back in September). But they are playing out of position and I wonder how comfortable they really are in the role? One thing it might point to is how fixed Rotherham are to their formation – unwilling to rework the team to make up for missing a front-man.
Also don’t forget there will be a familiar face between the sticks; Josh Vickers, who signed to them from us in the summer of 2020.
Rotherham’s recent fortunes have hovered between League One and the Championship, so being at the top of our table is a common experience for them. We notably faced them a few times in League Two between 2008 and 2011 when The Millers were relegated after going into administration. Sad to report Rotherham came away best every time including a 6-0 thrashing in 2011. The least said about that the better.
Since then we’ve faced off in various cup games; both the EFL Cup and Football League Trophy. That includes the 2019 Trophy game where we needed four goals to go through to the second round, but only managed three (two from Akinde within two minutes). A piece of Imps trivia for you. That match was the singular appearance of Ben Coker for the club, he signed earlier that season and went out on loan in the January window.
In the curtailed 19/20 season Rotherham were ultimately promoted on PPG, but we did manage both fixtures against them and managed the double. Naturally, we didn’t face them again until this season. Coming off the back of our 5-1 high against Cambridge, I remember the home fixture in September being a pretty frenetic game that had quality from both sides. Rotherham are easily one of, if not, the best sides in the league this season playing some lovely football. I would not, on balance, be sad to be beaten by them, so long as we give them a game and don’t go the way of Gillingham or Doncaster (who both conceded five goals).