WITH the Championship relegation battle getting nervy, EFL pundit Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) assesses whether Rotherham have what it takes.
One To Watch | Can Rotherham escape the drop?
Clearly, there is a strong determination in this Rotherham camp to right the wrongs of that 2016-17 campaign, when they were relegated with the lowest-points total of any second-tier team post-war.
They always give every fibre of their being to produce the best possible version of themselves, whether that is in battling for balls in crowded penalty area, or last-ditch defending.
Manager Paul Warne – a self-proclaimed humanist – knows his team cannot trump their opponents purely on technical ability and thus he must find other ways of finding marginal gains.
In the previous match, this involved drawing on the white board Rotherham’s badge and writing down the people he is doing this for, then asking each of his players to do the same.
The emotional dedication of this team is partly what inspired the comeback at Stoke.
Having been two goals down at the break, Matt Crooks’ half-time introduction inspired the Millers to score twice – and the resultant 2-2 draw was almost a disappointment due to chances missed after the equaliser.
Rotherham have not quite got the number of points they might have hoped for at home to top 10 opposition but delivered competitive performances – they outshot Sheffield United 26-6 in November’s 2-2 draw, for example.
The South Yorkshire outfit have hosted teams outside the Championship’s top 10 on 12 occasions this season and won half those games.
In another five, the Millers have shared the points – and October’s 1-1 draw with Bolton was as dominant a drawing display as we will see this season – with the 4-2 home loss to a Brentford side posting top six shot data being the only exception.
Because relegation would not be disastrous for Rotherham, in terms of their long-term health under an excellent chairman in Tony Stewart, fans appear to enjoy these home games with a sense of having little to lose and that can feed through to the players, who consistently put teams under a lot of pressure.
The growing appeal of ball-playing centre-backs in the Championship means Rotherham can make life awkward for rear-guards not used to facing box bombardments with balls come in from every possible avenue.
One of those avenues is long throws, so Will Vaulks’ return from suspension is a huge plus; the midfielder, who loves a backflip celebration, may have a background in gymnastics because he clearly has the agility to get real distance on his throws.
Winger Anthony Forde’s corners contributed to the comeback at Stoke last time out while creative wide man Ryan Williams’ return to the first team fold is welcomed.
The man who most frequently benefits from the set pieces is Semi Ajayi, who has scored seven goals this season.
Although listed as a defensive player, his main strengths are imposing his physicality in the opposing penalty box and firing the odd shot from distance, as he did to spectacular effect in the 2-1 loss to Leeds.
Ajayi started the season as a centre-back but he was arguably slightly erratic in that position; his willingness to rush out quickly to stop attacks was admirable yet also left open space in behind.
Since moving into a holding role, just behind usually Vaulks and one other midfielder, he has not been punished as much for being as aggressive as he is.
Plus, it has given him the freedom to quickly get into attacking positions when the moment comes – that’s seven goals in his last 15 appearances including six in a five-game sequence.
They’ve got Rodak
Marek Rodak has made 134 saves this season, which is more than any other goalkeeper in the Championship.
80 of those stops have denied efforts from inside the penalty area, which again is more than anyone in the division.
The Slovakian stopper, schooled at Stanley in a strong half-season spell in 2016-17, has also made two spot-kick saves this season, from Josh Magennis and Tammy Abraham of Bolton and Aston Villa respectively.
Defence not great
The fact Rodak is often so important to Rotherham is perhaps an indication that they are not getting everything right defensively.
The Millers have conceded 72 goals in in 42 league games, which equates to 1.71 goals conceded per game – coincidentally the same tally as their Expected Goals Against (xGA).
They have honest but uninspiring full-back options in Zak Vyner, Billy Jones and Joe Mattock.
While Clark Robertson is a solid centre-back, the lack of cover in that area has forced 33-year-old Richard Wood to start 22 league games – Wood is a club legend, but now not quite Championship standard.
Lack of finishing ability
It might surprise some to hear that Rotherham have had the seventh-most shots per game in the Championship (13.6) – that is a credit to the intent Warne’s men show.
They do, however, have the 13th-most shots on target per game (4.1), the fourth-most off-target (5.7) and only the 19th-most goals (46) – if they went the final four games without finding the net, their attacking record would be the same as it was in 2016-17, despite a huge contrast in terms of energy and belief.
Out of Championship strikers who have played double-figures in league games, Michael Smith ranks 5th for most shots from inside the area with 65 – but for penalty-box goals he is 20th with five, giving him an 18-yard hit-rate of 7.6%.
In fairness to Smith, he does other sides of the game well and his work rate is faultless – plus his confidence in front of goal might be boosted by two in his last three – but whether he is as clinical as some of the forwards Rotherham’s competitors possess is another matter.
Who else could drop?
Millwall have finally found a formula for playing without Steve Morison, with eight points taken from the five games they have played since Ben Thompson was deployed just behind Lee Gregory.
Reading have accrued successive home wins and appear boosted under Jose Gomes with appealing attacking options in Modou Barrow, Yakou Meite and Nelson Oliveira.
Wigan meanwhile, press well and have a potentially world-class technician in Reece James – they have not lost in West Lancashire since New Years’ Day and produced a very competitive performance in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich.
The teams above Rotherham are showing nearly as much spirit and possess arguably a lot more individual quality.
The Millers travel on Good Friday to Swansea, who have the sixth-best home record in the Championship.
They also face West Brom and Middlesbrough sides possessing much stronger finishers, so the penultimate clash at home to Birmingham is the only game in which they would not be doing well to draw.
Plus, if Wigan and Millwall can maintain their two-point gap on the 22nd-placed Millers until the final day, then (depending on Reading’s position) they could both relegate Rotherham by playing out a draw because they both have a far superior goal difference.
There is much to like about everything Warne is doing at Rotherham, who have contributed to the entertainment value of the Championship through their high-pressure play.
However, one wonders whether they might – sadly – have to bid this division adieu.
Championship – Rotherham to be relegated (7/20 888)