Are you going to Bristol this weekend? You lucky thing. Considering the carnage of supporters trying to buy tickets last Wednesday, I’d say there’s more than a few who would jump at the chance to spend £25 to stand on the uncovered terrace, or even more to sit in a glorified shed. But there will be plenty who will have missed out on such a pleasure.
I regret to announce that I include myself in that group. The luck of the draw was unkind, and I find myself with a home-watching brief for the weekend’s fixture. That’s unless anything changes last-minute, and I suppose you never know. Enter your favourite eyes emoji right here.
However you keep up with the game, Plymouth Argyle’s trip to Bristol Rovers will be an intriguing watch. Had this game been played a few weeks ago, you’d probably call it an away banker. But Joey Barton’s Rovers come into this one on the back of five consecutive wins in all competitions. Once you take into account this will technically be a Westcountry derby, and certainly played in a fervent atmosphere, this has the potential to be a tricky encounter for the Greens.
Style of play
Bristol Rovers are a long ball team. I don’t think that’s unfair to say, nor do I think they’ll particularly mind given their success in recent weeks. With 1,191, they have attempted more long passes than any other team in the division, and that comes straight from the back. Goalkeeper James Belshaw has attempted 337 of those, with only Cambridge United stopper Dimitar Mitov attempting more in the league.
Interestingly, their long pass completion isn’t great, with a 39% success rate good enough for 12th best in the division. Their aerial duel success rate of 45% is actually fairly terrible too, with only Peterborough United and Exeter City holding worse records.
But their strikers do at least compete. John Marquis, for instance, has missed Rovers’ last three games with a knee injury, but has still managed to commit the seventh-highest number of fouls in the league with 20. Marquis’ injury coincided with Josh Coburn recovering from a knock that kept him out for the start of the season, so a straight swap has been easy. But Ryan Loft, who has already scored against Argyle in the Papa John’s Trophy this season, is another option for the forward positions. He too finds himself in the top 30 for fouls committed.
And this competitive nature means their long ball style can be effective through pouncing on second balls. Rovers’ aerial duel success rate may be poor, but only Peterborough have won more ground duels in the league. It seems that, as long as their strikers compete in the air, Rovers will trust themselves to mop up the loose ball and start an attack. It’d probably be great to have Dan Scarr available to totally dominate and remove that option. But as the ticket situation has shown, we can’t always have nice things.
Rovers deploy a number of shapes to make their style work, with various central midfield options helping Barton to shuffle his pack effectively. Having started seven of the last eight games, I’d expect to see Sam Finley in the team. I’d say he’s the most physical of their options, with only four players in the league having won more ground duels than his 56. Expect to see him diving into challenges – he’s won more tackles (35) but also been dribbled past (11) more than any Rovers player. I’m interested to see how he’ll approach this one, given he’s one yellow card away from a suspension.
Whilst Finley may be the physical midfielder, Antony Evans has caught the eye as a creative threat. As well has having more touches of the ball than any other Rovers player, he’s also ranked seventh in the league for crosses both attempted and completed. He’s also in the league’s top 20 for key passes along with another Rovers player in Aaron Collins. But more on him later.
I think Finley and Evans will start, but there’ll be at least one more central midfielder on the pitch in blue and white. Paul Coutts is one name to throw into the mix, but I think it’s more likely we’ll see Jordan Rossiter. The ex-Liverpool youngster, heavily linked with Argyle during the reign of Ryan Lowe, has started the last four and is in a rich vein of form. I suspect he’ll play, but who knows? We may even see an appearance from Rovers’ number 23, Luke McCormick.
With Rovers’ style seeing the forwards battle in the air, and those just behind them picking up the pieces, it stands to reason that those players should have plenty of opportunities on the ball. As I perhaps illuded to in the previous section, Aaron Collins is one man who has taken those opportunities with both hands.
I have to admit, every time I look at the stats from a Rovers game, Collins is the name that catches my eye. We’ll start off with his goals. His total of eight is the joint-second highest figure in the league, with only Peterborough’s Jonson Clarke-Harris having scored more. And you could argue that Collins has been unlucky not to have more; nobody in the league has hit the woodwork more than the Rovers man (3).
But as well as scoring, Collins is also a major threat in building Rovers’ attacks. Only Exeter’s Jevani Brown has more assists this season than Collins’ six, and only Peterborough’s Joe Ward has created more big chances than Collins. The 25-year-old has also completed 25 key passes, good enough for 8th best in the league, as well as leading Rovers’ stats in terms of most dribbles completed and most fouls won.
Rovers’ style requires players like Collins to take advantage of loose balls, so of course you’d expect to find him in the thick of the action. But that doesn’t diminish his quality. If anything, it’s the presence of Collins that allows Rovers to be successful when it all clicks.
Outside of Collins, I’ve been struck by the number of successful defensive interactions Rovers have completed. They rank second in interceptions completed, and third in terms of blocks and tackles. This can be read in a number of ways. Some would argue that completing a high number of defensive interactions shows a team under regular pressure, and that is certainly true to some extent. However, it does at least show competency in a team’s defending.
Luca Hoole has been a standout name in that regard. In what has been a fairly unsettled back line, Hoole has been around for all but one game this season, though he’s started on the bench for the recent wins over Milton Keynes Dons and Cheltenham Town. He’s the highest ranked Rovers player in terms of clearances and blocks completed, and his 24 interceptions rank him at joint-eighth in the league. He defends on the front foot, and can be tough to beat when on form.
Finally, I’ll just make you aware of Rovers’ prowess from set pieces. The five goals they’ve scored from set-piece situations is bettered only by Exeter with seven. Considering how effective he was at countering long throws against Accrington, I wonder whether this may be a game for Sam Cosgrove to start in with a view to countering the set-piece threat. After all, we’re already without Scarr.
Looking at the goals Rovers have conceded this season, there are a couple of weaknesses we can pinpoint for Argyle to look to exploit.
I’d first say that they can be significantly slow starters. That isn’t always the case, and if they do have the occasional flying start they can be tough to stop. Already this season they’ve found themselves four goals up at half time on trips to Burton Albion and Cheltenham.
Nonetheless, they have conceded five goals within the first fifteen minutes of games this season. No other team has conceded more within that period, and it accounts for 21% of the total goals Rovers have conceded. Against both Barnsley and Lincoln City this season, Rovers found themselves two goals down before the fifteen-minute mark. Starting with an attacking intent could be the key for Argyle to unlock this particular door.
There is also a strange juxtaposition between the goals Rovers score and concede. Considering they score a fair number of goals from set pieces, you’d probably expect them to be fairly tight on set plays at the other end. But that’s not the case. In fact, with six, they’ve actually conceded more goals from set pieces than they’ve scored, with only Morecambe shipping more this season from such situations.
The numbers suggest Rovers are a bit of an enigma when it comes to set pieces at both ends of the field. That may make them hard to read when attacking, but can make them easier to pick off as they try to keep the ball out of their own net. Granted, Argyle haven’t scored from a set piece at all this season, so Barton not have to worry about that quite as much this weekend. But the Pilgrims will surely have to start somewhere, and Saturday provides an ideal opportunity.
I will also just touch on the Rovers defence again. In the last section I mentioned that whilst they can be busy, they are generally up to the task. But, like a few teams we’ve looked at already this season, the defence has been unsettled, and that can lead to errors.
Take the opening game of the season as an example. At home to Forest Green Rovers, Barton lined up with a defence of James Gibbons, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and Hoole. Of those, Gibbons has had a spell out with injury, Connolly hasn’t played since August for the same reason, and Clarke has played just ten minutes in the last four games. Hoole has been the only one to remain relatively consistently involved.
There have been other names who have come in, with various degrees of success. Lewis Gordon is a left-sided defender who now hasn’t missed a minute since the start of September, whilst near-namesake Lewis Gibson was brought in on loan from Everton, and has been in and out of the side following a calf injury. Alfie Kilgour and Bobby Thomas have also had spells, the latter nailing down a place in recent weeks, although both were sent off in a recent defeat away at Ipswich.
With a revolving door of defenders, it’s little surprise that Rovers can appear chaotic at the back at times. That possibly explains why they’ve conceded five goals form the penalty spot this season, another league high. With Argyle having scored three penalties already, this may be the perfect game to get Bali Mumba running at the Rovers defence in the hope of winning one or two more.
The odds may be slightly in Argyle’s favour, but they won’t have everything their own way. Rovers’ good form, combined with the feisty atmosphere, makes this a big potential banana skin for the table-topping Greens.
Rovers score and concede a lot, from many different situations. I suspect we’ll see the same again on Saturday. So let’s go for a score draw to keep Argyle’s unbeaten run going. 2-2.