Are Rotherham United Really in the Wrong Division?
At the start of 2012-13, Rotherham United were very much among the favourites to escape League Two come the end of April. Currently in sixth place, there is still a chance that the scenario could come to pass of course although the visit of Exeter City to the New York Stadium tonight will go some way to defining this.
That said, one might have expected more of the Millers and results including the recent 3-0 defeat at rivals Cheltenham have severely compromised the chances of Steve Evans’ team. Here, David Rawson analyses the chances of a squad in need of asserting itself.
Rotherham United have got the best squad of players in League Two. Ian Sharps said so, as he departed to lead Burton Albion’s charge up the table. Chris Wilder said so, after he watched us comprehensively dismantle his Oxford side on their home turf. In fact, it’s often said that we’ve got a squad that’s too good for League Two, a squad that actually needs to be in a higher division to really show its worth.
That latter thought is a comforting one. It’s good, for example, to know that the reason we lost at home to Barnet and Dagenham and scraped a last minute draw against York is that we’re just so vastly superior. It’s also nice to think, as both our manager and chairman have said, that this squad will need just a little tweaking for League One. What’s troubling, though, is the thought that we’ve carefully assembled a squad for a division we’re not in and that might partly explain why we struggle to compete consistently in the one we actually inhabit.
So, player for player, how good is the 2012-13 Rotherham United vintage? How capable is each player of making this step up?
The analysis (if that’s not too grand a word) that follows discounts the loan signings (and there are a lot of those) made over the season, other than those that appear to be here as a prelude to a permanent signing. It also discounts the players out on loan (and there are a lot of those, too, including a couple of summer signings), on the assumption that we won’t be seeing them again.
Consistently one of the more capable goalkeepers in the fourth division, Warrington is one of the last of the “old-school” goalkeepers, who bases his game on stopping shots, rather than this silly modern idea of a graceful sweeper, who occasionally uses his hands. As he comes towards the final chapter of his career (he’s 36), his primary ability is declining, but, even if not necessarily first choice, he’d be a sound member of any squad from mid-table League One downwards.
Shearer has missed most of the season through injury, but was first choice at the start of the campaign. He looks a dominating presence, although seems to be a little weak on shots pushed low to his right. Experienced in League One (although with lower half of the table teams), he (apparently) had the option of staying with Crawley in the league above. Limited evidence to form a judgment, but everything suggests he’s good enough for that level.
One of the longest serving players at the club, Tonge often seems more comfortable supporting attacking moves than in blocking opposition attacks. Through a combination of injury and indifferent form, he’s not been able to dislodge a central midfielder helping out at fullback from the team, so a question mark has to hang over his future at the club
Bradley played over 100 games for Walsall in League One and found himself on the fringes of the Welsh squad, which suggests he has what it takes to step up. Those appearances were in central midfield, though (an area we have a lot of players competing for places in), and he’s featured almost exclusively as a right back for us. Generally, he’s done pretty well, but plays with the manner of a versatile player filling in, rather than a player in his specialist position. He might find it tougher to play out of position in a higher league.
Earlier in the season, Mullins looked on his way out, before an injury crisis prompted his recall from a loan spell at Oxford. Now a fixture in the side – and captain – he’s featured at both central defence and right back. He’s better in the middle and had a decent season in League One in that position with a Stockport County side in dire financial straits. Likely to be at least adequate in the division above.
A wealth of experience at a higher level and a regular player for Crawley in the first half of the season, Davis clearly had the ability to play well in League One. His past record also suggests that he’s the ability to make horrific and costly errors. We’ve seen both from him already, with impeccably timed challenges being set against a two-bookings dismissal within the first half of his debut game for us.
After taking a few weeks to settle in, Morgan has looked a capable, elegant and unflappable defender. A serious injury kept him out for a significant block of the season, but now back fit, he looks easily capable of moving up a level with ease.
With no left backs currently contracted to the club, Ridehalgh, on loan from Huddersfield, is the only option we have. Steady, unspectacular, at his best he’s the sort of player that you don’t notice. When he does catch the eye, it’s for the wrong reasons. There are likely to be better options available in the summer.
The player who best epitomises the “too good for this league” theory. Árnason is an elegant, graceful player, who demands the game proceeds around him at pace of his choosing. In a league that often sticks rigidly to a four in a bar beat, he provides syncopation, firing a pass earlier than anyone expects, or holding the ball for longer. Yet, he can be hurried off the ball by more technically limited, but dogged opponents, resembling a lone aristocratic hipster at a barn dance, waltzing furiously on the spot to a jazz improvisation no-one else hears. Assuming that it’s true that “you get more time on the ball in League One”, Árnason will come into his own in a higher division.
Another artist, but a painter of technically accomplished watercolour landscapes next to Arnason’s more abstract compositions. Noble strikes me as the sort of player that “should have been playing at a higher level” throughout his career, which suggests a deficiency in his make up somewhere. A regular player for Exeter City in League One, you’d imagine he retains the ability to cope with the rigours of a higher league.
A talent not yet fully realised. O’Connor has a bit of everything: a vicious shot from range, a dash of drive, a competitiveness that sometimes borders on the spiteful and relish for a challenge. A player who’s capable of being the heartbeat and the guts of a side, he’s struggled to carve a definitive role for himself, perhaps not helped by our lack of a way to accommodation all the central midfielders at our disposal effectively. Has everything needed to succeed in League One and probably higher.
Signed from Peterborough in January, after an impressive loan spell covering injury to David Noble, Frecklington hasn’t really established a role or identity in the squad. He’s spent most of his time being tidy and fitting in on the left wing, but his strength lies in working from the centre of the pitch around the opposition penalty area, rather than making opportunities from wide. No League One squad would be hampered by his presence, but he’s not yet shown that he’s essential.
The awkwardly shaped, oddly coloured rug that somehow still ties the room together. Pringle is not quite a central midfielder, not quite a centre forward, not quite a winger but melds elements of all of these roles in a game based on energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to try things, even if they might not come off. Inventive, impish, he’s forever on the verge of making something happen. He’s often featured on the right wing, almost for want of anywhere else to play him, but like Frecklington, he needs the freedom of playing more centrally to really flourish. Potentially, the real star of the outfit.
Never previously that prolific, Nardiello is enjoying his best ever goal-scoring season. A clever player who comes to life in and around the penalty area, he lacks the raw pace and quickness of foot that I suspect is needed to reliably score goals in the league above and his track record suggests a contributor to, not the mainstay of, a League One attack.
Revell works. My, how he works. Chasing, battling, harrying and, with the ball at his feet and his back to goal, deft and sure-footed. Every game, if anyone deserves a goal, it’s him. Every game, if anyone scores a goal, it’s invariably not him. It’s not that he misses huge numbers of chances (although he does miss his share), but that somehow the chances never fall his way. In a side with genuine wingers, whipping crosses in from the goal line, he might prosper and he’s scored some goals in the league above for Leyton Orient and Brighton. But, absent a reliably taker of chances, it’s possible his goal contribution won’t be enough in a higher league.
In some ways, Odejayi epitomises the present squad: there’s a lot to like about him in principle, but overall he seems to be slightly less than the sum of his parts. Strong, tall, powerful and reasonably quick, he ought to be a terrifying prospect for opposition defenders and sometimes he is (especially when introduced in the latter stages to harass a tiring defence). Too often, though, he’s been a cowed presence and has found his role limited to being a replacement for an exhausted Revell. An unreliable finisher at best, Odejayi can no doubt play a respectable role in the league above, but is unlikely to star in it.
A fast runner, with a knack of being in the right place at the right time when playing as a central forward. His all-round game is under-developed, however, and he’s not done too well as an auxilliary winger. Pace, they say, is the one thing you can’t coach. If the rest can be coached into him, he could be an exciting player. If not, another tale of unfulfilled promise is likely.
The only genuine winger in the squad, on loan from Peterborough with, apparently, a permanent deal lined up for the summer. Small, quick, flicker-footed, he’s the archetype of a winger, but injury has restricted his availability. Looks promising, but no more so far.
Analysed like that, the squad seems more impressive than the sixth place in League Two that it occupies at the time of typing this.
I think there’s a question about its balance. A lot of midfield talent, but the main players (Árnason, Noble, O’Connor, Pringle and Frecklington) all want to operate centrally and no formation in the world can accommodate 5 specialist central midfielders effectively. Elsewhere, there are no outstanding full-backs and only one regular goal scorer (arguably, only one goal scorer full stop).
For this season, the plan seems to be to assemble a squad of good players in the expectation that cream will eventually rise to the top. In the context of the league above, where budgets are bigger and the overall standard higher, there will be a need to create something more than a talented collection of players. As the final straight looms for this season and with us having work to do to assert promotion credentials, the same challenge presents itself on a more immediate basis.