After a 3-1 victory at Oxford, Rotherham United are the new leaders in League One.
Gabriel Sutton looks at how Paul Warne has gone top of the league as a manager for the first time - and how the Millers have built their promotion push...
One of Warne’s strengths as a manager is his ability to bring people together on an emotional level.
At one point, he asked every member of the group who and what they are playing for, beyond the football club: it might be to make their parents proud, to vindicate those who have believed in them, for a close friend or relative who may have passed away, to treat their partner to the holiday they always wanted or to give their children a good life.
Warne then writes all those motivating factors on the white board, to make each player realize that they are not just playing for their own careers but also for a wider cause.
The 46-year-old, himself, is open about his own vulnerabilities and difficulties in his personal life, which is something that not many managers do due to wanting to create the impression of somebody who is thick-skinned and tough – but sometimes the way to be thick-skinned and tough is to show humility and Warne does that in a very warm way.
Rotherham do not have the wherewithal to spend their way to success, so it is important to have a manager who has ways of finding marginal gains and tapping into emotions is a great way to do that.
Paul Warne is top of the table for the first time in his managerial career
Brilliance on the road
Rotherham’s dismal away record – one win on the road all season with 45 goals conceded – was a key factor behind their relegation from the Championship in 2018-19.
In League One, though, the Millers have enjoyed their jaunts from S60, taking 26 points from 13 games available; indeed, they are so far on track to enjoy the best away record any side has had at this level since Wigan in 2017-18 – and of course, the Latics won the title that year.
In the first half of Saturday’s 3-1 win at Oxford, Rotherham bullied their opponents or a physical level, with the average player being 4cm taller than the average opponent.
Warne’s side were well-organised without the ball, strong, aggressive and ruthless in transition, evoking fear in their hosts.
Naturally, the South Yorkshire outfit had to stand second half pressure that occasionally teetered on a comeback but stood strong to top the pile.
Our @MindCharity Team of the Week is @OfficialRUFC 🏆— Quest (@QuestTV) January 11, 2020
Oxford United hadn’t conceded at home since August before The Millers scored 3⃣ today ⚽️⚽️⚽️#EFLonQuest | #rufc | @TheMillersForum pic.twitter.com/p33hTWahY2
Exciting attacking quartet
The counter-attacking performance at the Kassam showed the value that Hakeeb Adelakun, a January recruit on loan from Bristol City, can bring.
Adelakun and Chiedozie Ogbene are both quick, rapidly so in the former’s case, with the ability to play on either flank; this flexibility is likely to give Warne the option to offer opposing full-backs something different to think about mid-game, as well as make the Millers fluent in transition.
Up top, Michael Smith remains selfless as ever and, though recognised as a target man, he proved to be willing to drift into the wide right channel last time out to allow other players to take up goalscoring positions.
One of them is Kyle Vassell, who posed a real threat running in behind and, despite only having started seven games so far this term, could enjoy a positive second half of the season after an impressive brace.
Just listening to Paul Warne's interviews again, cements him as one of the most articulate and genuine people in football at this present time. Win, lose or draw he oozes class, we are very very lucky to have him here, dont forget that. #rufc 🔴⚪ UTM— Chris🍻 (@runningmillerz) January 11, 2020
Barlaser and Crooks
Daniel Barlaser has been one of the most underrated signings of the League One season.
The Newcastle recruit, who impressed on loan at Accrington Stanley last term, is a highly tenacious presence in the Millers midfield.
Barlaser averages 2.8 key passes per 90 minutes, which is the second-most out of all the League One players who have played a double-figured number of games in central midfield this season.
The 22-year-old though, also averages 2.1 tackles per 90, which is more than any player who has anything like his creative capabilities, so this is a player who has a very wide range of skills.
Crooks, meanwhile, can progress the ball from his own half and pick penetrating passes deep into that of the opposition, bringing the attacking quartet into play.
I like this. Just been to see Richard Wood for his @rotherhamtiser column. He tells me #RUFC boss Paul Warne was ready to give his squad a few days off after a brilliant and busy festive period. Players held a meeting and asked if they could carry on training.— Paul Davis (@paulm_davis) January 7, 2020
We have known for some time that Richard Wood, although an honourable servant to Rotherham United and a selfless leader over the years, is not quite good enough for the level the club wants to get to: competing in the Championship.
Although Wood has stepped in commendably of late due to absentees at centre-back to the likes of Adam Thompson and Clark Robertson, he may not be the player Warne would ideally choose to start at this level and thus there can be a lot of pressure on his defensive partner.
Michael Ihiekwe has this season won 195 aerial duels, which is the most out of all the centre-backs League One; he has also completed 32 interceptions, the joint-10th most, making him an all-round master at the basics of defending.
Joe Mattock’s suspension at left-back has seen athletic right-back Matthew Olosunde, who has linked up very well with Ogbene so far this season, switch sides.
That, in turn, has led to midfielder Ben Wiles slotting in at right-back.
Long-term, Wiles is seen as a deep-lying midfielder, someone who will collect the ball inside his own half and either show the vision to spray passes out wide or play in the number 10; when none of those options are on, he has the confidence to carry the ball forward and work options for himself.
Wiles put in an admirable shift at right-back, but it is important that Warne is backed to add cover for either Olosunde or Mattock, so that his side do not suffer too much from instability in the full-back areas.
They have players though, who will dig in and do a solid job despite the instability – and that could go a long way.
I hope Rotherham go up, because Paul Warne is a good manager and his squad look very solid. And also very dangerous when in on goal. They took their chances with perfection, and we were soundly beaten at home. Well done #Millers #rufc#oufc— G . H (@georgeoufc93) January 11, 2020
Will they do it?
Although Warne’s side lead the way in League One, they also have 11 teams within eight points of them.
Three of them – Peterborough, Ipswich and Burton – all face the Millers in an eight-day period between January and February, in a group of fixtures that could go a long way to deciding their fate.