A midweek break and a 500-mile round trip failed to turn the tide for Bristol Rovers with a draw at 10-man Barrow, with the Gas returning from Cumbria with a point but questions are starting to build amongst the fanbase.
For many, the pain of the Exeter defeat still lingers on and those wounds remained unhealed having lost two points on Saturday. These are the games Rovers have to win if we are to achieve promotion and throwing away a lead against 10 men will do little to ease Gasheads’ doubts on our chances this season.
Losing Brandon Hanlan to Wycombe in midweek was hardly the ideal start and it was clear against Barrow we missed someone of his physicality up top.
All the noise pointed towards his sale being conditional on Rovers having a replacement lined up, so I was surprised to learn that one didn’t exist once he was sold. Leon Clarke is expected to sign before the deadline but he is not a replacement, merely adding experience to the squad.
A trip to Barrow was always going to be tough and hardly the ideal game to make amends for the Exeter defeat. 300 Gasheads made that journey and hats off to every one of them. On the pitch though, Rovers did little to reward that journey and the second half in particular would have frustrated the travelling support.
The first-half showed promise through the opportunities we created. But it also showed a lack of cohesion which through our inability to finish moves. That is understandable after just five league games together, but what is not understandable is our mismanagement of the game after scoring.
A 31 st minute red card should have been all we needed to push on and claim three points. It looked as though we would when Sam Nicholson converted just before the break. But sure enough, Rovers let Barrow back into the game and failed to hold on to that lead. We had the edge in the first half, but gave it away in the second.
Playing against 10 men isn’t easy but there are certainly ways to do it. What you need is a plan for how to do that and it looked like we didn’t have one after the break. We seemed to lack purpose and substance and it was as if we had no idea how to deal with a deep defence until injury time.
One way of playing against 10 men is zipping the ball around, making your opponents work for the ball and picking the gaps to play through. Rovers did none of that and Barrow had all the chances, countering effectively from a solid base at the back.
In midfield, Paul Coutts typified our lack of urgency with a hesitant display. He had the ability to set the pace, control the game through swift movement of the ball and dominating the space. Instead, he took too long to move the ball and that allowed Barrow precious time to get back into position and reset.
He was one of the marquee signings that I was most excited about, but has shown little in a Rovers shirt to justify the hype. Coutts needs to find his feet quickly to give us a chance of promotion this season.
Coutts was just one of a group of players that were responsible for our poor showing though. To be effective with the man advantage you also need movement in attack, to draw players out of position to create the space for others to run into. With the exception of Luke Thomas, who ran between the lines and looked to get on the ball, none of our forward line did so.
Fitness could be a reason that we struggled in attack, with Nicholson and Pitman both on their first starts. It was therefore baffling to keep a fully fit Harvey Saunders on the bench until the 78 th minute.
He is the type of aggressive runner that suits playing the style of football required to beat 10 men and his pace could have caused the Barrow back line all sorts of problems. Pitman is a poacher and an effective one too, but he doesn’t aid movement or fluidity, particularly when unfit.
Aside from lacking a coherent plan for the second half, the worst thing about Saturday’s performance was our lack of desire in the second 45. There was no urgency to our play and our performance was devoid of conviction.
Whatever the type of opponent, showing fight and determination is a key component of winning football matches and we did not have enough of that on the weekend.
If we are to achieve promotion, these are the types of games we need to win to do so. Beating 10 men when you already have the lead should be a given if we are to contend at the top half of the table.
Not doing so is worrying and questions will rightly be asked of Barton and his side. We may not be cohesive, but a basic plan on how to play in certain types of situations and the individual quality we have should be winning games like that are there for the taking.
If there were positives to take from Saturday then they came from defence. James Belshaw continues to impress and made some fantastic saves, showing he is deserving of a run in the side. Connor Taylor put in an assured performance too and will continue to grow throughout the season.
The transfer window draws to a close shortly and Barton made no secret of his desire to add to his squad before it shuts. A striker and a midfielder are the most obvious requirements and it is likely Glenn Whelan and Leon Clarke will sign on the dotted line. Whelan’s experience will surely be an asset and adds much needed depth in the midfield department.
But Clarke’s recent poor return in front of goal shows he is not the whole answer to our struggles in attack and we will need another proven goalscorer to replace Hanlan. The recently-departed striker could have been a great outlet for us on Saturday and he needs to be replaced by someone of similar or greater quality. Ellis Harrison has been linked with a Rovers reunion and a player of his quality would be a great addition.
Rovers must now learn from the weekend and put the performance behind them. An EFL cup tie at home to Cheltenham will be a tough test and securing a point or more would be a fantastic result. But points in the league are what we really need and a win against Crawley would lift the gloom in BS7.
Four points from five league games is not an acceptable start, but a strong performance can change the course of our season. Let’s hope the Gas deliver a much needed victory on Saturday.