September 12th 2020. The day the footballing world has been waiting for. The Premier League and the EFL announced in July that the 2020/21 season will be underway very shortly. Ahead of the new season, I have decided to take a look into the future of the 24 teams making up League One for the new campaign, with an in depth look at what each team has to offer for the coming year. Fourth on the list, is Ben Garner’s Bristol Rovers.
The 2020/21 season will be Bristol Rovers’ 138th season in their history, and the fifth consecutive in League One. Their last venture outside of League One was their promotion campaign from 2015-16, when Darrell Clarke led his side in League One by finishing 3rd on goal difference over Accrington Stanley.
That season was the second promotion in as many seasons, after they were promoted from the National League the season before. The 2016/17 season saw the club exceed expectations and finish 10th. The following year saw a short decline as they dropped down to 13th, but once again they proved they were a solid League One outfit. The 2018/19 season was another short decline as they fell to 15th, replacing Darrell Clarke with Graham Coughlan for the final six months. Last season, Bristol Rovers kept up their mid table status by finishing 14th under PPG. Consistency has been a problem for Bristol Rovers over recent years, with them being very capable in front of goal, but struggling to defend them.
Ben Garner is heading into his second season with Bristol Rovers, having taken over from Graham Coughlan on December 23rd. He took over the club in 6th position, but went on a dismal run of only two wins in 15 league games to fall down to 14th. At one point under Garner, they were sat in 8th position. This is Ben Garner’s first managerial position, having spent time with Crystal Palace, West Brom and ATK in India. Garner began his coaching career in 2005 with Crystal Palace as a youth coach, nurturing talent such as Nathanial Clyne, Wilfried Zaha and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. After 10 years with the London outfit, he moved on to West Brom as a first team coach in 2015. A year later who was promoted to Assistant Head Coach, serving under Tony Pulis. After his departure from West Brom he turned down the opportunity to become the new Bradford City manager before heading to India to be the assistant to Steve Coppell. Garner’s career has been solely on the sidelines, with a devastating injury from a young age forcing him to retire before making a professional appearance. In an interview with the Bristol Post back in December, Garner revealed how he believes he can build something special with Bristol Rovers.
Since the start of the 2019/20 season, Bristol Rovers have used 10 separate formations across four competitions this season. The most used one of those was the 3-5-2, which was the set up for 23 of the 48 games. Despite that being the most used set up, it was the 4-3-3 which was the favored set up for Ben Garner, with seven of his 18 games being lined up like that. So, for the squad set up, I will be looking at both of those, as it allows us to look at all kinds of different positions. All of the formations were found using Transfermarkt.
33-year-old Anssi Jaakkola was Bristol Rovers’ first choice goalkeeper up until January, making 26 appearances with nine clean sheets to show for it after joining from Reading in the summer. Jordi van Stappershoef was given the number one shirt at the beginning of the season, but was only subjected to five league appearances whilst being the go-to cup keeper when needed. Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman was signed on loan in January, and would go on to play the final 10 games of the season, collecting three clean sheets.
All stats supplied by WhoScored. Jaakkola’s contributions this season was very understated, making 65 saves in his 21 league appearances, with 45 of those coming from inside the penalty area. Blackman’s 10 games only resulted in 27 saves, with the loanee picking up a 6.63 rating for the season, whilst Jaakkola produced a 6.84. Maybe it wasn’t a wise choice to change goalkeepers midway through the season.
On the right-side, 31-year-old Mark Little was Bristol Rovers’ first choice right back if the team resorted to a four-back set up. Little played in 16 games this season, with one goal and one assist in that time. Supporting Mark Little was summer signing Josh Hare from Eastleigh, who featured in 12 games this season with two assists to his name. When called upon, the right back position was filled pretty well this season.
Stats wise, Little made 15 tackles and 14 interceptions in his 11 league games this season, performing to a 6.6 average rating. Hare was more influential with his tackling compared to Little, making 18 in his 10 league games. However, he did only make 6 interceptions so was susceptible to being bypassed slightly too easy on occasion.
At left back, 27-year-old Luke Leahy was the clubs first choice full back this season when played in a four-back, whilst also being the go-to left midfielder when the set up was switched to a three-back. Leahy made 41 appearances for the club this year, scoring once and picking up three assists. Michael Kelly was promoted from the youth team this season, making 12 appearances in all competitions, predominantly those games played in the cup. Elsewhere, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis also featured in the left back spot this season, making nine appearances in all.
In terms of the stats, Luke Leahy was the clear dominant force on the left this season, with his defensive stats being 50 tackles and 30 interceptions when playing left back, whilst also making 41 key passes in the attacking third. Leahy was a very good source of attacking play in the 3-5-2.
In the center of defence, the Pirates had a variety of options to choose from last season. 35-year-old Tony Craig was the most capped player this season, being the first-choice defender for Bristol Rovers this season. The veteran made 45 appearances this season, scoring three times. Alongside him for the whole season was academy graduate Alfie Kilgour who has really impressed in League One this season. The youngster also made 45 appearances this year and also scored three goals. Outside of those two, it was a fight between a summer signing and a club youngster. The latter was Rollin Menayese, who played 23 times for the club this season, but was unable to score a goal for them. The summer signing was Tom Davies, who joined the club from Coventry on a free transfer. The 28-year-old made 22 appearances for them this season, scoring once in the league. Cian Harries joined the club from Swansea on loan in January, but only went on to make 3 appearances for the Pirates this season.
In his 34 league games, Tony Craig made 26 tackles and 33 interceptions, proving to be a solid defensive option for Bristol Rovers this season, whilst also completing 71% of his passes. Very good from Craig. In terms of Alfie Kilgour, he made 31 tackles and 43 interceptions in his 33 league games. Stats wise, he had a better season than Craig, but he did have only 65% pass accuracy this season. Defensively, it was Kilgour, but Craig was very good on the ball.
In the center of the park, Bristol Rovers were absolutely stacked last season. 30-year-old Ed Upson was the leading player in the middle, making 44 appearances across four competitions and scoring twice. Has been with the club for two seasons now. Alongside him was Ollie Clarke, who was in his eighth season with the club and played 34 times this year. Another midfielder who spent a lot of time on the pitch this season was Abu Ogogo, who signed for the club in January of 2019. He played 33 times this season and scored three goals from midfield. The midfielders keep on coming as Liam Sercombe was also in the high numbers for appearances, with 30 games played and he also picked up three goals.
Down to the rotation players, 21-year-old Cameron Hargreaves stepped up from the youth team to make 10 appearances for them this season. Also, in the midst was Josh Barrett, who joined the club from Reading in January, and went on to play eight times for the club. Stats wise, Upson was the stand out midfield, completing 73% of his dribbles all season and having a 75% pass accuracy. Upson was composed in midfield all season long, and will be vital for Bristol Rovers next season.
On the wing is where the Pirates were quite stretched. 33-year-old Alex Rodman was the most frequently used winger this season, adopting the right midfield or right-wing position depending on the formation. The left winger by trade played 40 times this season, scoring three goals and getting two assists. There was a little less consistency on the left-hand side, if Luke Leahy was being used at left back. Kyle Bennett was predominatly used from the bench, making 19 appearances but 12 of those were as a sub. He failed to find the net after spending the 2018/19 season with Swindon Town on loan. Two winter signings followed, with Jayden Mitchell-Lawson joining from Derby on loan. He would go on to play 12 times and even score twice. A good return for his short spelll. Josh Ginnelly was also loaned in but from Preston this time, making 12 appearances with only the one goal.
Stats wise, you can only really look at Rodman because Leahy spent a lot of his time higher up the pitch compared to Mitchell-Lawson, Bennett and Ginnelly. In his 29 league games, Rodman had 22 shots with 15 of them being within the penalty area. His dribble success rate was low at 53%, whilst his passing accuracy was only just up to 62%. Wasn’t the greatest of seasons for Rodman on the right.
Going forward, Bristol Rovers had a key assailant in the changing room. 26-year-old Jonson Clarke-Harris was the club’s leading man with 16 goals in his 35 appearances, also picking up three assists. He was the key man to push Bristol Rovers on to the brink of the play offs, before they fell apart in the final few months of the campaign. Supporting him at the beginning of the season was Tom Nichols, who scored four goals in 28 appearances before being loaned out to Cheltenham for the rest of the season. Another striker who was with Bristol Rovers at the beginning of the season but not the end, was Sheffield United’s Tyler Smith, who spent six months on loan with the Pirates, and would go on to score five times in 28 appearances.
Add to that Victor Adeboyejo, who joined on loan from Barnsley until the winter. Adeboyejo scored only two goals in his 30 games for them. Stats wise, Clarke-Harris was also going to be the biggest threat last season. He had 71 shots in 26 league appearances, scoring 13 of those. His dribbling success rate was just above 50%, but he was aerially strong at times this past year. His biggest asset was obviously his finishing, which has helped him garner interest all across the football league.
Alongside Blackpool, Bristol Rovers have been one of the most active teams in the transfer window so far. In Ben Garner’s first full season in charge, he is looking to right the wrongs of last season, and implement his own style of football on the squad. Their first signing of the summer was 21-year-old central defender Josh Grant, who has joined the club on a three-year deal from Chelsea. The youngster spent last season on loan with Plymouth before making the move to the Pirates. Another defender arrived in the shape of 27-year-old Jack Baldwin after his release in the summer by Sunderland, and has agreed a two-year deal with them after spending last season on loan with Salford City. Bristol Rovers furthered strengthened their back line with the free signing of Max Ehmer from Gillingham. The German played 39 times for the Kent-based side last season, and looks to be a very good free signing for Bristol Rovers this season.
The club’s fourth signing of the summer was Scottish winger Sam Nicholson, who joins the club on a two-year deal after his release from Colorado Rapids, adding to their attacking options for the new season. With Clarke-Harris carrying the load last season, Bristol Rovers have added a new striker to their front line in the shape of 23-year-old Jonah Ayunga after his move from Havant & Waterlooville. Ayunga was the joint top goalscorer in the Vanarama National League South last season with 18 goals, but it will be a tall order for the youngster to recreate that this year. The final signing of the window as of writing this for Bristol Rovers is the transfer of Zain Westbrooke from Championship side Coventry. Westbrooke moves for an undisclosed fee with Bristol Rovers reportedly beating of a host of Championship sides for his signature.
With half a dozen new signings make their way into the club, it was telling very early on in the summer that Rovers has a very depleted squad to work with. The biggest departure was the sale of Ollie Clarke to League Two Mansfield. Clarke was a very key cog in the Rovers midfield last season, so it was surprising to see him move down a league. Another player moving to Mansfield was center back Rollin Menayese after three years with the Pirates. A further defender leaving the club was 35-year-old Tony Craig, who has signed on for Crawley. The veteran played 45 times last season, so the new signings will need to gel quickly. Another player making the switch between Bristol Rovers and Crawley is 23-year-old midfielder Sam Matthews, leaving the club after not making appearance last season. Forward Gavin Reilly has just been announced as a new signing for Carlisle on Tuesday. Those players have found a new club, with Garner also announcing a lot of players being a part of the ‘unretained list.’
Liam Sercombe was part of the released players, after making 30 appearances for the club last season, but has just been announced as the new signing for Cheltenham Town. Forward Tom Nichols has been released from the attacking force after spending the last six months with Cheltenham on loan, whilst Rhys Kavanagh has been released without a senior appearance. In midfield, youngsters Theo Widdrington and Lewis Clutton have been let go. Finally, left back Tareiq Holmes-Dennis has also been let go after failing to hold down a first team spot this season. Just like Blackpool, Bristol Rovers had a very small squad at the beginning of the window, with Josh Ginnelly, Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, Timmy Abraham, Tyler Smith, Victor Adeboyejo and Jamal Blackman all returning to their parent clubs.
The Problem Areas?
After a summer of turnover that is still going, Bristol Rovers have acted quickly to get their squad together for the new campaign. In goal, Anssi Jaakkola is still with the club after his very impressive start to the season last year. Should be the number one again this year. With Jamal Blackman’s loan deal ending, it looks like Jordi van Stappershoef will be the closest challenger for Jaakkola this season. 23-year-old Alexis Andre has spent the last few years playing with Non-League sides on loans, but has returned to the squad for this season. Defensively, Bristol Rovers have two right backs and two left backs to choose from if they stick with a four-back. Mark Little and Josh Hare both shared the right-back position last season, and they both look to be in line to still be the right-backs this season. On the left, Luke Leahy is the first-choice full back and winger depending on the set-up, with 22-year-old Michael Kelly being the back up for Leahy.
The center back position is the clubs most packed area, after the signings of Josh Grant, Max Ehmer and Jack Baldwin, already adding to the presence of Cian Harries, Alfie Kilgour and Tom Davies. Easily their strongest position in the squad. In the center of the park, Rovers have let Ollie Clarke and Liam Sercombe leave, but have added Zain Westbrooke to the midfield. Upson, Ogogo, and Westbrooke, whilst Josh Barrett can play slightly further forward as well. Could be an area to look at. On the wing, the Pirates have added Sam Nicholson to the ranks with Alex Rodman and Kyle Bennett also being on the books. A winger could be on the cards. Up front, Bristol Rovers will be desperate to hold onto Jonson Clarke-Harris, whilst they also have Jonah Ayunga, Kieran Phillips and James Daly to work with. If Clarke-Harris leaves, this is a massive area of weakness next season.
I’m not suggesting by any means that I am a scouting guru who has an extensive knowledge of the world of football, but I do like the process of the transfer windows, and trying to be someone who can identify talent when it becomes available. For each team, after identifying the problem areas, I want to try and see if I can find any players for a specific set of positions who could be suited to each club, based on previous transfer years and the club’s reputation surrounding incomings:
Centre Midfield –
Jake Hessenthaler – Grimsby – 26 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Grimsby in the summer. 77 tackles and 39 interceptions in League Two last season, the most interceptions of any Centre Midfield player in the league. A good free option.
Kyle Dempsey – Fleetwood – 24 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Fleetwood after 21 league games with 2 goals and an assist. Could be a very good back up midfielder for Blackpool, and can also play on the wing.
Adam May – Portsmouth – 22 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Portsmouth in the summer. Wanted by a lot of League Two sides, but Garner is said to be a fan of his.
Mark Duffy – Sheffield United – 34 y/o – Free Agent
Would be a costly wage, but what a player he could be in League One. Spent last season with loan deals with Stoke and ADO Den Haag.
Richard Smallwood – Blackburn – 29 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Blackburn in the summer. Has been linked with Sunderland this window, but could be an excellent signing for the Gas.
Alan McCormack – Northampton – 36 y/o – Free Agent
Not a 46 game player, but the experience of having McCormack in the dressing room could be massive for Bristol Rovers.
Dominic Samuel – Blackburn – 26 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Blackburn in the summer. Linked with the club if Clarke-Harris was the leave for another side.
Colin Quaner – Huddersfield – 29 y/o – Free Agent
Would have a big wage, but needs a full season outside of the Championship to get his form back.
Omar Bogle – Cardiff – 28 y/o – Free Agent
Spent last six months on loan with ADO Den Haag with Alan Pardew. Very good league one player.
Sam Winnall – Sheffield Wednesday – 29 y/o – Free Agent
Released by Sheffield Wednesday in the summer, but has shown to do a good job in the Championship. Could be an incredible signing for any League One team.
Joe Mason – MK Dons – 29 y/o – Free Agent
Released by MK Dons in the summer. Could be a good back up forward if Clarke-Harris was to stay with the club.
Marcus Forss – Brentford – 21 y/o – Loan Deal
Spent last season on loan with Wimbledon. Incredible record of goals in the league last season, and deserves to play for a side pushing for promotion.
It’s always difficult to tell how each team is going to fair in the new season, because we haven’t seen many signings nor the influence of pre-season friendlies. Just by going off how each team is expected to deal with the current COVID-19 financial troubles, and what each team is capable of doing under much greater restraint right now, I think that Bristol Rovers could be in for a play-off push this year. Some of the signings made have been very good for League One, with Westbrooke and Nicholson being my players to watch. Keeping Clarke-Harris will obviously be vital, if he stays they will be looking good, but if he leaves then they will need to replace him well.
What do you guys think? How do you think Bristol Rovers will fair in the new season? Will it be too much for Garner to work with, or will it be a season of joy for the Pirates with their new signings.? Let me know in the comments below and make sure to follow All Out Football on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.