Bristol Rovers fans are being asked to see the big picture, and they want to turn their focus in that direction, but it is hard to avert the eyes from the disjointed and stuttering start to new season. For Gasheads, the agony of last season is being prolonged. They have scored just one goal in their past seven competitive games stretching back to last term, that one being Cian Harries’ bolt from the blue at Mansfield Town on Saturday, with scoring chances at a premium. A new season brings new hope but, for now, with different players it is the same story. Joey Barton’s hand has undoubtedly been weakened by a glut of injuries to key players in his rebuild, but the side he has available has created precious little in two games so far. Cheltenham Town are a good side riding the wave of the League Two title last season, and they were comfortable 2-0 winners in the Carabao Cup first round at the Mem on Tuesday. It would be foolish to expect Rovers to possess a similar level of chemistry so early in their rebuild against a team four years into their project under Michael Duff, but cohesion comparative to what the Robins have built feels a long way away with Brett Pitman, Aaron Collins and Sam Nicholson yet to feature and few players seizing their opportunities to impress. Gasheads knew they may have to endure some growing pains as Barton’s baker’s dozen of signings settle in and injuries heal, but those aches are stinging quite sharply.
‘We’ve had a shot’ When Sion Spence tamely found the gloves of Scott Flinders with Rovers’ only attempt on target of a turgid 90 minutes, ironic cheers emanated from the Thatchers Terrace – which stuck with their team across a performance which gave them little reward. A chant of “We’ve had a shot” followed. Barton himself chuckled, he admitted in his post-match press conference, knowing the calls were totally justified. At Mansfield, Rovers were dogged yet disconnected in possession, symptomatic of the absence of any kind of attacking platform and it was a similar theme on Tuesday, with Harvey Saunders cutting an isolated figure up top and very little guile shown in trying to utilise his speed. The reality is it’s bad at the moment. Both Barton and history warned there would be no quick turnaround after such a seismic shakeup of the playing and support staff over the summer months, and so it has proved. Injuries, certainly, have exacerbated the problems. The only 30 minutes in which Rovers have played anything like the team Barton wants them to be were the 30 minutes Pitman played against Oxford United.
Harvey Saunders of Bristol Rovers contends for the aerial ball with Ben Tozer of Cheltenham Town.
(Image: Ryan Hiscott/JMP)
His absence, plus Brandon Hanlan’s knee niggle, has left Rovers without a focal point, and in their stead the Gas have been fittingly aimless. Saunders may be a willing runner, but he’s not much of a target to aim at, so the stream of long balls thumped in his direction made little sense. Inevitably, performances will improve to some degree, but Gasheads are enduring a difficult part of the journey. If the solution is as simple as the return of players from the treatment room – and it may not be that simple given they will be entering without much of a pre-season at all – then they ought to hurry up. Imperfect performances will be tolerated for now if there is something an improvement in results and the aesthetics on the pitch, but many supporters appear to be reaching the point where they need something to feel optimistic about if they are to remain patient. Plan A on hold Save for late-game tactical switches in both competitive games so far Rovers have been deployed in a back four, which absolutely was not the plan Barton and his colleagues dreamt up as spring turned to summer. This squad has been built with a back three in mind, but with no fit wing-backs we are yet to see Barton’s new Plan A in a competitive game. Alfie Kilgour and Nick Anderton were square pegs for round holes at full-back, both being better-suited to roles on the outside of a back three, and their presence near the touchline certainly curbed Rovers’ attacking capabilities.
Alfie Kilgour holds off Cheltenham’s George Lloyd (Ryan Hiscott/JMP)
While Rovers have two options for right wing-back in Harry Anderson and the soon-to-be available Alex Rodman, Trevor Clarke’s groin issue has left Barton without an ideal option for the left. Thus, the manager’s ideal shape has been shelved for now, and we may not see what this group is capable of until personnel allows for a back three. Rovers learn from Jaakkola mistake After Rovers under Paul Tisdale were punished for using Anssi Jaakkola in a low-importance cup game last season – suffering an injury at Leyton Orient in the EFL Trophy which left the Gas with significant uncertainty between the posts – they did not repeat the mistake. The Finn was given the night off, with Rovers’ focus set clearly on the league and they were right not to take any chances with such an important player in a game of low priority. More debuts Rovers’ bench included five teenagers and a 20-year-old, with several players given their chance to taste first-team action on Tuesday. Sion Spence, on loan from Crystal Palace, could become an important player for Rovers as the season wears on and he acclimatises, and his 20 minutes will be handy in accelerating that process somewhat. Ryan Jones got a deserved run out after an impressive pre-season which saw the former Weston-super-Mare winger and Luca Hoole promoted from the development squad to the first-team group full-time. But the most eye-catching debutant certainly was 16-year-old Jamarni Langlais, who has been thrust from academy football into the first-team group due to the scale of injuries in Barton’s attacking ranks. The hope will be he returns to age-group football as soon as possible to continue his development, but even if he never makes another appearance for the club or it takes several years to see him again, he can always say he played a competitive game for Bristol Rovers.
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All on the league Before the game, Barton was blunt in admitting the Carabao Cup was of minimal priority to Rovers, given their promotion aspirations. That policy and the subsequent rest and rotation is palatable, provided Rovers find some success in the league sharpish. They need to find some momentum from somewhere and, for just the second league game of the season, there is a weight of expectation of improvement for Saturday’s visit of Stevenage.