Preview: Rochdale

It was going to take an escape act of Houdini proportions in order to survive, but much like the great man himself, when the end came, it felt like being punched in the stomach, hard.

While this recent run under Mark Robins has supplied some optimism that we can actually challenge for promotion next season, the disunity off-the-pitch that we witnessed before, during and in the days after the Charlton game is probably going to be the bigger challenge to overcome than the actual winning of games next season. Just what kind of shape we’ll be in come August remains a mystery with so many unknown factors likely to affect Robins’ ability to retain and rebuild this squad.

Although these past few games have demonstrated that this squad has the ability to win games on a consistent basis, we also saw in the Charlton game just why this squad would need strengthening where possible in order to achieve that. We’re looking increasingly intentful as a team-unit, however, the gravity of the situation on Friday clearly got to the players, manifesting itself via a number of nervy errors in the second-half when we were chasing the game. Finding the right kind of experience to help whoever remains from this squad is going to be vital element of a push for promotion

 

Possible Line-Up

As for these final three games of this season, it makes little difference whether or not we finish bottom or as close to safety as possible – this season has already been an embarrassment. With this Rochdale game coming so close to the physical and mental exertion of our last game, the players have an easy excuse for not really turning up for this one – although they may need to be aware that their performances could affect their chances of a contract for next season.

The team selection is likely to be heavily influenced by injuries, much like every game we’ve had since the Checkatrade Trophy final. I would imagine that this will mean a start for Kevin Foley, and possibly the likes of Marcus Tudgay and Callum Reilly. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the game where Michael Folivi finally makes an appearance.

Last Time We Met

Our last game against Rochdale was probably one of the most one-sided games I’ve ever seen us win. Of course, it was one-sided in favour of Rochdale, and I’m still not sure how we won it. Right from the very off, the away side at the Ricoh Arena pressed us all over the pitch, fashioning several great chances and making it difficult for us to string two passes together. Somehow, we took the lead when Ruben Lameiras broke free and teed up Dan Agyei to scuff the ball into the back of the net.

The second-half followed a similar script, and to cap off what an odd game it was, Andre Wright scored a decisive second goal for us from a Lewis Page cross. To sum up the man, Wright stayed on the pitch long after the final whistle to watch the replay of his goal on the big screen.

How Are They Doing?

Having been in the play-off places around the turn of the year, Rochdale have had a poor 2017, winning just four of 16 games. Somehow though, they still harbour half a chance of making the play-offs heading into this fixture, sitting six points off sixth place with three games to go.

Despite it probably being too late to salvage a play-off spot, Keith Hill is still doing a remarkable job at Rochdale. With one of the division’s smallest budgets, Rochdale have consistently been close to the play-off spots over the past three seasons, playing a brand of football that is both pleasing to watch but with a competitive, physical edge that can make them one of the most difficult teams to play against in this division.

The trifecta of Callum Camps and Jamie Allen in midfield with Ian Henderson in attack has often been the key to Rochdale’s success over the past few years. Camps and Allen are delightful and mobile ball-playing midfielders who control possession in midfield, while Henderson is a real dynamo in attack, capable of sliding players through with wonderfully precise passes or finishing chances off with unerring nerve in front of goal.

Possible Line-Up

Additionally, the form of winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and left-back Joe Bunney has added further quality and cutting edge to Rochdale’s play this season. Mendez-Laing has been one of those wingers who has threatened for many years to become a consistently decisive player and has finally made that breakthrough this season. Bunney, although he’s struggled with injuries at times, has been converted from a frustrating striker into a marauding left-back with wonderful delivery this season and has been a reliable source of assists from open play and set-pieces.

Rochdale have a physical edge to their game, with players like target-man striker Calvin Andrew and defensive enforcers such as Keith Keane and Jim McNulty to call upon, although that edge to their game often manifests itself in zealous pressing and the ability to commit niggly fouls to break up opposition attacks that fall under the radar of referees. Another edge to Rochdale’s game also comes from Keith Hill’s ability to switch things up tactically to exploit an opposition weakness.

Prediction

I’m struggling to see how the players will be mentally ready to throw everything they have at a difficult away game against a side still harboring play-off ambitions. We have won just once on the road all season, and to double that number now that relegation has been confirmed seems unlikely. The only hope is that the lack of pressure allows the team to express itself rather than provides an excuse for giving up.

Nonetheless, this looks all set for a comfortable 2-0 victory for Rochdale.

Preview: Rochdale

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.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

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.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

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.

Prediction

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.

Preview: Rochdale

An utterly predictable defeat in a lifeless midweek performance has really put the pressure on the team. Tony Mowbray made his excuses for our poor post-Gillingham form before the Bury game and seemed to be justified with a big win with his strongest 11, two defeats in the games undermines his argument that our form since November has been down simply to bad luck.

Two goals conceded from set-pieces and relatively little threat posed to the opposition goal demonstrated just how far we’ve fallen from our groove. If there is one thing that has got us into this parlous state, it has been a series of bizarre decisions regarding personnel from the manager. The freezing out of Jim O’Brien and the picking of Stephen Hunt over Ruben Lameiras are the ones that stand-out most. January was an opportunity to strengthen the squad and signings were made but there are somehow fewer options to change things away from our nominal strongest 11.

After every limp performance the manager and players have come out and said how it wasn’t good enough, how hurt they are, how they want to put it right. The message has lost its meaning now, we can’t sustain these reactions beyond one-off games which is likely down to the inexperience of the squad, when we’re high, we’re high, when we’re low, we’re low.

Yet, we are still in the play-offs and it would be stupid for anyone not to believe we can’t stay here for the rest of the season. It doesn’t matter in what shape we enter those play-offs in, if we get in, we get in and have a 1 in 4 chance of promotion.  If we write off the season now, when we still actually can get into the play-offs, it’s going to be a long summer to think about what could have been. It’s not being unreasonably positive to suggest that a time in sixth bloody place at the start of March has a chance of making the play-offs.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

As for this Rochdale game, I would imagine we would be pretty much picking the same starting 11 as we did against Fleetwood. We saw on Tuesday night just how little there is other than those 11 players at the moment, so it’s a case of hoping they’ll play with the intensity (and luck) that we had against Bury.

Sam Ricketts’ form is a huge concern at the moment, something which I hope Mowbray is aware of. Much like our previous experienced defender, Andy Webster, I think we’ve reached the point where his leadership on the pitch has been undermined by a loss of pace. If Ricketts’ spot in the team is up for consideration, then it’s between Aaron Martin, with Jack Stephens moving to right-back, or the more like-for-like Martin Lorentzson. Does Mowbray have the nerve to drop his captain though?

Last Time We Met

This is our third meeting with Rochdale this season, having played out two Tuesday night draws in the League and League Cup. Though both those meetings were almost entirely forgettable, they did show Rochdale to be the type of well-drilled, hard-working side who can unsettle our rhythm. After advancing on penalties in the League Cup in August, they had slightly the better of our the previous league encounter but found Reice Charles-Cook in good form in our goal.

How Are They Doing?

Rochdale fans might be feeling that they could be doing a little better this season, currently sitting in 15th place. On their day, Rochdale are a handful for the best sides in the division, typified by a recent 3-0 win away at Walsall where they restricted the hosts to 0 shots on target with a high intensity pressing game. Losing 2-0 to Shrewsbury on Tuesday night also demonstrated just how inconsistent Dale have been this season.

Rochdale’s squad is stronger than it was last season, even though they lost the key central midfielder Stephen Dawson on a free transfer in the summer. Having overachieved last season though on limited resources, there is perhaps the feeling that the verve has been lost slightly. Players who played out of their skins last season have been less effective, opponents a little more wary to their effects.

As always with this most recent iteration of Rochdale, forwards Peter Vincenti and Ian Henderson will be key. Vincenti is a big, niggly goal-scoring midfielder who is often deployed on the wing and is used for his height to pin back the opposing full-back. Henderson offers more creativity but can also be effective when Rochdale go more direct, he leads the club’s goal-scoring charts with 11 goals.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The brute physicality of Calvin Andrew has to be looked out for too, although he could be deployed from the bench after the recent signing of another brute of a centre-forward in Grant Holt. Joe Bunney is a striker in form, the kind of no-name player that tends to succeed under Keith Hill’s manager, he has scored five goals in his last six appearances.

The more subtle threat in the team comes from the small, technical midfielders Jamie Allen and Callum Camps. The two of them on their day supply the kind of metronomic passing that can dominate a midfield. They can be disrupted if put under pressure, but then that allows Rochdale to go more direct, which they can find success with.

Prediction

A win here, and another one on Tuesday night, could really change the mood around the club. From believing one week that we could still mount a bid for automatic promotion, to right now where we’re hoping for a performance out of nowhere that could help us hold onto sixth spot. The nerve of the players is going to be tested more than anything against a hard-working Rochdale side who could run riot if we’re not at it. Anything less than a big start in this game will leave the team fighting uphill against a good side and a furious crowd. There are no excuses for another low intensity performance.

Can we actually do it? We saw against Bury that this side does have the wherewithal to play up when they really need to but then we were also dire on Tuesday night when a better quality performance was already required. Sitting between the two extremes, I’m going to predict an annoying 1-1 draw.

Preview: Rochdale

A frustrating Saturday afternoon against Blackpool following all that excitement after the signing of Joe Cole the night before. Lethargy, a lack of ideas and naivety cost us an excellent opportunity to move into second place and be able to claim first place with a win in our game in hand. If fatigue was an issue in our last outing, it will only get tougher with two difficult looking away trips this week to test our mettle. By 5 on Saturday afternoon, we’ll have a much clearer idea of our promotion prospects.

It’s easy to criticise Blackpool’s supposed ‘anti-football’ tactics, but considering our stature, our form this season and the division we’re in, we need a better way of overcoming this type of football rather than complaining about the opposition’s time-wasting. Our decision-making in the final third continues to frustrate and the difference between this game and the recent Chesterfield and Shrewsbury ones was that we didn’t find that one moment of inspiration to break the deadlock.

As much as it was on off day for our young forward players, Blackpool were very street smart in the way they defended the middle of the pitch aggressively which forced the play out wide where we ran into blind alleys. The wide men Jacob Murphy and Ryan Kent were guilty of choosing to beat the extra man rather than pick out a team-mate, which demonstrated their inexperience. It was the kind of attacking display which highlighted why there is an actual need to bring in Joe Cole who can offer more of a presence of mind in that final third.

The focus of this trip to Rochdale has understandably been on the potential debut for Joe Cole. Despite some concerns over his fitness levels, it appears that he is in pretty good shape and may even slot straight into the starting line-up. Cole has also made it clear that he is enthusiastic about the prospect of playing first-team football having been out-of-favour at the Villa, a Tuesday night visit to Rochdale will be a test of that enthusiasm.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The main team selection issues though revolve around how to manage the absences of John Fleck and Reda Johnson. With so few defenders currently available, Tony Mowbray is almost forced to call Aaron Phillips back into the team with Sam Ricketts slotting in alongside Aaron Martin who impressed on Saturday but will have to demonstrate he can put in a more physical showing in Reda’s absence. Bryn Morris seems likeliest to step in for John Fleck, Morris is a neat ball-player but has to show that he has a bigger range of passing and how to use it if he truly wants to challenge Fleck for his starting role.

Tony Mowbray may also experiment with the line-up of his attacking midfielders again after Saturday’s performance. Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Adam Armstrong and Ryan Kent all looked to be fairly fatigued as the game wore on. We could see Jim O’Brien and Marcus Tudgay introduced for their work-rate given that this is a tough-looking Tuesday night game. Given that neither of those two have particularly impressed of late, there is the obvious temptation too to hand Joe Cole his first start right from the off tonight.

Last Time We Met

This game will be a first opportunity to check our progress this season, being as it as the second time we have faced Rochdale this campaign. Back in August we travelled to Spotland in the League Cup and coped admirably against a strong Rochdale side after going a goal down with Marcus Tudgay tapping home from a George Thomas assist to take the game to penalties. Ruben Lameiras missed his spot-kick to hand Rochdale the win but that was after the game ended with Marcus Tudgay seeing a late winner controversially ruled out for offside, seemingly as a result of the confusion over the new interpretation of the offside rules.

How Are They Doing?

Rochdale have always been quietly impressive since winning promotion back to this level under Keith Hill two season ago. The right blend of pragmatic and ambitious in their style of play, they continue to massively over-perform considering their resources and are a tough team to beat, especially at Spotland.

Just three points off the play-offs, Rochdale know that a win tonight could inject some momentum into their league campaign which has started and stalled this season. It’s probably been down to Rochdale’s tight budget more than anything, just lacking that bit of added quality at either end of the pitch that could make a big difference.

The key men for Rochdale are forwards Ian Henderson and Peter Vincenti. Vincenti has been in fine form this season, leading Rochdale’s scoring charts and recently winning League One player of the month. He’s a tall and physically strong attacking midfielder who is a nuisance to deal with for defenders. Henderson is returning to the team after a recent injury but is a real talisman too with his inventive forward play.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

There is Donal McDermott to potentially look out for too, the ex-Man City winger is starting to rebuild a once-promising career having fallen out of the professional game over the past few season. The winger scored a memorable dipping effort in our League Cup tie, earning him the accolade of being the only player to beat Reice Charles-Cook this season.

Others to watch out for include Jamie Allen, a metronomic young midfielder, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, a fast and strong winger who has struggled at times to fulfil his potential, and there is also big Calvin Andrew to deal with. Andrew is famously one of the least prolific strikers in the Football League but he is a big, nasty target-man who constantly put Sam Ricketts under big pressure when we last met.

Prediction

As mentioned at the top of this article, these next two games are going to be a tough examination of our promotion credentials both as individual challenges and in coming in as quick a succession as they are. We have won just once in four midweek games this season, although we are also technically unbeaten. If we can scrape through with a couple of decent performances this week whilst managing the fitness of the squad, there is a good chance we’ll end it in the top two. There’s your motivation for turning it on on a cold Tuesday night.

We seem to struggle to settle into a rhythm for away games at the moment and missing Reda Johnson and John Fleck just make it that little bit more difficult to do so. With Rochdale providing a stern physical threat through Calvin Andrew and Peter Vincenti, I can see us losing this game 2-1.