Is this Managerial Appointment Rotherham United's relegation saviour?
Following Neil Redfearn’s sacking by Rotherham United on 8th February this year, it came as a bit of a surprise to hear Neil Warnock’s name linked with the manager’s job. Never short of a comment or two and happy to court controversy when he’s felt his team have been hard-done-by, the always employable and sometimes retiring (from employment that is) Warnock, took the reigns at The Millers 3 days later to become their third manager of the season.
Languishing at the wrong end of the Championship – 2 points adrift of the MK Dons, having played a game more – and having conceded the second highest number of goals in the division, it would take a resurrection of Lazarus-like proportions to steer Rotherham clear of the drop. But like him or loathe him, what Neil Warnock doesn’t know about survival in the Championship isn’t really worth knowing and with a struggling team like Rotherham, creating an established group of players, with organisation and continuity would be the key.
Ironically, Warnock’s basis for selection continuity started with Redfearn’s last game in charge. Using a back four that included Wood in central defence and Richardson at right back, Warnock has managed to stem the flow of an average 2.5 goals per game to 1.1 per game. This back four has endured a couple of enforced changes due to suspensions and injuries but has still managed to help Lee Camp keep 3 clean sheets in the last 5 games and 4 since Warnock took over.
The loss of Richardson – who had performed well since his return to the defensive line – may have been a cause for concern, but the new manager’s faith in Stephen Kelly has proved correct. Wood had been creating a good partnership with the club’s best performing player this season – Kirk Broadfoot – but once again injury has plagued the partnership of late. The Danny Collins experiment didn’t work against Derby, so Warnock turned to one of his recent signings, Lloyd Doyley, to step into the breach. The former Watford player had been used as cover when Wood was suspended for one game and stepped into that role again when Wood was unavailable due to injury against Ipswich.
Warnock saw fit to make just two changes to the starting 11 for his first game in charge – a home fixture against Birmingham that ended 0-0. Those first 3 games under his stewardship could be seen as the experimental phase of his tenure; a testing of the waters so-to-speak to gain a better knowledge of the players at his disposal – 14 players were used in the defeat to Bolton and while only 2 changes were made to the starting lineup, the number of different players used when comparing Redfearn’s last game and Warnock’s first is one. The Birmingham game saw 2 Rotherham players seeing red, so a further 2 enforced changes were made for the trip to Burnley. That took the total to 17 different players used and with Warnock signing Lloyd Doyley and Jerome Thomas the number of different players to pull on the red and white of The Millers during his time in charge so far is 21. A far cry from the 36 different players used in the 30 games prior to Warnock’s arrival.
A potential catalyst for Rotherham’s upturn in form could also be the return of Lee Frecklington. The 30-year-old from Lincoln has made 18 starts this season and has been a permanent fixture in the centre of midfield since the win over Brentford. His run in the team from mid-November to the New Year was cut short when sustaining an injury in the defeat at Preston, but his return has seen Rotherham win 4 and draw 1 of their last 5 games. Whoscored.com tells us Frecklington has an average performance rating of 6.88/10 for the season while his return in the last 5 games has seen an average performance rating of 7.36/10. His pass success average of 74.7% for the season is the best in the squad and he has contributed 2 assists and a winning goal against Middlesbrough since his return.
Mention must also be made of Richard Smallwood. It must be acknowledged that, while both Squawka and Whoscored give him fairly low performance scores for the season (he has averaged a Whoscored performance rating of 6.73/10 since Warnock took charge), he has played every minute of those last 8 games. Working as a defensive midfielder, in tandem with Frecklington for Rotherham’s 5 game unbeaten run, could well be part of the answer to why Rotherham have done so well of late. While he has a pass success average of 72.2%, he does have a tendency to play the long ball, which may contribute to his lower performance score. His defensive capabilities cannot be denied, though, contributing 18 interceptions and 9 clearances in his last 5 games.
Sometimes it’s not just the numbers that matter. Statistically speaking Smallwood may not appear to be a world-beater, but Warnock clearly sees him as a valuable asset to the team, complimenting a fit-again Frecklington in that central midfield area. Smallwood’s defensive midfield duties have also added strength to the back five, with the already well-performing Kirk Broadfoot raising his game. Achieving an average Whoscored performance rating of 7.25/10 for the season, Broadfoot has raised this to 7.53/10 for the last 5 games. He has also performed 20 interceptions and 31 clearances in those games. He, like Smallwood, has played in every game under Warnock so far. The 31-year-old former St. Mirren defender is having something of a career renaissance at Rotherham and is certainly proving his worth in these testing times.
So, third from bottom when Warnock took over and after 3 games in charge six points adrift of the team above them. Establishing a nucleus of players who would start every game, providing continuity to breed familiarity within the match day squad and building a resolute defensive line to stem the flow of goals conceded has been Neil Warnock’s formula for getting results. It was never going to be pretty, but it never is when your team is staring relegation in the face. When looking purely at the stats, it would be disingenuous to describe Rotherham’s approach as “anti-football” though.
Conceding massive amounts of possession – Rotherham average 37.2% for the last 5 games – and with a pass success rate of a mere 53.4% in those same games does not tell the whole story. It appears Neil Warnock has created a kind of siege mentality; a sense of togetherness that it seems only the “old-guard” of English management can create. They frustrate teams, allow them as much of the ball as they want, but will resolutely deny them winning opportunities. Rotherham’s last 5 games have shown they are ready for the fight. They sit 2 points above the relegation places now and while that is only one place better than they were before Neil Warnock arrived, it’s a whole world away from where the team were. There are still 8 games to play and all bar one are against teams on or below 12th in the current table. Rotherham and Neil Warnock have found a way of winning. Don’t bet on them playing League 1 football anytime soon.
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