Bristol Rovers tactical struggles
Bristol Rovers have struggled with their form since retuning to league 2 this season. After being one of the favourites for promotion after their relegation last season, and potentially having one of the biggest budgets in the league, Rovers have started poorly this season. Only picking up three wins and 1 draw from their first ten games. Joey Barton got his wish during the summer and was able to overhaul the squad to form his ‘own’ squad of players, signing experienced individuals such as Paul Coutts, Mark Hughes and Brett Pitman, amongst others in an attempt to bring about a more experienced and stable core to the heart of the squad. Alongside this, Barton has tried to bring some youthful players to add energy to the squad, signing strikers in Harvey Saunders and Aaron Collins, midfielder Sion Spence on loan from Crystal Palace and centre back Connor Taylor from Stoke City.
Rovers vs Swindon
With these signings, Joey Barton has tried to stick to a specific formation, using a variety of players he signed during the summer and those left from the previous campaign. Barton from the start has played with 3 centre backs and the wide players as wing backs, with various different set-ups regarding the rest of the midfield and up front. In their most recent match with Swindon Town, Barton played one upfront in Brett Pitman, with midfielders Sam Finlay and Anthony Evans posing as the attacking outlets in midfield. However, due to the dominance of Swindon during the game, the formation appeared throughout to resemble a 5-2-2-1 formation, where the wing backs were pinned back by the opposition wing backs and Swindon’s midfield pressed highly meaning the game between the midfield and striker were increasing as the game went on.
Rovers (3-4-2-1): Belshaw; Kilgour, Taylor, Harries; Anderson,Coutts, Whelan Brown;Evans, Finlay; Pitman
Swindon (5-3-2): Wollacott; Hayden, Odimayo, Conroy, Crichlow, Iandolo; Gladwin, Reed, Payne; Gilbert, Simpson
Figure 1. Bristol Rovers and Swindon Town respective line-ups
From looking at the respective line-ups, it appears that Rovers were going to set-up with a mid-block, where the wing backs would not drop deep when defending or transitioning from attack to defence and would spring a counterattack if the midfield would win the ball back. Whilst in transition and in defence, the attacking midfielders of Evans and Finlay would be expected to press the ball if an opposition player would enter their part of the pitch given to them when the team and tactics were set. In contrast, from witnessing the lines up and how Swindon took to the field, it appeared Swindon would set-up with the defensive 5-3-2, using a low block when out of possession and would rely on the mobility of the 3 in midfield and the 2 strikers to get hold of the ball to transition into attack and keep the ball long enough to allow the wingbacks to join in when possible. However, the opposite of what was expected happened, where Swindon would utilise the high press to their advantage, winning the 2nd contact in duals more often than Rovers, and held 64% possession throughout the game, which was dictated by Swindon’s midfield 3 whose constant movement and composure allowed them to create 3 times more chances than Rovers during the 90 minutes. The Bristol Rovers goal was one of few occasions in which the wing backs and attacking midfielders were able to break the Swindon press during the entire game, where the Rovers mid-block worked in an isolated occasion with the midfield two of Coutts and Whelan would win the ball back, and would inter connect with Finlay and Evans to create space in the Swindon defensive third to allow for Harry Anderson to run past Iandolo and Crichlow to latch onto an Evans through ball to score. After this Swindon took immediate control of the ball and the game, with no let-up, even without replying to the Rovers goal until early in the second half.
The second half was a reply of the majority of the first half, Swindon dominating the ball and creating chances using their high press and breaking through the Rovers defensive block, whilst Rovers were camped in their own half with no let-up. Swindon won the majority of the second contacts at duals, despite the Rovers centre-backs winning all of the aerial battles at the first contact. In the 57th minute Swindon equalised through Jack Payne, before continuing to dominate whilst Rovers struggled with their formation which looked like 5-2-2-1 throughout until changes were made. Bringing on Aaron Collins and Harvey Saunders after the game went all square was hoped to bring an attacking outlet that had been lacked throughout the game. However, this did not happen. Rovers could not keep the ball and maintained their forced low block throughout, and only went forward on rare occasions. Rovers hopes took another blow when Connor Taylor went off with concussion, meaning Rovers had to change their shape to accommodate midfielder Zain Westbrooke, which still did not help the cause. Swindon’s pressure was relentless, leading to the award of a penalty in the 85th minute and the dismissal of Alfie Kilgour for handball. After scoring the penalty, Swindon scored again a couple of minutes later after a James Belshaw error which led to the ball dropping to the feet of McKirdy.
Difference to the previous game
Joey Barton had attempted to play the same system in the previous game away at Walsall, but the main difference being Harvey Saunders, normally a striker, playing at wing back to create more of an attacking threat and someone who could press on if consistent possession was maintained. Despite chances being created, it was easy to spot that Saunders is not a wing-back, hence struggling with some of the defensive duties required as part of that role. Despite creating more chances than the Swindon game, 10 more to be precise. Rovers still ended up trailing at half time after losing the second and third contacts in a dual despite the centre backs winning the initial dual. In the second half, Barton decided to change things up and switch Saunders to his more natural position and putting Junior Brown at left wing back through the substitution of Glenn Whelan. To add further attacking impetus, Aaron Collins was brought on for Anthony Evans, playing as the number 10 to add with a higher press and create a more mid to high block when out of possession.
After these substitutions were made, Rovers appeared to have more energy and were the more likely team to score. Walsall had to make a defensive change due to an injury meaning their shape would change to 5 at the back, but it did not work in their favour. Rovers would equalise in the 79th minute after Connor Taylor pounced onto a Brett Pitman flick on from a corner, and the way they celebrated showed as if they knew they could score the winner. Rovers continued to press with a mid-block, creating attacking opportunities and multiple set pieces in the process. In the 91st minute, Pitman again fought for the second contact a set piece, with the ball falling to substitute Sion Spence to tap home from 6 yards.
After securing the first away win in 9 months, there are questions why Joey Barton did not go with a formation similar to the one that finished the Walsall game in the game against Swindon. Had 2 strikers played from the start and a more attacking midfielder playing instead of a second defensive midfielder, it would have given Rovers more opportunities to defend with a mid-block over a low block and would have potentially counteracted the high press of Swindon by making their midfielders drop deeper, creating more space for Paul Coutts and Sam Finlay to play their own game in the midfield. Playing a second striker would also increase Rovers chances of winning the second contact, providing that the first contact was won by Pitman, something which rarely happened during the game.
The rest of the season
Rovers will want an upturn in the fortunes quickly, with the fans being very expectant of the club at the start of the season. After the previous performances, Joey Barton could well be very reluctant in playing the same formation has he did against Swindon and most of the game against Walsall. Rovers are currently joint 14th in the league in relation to goals scored after 10 games this season, but are 22nd in terms of shots on goal, being one of few teams that haven’t had more than 100 shots on goal this season so far. With the lack of opportunities being created, now is no better time to change the formation to become more aggressive against teams, with the home game against Carlisle being the perfect opportunity to try this. Depending on personnel available, there is also an opportunity to complete change the system and opt for a 4 at the back defensive unit, which could allow players such as Harry Anderson to gain a bit more freedom going forward. The fans will want to see attacking play and for Rovers to be on the front foot as much as possible, with the idea of siege mentality being wanted which was something seen under the regime of former manager Darrel Clarke.
The tactics currently being used by Joey Barton and Bristol Rovers are not currently effective for the style of football they want to play with the players at their disposal. There is a need to change things immediately to get the attacking football that the fans crave, especially seeing as no player in the club has scored more than one league goal this season. Rovers will need some variety in their tactics to break down teams but with some of their attacking threats such as Sam Nicholson and Luke Thomas coming back to fitness, options are available.