In spite of all the promise of last season, and the optimism of the summer just gone, things simply haven’t started the way Blackburn Rovers will have wanted them to in the opening weeks of the 2019/20 Championship campaign.
Having suffered a 2-1 defeat to newly promoted Charlton Athletic at Ewood Park on the very first day of the season, Tony Mowbray’s side then travelled down to Fulham over the weekend, where they were beaten 2-0 to the recently-relegated London club, leaving Rovers bottom of the early Championship standings.
While that performance at Craven Cottage on Saturday did show signs of improvement, the trip to Fulham also highlighted one area that, regardless of their displays on the pitch, is going to be a worry every day for Blackburn between now and the January transfer window at the very least: defensive numbers.
The day before they travelled down to Fulham, Blackburn shocked just about everybody when they agreed to allow club captain and centre back Charlie Mulgrew to leave the club to join Wigan Athletic on loan until the end of the season.
Not only is this is a surprise due to both Mulgrew’s presence in the dressing room and popularity amongst the club’s fan-base, but it is also a big risk for Tony Mowbray to take.
With Mulgrew’s departure, Blackburn have left them once again surprisingly short on senior defenders, with only six currently at the club.
Of those, only two: Darragh Lenihan and summer loan signing from Manchester City Tosin Adarabioyo, are natural centre backs, although Derrick Williams, originally a left-back, has also proven himself capable in that role in recent months.
Even so, that doesn’t feel like enough to rely on across the course of the whole campaign, and Rovers should know that better than most.
Across the course of last season, the four senior defenders that are still at Ewood Park following the summer transfer window: Lenihan, Williams, left-back Amari’i Bell and right-back Ryan Nyambe, along with fellow regular Mulgrew, averaged a grand total of 31 league appearances between them, in a 46-game Championship campaign, and it is perhaps no coincidence that a run of just one win in 11 games took place around the time when those injuries were felt the hardest.
It seems evident therefore, that with Mulgrew moving on and only Adarabioyo and left-back Greg Cunningham – who has also joined a season-long loan, this time from Cardiff City – arriving to add to the numbers, Blackburn are going to be walking a tightrope with regards to their options at the back yet again this season.
Indeed, that is something that has already been highlighted at Craven Cottage on Saturday.
With Lenihan, who it now seems will take the lead in defence when available, out through a knee injury, it fell to Williams and Adarabioyo – who due to a combination of injury and a delay in loan negotiations – had never before played with each other or in pre-season, to take on an attack featuring the likes of Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
While both performed admirably as part of a defence that also included natural right-winger and now captain Elliott Bennett at right-back due to a concussion to Nyambe, it only took a couple of naive slip-ups to cost Rovers the game.
Tom Cairney’s opening goal was undoubtedly a moment of magic, but there will be questions over why the midfielder wasn’t closed down before unleashing his 25-yard thunderbolt, something that someone with the experience and presence of mind of a Lenihan or even a Mulgrew may well have been aware of.
The second, which came late in the game, very much felt like a case of tiring, out-of-position Bennett being beaten all ends up by a rampaging full-back in Joe Bryan, who was then able to put the ball on a plate to hand Mitrovic the simplest of finishes.
If, as is already threatening to be the case, injuries start to take their toll on Rovers’ defence again this season, then it seems that Mowbray will have to turn those utility men and less experienced players fill in at the back once more, and that is where those costly mistakes will start to take their toll over the course of the campaign, just as they did at Fulham on Saturday.
In allowing Mulgrew to leave and failing to really replace him, however, it seems that that is the direction that Rovers have already chosen to take with regards to how they approach their defence this season. It feels like now, they may just have to live with it, and hopefully this time, learn from it.