Form: Bristol Rovers L – – – – | Wycombe W – – – –
The last time: Bristol Rovers 0-1 Wycombe (19th Jan 2019, League One)
Coming into the Game…
It was a case of contrasting fortunes on the first day of 2019/20. While we got off to our first winning start in four years, the Gas remain without a season-opening victory since 2011 after going down 2-0 at Blackpool – their fifth straight defeat on day one. They’ve only won two of their last 11 in League One and finished just a point and two places above Wycombe in 2018/19.
In Their Dugout: Graham Coughlan
Announced as the successful Darrell Clarke’s successor in the new year, Coughlan had previously been a defensive coach with Rovers. Before that, he’d served as first team coach under Phil Brown at Southend, where he ended his playing days. His priority as he began his managerial career was to steer the Gas clear of the drop, which they achieved with a game to spare.
While 2019/20 will be about steady progression and staying out of any relegation scrap, the Irishman has experienced promotion from this level as a player – namely with Plymouth as champions in 2004, when he was also named PFA Second Division Player of the Year. He made more appearances and scored more goals for Argyle than any other club. In a 21-year playing career, he also turned out for, among others, Livingston, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham and Shrewsbury.
The Danger Man for Them: Jonson Clarke-Harris
Clarke-Harris’ goals were crucial in keeping Rovers in the division last time around. Signed from Coventry in January – after scoring his last goal for them against Wycombe – he racked up 11 in 16 appearances, including three winners, a brace, a hat-trick, and only one in defeat. Add in his goals for the Sky Blues and he ended 2018/19 with 16 in 46 in all competitions, averaging just shy of two shots on target per appearance.
A clinical finisher who can wreak havoc with his speed and strength, our back four will have to stay absolutely organised and be on high alert to restrict space in behind, and we’ll generally have to be wary of the counter-attack – because he can do this:
I am making one quite significant assumption, though: he actually plays. He wasn’t risked last weekend due to still being under assessment after returning to training following a minor operation. Coughlan spoke of his star striker’s eagerness to play but stood by his decision to leave him out.
Injuries and Suspensions
This game will probably come too soon for Sido Jombati and Curtis Thompson, who didn’t feature at all in pre-season or on day one as they rehabilitate after foot and shoulder injuries respectively. Other than that, barring any last-minute blows, everyone is good to go.
A late call will be made on Clarke-Harris, who will only be included in the squad if 100% fit. Meanwhile, left-back Tareiq Holmes-Dennis and creative midfielder Sam Matthews seem set to remain on the sidelines for a while longer yet.
A Deeper Look
“I think we beat ourselves today,” said Coughlan post-Blackpool, before going on to criticise his side’s lack of fight after going 2-0 down. Despite that, he was satisfied with the “positive” performance. In any case, expect him to have his troops fired up to bounce back in this one.
The Rovers boss went with a 4-3-3 on day one but may well switch to a 4-4-2. Should Barnsley loanee Victor Adeboyejo continue up front after a testing debut and show what he’s all about, we’ll be faced with a not dissimilar threat to that posed by Clarke-Harris – although, to be frank, he’s just not of the same calibre. The latter can’t be discounted as a weapon in the air either. He won, on average, close to 15 aerial duels a game in 2018/19.
If Tyler Smith – on loan from Sheffield United – gets the nod alongside Adeboyejo, Adam El-Abd and Anthony Stewart can expect to be kept busy by an energetic presser. Tom Nichols is another forward option and can operate centrally or from the left; he has, though, managed just two league goals in 76 appearances since joining the Gas two years ago.
A four-man midfield would likely consist of Alex Rodman, Ollie Clarke, Liam Sercombe and Kyle Bennett, with Ed Upson missing out. Against the Tangerines, Rodman and Bennett started wide right and left respectively in a front three. Both right-footers, they are capable of playing on both flanks, and Bennett did so in that 2-0 loss.
The Gas didn’t pose much threat at Bloomfield Road, registering a sole shot on target out of 16 – although they were up against one of the better-looking defences in the division, featuring Portsmouth and Rotherham target Curtis Tilt at centre-half. That said, they still missed two big chances, with Clarke striking the post from a one-on-one after bursting forward from midfield, and substitute Smith headed against the woodwork in the dying embers.
As for Wycombe, you’d expect it to be largely the same again. Fred Onyedinma looked in great shape when he came off the bench against Bolton, so there’s surely a good chance he’ll replace Alex Samuel and make his first start since re-signing. We may see some more experimenting with the wide forwards – Paul Smyth and Samuel switched sides at half-time on Saturday, to great effect in the former’s case – but Onyedinma is the preferable option on the left, in part because of the better protection he affords Joe Jacobson. It’s a nice problem to have – how best to accommodate Fred and Messi Smyth in the same side – but one that will need figuring out sooner rather than later.
In midfield, Nick Freeman has to start. When Thompson returns, I suspect we’ll find that Alex Pattison sits in front of he and Dom Gape, but right now, unless Gareth Ainsworth throws EFL rookie Jacob Gardiner-Smith in at the deep end, our best bet is to stick with an inversion of that triangle but with Freeman in for Matt Bloomfield.
None of this should need pointing out, but for starters, the 23-year-old is more assured and composed in possession. From the latest case study available: against Bolton, he touched the ball eight times and lost it just once in the 14 minutes he played; Bloomfield gave it away five more times (13 – around once every three touches) than our next highest ranked midfielder in that respect, Alex Pattison – who also conceded possession with approximately every third touch, although he attempted six shots to Bloomfield’s one. Equally, Freeman is more willing to take players on, and more capable of playing a killer, defence-unlocking ball – and, crucially, he won’t start flagging after an hour so. Recent history tells us that Blooms will retain his place, but you never know.
Adebayo Akinfenwa isn’t going to win as much in the air this weekend. Between them against Blackpool, Rovers centre-backs Tom Davies and former loan Wanderer Tony Craig won 16/21 aerial duels – 76% as opposed to the 50% achieved by the three central defenders used by Bolton. In terms of all outfield players, Rovers won 53% of their aerial duels, while for Bolton that figure was just 34%. Wycombe recorded a 64% success rate, with the big man winning 20 of his 30 battles in the air and, somewhat surprisingly, Jacobson winning 100% (6/6) of his.
Anyway, enough rambling. On the subject of JJ, he – and Jack Grimmer for that matter – will face a much sterner examination down in the West Country. Bennett should pose the biggest threat from wide. Capable of operating on either wing, he’s not afraid to take players on and can be more or less unstoppable on his day. Probably the standout performer against Blackpool on a generally forgettable afternoon for the team, he may feel he has a point to prove after returning to the Memorial Stadium following a short loan spell in League Two with Swindon.
Elsewhere, judging by his heat map against the Tangerines, Clarke – who netted eight times in 2018/19 for the best scoring season of his career – will be involved all over the pitch, although he has previously described his role as more of a “simple” ball-winner who’ll get things going again and let others create chances. One of those others is the versatile Sercombe, who is something of a bogeyman for Wycombe, having scored against us four times in his career and for every club he’s been at.
The full-backs from the Gas’ first line-up of the new campaign – Mark Little and Luke Leahy – are summer signings, but both have considerable experience at this level and, in the case of the former, higher. Both will put in a good shift up and down their respective flanks and look to support the attack. However, if last time out is anything to go by, their crossing leaves much to be desired; between them, they managed one accurate ball in out of 16. Michael Kelly, who played much of last season, is a possible alternative at left-back.
Wycombe could look to target goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola after he made an almighty mess of a cross on his debut, flattening the towering Curtis Tilt and giving away a penalty from which the hosts opened the scoring. In fact, speaking of ‘keepers, dare I say that Ryan Allsop looked markedly more confident and commanding in the air at the weekend? Any improvement he’s made in that respect will be a big plus, especially as we conceded from two corners when the Gas won at Adams Park a year ago.
Ultimately, this is the first big test of the season for everyone in a Wycombe shirt. Our opponents may have kicked off with an unsurprising result, but we’ve only ever started with consecutive wins in one of our previous 13 campaigns in the third tier – 1994/95, our first in it. As for our record at the Mem, that makes for more positive reading: we’ve won on 8/15 visits, picking up more league wins in this fixture than the reverse.
The Man in the Middle: Paul Marsden
In his second season in the EFL, this will be just the ninth League One match that Marsden has officiated, and the first time he’s taken charge of a fixture involving either of these sides His only game of 2019/20 so far was Oldham’s 3-2 EFL Trophy win over Liverpool U21s on Wednesday night, in which he showed three yellow cards.
The Opposition View with Matt Iles (@matt_journo)
Starting the season well is something Bristol Rovers do not do.
Rovers’ opening day record makes for awful reading. They haven’t won on the opening day in seven years, so most expected that statistic to continue to eight years last Saturday. It was a 2-0 defeat in a game where Rovers were well beaten and, in truth, were bossed by a very good Blackpool side. In every department from defence to attack, the Seasiders had more hunger, desire and commitment as they saw off a Rovers side who threatened very little in the way of attack.
Before pre-season began, Graham Coughlan wanted the team to play a more expansive game and play football that was going to excite the Gas faithful and echo the first few years of Darrell Clarke’s leadership, in which the club got top results as well as great success in terms of back-to-back promotions and consolidation back in League One. Saturday certainly showed that the philosophy still needs massive work, and it was a performance that echoed last season. The team failed to have a real creative spark or take risks.
The summer transfer business saw the manager make big changes and many players that had been at the club a good few years, including Chris Lines, Daniel Leadbitter, Stuart Sinclair, all shifted as the manager felt they weren’t a part of his plans – which was a good decision as I felt they couldn’t offer much to the team in the near future.
In terms of incomings, the majority of the club’s business was done early as Coughlan wanted the new players to bed into his new system and wanted to have a pre-season with them.
Two new goalkeepers were added in Finnish stopper Anssi Jaakkola and unknown Dutch giant Jordi van Stappershoef. In pre-season, both were vying for the number one spot. It ultimately went to Jaakkola, the former Reading ‘keeper, who had a decent debut apart from that awful misjudgment.
Three full-backs arrived at the club in Josh Hare, Luke Leahy and Mark Little, who all possess a lot of attacking qualities – something that was evidently not there last season as Rovers struggled creatively for large parts of it.
With influential centre-back Tom Lockyer leaving, his replacement Tom Davies from Coventry has big shoes to fill and the fans hope he can be the capable replacement for the former skipper who left for Charlton over the summer.
Two new strikers have joined the club in Tyler Smith and Victor Adeboyejo, both loanees from Yorkshire clubs in Sheffield United and Barnsley respectively. Whilst Adeboyejo had a tough debut in which he was dominated by Blackpool’s two centre-halves Tilt and Ryan Edwards, as a substitute Smith showed positive signs of why Coughlan signed him for the season.
These two signings up top show that maybe the manager is trying to ease the pressure on Jonson Clarke-Harris, whose goals were a massive factor in Rovers staying in League One last season. The Leicester-born forward will be hoping he can deliver in his first full season at the club, and the team and manager know that if Rovers are to have a good season, he will be a key figure in achieving their targets.
For this season, I think Bristol Rovers need to definitely bring back the good football and positive identity we had a few years ago, as in the last year to 18 months it has disappeared. The squad certainly looks like one that can challenge the top half, but after a season in which a lot of fans believed the squad was a strong, good results early on need to be picked up.
There hasn’t been a draw in this fixture in any competition since November 1999, a streak of 26 matches. The only four draws have all come at Adams Park, and only one of them was goalless.
Gareth Ainsworth’s last professional goal came against Bristol Rovers in December 2012’s 2-0 home win, his second game as permanent manager.
Each side should feature a player up against their former club: Joe Jacobson for Wycombe and Tony Craig for Rovers.
Main image: Eirian Evans. Used under license.