Fine margins telling in the big step up

Rotherham United

It was never going to last. And I’m kind of glad that it hasn’t. The euphoria of our victory at Wembley? Oh no, not that – that will take a while to die down, particularly when faced with the plethora of ‘Ambitious but brilliant’ t-shirts you see on matchdays reminding us of our fine day in the sun. I’m not talking about the elastic on Steve Evans’ belt either. No, I’m actually referring to the quiet sacrifice of the cavalier counter-attacking style which has brought us much success recently.

I say I’m relieved as I honestly think we’d be lower than Blackpool in the table now if not. Evans claimed prior to the season kick-off that ‘we know no other way’ but after a narrow 1-0 reverse against Derby County on the opening day and a one goal win over fellow promotion winners Wolves it is obvious to all and sundry that the rigours of competing in this unforgiving division has brought about a more guarded approach. Arguably Rotherham could have been looking at two heavy defeats if throwing caution to the wind to look for goals as both the Rams and Wanderers have made it clear to Millers fans – if they were not already aware – that they’re not going to see their team on the ball for large stretches of games.

It had to change. The sheer size of what many commentators call a ‘big step up’ may have come as a surprise to some fans but certainly not Evans, despite him being a complete novice to this standard of football. The focus of his recruitment drive over the Summer, whilst always underpinned by the principle of making sure they have ‘a point to prove’, has been about acquiring experience of the Championship – and in some cases the Premier League and Europe. The (still shiny) sliding doors at New York have certainly taken some hammer as the gaffer has set about restructuring a squad bolstered by loanees last season, and which despite one of the most successful periods in the club’s history was in need of a substantial overhaul as many players on the books were originally signed for their credentials as League Two campaigners.

Evans is never a man for being sentimental and there are now only four surviving members from the opening day triumph over Burton Albion two years ago in Mark Bradley, Kari Arnason, Ben Pringle and Alex Revell. A colossal seventeen new faces have been added to the Rotherham ranks since the end of May, four of which are loan deals. Literally every position has been catered for – and then some. The signings of Matt Derbyshire and young Jordan Bowery looked like sensible additions to help bolster the forward line but there did not seem to be a need to add further in that department – not until the departure of 26-goal Kieran Agard at the end of August that is. Agard’s long line of suitors was no real surprise but his eventual move to League One Bristol City was a head-scratcher and left many thinking that despite such a large squad we could be short where it matters.

Our management team have often referred to their side as being a ‘work in progress’ who are on something of a ‘journey’. Of course most Millers fans have bought into this project, how could we not when everything has been going so smoothly? The way the new players had seamlessly slotted in on the opening day defeat to Derby, particularly Paul Green, was very encouraging as our high-pressure game rarely let the Rams settle into any kind of rhythm. However the party atmosphere at Pride Park has gradually dissipated into the tense cauldron of frustration that was New York Stadium against Brentford. Two goals in five games – the only one at NYS being a deflected block-cum-shot from Ryan Hall further highlights the issue at hand. What had happened?

It seemed to me following the Bees’ victory that through the loss of Agard, the failure to sign a striker with some experience at this level and the fear of what other sides in the Championship can do to us… that we had lost some of the edge which had earned our shot at this level in the first place. Where had all the entertaining, direct and counter-attacking football gone? It was evident at Derby, where Evans had named a starting 11 which kept faith with many of our Wembley heroes, retaining the likes of Frecklington, Revell and Pringle. Maybe Evans, having given these players a chance could see the time was right for a new direction to his grand plan, given that goalscoring chances were not being put away. Our ‘Plan A’ approach produced some dominating displays against Watford and for much of the game at Derby but the Championship is cruel. There may have been fine margins in defeat and good teams being put to the sword but it is a results business after all.

Brentford, contrary to what Evans might tell you, were very comfortable in possession for long periods and were far more clinical than Rotherham when it mattered to take home three deserved points. There was some eye-catching approach play from us but not enough of the cut and thrust we are used to. Even though the game was crying out for changes, which duly came in a flurry of second half substitutions, it highlighted for me that having options is nice but tinkering can dilute what the team have to offer further. With or without Derbyshire missing sitters, our shape had gone completely and chances continued to be squandered when he was hauled off. Whenever we went behind last season the team could be relied on to regroup and take the game to the opposition. Where once players like Pringle and Frecklington would be raining shots in on goal, this season they seem inhibited by apparent new tactics of containment. In League One we had a well-drilled close-knit unit of players which stuck to the plan. Had our desire to get bodies in – to give them game time and then form a system to fit them into – come at the cost of our character and our attacking principles?

The defensive side of our game so far has not really been in question and we seem to have carried on where we left off. Arnason is growing in confidence with every game, Kirk Broadfoot has done a steady job covering for the injured Frazer Richardson who is yet to get his first start, and arguably two of our finest deals of the summer in Richie Smallwood and Green have provided excellent cover for the back line. Further forward, it is not as familiar. Derbyshire’s form so far has been patchy and he doesn’t seem to me to be Evans’ type of player as he rarely chases lost causes and on the occasion he does track back it is half-hearted. The aforementioned Pringle and Frecklington and the hardworking Revell have needed time to adjust but they may not be allowed much more. We have new blood on the sidelines like Conor Newton, Bowery and Febian Brandy waiting in the wings, and Ipswich loanee Paul Taylor has done much to win over the Millers faithful with his trickery, clever movement and willingness to have a pop from outside of the box.

The fans were crying out for goals by the arrival of transfer deadline day – the irony is that more strikers were seen as the solution. Evans had tried all summer to unearth a big name forward that could turn these (broadly) tight games the Millers way, losing out on the services of Stevie May (after 12 months of persistence), last year’s goal-of-the season contender Joe Garner and Chelsea’s Patrick Bamford, largely due to a rigid wage structure and (most probably) the abundance of bigger and ‘better’ clubs in this league. Fine margins again. Chairman Tony Stewart had done a sterling job in fighting off interest in our players, possibly with the intention of doing away with the club’s reputation for moving them on for peanuts at the first sniff of a deal. Agard wanted too much money however and off he went. You could be forgiven for thinking that, despite the desire to establish ourselves in this league, the (much lauded) bloody-mindedness in not spending beyond our means was at risk of scuppering deals for the much needed striker, therefore derailing the ‘journey’ we are on. Which household name would be willing to put game time before his wallet and join the Millers in their quest to be a force at this level?

Step forward the (possible) Argentinian messiah: Luciano Becchio. More or less on the button on deadline day, Evans managed to get his wish and it’s a move that you have to say does show some intent, unless you’re a Leeds fan in begrudging denial. Becchio may be only on loan until January, and towards the twilight of his career at 30, but he’ll be busting a gut to show Norwich that they’ve dropped a clanger by leaving him out in the cold for so long. Hopefully he’ll be able to end the drought at least as we’re certainly creating enough chances, and his heading prowess from corners will definitely come in handy despite us apparently being ‘a physical side’. A less eye-catching signing, but perhaps one to keep an eye out for, is Jonson Clarke-Harris. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about this lad but he’s got plenty of time to find his feet being just 20 years old. Pace is something we are lacking in this Rotherham team so that should give him the nod against a few other candidates.

So we reach an interesting watershed moment I think at the 5 game mark during this ‘international break’. This is a bigger step up for the Millers than perhaps some realise. The club have come so far in such a short space of time and the learning curve is ever steeper. 6 points is a healthy return though at this stage and is a fair few more than we had when we were last promoted to the former Division One. And maybe we could have solved our lack of firepower with a couple of last-minute throws of the dice. But for me, Evans needs to find his best 11 and fast. It’s alright having a large squad to choose from, and I agree there are different attributes needed for the range of opposition we are likely to face, but this division is tough and does not allow any room for complacency. Our opening games have involved matches against some expected promotion contenders, so it will be good to see how we fare against the likes of Bolton, Ipswich and Leeds who we should be looking at taking points off. I want to see less tinkering during games, less reliance on loan players to create the spark (Becchio and Paul Taylor aside!) and ultimately more purpose and confidence in our play as we all know we are hard to live with when we are firing on all cylinders.

Written by Michael Whitehead, We Are Going Up’s Rotherham United Blogger

Michael tweets at @mikew_83

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