Rotherham United and the season so far. Paul Davis's review of the Millers in the Championship

Rotherham United and the season so far. Paul Davis's review of the Millers in the Championship

By Paul Davis | 16/11/2020

Rotherham United and the season so far. Paul Davis's review of the Millers in the Championship
Matt Crooks scores against Preston

 

IT was more of a squeal than a roar, high-pitched and almost animalistic in its ferocity.

Rotherham United had just taken the lead for the second time against Preston North End and the manager’s reaction cut through the autumn mist at AESSEAL New York Stadium.

The Millers, after two successive defeats had clipped their Championship progress, needed to win and now the three points beckoned.

Paul Warne’s guttural reaction as Matt Crooks swept the ball home after Florian Jozefzoon’s flashing run was telling.

This was the final game before the international break, a stopping point where his team’s start to life back in the second tier would be measured.

Margins are fine at this level. Lose and his team would be just above the drop zone. Win and they’d be far closer to a mid-table place than a relegation spot.

The boss knew that victory on this foggy early-November afternoon was more important than ever.

The break, time to breathe, a chance to reflect ... The Millers have 12 points from their opening 11 fixtures: three wins, three draws, five defeats.

More importantly, in only one game, in fact, in only one half of one game — the second period at home to Luton Town — have they truly been found wanting.

As Warne often says: “If the performances are there, you’ve got a chance. If they’re not, you’ve got a problem.”

There have been issues in other matches, pockets of concern, areas to address, but his team have always been competitive and have nearly always stretched the opposition.

Last-gasp concessions against Birmingham City, Huddersfield Town and Norwich City cost them. Against that, they triumphed very late on against Wycombe Wanderers. Twelve points is the least they deserve and 15 would be more reflective of their efforts, although every club will have their own stoppage-time hard-luck stories.

Of the new boys, some have shone and some have stuttered. Step forward Wes Harding, Angus MacDonald, Mickel Miller, Florian Jozefzoon, Dan Barlaser and everyone’s sudden favourite, the crazy Viking, Viktor Johansson. Jamal Blackman, Kieran Sadlier and George Hirst have had their moments but still have work to do.

The Preston clash proved plenty, not least that Rotherham have options. Generally, they’ve played a 4-2-3-1 formation and switched to 4-4-2 if they’ve been chasing a game.

Paul Warne

However, with a relentless schedule wearying limbs, they freshened it up against the Lilywhites, making six changes and switching to 4-4-1-1.

Old boys Matt Olosunde and Kyle Vassell, in their first starts of the campaign, showed their form of last term’s promotion push and Sadlier was a threat until he was forced off injured.

As for the recalled skipper, the creaking colossus, Richard Wood, he’ll probably still be proving people wrong in some league somewhere when he’s 40. His leadership, his goals, his influence continue to defy the march of time.

Defensively, the Millers look sound; more than sound. Only twice have they conceded more than a solitary goal and their rearguard resilience is also freeing them up to attack.

Whereas in past Championship campaigns they have needed the opposition to be slightly off their game, now they look a side worthy of this level. This isn’t the Stubbs-signed rabble of the 2016/17 season or Warne’s game but limited heroes of 2018/19. It’s a team capable of improving, surviving and going toe to toe with bigger clubs.

At the final whistle against Preston, there was that shriek again, only this time even louder and more intense. A 2-1 triumph against rivals who had been unbeaten on their travels and had won handsomely at leaders Reading three days before was reason to celebrate.

It was validation of the manager’s methods, proof that the Millers are heading in the right direction. That it was an ‘uglier’ win mattered little, that it was a deserved one mattered much.

‘If the performances are there, you’ve got a chance.’

Jamie Lindsay, the sour-faced, sweet assassin, and Harding, ripping it up at full-back on either flank, were excellent, as usual. Early contenders for Player of the Year.

After his double in the derby success against Sheffield Wednesday, Lindsay is joint-top scorer with two alongside penalty-taker and fellow midfielder Barlaser.

Jamie Lindsay

The four strikers have shared only one goal between them — Freddie Ladapo’s shot on the run against Norwich — and a better return from Ladapo, Michael Smith, Hirst and Vassell would improve Rotherham’s prospects of climbing higher than their present 19th place immeasurably.

In defence of the attack, maybe they haven’t quite been receiving the service of old as Warne’s squad are adjusting to a slicker, more fluid style where the ball is played into the box rather than bombed into it.

Injuries have hit hard, too hard, unfairly hard. Chiedozie Ogbene, Clark Robertson and Shaun MacDonald, all probably first-team picks in Warne’s ‘Utopia’ 11, were already out long term and this week Sadlier was added the list of players who won’t be seen again until the New Year.

Any club in the Championship would feel the effects of that kind of misfortune.

Losing Ogbene, the speed king, the outlet, the man who took the Millers up the pitch like lightning, was a particularly savage setback. Jozefzoon has had quick boots to fill and is doing an admirable job.

Thankfully, a summer of carefully-planned recruitment meant that Rotherham started out with their strongest ever squad and they will need every inch of that depth when they return next week for a twice-a-week run of games that is beyond brutal until early January.

The versatility of Ben Wiles, a player of drive and impact no matter where he’s selected, remains one of their biggest assets.

Preston was a significant statement, hence Warne’s banshee bellow when the Millers signed off  for a fortnight in such defiant style.

It meant the training ground would be a happy place, it topped up confidence after a minor dip, it kept supporters believing. Even though grounds are empty, team and fans are in it together.

The Championship will never be easy territory for the manager and his men but so far, so good.

The best comment of all from the boss: “I think we can do better.”

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WARNE'S VERDICT

“All I want to see is the same effort with just a bit more cutting edge up top.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone to cross the ball in the final third, it’s the responsibility of everyone to put their bodies on the line in the final third and sometimes just have a bit of calm in the final third.

“At the moment, that’s my one criticism.

“I think our overall play has been good. Apart from conceding three against Reading, our goals-against record is really good.

“We’re moving the ball really well. In the final third, our set-pieces haven’t been as good and sometimes our final ball into the box hasn’t been as good as I would like.

“We’re disappointed we’re not picking up enough points when our performances have been reasonable.

“Fundamentally, you’re judged on goals and no other stat, in my opinion. We just need to be more aggressive in the final third.”




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