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.