The status of ‘legend’ is somewhat overused in modern football, but with 650 games under his belt for Doncaster Rovers, James Coppinger has more than earned such a prestigious title. Reaching his 39th birthday this month, the veteran is proof that with hard-work and career care, age is nothing but a number in the footballing world. Self-aware of his age’s impact on his physical capabilities, he has successfully adapted his game to prolong his career. His ability to both score and create goals has been a staple of his game throughout the years, and his vast experience shows in games, as he demonstrates key abilities which have clearly had a lot of work put into.
Despite the man himself announcing that even he is unsure of when the time will come to hang up the boots, he is still a regular feature in the Doncaster side – the only recent difference is that he completes very few games compared to his earlier years as a professional player. This season he has played in 20 out of 21 games, contributing with three goals and four assists. This scout report will analyse Coppinger’s key attributes shown in the 2018/19 season and this season so far and how they affect Rovers’ performances and style of play.
Over the course of his career at Doncaster, Coppinger has undertaken numerous roles, from operating as a central midfielder to playing as a right wing-back as part of a back-five. However, he has found the most success as an advanced midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation or a winger operating from either side in a 4-3-3. His ability to use either foot effectively has given managers the chance to play him on either side of the pitch and not have to worry about his effectiveness being altered due to being able to use his left foot as well as his favoured right. As an attacking midfielder he tends to pick up the ball in central positions, often around the edge of his team’s attacking third, and shows an intention to progress his teams attack by either driving past defenders or picking a pass to a teammate. From the wing, he has a unique talent of being able to weave in and out of defenders with his tremendous dribbling ability. From this position he also likes to cut inside to line up either a shot or cross – a trademark James Coppinger manoeuvre.
There are many impressive factors surrounding his talent when the ball is at his feet. Despite his age-related lack of pace, his agility, low body position and precise ball control eliminate the need to be lightning fast as he still sees very little trouble in beating opposition players. Winning 73.9% of his dribbles this season, it’s not difficult to figure out why opposition teams view him as a dangerman.
The image above is one of countless examples of a vintage Coppinger move – the feint shot. This particular example, taken from Rovers’ fixture in the 2018/19 game away at Charlton Athletic. The two marked defenders apply pressure to Coppinger, with both men attempting a sliding tackle/block, which Coppinger recognises and proceeds to feint the shot and drive in the area to his right-hand side, behind the closest defender. His close ball control and his anticipation skills allow him to successfully execute this move on a weekly basis. This ultimately boots Doncaster’s chance creation opportunities as the skill results in at least once defender being out of position, allowing Coppinger to attempt a shot or cross.
Another effective way of beating a defender which is often shown by him is to maximise the impact of his first touch upon receiving a ground pass. This is done by taking the ball away as he pins himself against the opponent, not allowing any opportunity for the ball to be lost. Some situations see Coppinger do this and use that first touch to alter the direction of his next action, wrong-footing his marker.
Often when a player receives a ground pass with his/her back to goal, the closest defender’s first thought is to keep the receiver from getting closer to the goal and do this by getting tight to the receiver. As the defender often expects just a simple touch from the receiver to settle the ball in front of them, they aren’t expecting a quick turn and burst. This is exactly what happened in the image above; Coppinger shaped up to receive the ball as commonly expected, but quickly dropped a shoulder and controlled the ball with the outside of his right foot, scooping the ball past the defender and into the gap behind him. This is a move which highlights James Coppinger’s awareness and anticipation as he performs this move only when the situation requires such a manoeuvre. Since the move often also includes a burst of pace after the first touch, the tempo of the entire attack increases and Coppinger has the chance to link up the play with the attacking players.
Another key facet of the 38-year-old’s game is his ability to identify and execute a range of passes. Having recorded over 100 assists in his career, his creative knows very little in the way of boundaries as he displays pure talent with ground passes, lofted passes, through-ball passes, one-two executions, driven passes and any other type of pass you can think of. So far in the 2019/20 season he has an impressive collection of passing statistics which highlight a consistency – an accuracy rate of 87.6% with simple passes and 85.4% accuracy rate with long passes. He also offers an average of 1.4 key passes a game, with an impressive accuracy rate of 97%; 20.2% resulting in a goal assist.
Being accurate in the opposition half, especially near their penalty area, is often the key to creating the chances to score goals. On this occasion, Coppinger provides such accuracy with a fast-paced, powerful pass into teammate Jon Taylor at the edge of the box, in a dangerous amount of space. Coppinger’s competence in these areas is key to a lot of success his team finds, thanks to his outside-the-box thinking. This is another consistent factor too, with 76.97% of all passes, not including crosses, made in the opposition half being accurate.
The analysis above is an example of Coppinger’s wisdom. After some smart ball control to ensure possession for his team, he identifies the centre forward and executes a pass with sufficient pace into Kwame Thomas. His desire to progress the attack for Doncaster is high but not forced – if a forward pass into an attacker or winger isn’t on, he will opt for a safe sideways pass to a teammate to try and unluck the opposition defence from another angle.
In the image above, Coppinger has two obvious passing options: Jon Taylor who could’ve received the ball on the turn and carried the ball forward, or Brad Halliday making a darting run from the right-back position after seeing the space available to him. Instead of choosing the easier option and playing the pass to Halliday’s feet or slightly behind the right-back, Coppinger finds a cutting pass through the two highlighted defenders with the pace and precision of the pass being perfect to allow Halliday to collect the ball in his stride. An even more impressive feature of this pass is that it was performed with the outside of the foot – a difficult technique to combine with accuracy and power.
Movement made to look easy
So far, we’ve covered some key aspects of Coppinger’s talents on the ball. But his ability to glide into little pockets of space and time the run perfectly is a feature which goes unnoticed at times. Whether he’s drifting behind a full-back to receive a pass out-wide or gliding past the oppositions last midfielder to receive the ball in space between their defensive and midfield units, his experience really shows through with this particular talent.
In the above image, John Marquis is in possession with a number of options – shoot, turn and dribble past the outside of the right-back or find a through pass to Malik Wilks. However, the best option, and arguably the most obvious, is to pass to Coppinger who held his run into the box and instead placed himself at the edge of the D after recognising the unmarked space. Such quick thinking may seem obvious to some once mentioned, but its type of understanding and awareness that makes a difference, especially in and around League 1 level.
It has been mentioned that Coppinger likes to receive the ball centrally in between the opposition defensive and midfield units, but he also finds very little trouble with dropping deeper with his back to goal to receive the pass. In the image above, this mirrors exactly that – he is surrounded by four opposition players after his drift into the space to receive the pass from number 15 Herbie Kane. His confidence in his ability to succeed in these situations is underpinned by the ability as he weaves around two of the four defenders before drawing a foul, earning Rovers a free kick in a dangerous area.
On a weekly basis we see this sort of effortless movement from the veteran. He has the vision to find pockets of space which his teammates are able to locate with ease. This feature of his game is arguably to combat his lack of natural pace; instead of making quick runs outside of the full-backs at any given opportunity because he knows he will find less success with this method, he drifts into spaces which are often blind spots for the opposition defender marking him.
James Coppinger has undoubted talent in many areas of the game, but he will be the first to critique himself and puts himself in a constant search for improvement. At the age of 38, he knows his game is likely to remain unaltered until he hangs up the boots but doesn’t accept anything below average from himself despite this. While he isn’t exactly the tallest of biggest of players or doesn’t possess the pace that a lot of attacking players do, he plays to his strengths, of which there are plenty. He has mastered his own craft when it comes to his unique dribbling technique, his calmness and ability find a creative pass successfully and his work off the ball – all themes which have been discussed in this scout report.
While he has never been a player who will hit double figures of goals every season, he has always offered something in attack which will be near impossible to replace when Rovers do eventually lose him. It has been well documented in the past that he could’ve played at a higher level – he did in fact rise through the ranks at Newcastle United and is also a former England youth international. However, his love for Doncaster Rovers has stood the test of time and will remain an icon at the club for eternity.