First Half Team
Anssi Jaakkola – 6.0
GasCast’s 2019/20 player of the season didn’t have a save to make between the sticks in the first half, as the back line did well to block and clear any Manor Farm efforts on goal. It’s great to see Anssi back and involved with first team after a lengthy period on the sidelines.
Now fully recovered from the dislocated shoulder he sustained during January’s 3-0 defeat at MK Dons, it’ll be great to see more of Jaakkola in pre-season, as he was a key player for Rovers in the last campaign.
Alfie Kilgour – 7.0
It was Vintage Alfie in the first half. He won the ball effectively in the air, and was quick to cut out any attacks progressing from wide, as he operated at RCB in a back three. His distribution and quick-passing between Ehmer and Upson ahead of him showed glimpses of this formation’s strength, and the former youth skipper showed he is adapting well to how Garner wants him to play.
His link-up on the right with Josh Hare was solid, and both his mobility and his pace impressed me. He covered a lot of ground in what is a new role for him, and showed potential on-the-ball that he may not have been able to utilise under Coughlan. Gasheads will be buzzing that our hottest prospect has signed a new 3-year deal at the club, and that we can look forward to seeing him play in the quarters for years to come.
Max Ehmer – 8.0
Ehmer’s first outing in the blue and white quarters was everything we were told to expect by Gillingham fans. The big German won everything in the air, and imposed himself as a behemoth at the centre of a back three. His leadership and organisation showed, with the young Kelly and Kilgour either side of him proving a solid cohesive unit that snuffed out most, if not all of Manor Farm’s attacks.
Not only was he a rock at the back, but at times he moved quickly into midfield to intercept attacks before they could come into fruition. His physicality and power showed, as he dealt comfortably with the Manor Farm #9 all half. An impressive non-competetive debut from Ehmer, who I’m keen to see more of against tougher opposition.
Michael Kelly – 6.5
Kelly moved to a new role at LCB. The Scotsman boasted a quarantine buzzcut that had shades of Scott Brown, and his new position also followed suit – the LB moving into the left hand side of the back three.
He won a surprising amount in the air, and looks like he has bulked up physically over the lockdown period too, asserting himself as a physical presence in that back three. Whether he will stake a claim as a CB in what is already a crowded position is yet to be seen, but his vocal attributes and leadership stood out for someone so young, and is a part of his personality that we’ve not seen previously. It’s good to see him maturing into a useful squad player at this level.
Josh Hare – 6.0
Another player who missed large periods of last season is Josh Hare, and the former Eastleigh man was played in his favoured RWB position. With Rovers deploying a 3-4-2-1 formation, Hare had James Daly to work with, and in my opinion the duo didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Usually Hare has a fair bit of space to run into and whip a cross into the area. He delivered a decent low cross to the feet of Daly halfway through the first 45 minutes, but other than that had a relatively quiet game offensively. Defensively he was solid, and did little wrong.
Sam Nicholson – 6.5
New kid on the block Nicholson arrives at the club with a reputation for doing the unexpected on the ball, and that showed as he cut inside and dribbled into the box on various occasions, despite being deployed deeper as a LWB. With defensively little to do, Nicholson pushed high up the pitch, so high that I incorrectly assumed he was playing on wing.
The Scotsman did well, and caused problems for Manor Farm. Maybe not as explosive a debut as some were expecting, Nicholson contributed well to the system and style we wanted to play, with quick one-touch passing and good movement on the left hand side. In particular he had some good interplay with Clarke-Harris and Walker, and that’s enough to build on for a first friendly match.
Ed Upson – 8.0
Upson is a player I’ve been critical of in the last twelve months, but he seemed to thrive in the middle of the park against Manor Farm. He played a critical role in protecting the back three, intercepting and blocking key passes. When driving forwards with the ball, the front three would move into the channels, opening up opportunities for a key pass, or even a shot from distance.
His quality compared to the Manor Farm midfield shone through, and it’ll be interesting to see how key a part he can play in Garner’s new system. With competition from the incoming Zain Westbrooke, it’s yet to be seen if there’s room for both of them in the starting eleven, or if a more defensive midfielder such as Grant, or a high-pressing midfielder like Hargreaves will be paired with our new creative marquee man. On Upson’s performance, he’s certainly not sitting down and accepting a place on the bench.
Tom Mehew – 6.5
Awarded U18’s player of the season last summer, Mehew continued his development at Rovers with a short-term loan at Stratford Town. Impressing Ben Garner in pre-season, the youngster was given a start alongside Upson in a central midfield pair. Raw at times and lacking in physicality, Mehew made up for his inexperience with some classy moments of quality.
He picked up the assist for Walker’s second, and Rovers’ third goal of the game with a brilliant low diagonal pass that split the Manor Farm defensive in half. Whether he will play a part as a squad player, or go out on loan again is unclear, with Rovers currently linked with released Portsmouth midfielder Adam May. Mehew will certainly have done himself no discredit with a solid performance against a physical Manor Farm midfield.
Zain Walker – 8.5 (MOTM)
The real surprise of the afternoon was the youngster Zain Walker. Yet to make his league debut, Walker being on the teamsheet was somewhat of a surprise to me, with Rovers not short in forward areas. However, the former Fulham academy graduate certainly made a name for himself at The Creek, with great energy, a neat touch, and precise passing-and-moving that will certainly have pleased Ben Garner.
He was confident, unphased by the opposition, and did not look an inch out of place alongside quality players such as Nicholson, Clarke-Harris, Upson, and the like. He seemed like he had a great chemistry on the pitch with the rest of the team, and it felt like he’d been playing in the first team for a while, rather than making his first senior appearance in some time. Not only did he link up well with Clarke-Harris and Nicholson on the left, but his two goals were classy – the first a precise curled effort from outside the box, and the other a smart chip over the keeper. His quick-thinking and fearlessness shone, and for me he was our man of the match.
James Daly – 5.5
Daly struggled for chances in a first half where Rovers found most joy down the left-hand side of the pitch, with Nicholson and Walker combining well. Daly and Hare on the right hand side were less effective, but functional enough in keeping the ball. Daly’s best chance came from a low Josh Hare cross, but the former Palace youth prospect was unable to finish what was his only chance of the half. With more fitness work and developing an on-field relationship with Hare, Daly has the potential to be a key player in one of the two inside-forward roles behind the #9 in our front three.
Jonson Clarke-Harris – 8.0
No surprises here, it was almost a given that Jonno would be the man to score the first Rovers goal since the league was suspended back in March. His goal was of the quality we’ve come to expect from our #9, turning his man and then rounding the keeper for an easy finish.
Not only was he a goal threat, but his link up play with Daly and Walker in the front-three was impressive. His hold up play and willingness to drop into the midfield to recycle the play was effective and he’s shown a willingness to adapt to the passing style of football that Garner wants to deploy, something I thought he would struggle with. If we can get him to sign a new contract, I think we can be very optimistic about our front line this season.
Second Half Team
Jordi van Stappershoef – 6.0
Similar to Anssi, the Dutchman didn’t have a save to make in the second half. The only real effort being hit directly at his open palms from a comfortable distance. Not much to really report about Jordi, but it does speak volumes that two completely separate defences were able to protect their goalkeeper in both halves – the quality of depth we have at the back is going to play an important role if we are playing a back three all season.
Mark Little – 6.5
Great to see Little back involved with the squad – another player who was plagued by several injuries last season, and struggled to nail down a starting place as a result. Played at RCB in a back three rather than his favoured wing-back position, Little didn’t look out of place. His mobility stood out, and is an important attribute for the role he played. Hopefully he can stay fit, as he is a key figure in the dressing room, and we’re all hoping he can be one on the pitch too.
Cian Harries – 6.5
One of the main reasons we signed Harries was for his passing ability. At the centre of the back three, Cian was very much involved in recycling the ball, and switching it quickly and effectively. He stepped forward into the defensive-midfield hole to cut out attacks, and spread passes at a good tempo. With Manor Farm’s big #9 being subbed off, there was no major physical threat for the back line to deal with, which meant it was a comfortable afternoon for the Welshman.
Jack Baldwin – 6.5
My ratings for the back line in the second half may seem a bit harsh given how highly I marked the defence in the first half. Mainly because I think they had less of a threat to deal with, as mentioned above. Josh Grant protected the back line well, and as a result we didn’t really get to see much of our new man Baldwin, beyond his passing ability.
I thought he was composed on the ball and played in the new system well. After dominant aerial performances from Kilgour and Ehmer, it will be interesting to see how Baldwin and Harries do against a couple of strong, high quality forwards when we play stronger opposition, as they were barely tested in the second half against Manor Farm.
Alex Rodman – 7.0
Continuing his new role at RWB, Rodman’s ageing like a fine wine. What he lacks in pace, he makes up for in strength and technical ability. His fitness and work rate were superb as he hugged the touchline in blistering 30 degree heat. His cushioned touch for Tomlinson’s goal was well worked, and was only one instance of a few opportunities he had to move into the box and create a goal. It’s clear the wingbacks in this formation are designed to be very attacking, and Rodman, a natural winger, is suited to that role.
Luke Leahy – 6.5
Leahy played his favoured LWB position, which suited him well in this new formation. Unlike the 3-5-2 deployed under Graham Coughlan, wherein he had no one in front of him to play off and combine with, Garner’s 3-4-2-1 means Leahy had Barrett ahead of him in that inside forward role, and the pair worked well together. Leahy is best when has space, as his crossing is his best attribute by far. He got into dangerous positions and played some decent passes, and his crossing was dangerous. Much like Rodman he was very high, and didn’t have much to do defensively, so no negatives on what was a good run out for the former Walsall man.
Josh Grant – 6.5
A fairly standard run-out for Rovers’ newest defensive midfielder. Having signed from Chelsea this summer to play in a midfield pair, Grant gave a good account of himself, dictating the tempo from the middle of the park and protecting the back three well. He sat deeper, with Hagreaves pushing forwards more alongside him, so had a quiet game. He seems to be settling in nicely, and it’ll be good to see more of him, maybe alongside Westbrooke or Upson against tougher opposition.
Cameron Hargreaves – 7.0
This young man is going from strength to strength with each game he plays. When signed, many thought he was being brought in due to his connection to Chris Hargreaves. He stood out before lockdown with an impressive performance against Sunderland, and continued that against Manor Farm in a midfield pair. Grant sat deep whilst Hargeaves pressed, harried, and did all the dirty work of a Sinclair/Ogogo type player, whilst also proving that he is effective on the ball too. At his age, and with the progress he’s made in the last year, Hargreaves is a potential surprise package for next season.
Lucas Tomlinson – 7.0
A good performance from the youth team graduate, who has looked like he is adapting well to senior football. Last summer he was shrugged off the ball far too easily, and couldn’t utilise his skillset properly against senior players. It’s only been one game of pre-season, but Tomlinson seems to have more awareness on the ball, and seems more effective in that final third, in a new role on the right hand side of a front three, acting as an inside forward. At times he was a bit naive, lunging in late on the tackle and cutting a frustrated figure at times, but that will come with more experience in senior football. His goal was a well taken low strike, and he can take a lot of positives from his performance going forwards.
Josh Barrett – 6.5
Looking a lot sharper and fitter, Barrett played on the left hand side in the front three, cutting in onto his stronger foot. He struck the crossbar, and had a few other good opportunities to find the back of the net. For a player who maybe isn’t the quickest or trickiest, his technical ability and passing stood out. He had a good bit of chemistry with Leahy on the left and had a good afternoon. It was unfortunately shortlived as he hobbled off with a hamstring injury. Hopefully he will be back sooner rather than later, as he was beginning to hit his stride in the second half before his afternoon came to an end.
Jonah Ayunga – 6.5
Ayunga had a good afternoon. He pressed with a strong intensity and gave the Manor Farm back line no time to play out from the back. He robbed them of the ball on various occasions and found himself in a couple of fantastic positions through on goal. Unfortunately he was unable to put away either of the chances he had, but to criticise him on that alone would be harsh – Ayunga did well to create those chances for himself out of nothing. His physicality did not overshadow his technical ability, which at times was tidy, as he linked up well with the rest of the front three with some quick passing and promising movement into the channels. A player who is likely to be JCH’s backup for this season, he looks on first glance a diamond in the rough that will no doubt receive some polish from the coaching team.
MOTM: Zain Walker