As the excitement of the cup fades and attention returns to league duty, the Rovers dressing room will be consumed by the question of how to break a lengthy run of poor games, and how to transform our fortunes in the second half of the season.
While there is no shame in losing 3-0 to the dominant force in Scottish football, Sunday’s performance was indicative of long-standing weaknesses with the Rovers approach.
That Celtic dominated possession came as no surprise to anyone, but Rovers’ inability to keep the ball for more than a few seconds at a time deprived them of the opportunity to rest, let alone create going forward.
I am by no means the first fan to have observed that the Rovers play best with the ball on the ground, thus bringing our technical forwards into the game. However, an increasingly predictable reliance on our pacey wingers and Brian Graham being dragged deeper into midfield in search of possession, as happened with John Baird, has left us largely toothless.
There are few truly quality teams in the First Division, and fewer still who can be said to play with any consistent philosophy, with most just hoping to take more of their chances on the day than their opponents. However, the teams who sit atop the league table also regularly dominate possession, and can therefore dictate the tempo of games, and close out narrow victories. Partick and Morton boast strong midfield line-ups capable of consistently disrupting opposition moves, recovering the ball, and creating going forward.
The Rovers have, for years, lacked this “engine room,” and therefore the ability to dictate play in the midfield. It pains me to say it, but Allan Walker, Joe Hamill and Stuart Anderson, for all their qualities and experience, are not delivering either in their defensive duties in protecting the back four, or in attack, where poor decision-making, and woeful distribution of the ball not only curbs our opportunities to score, keeps us under pressure when the ball is inevitably surrendered. It’s almost enough to make a fan miss Iain Davidson or Stephen Simmons… almost.
However, the ability is there. Walker, Hamill and Anderson have all produced moments of brilliance, and their effort remains high. The issue seems to be in the uncertain strategy in terms of who has responsibility for tackling, recovering the ball, and for creating and bringing the wingers and strikers into the game, respectively. We should expect better from our lynchpin players, especially when one is wearing the armband.
The Rovers have a proud tradition of developing young talent, both from our academy and with loanees and I would like to see Ross Callachan given the chance to write his own success story, and afforded a greater role in our ailing midfield. His youthful exuberance and propensity for going to ground in the challenge has given him a reputation akin to Davidson’s and, don’t get me wrong, some midfield steel is no bad thing. But that would be to overlook the intelligent, subtle passes and deft touches of which he is capable, even when under pressure.
Ultimately, the Rovers have the squad to be beating mid-table competitors such as Hamilton, Falkirk and Livingston regularly, but to do so we need to be dominate games, and prevent our opposition settling into their rhythm, especially at Stark’s.
If the first half of our season has taught us anything, it should be the importance of quarter-back players like Morton’s Tidser and the Jags’ Paton, who, with composure and intelligent passing, rather than individual attacking brilliance, can control play and change games.
With future league reconstruction on the horizon, finishing well in the league is as important as ever, and the Rovers deserve to be in the hat when discussion turns to a future top division. Kick-starting our midfield will be vital if we are to make a statement against a decapitated Partick on Saturday, and ensure we look like a top league side on the pitch, as well as a top league club off it.