Carlisle United lost 1-0 at home to Bristol Rovers on Saturday - but what did we learn from the game? Let's take a closer look...


It goes without saying that Carlisle are short of goals, and the issue is highlighted further by the fact that, defensively…they are ok.

The wake of a 1-0 defeat earned by an own-goal might not be the ideal time to be making that point.

But United’s general record across 2023/24 so far does strengthen the idea that, if only they could improve in attack, the other parts are at least acceptable.

News and Star: Carlisle's defensive record is acceptable - if only things were the same at the other endCarlisle's defensive record is acceptable - if only things were the same at the other end (Image: Ben Holmes)

Carlisle’s defensive record of 20 goals conceded is in fact the joint best in the bottom half of the table. Plus they’ve played a game more than many of those sides.

This might not paint the full picture – sides are clearly learning that one goal tends to be enough against the Blues, and are adapting their game plans accordingly – but a defensive tally better than those offered by Blackpool (8th), Charlton Athletic (11th), Wycombe Wanderers (12th) and several others cannot be dismissed entirely.

At the other end…not good. This was a 12th game from 21 in all competitions without scoring, and United’s return of 13 from 17 league games is better than only three sides in the division.

That ratio has them on course for a measly total of 35 from their 46 league games, which would be a club record low for a season.

No secret, then, what needs fixing.


In the first half – the scene-setting stage of the game, the period which often sees the Blues fall short – there was a painful lack of true penetration.

Too often it seemed to drop to Jordan Gibson to try and engineer something out of nothing.

He tried his best to do that, making a couple of elusive runs and providing moments of deft skill, but these only served to highlight the sterility elsewhere.

News and Star: Jordan Gibson was too often United's only creative influence in the first halfJordan Gibson was too often United's only creative influence in the first half (Image: Ben Holmes)

As well as that, Gibson’s brightest moments were generally too far from goal to hurt Bristol Rovers, who defended stoutly when things got closer to their box.

Player of the month nominee Gibson had twice as many shots as anyone else in blue while, from other sources, there was too little pace, too little invention. Luke Plange, one of Carlisle’s better players, was persistent on the left, but others offered very little.

An indictment of the Cumbrians’ inability to start games brightly is that they are still stuck on just four first-half goals from their 21 games this season.

It puts excessive pressure on their comeback capabilities. The odd time it’s paid off for them (Bolton Wanderers away, Burton Albion at home) but more often than not they can’t climb the hill.

This adds psychological strain onto whatever other shortcomings are hobbling Paul Simpson’s side right now. The sign of improvement will be when United are showing greater authority from 0-45. May it come soon.


Dead-ball situations were often a source of strength for United last season. At the higher level…not so much.

Carlisle won ten corners on Saturday compared with Bristol Rovers’ none. Much good it did them.

This is where a game plainly cannot be won on stats alone. In their 17 games so far in League One, United have had 97 corners at an average of just under six per game.

News and Star: Owen Moxon's free-kicks and corners didn't come off on SaturdayOwen Moxon's free-kicks and corners didn't come off on Saturday (Image: Barbara Abbott)

How many goals have directly resulted? Two: an own-goal against Shrewsbury Town, and Joe Garner’s header at Stevenage.

(If you’re being generous, you can include Jordan Gibson at Bolton, but that was a case of Gibson making the most of a delivery that reached him outside the box)

So, depending on your take, Carlisle need either 32 or 49 corners in order to score from one.

At a stage when they’re toiling to find their feet at League One’s general level, this is another area that's costing them.

The occasional free-kick has led to further goals – Luke Plange at Lincoln City, for instance – but it is hard to make the case for the Blues being deadly when the ball is dead right now.

The last time a defender scored for Carlisle remains Ben Barclay's famous header against Bradford City in last season’s play-off semi-final second leg.

It’s one of many departments where they are not managing to help themselves, give themselves a bonus or a leg-up.


Sifting positives from a defeat that leaves you third bottom and three points adrift feels something of a token activity.

But sift United must. They have to find a way at least until January with the squad they have, and in the interests of figuring out who Paul Simpson could lean on between now and then, a couple of players did step up on Saturday.

Luke Plange deserves some praise for his performance on the left of United’s attack. The Crystal Palace loanee has struggled for goals since his arrival and his displays have come in for some criticism from supporters.

News and Star: Dylan McGeouch, pictured, and Luke Plange came out of the defeat with some creditDylan McGeouch, pictured, and Luke Plange came out of the defeat with some credit (Image: Ben Holmes)

Against Bristol Rovers, Simpson chanced his arm with Plange in the XI after a period on the bench.

The forward, to his credit, did his best to attack the opportunity, looking to run at Andy Mangan’s defenders, putting in some useful and well-struck deliveries and getting on the end of a couple himself in the second half.

Plange appeared to enjoy the extra freedom the wider role offered and his positivity was something Simpson could take out of the spectacle.

In midfield, meanwhile, United need lasting solutions to the long-term loss of Callum Guy and while Dylan McGeouch is a different kind of player, he at least showed a glimpse of how Carlisle could cope in that area.

It was his full league debut for the Blues, a fact that reflects how frustrating and injury-tarnished his start to life at Carlisle has been.

Yet McGeouch showed good control, accuracy and pace in the pass in front of United’s defence on Saturday.

His passing accuracy ratio was high – 86.3 per cent, according to – while the quality of his long passes (five connected out of eight) was a better figure than most could muster.

An 81-minute showing was probably as good and sustained as could be expected, all in all, given how his last three months have panned out.

Others may need to cover more ground to make up for the loss of Guy’s admirable locomotion, but should McGeouch establish himself in the position, Carlisle’s ball-retention may improve. We can only hope.