Bristol Rovers 1-2 Sheffield United: Mark McGhee's tactical switch almost pays dividends
THE inclusion of midfielder Seanan Clucas for the first time in almost three months appeared to be the biggest surprise Mark McGhee sprang in a bid to cause what would have been an FA Cup upset – that was until the Bristol Rovers players took their positions before kick-off at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Anybody who saw Matthew Lund, a midfielder by trade, standing next to skipper Garry Kenneth at the heart of defence could have been forgiven for thinking: "Is he standing in the right place?"
Yes, yes he was. McGhee had indeed decided to play the increasingly versatile youngster in a three-man central defensive unit as part of a tactical master-plan designed to congest the corridor between full-back and centre-half; an area where Sheffield United's livewire strike partnership of Nick Blackman and Chris Porter were likely to cause most havoc.
Justification for what may have looked a negative move on paper was offered during an opening period in which the plan seemed to work a treat.
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A fifth-minute goal from David Clarkson gave the manager's decision early credibility, while Lund appeared to excel in what is another unfamiliar position for him following his recent six-game spell as a stand-in right-back.
That Sam Walker, who was playing in goal for the first time since September 18 was not called on to make a save of any significance until first-half stoppage time suggested that McGhee had actually pulled off a bit of a masterstroke.
Had Derek Riordan or Fabian Broghammer converted opportunities to increase the advantage in the opening 45 minutes as Lee Brown, playing as an out-and-out attacking wing-back, made good progress down the wide open spaces of the flanks, the likelihood is that Rovers would this morning be contemplating further progress. The one-goal lead as the Rovers players trudged off at the break, however, was worryingly slender against a side, that, based on recent form, were bound to be a lot better than they were during an opening period in which it was difficult to determine which team was from the higher division.
And so it proved. Returning to the pitch still nursing an obvious flea in their ears from their manager, Danny Wilson, Sheffield United swiftly began the fight back.
Just eight minutes of the second-half had elapsed before Blackman plundered an equaliser in spectacular fashion by almost breaking the net when sent sprinting through on goal – and this is where the plan to stifle Sheffield United started to fall down. Rovers, it seemed, were unable to rid themselves of the defensive mindset that had proved to be so successful in the previous 53 minutes.
Nine minutes later it became clear that the trade-off of limiting attacking options in favour of packing out defence and midfield would prove costly when Rovers switched off at a short corner from which Porter converted the winning goal from close range – even though McGhee was critical of referee Fred Graham for failing to spot a foul on Garry Kenneth as the ball was swung over the back post.
Rovers now needed a goal, but Tom Eaves, who did well to hold the ball up front on his own during the opening 45 minutes, was cutting an increasingly isolated figure as tired legs began to limit the support coming from midfield.
McGhee's decision to replace him in the 75th minute was met with derision from the stands – but a failure to get hold of the ball on two occasions prior to the end of his afternoon's work suggested he was out on his feet and that the move was probably the correct one.
The manager stated afterwards that his preferred option is to play two strikers up front and hinted that playing Riordan on the left-hand side, where his obvious talents are probably not best served, would be temporary. The Scotland international was moved up front for the final 15 minutes as McGhee reverted to a flat back four in what turned out to be an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to claim an equaliser.
Riordan will probably start their alongside Eaves when Rovers continue their bid to kick-start their league campaign against Southend United at the Memorial Stadium tomorrow night.
Playing with one up front in front of your own fans against a side from a higher division that has yet to taste a league defeat is one thing, utilising one striker at home for a routine league game is another – particularly when you need to persuade people to come through the turnstiles.
A crowd of less than 5,000 on Saturday – 700 of those from Sheffield – will be a worry to those who control the purse strings.
McGhee, however, remains positive. An impressive first-half performance littered with decent individual displays from the likes of Lund, Clarkson and Eaves in particular offers some encouragement – as does the imminent return of key players from injury and suspension.
Hopes of FA Cup glory are over for another year. All that remains is hope that Rovers will turn their league season around.