Last Saturday was the first time this season that I genuinely thought we were going down. We might have played fairly well against Charlton, but there was such a lack of defensive and attacking effectiveness, that I thought we simply weren’t capable of winning games at this level of football.
Not only did we win on Tuesday night, but to do it in such a confident and assured manner offers hope that not only can we pull ourselves away from the relegation zone, we might just be able to become a genuinely good team. Everyone raised their game, but the midfield three of McCann, Stevenson and Bigirimana were superlative – energetic in their pressing, composed and ambitious in possession, driving the team forward while also providing sufficient protection of the defence.
As good as we were on Tuesday night – I place that performance up there with some of the better showing under Mowbray – it’s worth pointing out that the two goals we scored both had an element of fortune to them. We weren’t that much better than we were in a 3-0 defeat against Charlton, we just managed to avoid making too many mistakes at the back and saw a 30-yard effort fly into the top corner and an opposing defender completely gift us a second goal.
It’s a shame that a planned boycott coincides with an opportunity to build some momentum after a statement win but I suppose, those involved in organising it weren’t to know that. Whether an emptier stadium will impact the team’s performance is hard to tell – on the one hand, it relieves the pressure on the players, on the other, it provides less motivation to raise their games – a lot rests on Mark Venus’ ability to motivate the players.
Venus has suggested that he’ll stick with the same XI from Tuesday’s game, there is no reason not to really. Particularly because Lee Burge justified his place in goal with not only for some excellent saves and a command of his penalty area (barring one notable early error) but also demonstrating improvements in his kicking and distribution of the ball – possibly as a result of having watched Reice Charles-Cook from the sidelines for the best part of a year. It remains to be seen whether Burge can sustain this level of performance, but it makes sense to keep the defence settled while we look to launch ourselves away from the relegation places.
Last Time We Met
I was fortunate enough not to have attended our last game against Rochdale, which was possibly the worst kind of defeat you can experience as a football fan. What was reportedly a dreadfully dull game back in March was only enlivened in the final minutes of the game when John Fleck conceded an avoidable penalty and Ian Henderson stepped up to secure Rochdale the victory. It was our third defeat in a run that pretty much extinguished any hope of salvaging a play-off spot last season.
How Are They Doing?
Rochdale started the season in poor form, failing to win their first seven league games, before winning their next six to take them from below us in the table to fifth place. That excellent recent run of form was curtailed on Tuesday night in a 3-0 away defeat to Swindon that manager Keith Hill blamed on the long travel to the game.
The decision to convert the hard-working but ineffective striker Joe Bunney into an attacking left-back has coincided with Rochdale’s winning streak. Bunney’s excellent delivery from open play and set-pieces has seen him register five assists, although he is still learning his positioning as a left-back and was culpable for Swindon’s second goal on Tuesday night by playing Nathan Delfouneso onside from a Conor Thomas through ball.
However, thanks to Keith Hill’s ability to get the best out of his limited resources at Rochdale, they still have plenty of players that can hurt us. Given our defence’s inability to deal with physicality, target-man Calvin Andrew has to be considered Dale’s biggest threat. From looking like one of the more useless players in the Football League, Andrew has become one of the most effective target-men under Keith Hill’s management and should have no problems dominating either Jordan Willis or Jordan Turnbull in the air.
Talisman Ian Henderson is also looking likely to be a thorn in our side, the forward is not only capable of offering a physical threat but also has the technical ability to unlock defences. With the pacey Nathaniel Mendez-Laing to call upon – another previously written-off player Keith Hill has gotten a tune out of – Rochdale could be in for a field day if everything goes to plan.
The homegrown duo of Jamie Allen and Callum Camps in midfield has consistently provided Rochdale with quality and composure on the ball over the past few years. It’s going to be an interesting test of our newly discovered quality and industry in midfield provided by Rochdale, if we can prevent Allen and Camps getting on the ball, we may be able to ease the physical pressure that Dale will look to inflict upon our defence.
Although Rochdale have conceded as many league goals as we have this season, that strangely means they have one of the better defensive records this season. The signing of Conrad Logan in goal this summer has pushed incumbent keeper Josh Lillis to new heights, Lillis once memorably shut us down while he was at Scunthorpe very early on in his career and is a talented shot-stopper on his day.
The boycott (to whatever extent it happens) adds an unknown element to this game, but this game is a massive test of our credentials regardless of that factor. Rochdale are a really well-organised and hard-working side who know how to blend physicality, cynicism with some neat, possession-based football. How our defence stands up to the physical test is going to be crucial here.
The way we’re playing at the moment, the first goal is likely to be decisive in the final result. I’m not sure this team has the ability to come from behind to win a game as we don’t create enough high-quality chances for the possession we have. My optimism from Tuesday night is starting to wear off and I can see this game finishing in a 2-1 defeat.