An encouraging performance last week at Gillingham has reduced some of the anxiety that the previous showing at Blackpool had induced, however, a failure to take all three points when playing near our best can still be interpreted as a worrying sign – the least that can be said though is that it’s better than losing and playing poorly.
With games against some of the pre-season promotion favourites in Sunderland, Barnsley, Portsmouth and Charlton to come over the next six weeks, there is the danger that a failure to take as many points as possible from this opening set of fixtures could put us in a difficult spot once we start facing better teams.
It makes taking all three points in this upcoming home game against Rochdale a must. The showing against Gillingham demonstrated that we can be a threatening, if profligate, side at this level of football, which is something that we should be looking to build upon as this team gels over the course of the opening few months of the campaign.
With a motivated Jonson Clarke-Harris leading the line up front along with the creativity of Tom Bayliss, Tony Andreu and Luke Thomas in midfield, there is the basis of an exciting attacking unit in the making. The addition of Conor Chaplin offers hope that the elusive finisher this side needs has arrived, however, Mark Robins needs to prioritise taking all three points in this game than attempting to integrate yet another new attacking option into the side.
The form of Dominic Hyam in central defence has been a positive in the opening weeks of the campaign, as has the energy Brandon Mason has supplied from left-back. With Lee Burge fully fit and no further defensive additions in the loan market – at the time of writing – it’s hard to see Mark Robins making any changes at the back, even if that looks to be the weakest part of the side.
Last Time We Met
Relegation had already been confirmed just days before our last meeting with Rochdale, on Easter Monday 2017. Our hosts were looking to maintain their play-off hopes, Mark Robins was trying to figure out which players should be retained in League Two for the following season.
As expected, Rochdale played with greater intensity and motivation as they ran out comfortable 2-0 winners, both goals courtesy of club stalwart Ian Henderson.
How Are They Doing?
Rochdale avoided relegation on the final day of last season, having endured a nightmare fixture back-log due to a combination of poor weather and their run in the FA Cup. It was a year that represented the first backward step during manager Keith Hill’s second spell at the club, having consistently punched well above their weight in challenging for the play-offs at this level in previous years.
Keith Hill has turned towards the experience of defensive midfielder David Perkins and bean-pole centre-forward Aaron Wilbraham to stiffen Rochdale up this season – both over the age of 35. However, many of their key players, such as creative forward Ian Henderson, attacking midfielder Callum Camps, utility man Matty Done and defensive organiser Jimmy McNulty have been in place for several years.
While they haven’t started the season in a particularly electrifying manner, it seems unlikely that they will repeat last year’s flirtation with the relegation zone. Despite being regarded as one of the smallest clubs at this level, they are a side that will come to the Ricoh Arena targeting all three points.
Rochdale tend to play an assertive high-pressing game with a level of control of possession in the centre of the park. However, they can also mix things up by going more direct to their target-men Aaron Wilbraham or Calvin Andrew or can hit teams on the counter with midfielder Brad Inman making late runs into the penalty area and Ian Henderson supplying killer through balls.
Along with Keith Hill’s tendency to experiment with playing players massively out of position, Rochdale are a hard team at times to predict how they will set up for a specific game, even if their key players are well-known and have been in place for a several years.
Both teams will surely be targeting this game as a winnable fixture. For us, it’s an opportunity to get points on the board at home before we face a series of likely promotion contenders in the month or so afterwards, Rochdale have only picked up one league win thus far and will be looking to target our soft underbelly in defence to kick-start their campaign.
I can see this being a 1-1 draw.