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.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Play-Off Race

Top Scorer: Ian Henderson (8) Most Assists: Joe Bunney (7)

Top Scorer: Ian Henderson (8)
Most Assists: Joe Bunney (7)

Rochdale (4th Place)

I felt prior to the start of the season that Rochdale were a decent bet to at least challenge for the top six and, despite a seven-game winless run at the start of the season, Keith Hill’s side have justified my faith in them. Rochdale’s ability to mix-up smart possession football with telling diagonal passes towards Ian Henderson and Calvin Andrew up-front, along with a zealous pressing game has always made them a real nightmare team to play against for many and they’ve been added a level of consistency that was missing last season.

Keith Hill’s ability to shuffle his pack on a miniscule budget has also given Rochdale an edge over most of the other play-off contenders. An example of which comes from when left-back Scott Tanser picked up an injury and striker Joe Bunney was moved to left-back – he the joint-third leading provider of assists this season. They should be feeling confident of at least securing top six place, and are potential dark horses for an automatic promotion spot if they can find another level over the next few months.

Top Scorer: Billy Clarke (6) Most Assists: Nicky Law & Mark Marshall (3)

Top Scorer: Billy Clarke (6)
Most Assists: Nicky Law & Mark Marshall (3)

Bradford City (5th Place)

There were some significant doubts surrounding Bradford City heading into the start of this season, Phil Parkinson had left after a long and mostly successful era at the club and in his place had come Stuart McCall, who was arriving with a mixed reputation as a manager. By-and-large though, Stuart McCall has managed to maintain a sense of momentum and identity at Valley Parade, despite being forced to make some big changes to the squad over the summer.

A new-look defence featuring Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival in central defence has largely been solid, while Mark Marshall and Nicky Law have impressed out wide for the Bantams. A lack of a reliable goalscoring centre-forward, and Stuart McCall’s tendency to constantly tweak his starting line-up, has held Bradford back from being in the automatic promotion race. If Bradford can find some additional quality in the January transfer window, they should be in a good position to at least secure a top six place, but they’ve maybe left themselves too much to do to make significant ground on the top two.

Top Scorer: David Ball (9) Most Assists: Three Players (4)

Top Scorer: David Ball (9)
Most Assists: Three Players (4)

Fleetwood Town (6th Place)

Having been appointed with around a week to go before the start of the season, Uwe Rosler could have been forgiven for pleading for patience at Fleetwood as he settled into the job without any time to stamp his mark on the squad. Instead, Fleetwood started the season in excellent form thanks to Rosler discovering a devastating attacking trident of David Ball, Ashley Hunter and Chris Long, while his one major signing of midfielder Kyle Dempsey added further potency to a Fleetwood squad that had lacked a cutting edge for much of last season.

After some underwhelming form over the autumn, Uwe Rosler has re-jigged the formation to a back three and it seems to have Fleetwood playing with a level of consistency to see them move into the top six. They haven’t been entirely convincing in many of their games but have developed a habit of nicking the odd goal in tight games, whether that is enough to mount a play-off push remains to be seen.

Top Scorer: Simon Cox (7) Most Assists: Simon Cox (6)

Top Scorer: Simon Cox (7)
Most Assists: Simon Cox (6)

Southend United (7th Place)

A lot of Southend’s success this season can be put down to the gambles that Phil Brown took on signing strikers Simon Cox and Nile Ranger in the summer. Although neither are particularly prolific goalscorers, Cox’s creativity and Ranger’s hold-up play have given Southend a real presence and threat in the final third that they lacked last season, with former Coventry City man Marc-Antoine Fortuné playing an effective role as back-up. The form of the often inconsistent Stephen McLaughlin out wide and the return to full fitness of midfielder Anthony Wordsworth have been real boons for Southend too as they’ve defied most pre-season predictions that they would struggle.

It’s worth noting that Southend were in a similarly close position to the top six around this time last season before falling apart in the final months, which makes it hard not to feel that they’re currently on a good run of form that must end at some point. They have shown touches of genuine quality over the past month or so which could make this season different to last. How they cope with their next loss could provide a better indication of how they’re going to do than their current good form.

Top Scorer: Gwion Edwards (7) Most Assists: Marcus Maddison (9)

Top Scorer: Gwion Edwards (7)
Most Assists: Marcus Maddison (9)

Peterborough United (8th Place)

Peterborough have flattered to deceive over the past few seasons but Grant McCann looks to have garnered a semblance of consistency from the Posh thus far this season. Strangely, Peterborough have been rather good defensively this season, but despite currently boasted an array of impressive attacking talent, they’ve struggled to push on into the top six. Attackers Marcus Maddison, Gwion Edwards, Leo da Silva Lopes, Tom Nichols and Paul Taylor have all shown intermittently thus far, but not yet on a consistent basis.

With last season’s top-scorer, Lee Angol, returning to full fitness and the impressive West Ham loanee Martin Samuelsen arriving in the early days of the January transfer window, it won’t be a lack of attacking potential that will let Peterborough down this season. The concern is that manager Grant McCann has overloaded his squad with attacking options and will waste precious time searching for the right combination. A position just outside the play-offs looks to be where Peterborough will spend much of the rest of the season.

 

Top Scorer: Lee Gregory (10) Most Assists: Steve Morison (4)

Top Scorer: Lee Gregory (10)
Most Assists: Steve Morison (4)

Millwall (9th Place)

Seen by many, myself included, as one of the teams best-set to challenge for automatic promotion this season, Millwall have struggled to live up to expectations, finding themselves in the bottom half for much of the campaign. That identity of physical, aggressive football that Neil Harris brought roaring back to Millwall last season hasn’t been quite as effective this time around, with Harris appearing to lack the tactical acumen at times to change things up.

However, Millwall have improved a lot over recent weeks and find themselves surging up the table, not unlike last season’s run to the play-off final. Striker/winger Aiden O’Brien has been in excellent goal-scoring form, and the returns to form and fitness of last season’s brutally effective strike pairing of Steve Morison and Lee Gregory has effectively guaranteed Millwall a steady source of goals throughout the rest of the season. They’re getting closer to striking distance of the play-offs and appear to be rising up through the gears as the season enters its crucial phase.

Top Scorer: Matty Taylor (15) Most Assists: Chris Lines (5)

Top Scorer: Matty Taylor (15)
Most Assists: Chris Lines (5)

Bristol Rovers (10th Place)

Bristol Rovers have looked at times this season like they could challenge for the top six but have been let down by a lack of consistency – both in form and team selection. For Bristol Rovers manager Darrell Clarke, the inconsistent team selections haven’t merely been down to not knowing his best eleven, it has been down to a desire to calculate how he can get the best out of his squad against every specific opponent. It has regularly proved an effective formula with what is a fairly similar squad to one that played in the National League two seasons ago.

The January transfer window could be the difference between a season of adjusting to League One and a top six place. Darrell Clarke has stated a desire to re-jig his squad after admitting that some of his players are not up to League One standard. With the backing of a rich Jordanian owner, Bristol Rovers should be able to add quality to the squad to supplement the goalscoring brilliance of Matty Taylor.

Top Scorer: Josh Magennis (8) Most Assists: 5 Players (4)

Top Scorer: Josh Magennis (8)
Most Assists: 5 Players (4)

Charlton Athletic (11th Place)

In retrospect, the appointment of Russell Slade as Charlton manager in the summer was a case of picking the wrong manager for the task of assembling a promotion-winning side. Slade does not have a promotion on his CV and tends to build solid, rather than spectacular sides. Charlton found that out after a series of obdurate performances in the first few months which cost Slade his job. The Addicks have since gone for a manager who builds spectacular, rather than solid, sides in Karl Robinson.

It’s taken time for Robinson to stamp his mark at Charlton but the past few performances have suggested it might not be too late for a play-off tilt. Bulldozer centre-forward Josh Magennis recently scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Bristol Rovers, but it was the performance of young winger Joe Aribo that really caught the eye, and he now has four assists in four league appearances. With the January transfer window to re-shape the squad to his liking, Robinson should be able to make a further impact at the Valley, it may be slightly too late though to salvage a top six spot.

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.

Preview: Rochdale

The opening day of the season is rarely a reflection of what eventually transpires at the end of it. How many more games this season are going to be played on a perfect pitch, in the sun and with almost little pressure on the team to get the result? An away trip on a Tuesday night to Rochdale, albeit in competition few care how well we do in, may be a better indication of what we should expect from this team over the course of the rest of the season.

Just about every player on the pitch on Saturday put in an excellent shift, executing Tony Mowbray’s game plan expertly. Adam Armstrong’s pace, incisive running and self-confidence in front of goal gave the team a purpose in the final third that they rallied around with Maddison, Lameiras and O’Brien all looking to slip him through at the earliest opportunity. The decision to play Armstrong on the right paid dividends as he attacked the space in the channel between left-sided centre-back and left wing-back that Wigan left. Tony Mowbray set the team up perfectly to beat Wigan, the challenge now is to alter that approach for more street-wide opposition in Rochdale.

RochdaleawayLCCovArmstrong through will be ineligible for this ties, which rather worryingly suggests that his parent club may have their finger hovering above the ‘recall’ button. The alternative options in Marcus Tudgay and George Thomas suggest that a change in formation is all but assured with Tudgay likely to lead the attack with Thomas tucked in somewhere behind him. Jordan Willis is out injured too which means Aaron Phillips has an early season opportunity to finally nail down that right-back spot.

Tony Mowbray has alluded to the fact that he will experiment with his team for this fixture. Reice Charles-Cook is reportedly set to start his first competitive game for the club which should help push Burge to show that there is competition for the goalkeeper’s jersey. With Reda Johnson’s fitness always doubtful, it seems unlikely that he will be risked for what could be seen as a glorified pre-season friendly. That leaves Aaron Martin to fill in at centre-back alongside captain Sam Ricketts who put in a gloriously composed and assured performance on his league debut for the club. Loanee Bryn Morris too is seemingly set for a full debut having looked solid coming off the bench against Wigan.

Last Time We Met

Perhaps there is parallel universe that exists where Coventry City won their last encounter with Rochdale back in January. Steven Pressley’s had added Dominic Samuel and Sanmi Odelusi to the squad prior to that meeting at the Ricoh Arena and both provided a much-needed injection of pace and urgency in the final third. Dominic Samuel opened the scoring after confidently tucking away a rebounded Jim O’Brien effort, Rochdale equalised. Sanmi Odelusi curled a beautiful effort into the top corner from the edge of the area, Rochdale equalised. Had we been able to hold onto either lead, maybe it would have boosted the confidence of the team enough to get them through a difficult set of fixtures afterwards and maybe it would have saved Steven Pressley his job.

The other salient point to make when writing about Coventry City’s head-to-head record with Rochdale is that we have only ever beaten Rochdale once in the ten meetings between the two sides and never at Spotland. The law of averages dictates that that wn eventually has to happen at some point, right?

How Are They Doing?

Following a previous season where Rochdale shattered pre-season expectations of a relegation struggle to finish 8th, Keith Hill’s side began this campaign with a confident 2-0 win over Peterborough. For those wondering whether Rochdale were perhaps a ‘one season wonder’ it demonstrated that under Keith Hill, they will continue to punch above their weight.

Possible Line-Up

The main concern heading into this season was the loss of last season’s key central midfielder Stephen Dawson to Scunthorpe. Just how big a difference the loss of Dawson’s tigerish energy will be remains to be seen but in Peter Vincenti and Ian Henderson, Rochdale still have on-the-pitch leaders that an otherwise youthful team can turn to for inspiration. Vincenti is an awkward physical customer to contend with, standing at six foot two in an attacking midfield position. Henderson is an inventive forward who scored an impressive 22 goals last season and assisted Rochdale’s second goal on Saturday with a wonderful through ball demonstrating his ability as a creative force.

Impressively, Keith Hill has also been able to develop some of the club’s academy talent over the past few seasons by giving them a framework and simple tasks on the field to focus on to improve their games. The best of the current crop are the creative midfield duo of Jamie Allen and Callum Camps who provide a metronomic tempo to Rochdale’s midfield play. Full-backs Scott Tanser and Joe Rafferty have rapidly developed into first-choice picks with each supplying the width on their respective flanks, as well as high quality crosses into the box.

Prediction

The first round of the League Cup always arrives as the game that nobody really wants to play. Saturday was the fun part of the start of the season, this fixture is the start of a grinding four games in ten days which always tests both the physical and mental fitness of the side. With the squad so small at the moment, Tony Mowbray will be forgiven for placing less importance on this early season cup-tie than he otherwise might have, especially as it’s away from home against a team in the same division as us.

It’s just about getting through this game and moving on from it as soon as possible. With Rochdale having home advantage, I’m predicting a forgettable 2-0 defeat.

Preview: Rochdale

Not that we’re in the position right now to be turning down points of any kind, but it was pretty useless to get just the one against Yeovil last Saturday. A missed opportunity in the context of the game itself due to the missed penalty. But also in the context of the fixtures ahead and the relegation battle, this was a chance to put some points between us and the relegation zone ahead of a tough schedule ahead.

Hope is all we have right now.

Hope is all we have right now.

Instead, we head into this home fixture against Rochdale more in hope than in expectations. With a team lacking confidence, we are hoping that for some inexplicable reason everything clicks. Without Gary Madine, we are hoping that a youngster with just four games of first-team experience will prove to be a good signing. We are hoping that Rochdale will revert to the level that was expected of them pre-season. We are hoping that we won’t be sucked into a relegation battle. We are hoping that Wasps owning the Ricoh Arena will be a good thing. I could go on.

If we weren’t already in a relegation battle, a loss against a very good Rochdale side will put the matter beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whilst this league is a fairly even one, fixtures in February against the likes of Preston, Sheffield United and MK ‘Dons’ do not bode well. We could very well find ourselves in March, when the ‘easier’ fixtures do indeed present themselves, without a league win in eight games. Were that to happen, it would be tough for Pressley to salvage anything from this situation and it may be better to take a gamble on the new manager ‘bounce’.

Madine’s, possibly permanent, absence does not mean that we are lacking striking options it’s just that those that are here are not very inspiring. The imminent arrival of Sanmi Odelusi could free Frank Nouble up to play as a central striker. Then it would be a case of Pressley deciding whether Nouble is the pace-man or the link-up-man.  The big-billing Marcus Tudgay has received over the past month suggests that Tudgay will provide the link-up play in attack and the veteran may be handed the start here against Rochdale.

Aside from that, there are no real selection issues for Pressley to consider. Jamie Jones reportedly impressed despite having little to do against Yeovil, Jordan Willis looks back to his normal, composed self at right-back and Reda Johnson is our lucky charm. The midfield is still a cause for concern but it seems that there is very little that can be done right now other than to hope that O’Brien, Fleck and Thomas raise their respective games.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Jones; Willis, Martin, Webster, Johnson; O’Brien, Thomas, Fleck, Odelusi; Nouble, Tudgay.

Last Time We Met

Our first league meeting with Rochdale in nearly 90 years ended in a 1-0 defeat for the Sky Blues at Spotland. In was in the early part of a winless run which appears to have defined our season, the game was decided by disorganisation in our five-man defence leading to a penalty converted by Dale. There was an onslaught of sorts for most of the rest of the game but it wasn’t convincing enough to put our hosts under any undue pressure and Rochdale ran out fairly comfortable winners.

How Are They Doing?

Rochdale have been the team this season that everyone in this division has been waiting to see drop-off. They shouldn’t be this good. They sold their top-scorer in the summer and chose not to reinvest the money in the team (note to SISU: this usually doesn’t work). Instead, some good management from Keith Hill has seen a team that looked best equipped for mid-table League Two challenge for the play-offs.

13 league goals isn't bad for a former emergency left-back.

13 league goals isn’t bad for a former emergency left-back.

The form of top-scorer Matty Done sums up just how brilliant Keith Hill is at man-management and tactical organisation as a football manager. An emergency left-back last season, Done has been converted into a ‘false 9’ style centre-forward that allows others behind him to get involved in the goal-scoring action. Whilst Done has now scored more this season than in the entirety of his career before it, he has also helped the gifted Ian Henderson and Peter Vincenti into double figures too.

Henderson himself deserves a special mention. A player who never really made the grade at Norwich, Henderson made a strange move into Turkish football before putting together a decent spell with Colchester United. It has been at Rochdale, a move that came about because his girlfriend found a job in the Northwest, where Henderson has shown what a supremely talented footballer he is. He possess a delicate touch and intelligent movement that makes him capable of both creating and scoring goals, Henderson makes it happen in attack for Rochdale.

The other key man for Rochdale, is Stephen Dawson in central midfield. A tigerish player who chases down everything in the centre of the park, making himself known to his opponents. Dawson is another player who found his way to Rochdale more by accident than design. Having impressed at Championship level at Barnsley, Dawson was expected to secure a move to a bigger second-tier side in the summer before his reputation was slurred by match-fixing allegations which have now been proven to be false. He will be playing with the fire in his belly that only a man who has been unjustly wronged will have.

Possible Line-Up: (4-1-4-1) Lillis, Rafferty, Eastham, Lancashire, Tanser; Bennett; Vincenti, Dawson, Camps, Henderson; Done.

Prediction

Something has to improve surely now. The players must be hurting after our recent form and will want to prove a point. Unfortunately, we are up against a team in Rochdale who we will need to be much more than simply hungry to beat. If we lose this game it could be a very nasty atmosphere around the Ricoh Arena and it may make Steven Pressley’s position untenable. There are no excuses for even being near a relegation battle with the squad he has at his disposal and it is starting to look like he is holding this team back.

Will desire and hunger be enough to overcome the organisation and confidence that Rochdale will have? I am going to be the optimist here and say yes it will be, 2-1 Coventry City.