BREAKING DOWN DONCASTER
For me, tomorrow's visit of Dean Saunders' Doncaster Rovers represents a major moment in our season - when we learn whether the ability of deep-sitting, counter attacking sides to come to Meadow Lane and get a result has been a blip our a genuine long-term problem. Both Walsall and Stevenage saw their attritional styles bear fruit in NG2 earlier in the season and Saunders' side are set to offer an even tougher test tomorrow having won at Prenton Park in the week despite Ronnie Moore's side having the vast majority of the play.
Rovers lined up at Prenton Park with an extremely rigid 4-4-2 system, which sees an extremely solid back four with defensive full backs and two hard-working, tough central midfield players in Paul Keegan and James Harper. They've also added Sammy Clingan today, who is likely to come into the side for game against Notts, another defensive-minded player but one who will add a little bit more creativity to their game. Their main threat going forward is out wide, where quick and tricky wingers David Cotterill and Kyle Bennett look to interchange and create for in-form front two Iain Hume and Billy Paynter. However, their plans may be thrown into some doubt as Cotterill, their best player, is a doubt for the game, as are both full backs.
With these selection issues taken into account, this is the potential shape of the Doncaster side visiting tomorrow - with the most striking thing being the number of players Notts will have to find their way through to create chances. A vital part of the match will be whether Notts can draw Doncaster out, as centre back duo Rob Jones and Tommy Spurr are probably the slowest and most cumbersome in the league. If Notts can manufacture space in behind for Yoann Arquin, Francois Zoko and Jamal Campbell-Ryce then the game could be theirs - but this will require patience from both players and fans as Notts look to work the ball around and draw their visitors further up the pitch.
The roles of Campbell-Ryce and Zoko will be particularly important tomorrow, with Doncaster's key threat coming from out wide. Both will be required to help track Cotterill and Bennett and give a hand to their respective full backs. Another interesting element for the game will be whether Notts midfielder Alan Judge will be fit enough to feature - something which could leave Keith Curle with a real dilemma in his team selection. Judge's creativity and ability to shoot from distance could be key in breaking down a deep-lying side, more so than the pace of Zoko and Campbell-Ryce, but Curle may be reluctant to change the side that looked so dangerous against Coventry and Bournemouth. However, Judge is likely to be ineffective from his usual role in behind Yoann Arquin due to the deep positions of Doncaster's central midfield pairing, who are likely to be interested in controlling the space in which Judge will want to be operating. By contrast, this is likely to open up space for André Boucaud at the other end of midfield, with no midfielders placed high up the pitch to pressure him when receiving the ball from the defence. In my mind, this means it is imperative that Notts stick with the same basic 4-1-2-2-1 shape of the previous three games without Judge, although bringing in the Irishman for either Zoko or Campbell-Ryce would definitely be a possibility considering the opposition.
Here, the respective midfield shapes are shown, as is the space that Boucaud should be able to find to control the game as long as Hughes and Bishop position themselves correctly to occupy Clingan and Harper. There are ways Doncaster can combat this - by dropping Iain Hume deeper when they lose the ball to track Boucaud or pulling David Cotterill inside when they lose the ball. Should this happen, Notts will have the opportunity for Dean Leacock and Ashley Eastham to bring the ball out of defence and launch attacks, however, or there will be far more space for the full back to go forward having been abandoned by Cotterill.
Defensively, Notts will have to deal with the aerial threat of Paynter, who Rovers look to play off when they get the ball forward quickly. Boucaud will also have to be intelligent when Notts don't have the ball, as Hume may look to drop off his centre back and pick the ball up in space - whichever winger is on the left will also naturally drift off of his wing, also. Should Clingan start, he is also a player capable of dictating a game from deep, so Neal Bishop will have to be at his best in pressing the ball from midfield and rushing Doncaster into getting the ball forward in a hurried fashion. Injury wise, Notts hope to welcome back Alan Judge after he missed two games, although it is likely to be too soon for Julian Kelly, meaning Gary Liddle may continue at right back with Ashley Eastham in the centre.