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.
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.
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.
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.