I sit here writing this preview with less than 17 hours to kick-off to this game, without a clear idea who will be leading The Shrimps in the dugout at The New York Stadium. So how did this predicament unfold?
To put it in a nutshell, notoriously accurate journalist Fabrizio Romano announced to his seven million followers that Stephen Robinson would join Saint Mirren.
What the hell? Where did this come from? The squad that Robbo built – sitting one point from safety – is finally looking ready to kick into gear at the business end of the season and the ‘captain’ decides to jump ship. I just can’t get my head around it.
It looks almost certain Stephen will take his number two Diarmuid O’Carroll with him to set to work on his new project. So who takes the reins tomorrow?
The last time we were in this position – following Jim Bentley’s departure to Fylde – Barry Roche, former goalkeeper turned goalkeeping coach, took joint charge with Kevin Ellison. Having made (according to Transfermarket) 478 appearances for The Shrimps and being well respected off the field, Barry looks the most solid bet to be relied upon to be the immediate cover. Considering Jim Goodwin left his post at St. Mirren on Saturday, there can’t have been much time to prepare and this game’s preparation must have been completed fully by Robbo and Diarmuid. Let’s hope if Barry’s in charge he can maintain his 100% EFL record after his solitary win against Leyton Orient back in November 2019. We face somewhat stiffer opposition against League One leaders Rotherham who have won six of the last seven.
To give the detailed lowdown on The Millers I have the expertise of fanatics Will Daniels from Tivoli View and Matt Greasby. Bear in mind, these viewpoints were all written without prior knowledge of the recent managerial developments.
So what are they expecting from the game?
“I think some may look at this fixture and expect Rotherham to walk all over Morecambe based upon league positions. I am definitely not one of those people. League One is the most competitive it has been in my time watching football, and Morecambe have caused problems for a lot of teams in this division, albeit finding themselves on the wrong end of games by majority.
The game at the Mazuma was a hard fought victory for the Millers. On a blustery midweek evening, we were yet to hit the heights of our 21 match unbeaten run. There were glimpses of quality on the night that gave us hope: Chiedozie Ogbene’s lung-busting runs, Ben Wiles showing a real maturity in the middle of the park, and the back three ably marshaling a striker on fire in Cole Stockton.
Morecambe will see this as a free hit. Most won’t expect them to come away with anything but when the shackles are off, that’s when teams play their best football. If we can show the quality we’ve exhibited for the vast majority of the season, I think we may have too much. Football has a funny way of kicking you hard in the cojones though, and Morecambe are more than capable of giving the Millers a shock on the night.”
“If I’m being brutally honest, a comfortable win, 1 or 2-0. We’ve been pretty imperious at home as of late. However, Morecambe are a side that can make things very difficult and we’ve certainly had some exciting matches previously so definitely not resting on my laurels. Not sure how the recent managerial news may affect Morecambe but we will have to make sure we go into this game with the correct attitude and get the job done. We’ve had a couple of blockbuster games in recent weeks so there is a chance complacency may play a part, things could go south very quickly for us if that happens.”
If we take it as a given Stephen Robinson is not in charge, then whoever comes in won’t have time to implement anything other than what was being worked on in training. For that reason, I don’t envisage us moving away from the plans which were in place.
Due to last-minute cancellation of the Shrewsbury game due to a waterlogged pitch, Diarmuid O’Carroll mentioned in a pre-match interview that they had managed to cram in an extra training session for the Rotherham game on Saturday.
I actually believe we’ll set up similar to how we did against Spurs in the FA CUP 3rd Round in a 5-3-2. Spurs obviously had superior players in every area of the pitch, yet we were able to give them a game. We nicked a goal from a corner on 33 minutes thanks to captain Anthony O’Connor and held onto a lead up until 74 minutes, before eventually losing the game 3-1.
This plan relied on us playing on the break with strong hold-up play from Cole Stockton and Jonah Ayunga, whilst putting men behind the ball to frustrate the opposition. We have two fullbacks in Greg Leigh and Ryan Cooney who will be relied on to alleviate the pressure by playing out from the back when the opportunity arises.
6 foot 3 Rhys Bennett can be brought into the middle of a back three to challenge the aerial prowess of Michael Smith, who is of equal stature.
The midfield three will be composed of Toumani Diagouraga, Shane McLoughlin and then one of Adam Phillips or Aaron Wildig in the more attacking role of the three.
I predicted in the eventual non-game against Shrewsbury that Jon Obika would come in in the wide left position in place of Arthur Gnahoa. I believe Jonah Ayunga will get the nod ahead of Jon Obika for his ability to stretch play combined with his strength. Jonah has averaged 7.89 dribbles per game this season with a success rate of 51% according to Wyscout. This compares with Obika’s 3.69 dribbles per game with a 34.4% success rate – albeit across just 274 minutes.
“The Millers have a lot of games to play within the next month: eight games in 32 days to be precise. Rotation will be on the mind of the Millers boss as we look to keep pushing performances and get the most out of the group.
I expect to see some shuffling within the defensive ranks. Evergreen Richard Wood doesn’t have the legs to play three games in a row (although I’m sure he’d love to!) especially given the way we play. This will see Michael Ihiekwe step across from his adopted position at LCB into the heart of the defence, Recently converted from left back after a couple of injuries, and a loss of pace, Joe Mattock is the perfect replacement at left centre half. “Mr Consistent” himself, Wes Harding will come into the right centre back slot, after filling in at right centre back, left centre back and right wing back this season.
The game comes a little too quickly for Mickel Miller, who is nursing a hamstring strain and so Shane Ferguson will likely keep his place at left wing-back. On the other side, Chiedozie Ogbene is now one of the first names on the teamsheet, however, I’d expect to see recent Arsenal loanee, Jordi Osei-Tutu, at some point in the game.
The central midfield three picks itself. Barring a catastrophe, Dan Barlaser will start at the base of the three, with Ollie Rathbone to his left, and Ben Wiles to his right. Given the physical exertion it takes to lead the Rotherham press, you could also see Jamie Lindsay come into the side for Ollie Rathbone depending on how much the game against Wigan takes out of our legs.
Michael Smith is imperative to the way we play, and will start the game. From there, it’s a shootout between Freddie Ladapo, Josh Kayode and Georgie Kelly. Georgie is the one furthest away as it stands, looking to build his fitness. The Irishman moved to the Millers in January however was competing in the Irish league, where the season ended in November. Freddie Ladapo is likely to start after having an impact in the South Yorkshire derby last Sunday, and Josh Kayode will be chomping at the bit to make an appearance from the bench.”
“I think the only selection decisions are how much Warne will want to rotate. Tuesday night is sandwiched in between a table-topping home clash with Wigan and a tough long away day in Plymouth so we will be looking to use this easier game on paper as a chance to rest one or two in preparation for those games. Richard Wood hasn’t played 3 games in a week all season so i’d expect him to drop out.
Depending on how ready Osei-Tutu is Ogbene might have a rest but beyond that i’d expect the usual team. Injuries are limiting us slightly. On the left for example, Mickel Miller is still missing so Ferguson is our only real option, Edmonds-Green at the back similarly meaning Harding has been slotting back in there. The only other position is the second striker next to Smith. Grigg is now out for the season. Kayode replaced him in the game when he got injured and scored, then Ladapo started against Wednesday and scored. So we may rotate between the pair.”
“Fundamentally, the reason we’ve had so much success this season is down to the leadership team in keeping our Championship squad together and adding gems like Ollie Rathbone. Since moving to a back three in December 2020, we seem to have really thrived. It gives us the extra man in the box to defend crosses, and the solidity in the middle of the park, but also the pace out wide to really cause teams a lot of issues.
They say that success has to be built at the back towards the front, and we certainly owe a lot to our defensive solidity this season. We’ve conceded just 13 goals in 15 games so far at home, and away from home, just the 5 goals, zero in the first half, which is the best record in the EFL. That’s not by chance – we have the lowest xG against in League One, we’ve faced the least shots. We’re averaging just 0.58 goals against per game, which is just insane. If you keep the back door shut, you’re always capable of picking up points.
That said, when we’ve got the ball forwards, we’ve scored goals. The most shots in League One, the highest xG in League One, has culminated in 57 goals scored by the Millers.
Our biggest strength, however, is that there is so much fight in this team. There are few teams that can match our work rate, our extremely aggressive high press. At this level, we are a really well-oiled machine that knows what it is and can replicate it in a game by game basis. It’s a joy to watch.”
“Our main strength is just our pure relentlessness. It’s a testament to the fitness team we have but there is simply no drop off in our play. Minute 1 or minute 90 the intensity will be the same and as a result of some games in this division we win by default as the opposition simply can’t deal with it.
We pose a real threat from set-pieces, Warne and his crew spend a lot of time on them and it pays off, the quality from Barlaser/ Ferguson/ Miller is always right on the money and can be a nightmare to deal with. The speed at which we play is a key component. You may feel safe watching us on the ball, then all of a sudden 3 passes later the ball is in the back of the net and you’re sat wondering what just happened. We get the ball wide quickly, attack fast and direct with Ogbene and Miller or whip in balls from deep by Ferguson, swarm the box both players and pick up on every loose ball, which is where a lot of our goals come from.
Then the defensive record speaks for itself. 16 goals conceded all season. Phenomenal effort”
The aspect which impressed me the most when we played Rotherham at The Mazuma back in August – apart from the quality in every area of the pitch – was, as Will mentioned, how well oiled the machine was and how each player knew their role so clearly. I’ve since seen Rotherham on a few occasions and this seems to be a consistent theme for Warne’s men. Despite beating us by just the 1 goal – seperated by Michael Smith’s long ranger (below) – it doesn’t surprise me one bit that The Millers have gone on to have such an incredibly strong season and I back them to take the title.
“Without wanting to brag, it’s hard to pinpoint anything at the moment! At home, we are eleven unbeaten in fifteen games. I guess the biggest issue we’ve found is when teams come and sit 11 men behind the ball, and have the courage to be able to play our game and keep the ball moving. That said, Paul Warne and his backroom staff are always talking about “driving performance levels” and if he gets a whiff of complacency or fear from our boys, he will let them know his feelings.
We’re a team that will break up the game from time to time. We commit the second most fouls on average in League One per game, with Smith (64) and Rathbone (59) the biggest culprits. If we have a card hungry ref on the night, and they’re booked early, they may have to watch their step.”
“Our biggest weakness is often breaking teams down. We’ve improved recently but when teams, and I have no issue with this, come to New York and sit 11 men behind the ball it can lead to a very frustrating and tedious game. The crowd gets restless and we generally struggle to create real open play chances as while we do have good technical players it’s by no stretch our strongest point. If you can force us into a hoofball trap we sometimes resort to in games like these, there’s every chance you can shut us down.
Another weakness of ours can be the atmosphere at home. It sometimes can be shockingly poor. Fans in games like these turn up expecting a win and with a respectable but small following coming over from Lancashire to, as Warne often says, ‘sing against’, the atmosphere can be really flat and quiet and that translates onto the players. The game slows down, we become complacent. This is when the ‘dark arts’ Morecambe may wish to employ can have the greatest effect.”
I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a weakness, but The Millers have had fewer clean sheets at home than away from The York Stadium with 38% to 69% respectively.
This is also reflected in the expected goals with Rotherham having an average of 0.88 expected goals at home compared to 0.31 away according to Wyscout. It would suggest The Millers play a more expansive style at home with 2.19 expected goals for at home compared to 1.44 on the travels.
Opportunites Against The Millers
“Tactically, there have been issues in transition against pace at times this season. When we’ve had set pieces and players are getting back, we can be caught out of shape and if you can move the ball out to Ayunga to run at our defence, you may have some joy. Similarly, our wing-backs are essentially so high, for most of the game they’re wingers so if you can get in behind them and pull our back three about, there are opportunities there too.
Your best opportunities of scoring goals are from these situations, catching us cold after the break (4 of our 13 goals at home have been conceded between the 46th-60th min) or hanging on and trying to pip us at the end of a game. Relegation rivals Crewe did just that at the NYS back in September. “
“The teams that have been brave in their counterattacking are the ones that have caused the most problems. We play 3-5-2 but the wing-backs play very much as wingers so if Morecambe can be brave and play with 3 attacking players it essentially will be a 3 on 3 any time Morecambe launch a counterattack. Pace and clever running in the spaces between the centre-halves can cause us serious issues. Callum Morton earlier in the season absolutely tore us to pieces in a game Fleetwood won 4-2. If Morecambe can limit our control of the game and launch a few meaningful counter attacks it can force our wing backs, such a key part of our game, to track back more than they go forward it stops them from being totally dominant and there’s every chance Morecambe can snatch something.”
As mentioned in the team selections, I see the pace and explosive elements of Cole Stockton and Jonah Ayunga as our key weapons. Both have the ability to make things happen on their own. They’ll be key to take the pressure off us by holding up the ball, winning fouls and driving forward when we do get the ball back from a likely possession dominant Rotherham.
As well as being the second top scorer in League One with eighteen goals, Cole Stockton has the most carries leading to goals in all of EFL with five according to The Analyst. He was heavily marshalled in the game at The Mazuma, but perhaps we’ll be in for a more open game on Rotherham’s own turf which may leave gaps open for Cole to exploit.
Threats from The Millers
“As mentioned previously, our tenacity off the ball to press high and win the ball back has heralded large amounts of success this season. Our press is statistically the second best in League One according to Opta Analyst, who measure the amount of passes per defensive action we make. This means that if you have defenders playing out from the back, they’ll have close attention.
Set pieces are huge for us. Opta Analyst has us at 19 goals scored from those, and our coach Matt Hamshaw has created some really innovative routines to keep the defence on their toes, most recently showcased at Hillsborough by Ben Wiles’ deep header knocked home by Ladapo. We have a lot of height in the box to cause issues, of which Smith and Ihiekwe will likely be the target for first contact on both, but we also have real quality coming into the box too from Dan Barlaser and Shane Ferguson. We’ve scored an Olympic goal this season already and I’m certain there’ll be another before the end of the season too.
When we do have the ball, a lot of joy will come from our “Geordie Pirlo”, Dan Barlaser. He’s a guy we picked up from Newcastle for just £300k, who looks far too good for League One when on song. His vision and passing ability unrivalled at this level,he’ll look to get on the ball and switch the ball out wide to allow us to put crosses into the box, or into his midfield compatriots to go on another marauding run. To have any success in the game, Morecambe have to put a man on Dan. You cannot give the guy time on the ball, or he will hurt you.
Chiedozie Ogbene is a huge threat for most teams. He’s our premier ball carrier, averaging 15 carries per game, progressing the ball over 16 metres on average per carry. The kid is rapid, and Greg Leigh will not relish a foot race with “Cheo”, who is adored by the Rotherham folk. He will be a major thorn in the Shrimps side on Tuesday.
Finally, to be promoted you need a goalscorer and in Michael Smith, the Millers have a striker in great form. At 21 goals and assists this season, he’s proven himself a candidate for the EFL’s best current target man. He’s a big lad who will work the channels to bring other players into play, but also has great feet, is nippy for his size and is now getting into the box much more to give himself a chance to score goals.”
“Most of our play comes from out wide. We get the ball out there quickly, create crossing opportunities and get the ball into the box and force the opposition to defend constantly. A perhaps underrated aspect of our play is our ability to play in triangles out wide. The winger, wide centre half and often Dan Barlaser drifting wide work so well to create pockets of space for crosses or neat interplay for penetrations into the box.
Overloading the wide areas defensively could be one way to stop us or doubling, tripling up on Ogbene, as when he gets in full flow there aren’t many defenders at this level that can stop him.”
What more can I add to this comprehensive review of the offensive dangers Warne’s men offer?
From our first game, Michael Smith gave the perfect display for a centre forward and it’s hard to argue against him being included in many pundits mid-season team of the year for his goals and all-around contribution to The Millers going forward. Of course, my bias would probably favour our own man – Cole the Goal – for his eighteen goals in a relegation-threatened side!
On the occasions I’ve seen Ogbene this season, he has been electric and I’m sure he’s a joy to watch every week.
In one game I saw him come off the bench against Cheltenham away for a 28-minute cameo and he destroyed left-back Lewis Freestone on the day. He completed seven out of seven dribbles and I’m sure Freestone still has nightmares about trying to keep up with the turbo power of Ogbene.
(Ogbene dribbles vs Cheltenham away)
Ogbene has made the most progressive runs in League One with 152 – 43% more than second-placed Dapo Afolayan at Bolton.
Wyscout’s definition of progression runs is as follow:
A run is considered progressive if the distance before the starting point and the last touch of the player is: at least 30 meters closer to opponent goal if starting and finishing points are in own half. at least 15 meters closer to opponent goal if starting and finishing points are in different field halves.
Let the battle commence!
I won’t bow down to hyperbole and start on about how these are ‘dark and difficult times’ for Morecambe Football Club, there’s too much going on in the world for us to start blowing things out of proportion. Besides, we are Morecambe FC, we have faced tougher times in our 101 years of existence to let the departure of a manager – regardless of how popular he was – derail us. I also think that to do so would cast aspersions on our current crop of players who deserve better than that.
As I said at the start, we are seeming to gel on the pitch and we must bear that in mind and take heart from it. We are playing the top team, best in the division in my opinion, and so the pressure, to an extent, is off; so let’s turn that to our advantage. On our day, we’ve proved a handful for most teams. Let’s do that tonight. Instead of holding our head in our hands and bemoaning our lot, let’s hold them high and make that hand into a fist and get behind the lads!
Regardless of the result tomorrow, we’re right in the mix to stay in the division and I know everyone remaining at the club will put everything on the line to help us retain our League One status. Up the Shrimps!
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