Matthew Crichton: After seemingly running away with the league, Rotherham have only won three of their last ten matches - what are the main factors behind your dip in form?
Will Daniels: There lies the million pound question! Overall, some of it comes to variance. During the months between January and March, the Millers were accumulating a lot of points, without necessarily playing well. Since a two minute capitulation at home to promotion rivals MK Dons, the bottom line is we haven’t been good enough in both boxes to accumulate the same level of points. Top scorers in League One at one point to just five goals in 10 games, conceding eleven in the process.
Some of this is due to the loss of form in key personnel. Michael Smith’s goals have been a large source of our success this season, however Rotherham have struggled to find regular contributors in his absence of late. Teams are man marking “quarter back” Dan Barlaser out of a game, placing two or three men on right wing speedster Chiedozie Ogbene.
A lot of teams have nullified Rotherham’s set piece threat too. In the last ten games, we’ve had an average of 10 set piece situations per game, in which 2.6 shots have been generated, suggesting both a lack of quality coming into the box, but also not enough courageous runners and some excellent defending of the penalty area from our opponents.
The underlying numbers suggest that we are creating chances, with a rolling xG (expected goals) of 1.72, however, as of late have not taken those chances. Conceding 1.29 expected goals against post the MK game, in comparison to 0.87 goals before the MK game suggests we are also giving up more chances, which teams are unduly taking too.
For a long time, the Millers have been the chased team in League One, unchartered territory for many of our group. For the likes of MK, 15 points adrift just two months ago, they’ve had a free hit at trying to gain automatic promotion. They’ve played without fear and gone on a huge run to put extra pressure on our situation, whilst now feeling the pressure in recent times when the going gets tough. That’s the beauty of League One. It’s the hardest League One that has ever existed and on its day, any team can make things extremely difficult for you.
MC: Paul Warne’s side have failed to win away from home since February, does worry you ahead of playing at The Stadium of Light?
WD: Firstly, you have to commend the away form over the course of the season. Rotherham occupy third in the away table having accumulated 38 points on their travels, conceding just ten goals. They lost their first half clean sheet record at Pompey away just two weeks ago, which is a phenomenal effort from the team.
With that said, they’ll feel confident that on their day they’re able to nullify any side in the division. The Stadium of Light is probably one of, if not the most difficult away fixture in the League One calendar. Sunderland are a well-supported, expectant fanbase who have a team playing some great football under Alex Neil. It’ll be a game of two teams who battle till the very end. Rotherham will be wary of the Sunderland late show since Neil’s arrival, the individual quality from a now in-form Stewart, Broadhead, Embleton et al.
Worry is not the word to use for the task at hand. There will be a few nerves, given we can be virtually promoted with a win, but that should also provide the players with an extra spring in their step to get the job done. You want your team to be playing in big games, big occasions, and this will certainly be one of those.
MC: Both Rotherham and MK Dons have tough away fixtures on the final day, do you think Warne will set up to not get beat today so you can increase the pressure on MK Dons?
WD: It’s not in the Paul Warne make up to set up to try and nullify a team. Rotherham will go out to try and get the job done tonight and anything they take from the game will take them one step closer to where they need to be. One game at a time, calm heads, no need for panic.
MC: Back in October you described Will Grigg as “a breath of fresh air” but he has not scored since October and has not featured since Feburary, did that loan move take a turn for the worst?
WD: A lot of the downturn in our form has been a result of the season-ending injury that Will Grigg incurred in our trip at AFC Wimbledon. He may not have played every minute during his time with us but he’s such an intelligent footballer: his hold-up play and intelligence to read the runs of Michael Smith, to bring others into play to create chances is an integral part of where Rotherham are at this term. I firmly believe that if Grigg had been fit throughout, the Millers would be high and dry with a League One title in the bag.
Most players with a season-ending injury would go back to their parent club to complete rehab and that would be the end of their interaction with the loan club. He travels to each and every game to be part of the Millers group, offering commentary for IFollow in recent times. Wembley was full of Millers belting out “Will Grigg’s on fire” as they won the Papa John’s trophy, with Grigg on the pitch, celebrating with his team mates.
Even out of the side, it seems that Grigg has made a big impact at Rotherham and with a new contract at the Stadium of Light unlikely, it’s likely that Rotherham could become a permanent home for Will. Here’s hoping!
MC: With 19 goals this season, Michael Smith has been crucial to Rotherham this season, what makes him so effective at this level?
WD: In previous seasons, Michael Smith has been seen as a tireless workhorse, that you could just fire a ball forward and he would chase it everywhere, with little reward for his efforts. He is as strong as an ox (which usually means he doesn’t get anywhere near as many fouls given as he should). His hold-up play is as good as any target men in the EFL, great in the air, and a deft touch for a lad of his size, as well as a decent turn of pace.
This season, he’s found himself in the box much more, averaging 4.53 touches in the box compared to 3.32 and 3.63 in the previous two seasons. He’s also taking more shots on target, just over a shot on target on average per match more than the previous two seasons. It takes no genius to say that if you’re shooting more, and getting in better areas, you’re going to score more goals.
It feels like we’re coming to a time whereby Smith may well outgrow Rotherham, and he would easily fit into a Championship outfit next season. Until then, he will be integral to the Millers chances of automatic promotion.
MC: Aside from Smith, which Rotherham players should Sunderland be wary of during the match?
WD: Pace on either wing will be where the Millers look to get most joy. Where Rotherham have had success this season, is collecting the ball high via an extremely aggressive front foot press. The pace at which they’ve been able to move the ball into the wide areas for Chiedozie Ogbene and Arsenal loanee Jordi Osei-Tutu has caused a lot of teams problems. The vision of Dan Barlaser is largely to thank for this and Sunderland will need to keep Dan out of the game to stand a chance of winning this one.
Rotherham will overload the Sunderland penalty area with crosses. According to Wyscout, Rotherham have asked their opposition to defend 1025 crosses this season, an average of just under 22 a game. That’s 138 more than any other team in the top four English leagues. From set pieces, centre backs Richard Wood and Michael Ihiekwe will need to be watched.
Finally, if the Millers are looking for some creativity from nothing, they’re likely to look to one of their own. Ben Wiles, born and bred through the Rotherham youth system, has been involved in fifteen Rotherham goals this season. He’ll drive with the ball from deep, taking opponents away from their stations to deal with his immediate threat. He loves a drop of the shoulder, and is by far Rotherham’s best technical player. Wiles will go on to play Championship football next season, with or without Rotherham.
MC: In terms of playing style, Warne’s side have the best defensive record in League One this season, what do you think makes your side so resilient?
WD: As it stands, only Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan have conceded more chances in open play, and no side has conceded fewer goals than Rotherham from set pieces. If you don’t give up chances, you don’t give up goals.
A lot of the goals conceded recently have been down to poor individual errors, lacking concentration, than any glaring tactical issues. Rotherham do look slightly ropey in transition, with teams playing through their high line and pumping balls into the channels directly, with willing runners cutting inside to create chances, shots on goals.
Rotherham have been at their best defensively this season when a settled back three has played. Rarmani Edmonds-Green has been pivotal to the back line and when he was injured for a period, the Millers looked a different team. Over the last couple of games, “REG” has come back into the fold and it’s no coincidence that Rotherham have looked much more solid defensively.
MC: Rotherham appear to be suffering from a range of injuries currently, which eleven players do you think Warne will select?
WD: Goalkeeper Viktor Johansson will start as the Millers only have one senior option, Josh Vickers is out for the rest of the season with a hand injury. I’d suspect the same back three starting as on Saturday, so evergreen Richard Wood will marshal the back line, with his companions Michael Ihiekwe and Rarmani Edmonds-Green.
Wes Harding and Jordi Osei-Tutu will offer width and pace in their wing back positions, with Dan Barlaser sitting deepest of the midfield three. There will be a toss up between Ollie Rathbone and Jamie Lindsay for the ball winning midfielder role (a battle I expect Rathbone to win) with Ben Wiles as a box to box, or playmaker role.
Michael Smith will play even if hit by a hurricane the night before, and I expect Chiedozie Ogbene to start up top with him to stretch the Sunderland back line on a large pitch.
MC: Sunderland were thrashed 5-1 by Rotherham earlier this season, what is your prediction for the final score this time around?
WD: Sunderland are statistically the best home side in the league, Rotherham the third best away side. Something has to give and this is a game of gargantuan proportions for both sides.
The crowd will play a big part in this one. Sunderland will feel that if they can stay in the game till the last 20, the crowd will get right behind them. That said, it’s also a restless stadium when things aren’t going so well and if Rotherham can grab the early initiative to calm their own nerves and irritate the Mackem fan base, they will be in the driving seat.
It will be a tense affair with so much at stake. A score draw (1-1) would represent a great result for the Millers.