For Blackburn Rovers, the events of the past few weeks are an all too familiar story.
Following an unbeaten January in the league that saw Rovers move to within three points of the Championship play-off places, three straight defeats to QPR, Preston and Barnsley in their last three games have seen Tony Mowbray’s side fall ten points behind the top-six, and they are now hanging on to a place in the top half of the table on goal difference alone.
This however, is nothing new to Rovers, who on several occasions over the past two-and-a-bit seasons since their promotion from League One under Mowbray in 2018, have moved to within touching distance of the play-offs on the back of the a decent run, only to then somehow forget how to win for a period of games, to once again take them out of contention on a number of occasions.
But what makes that current run all-the-more concerning, is that even during that impressive January in terms of results, the performances have not exactly been up to standard.
Rovers started the calendar year with a backs to the wall 2-0 win at a badly out-of-form Birmingham, where after taking an early lead, they were never able to really take the game away from Aitor Karanka’s side, with only Bradley Dack’s injury time stunner adding some late gloss to the scoreline.
A lacklustre exit to League One Doncaster in the FA Cup and a come-from-behind draw with Stoke followed at Ewood Park, before 1-0 wins away at Middlesbrough and at home to Luton, both courtesy of second-half efforts, and neither without controversy – Jarrad Branthwaite’s unpunished boot to Dael Fry’s face and Harry Cornick’s contentiously offside goal spring to mind – rounded out the month.
Gone were the free-flowing, nigh on unstoppable attacking performances that saw Rovers sweep many team aside early in the season, when even in defeats to the likes of Bournemouth and Watford, the quality on show from those in blue and white halves, had many identifying Mowbray’s men as dark horses for promotion.
But with that intensity gone – certainly for now at least – Rovers were only going to keep winning for so long, and those three defeats to QPR, Preston and Barnsley have ensured that, with Wednesday night’s loss at Oakwell seeing Mowbray abandon that possession-based style of play – something he has been determined to instil for so long – in favour of trying to shut-out the opposition and hit them on the counter, something they were unable to do effectively until they were 2-0 down in the fourth minute of five added on in stoppage time, by which point it was of course way too late, and you have to wonder quite were this side go from there from a tactical perspective.
While those three defeats Rovers are now looking to bounce back did not come in games they should have considered as bankers to win, they are all games that ought to have been winnable at the very least, yet rarely did they look like doing that, arguably less so than the time before with each passing loss.
But if that wasn’t worrying for those of Rovers persuasion, one notable difference to those historic lurches of form for the club is that this time around, it is not just their form in the 90 minutes on the pitch that appears to be a concern, and nowhere does that seem more relevant, than in the curious case of Ryan Nyambe.
It is no secret amongst those of a Rovers association that Nyambe’s current contract is set to expire at the end of this season – albeit with the option to extend that by a further 12 months – and the longer we go without a proper extension being announced, the more Blackburn supporters will worry that one will not be coming.
As a result, the team selection made by Mowbray at Barnsley in midweek, and the Rovers boss’ subsequent comments on that matter, will have set major alarm bells ringing for those fans.
Having left Nyambe not just out of the starting XI, but the matchday squad completely at Barnsley, Mowbray then revealed after the game that the Namibian international’s was not down to injury, but simply the fact that he was one of those players who Mowbray had to leave out, because of the limits to how many he could name in his squad.
For many Rovers fans, that is something that will have felt simply impossible to fathom. With the possible exception of top scorer Adam Armstrong and goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski, there has hardly been a more consisten player than Nyambe at Ewood Park this season in the eyes of many, with the 23-year-old having been a ever reliable figure on the right hand side of the defence, a position he had seemingly largely made his own when fit.
If therefore, this was simply down to tactical reasons, and not, as many will no doubt fear, a consequence of the ongoing contractual uncertainty that surrounds Nyambe, then you have to question just what more it is that Mowbray wants from the Rovers academy graduate.
Indeed, one issue that Mowbray has previously suggested he has with Nyambe is that he is yet to make the impact the Blackburn manager wants from him in an attacking sense, and yet there was one moment during that defeat at Barnsley more than any other, that seemed to suggest Rovers could have actually benefitted from Nyambe in an attacking sense on the night.
In the absence of Nyambe at Oakwell, it was Elliott Bennett, in his first game back after almost five months out through injury, who was handed the starting spot on in what was effectively a right wing back position.
Midway through the first half, a ball was sent down the Blackburn right channel for Bennett to chase, with a gap opening ahead of him to potentially get the ball into the area for one of Rovers’ attackers to get on the end of. However, the 32-year-old was unable to physically get the better of the Barnsley defender he had putting the pressure on him, and could do little more than harmlessly run the ball out of play for a goal kick to the hosts.
It was a far cry from the reverse fixture between the two sides at Ewood Park, when chasing a similar ball down that same right channel, Nyambe had done brilliantly to overpower and break free of his marker, getting to the by-line before pulling a pinpoint cross back into the penalty area, where Adam Armstrong was on hand to smash the ball home to give Rovers a welcome opener on the stroke of half time.
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Defensively as well, Rovers would seemingly pay the price for Nyambe’s absence in that defeat. With Bennett noticeably tiring late on, gaps were beginning to appear down the Rovers right for Barnsley to exploit, and sure enough, it was from down that side that substitute Carlton Morris would break through, before cutting inside to curl an effort in off the post to open the scoring with 18 minutes remaining, for what – despite there being two more goals to come – felt like it was enough on its own to knock the stuffing out of Mowbray’s men and claim the three points for the hosts.
At this point, it should probably be pointed out that it is harsh to have expected Bennett to have done much more in either of those situations, given that after so long out of action, it was always going to be hard for him to get up to speed and then stay for the entirety of the game, something which makes it all the more harder to understand why Mowbray might leave his other right back in Nyambe, out of the side completely.
Mowbray himself may argue that he had Taylor Harwood-Bellis on-hand to step into that role, but given the on-loan Manchester City appeared to be operating as part of a three-man central defence, and with no other centre back on the bench, that would have prompted a reshuffle of its own that could have left players out of position for Barnsley to exploit in that way instead.
All of this is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by Nyambe himself, and it is hard to see how those comments from Mowbray, and the way things played out in his absence, would serve as any motivating factor for him when it comes to potentially putting pen to paper on a new contract with the club, which only feels like it will further increase the risk of Rovers losing one of their biggest assets for potentially very little in the not too distant future.
But while the situation around Nyambe might be the most high-profile concern for those of a Rovers persuasion, you have to feel comments on the defender may not be the only ones to have come from the manager recently, that will have raised eyebrows amongst those associated with the club.
Mowbray has made no secret of his desire to have the club in or as close to the play-offs as possible this season, and there are few who would doubt that the squad he has available to him at Ewood Park this season, is capable of doing that.
Yet speaking even ahead of that Barnsley defeat, the Blackburn boss had claimed that his side’s journey back to the Premier League had only begun at the start of this season with that change of playing style, with the previous three years of his tenure having been focused on re-establishing the club in the Championship.
That does not really feel like something that tallies with those play-off ambitions, and with so many players out of contract at the end of this season or the next – including, but not limited to, Joe Rothwell, Joe Rankin-Costello, Lewis Holtby, Armstrong, Kaminski, Darragh Lenihan, Scott Wharton, Ben Brereton and the aforementioned Nyambe – that could cause a few problems for Rovers.
The fact of the matter is, the career of a footballer is a relatively short one, and so those within the Blackburn who will believe – and in some cases know – that they are capable of playing in the Premier League, may now feel that they cannot afford to wait for that opportunity to come along at Ewood Park.
Indeed, other clubs who may see the likes of Armstrong, Nyambe and Rothwell as potential assets for themselves, are not going to be too concerned about what impact prising those players away from Ewood Park will have on Mowbray’s plans for the club.
As a result, it does feel as though Rovers are under some serious pressure here when it comes to convincing their main assets to stay at the club to get their chance at playing in English football’s top-flight.
Admittedly, were those players to leave, Rovers could of course rebuild their squad, but the contract situation around so many of those players means it could be hard for them to get the funds they need to afford the best possible replacements for any potential departures.
Should that happen, it would of course, also be impossible to deny that it would be a big opportunity missed by Mowbray and the club not to achieve, or at least go close to, promotion given the quality and strength in depth they currently have available, and that could have a sad knock-on effect on how Mowbray is eventually remembered around Ewood Park when his time at the club eventually comes to an end.
Right now, you feel that Mowbray’s legacy at Blackburn Rovers ought to be as the one who picked the club up from its lowest ebb in decades, and ensured it would not be condemned to years in the wilderness, by winning promotion from League One at the first time of asking in 2017/18, and then helping to establish the club as a contender in the Championship once again, something for which anyone of a Rovers persuasion surely ought to always be grateful to him for.
Yet if Mowbray is unable to turn things around sooner rather than later, there is a risk that he would leave the club – whenever that may be – as the man who missed arguably the club’s best chance in years to get back to within reach of the promised land of the Premier League, something which would be a sad link to make with a man who has done so much for the club up until now.
On Monday, Tony Mowbray will reach four years as manager of Blackburn Rovers. If between now and then, his side can pick up a win over a recently resurgent Nottingham Forest to give themselves a glimmer of hope that the play-offs are still an achievable target, that anniversary is one that the club are able to acknowledge.
If however, Blackburn return home empty-handed for the fourth game in a row this weekend, then amid growing fan frustration and an ever-more challenging task of securing the futures of key players at the club, you feel that landmark is one that the club would find it difficult to give much attention to, as the questions over how many anniversaries Mowbray can afford to be given by the club, would surely start to be asked more loudly and frequently than ever.