Last night’s game between Rochdale AFC and Oxford United marked the former’s 11th league match of the season. The 3-1 defeat at the Kassam Stadium, for me at least, perfectly encapsulates the current squad in the wider context of League One.
Manager Brian Barry-Murphy said after the match that he was “in awe” of his team for the first 60 minutes. By this he means that, in general, the passing and forward momentum of his players had been too much for Oxford to handle. I would agree with him. Where the problem lies, however, is that by the 60-minute mark we should have been out of sight. We weren’t. We were drawing a goal apiece – and having had to come from behind at that.
This has been Rochdale’s problem all campaign – no consistent cutting edge. Midfielder Matthew Lund, on five goals, is currently the club’s top scorer, with the man leading the line, Jake Beesley, yet to register a single one. He is also being supported in the current system by Alex Newby, who has at least found the net, and Ollie Rathbone, who, in my opinion, is more a facilitator of goals than a scorer of them.
This is no criticism of Beesley outright. His tireless running and pressing of the opposition defence pulls them all over the place, but there is no one to take advantage – yet.
You see, I believe that Barry-Murphy’s recruitment is based heavily on analytics rather than old-school scouting. He uses stats to identify players that fit his ideas and who fall into the club’s budget. Beesley was very definitely purchased from Solihull Moors to complete a couplet with Southend United’s Stephen Humphrys, who Rochdale also outlaid upon. He would be the man to take advantage of Beesley’s endeavours. The issue is, Humphrys was injured just half an hour into his debut and has been missing for more than a month now. Based on the prognosis of his knee injury at the time, I don’t believe we will see him feature again until at least Charlton Athletic away, on November 14. And this is the problem. At times, it feels almost like Dale are waiting for that date to get the season properly going. Like they are almost making do until then.
Perhaps this is a touch unfair. The side overall has shown its capability to compete. The first half displays against Fleetwood Town and Sunderland – the best two performances from Dale this season – demonstrated that the side can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights. These displays yielded four points.
However, if I can go back to the Oxford game as an example, there is a trend that was prevalent in the two above games that cost Rochdale dear last night. Often, the side’s second-half performances have not matched the first. Last night’s turning point was obvious. Beesley missed a golden opportunity to put Dale ahead from six yards after the keeper had spilled. He put the ball wide when it was easier to score. This was compounded when Oxford advanced right up the other end and took the lead. A complete gut punch that seemed to be felt by the entire team. While last night’s dip in performance could be attributed to these psychological factors – it hasn’t always been so easy to nail down in other games. Against Bristol Rovers last weekend, Dale went in at the break the dominant side but allowed the visitors back into the game second half and only came away with a point. A point is not to be sniffed at, granted, but there was a feeling among the support that this may have been a case of two points dropped. There have been other occasions this season where this has been the situation – or worse.
It was always going to be a risk with a small squad. Numbers are understandably light amidst a global pandemic that has football’s finances in a stranglehold, but you have to also consider that Barry-Murphy might not have 100 per cent faith in the options sat on the bench, further constraining his ability to change a game when his charges on the field tire or the game begins to ebb away from them.
This may seem like a negative outpouring, but it is merely intended to be an analysis of a side that Barry-Murphy has made his own by this point of the season. Overall, the side has been crafted into a solid state, which is merely lacking a consistent cutting edge.
The defensive unit, which had become a major weakness of Dale sides in recent years, finally looks to be moving in the right direction, despite still being fallible to set pieces. There will be comparisons between last season’s loan goalkeeper, Robert Sanchez, and this season’s, Gavin Bazunu, but the truth is that they are both supremely talented and only with us because of their age and lack of experience. Because of this, Bazunu will make mistakes. See last night versus Oxford as an example (albeit he was impeded before placing the ball at the feet of Oxford’s Elliot Moore to open the scoring). In the main, though, the Manchester City man is capable of pulling off incomparable saves (such as his match-winning one against Shrewsbury) and is adept at playing the ball with his feet. And this latter trait is shared by the side’s current two central defenders, Eoghan O’Connell and the on-loan Hayden Roberts. There is no route one by default here. These two are so good that I don’t imagine O’Connell will renew his contract with us this season and Roberts will go on to become a Premier League star. For this season, though, they are Dale’s and keeping them both fit is a priority as the back-up options, while decent, are entering the twilight of their careers.
The full back slots have been addressed to some degree, too, which was vital after the sublime Rhys Norrington-Davies returned to Sheffield United last season. At left-back, on-loan Arsenal youngster Tolaji Bola looks quick and strong, and, while his end product is sometimes lacking, he is a much sturdier option in the role than the makeshift Matt Done. The right side is perhaps not as cut and dried. The role swaps between Ryan McLaughlin and Jimmy Keohane, both of who are able in the position, if perhaps not completely dominant.
In midfield, Jimmy Ryan and Matt Lund have proven very adept, albeit Ryan’s inability to last an entire match causes an unnecessary reshuffling at times. When he is on the pitch, though, his driving runs, combined with Lund’s aerial prowess, have allowed the ball to stay in the opposition half for longer than in past seasons. The one question mark, I suppose, is Aaron Morley. A very talented product of the club’s youth system, he seems somewhat wasted and uncomfortable in the deeper holding role, with a number of his ambitious passes going astray. It’s a shame for Morley, who I feel would be better utilised further up the park if there was a viable option to replace him in the anchor role.
And this takes me back to both Ollie Rathbone and Alex Newby. In my humble opinion, neither are suited to playing either side of Beesley. Rathbone is an absolute Dynamo. His strength lies in taking the ball in a deeper position with his back to goal, turning his marker around and then driving forward. He’s brilliant at it.
Newby, considering he has just stepped up from non-league football, has really impressed me. He is the type of player we have missed recently – one who is prepared to run at the opposition and take them on. He is, for my money, a natural No.10 or winger. We have seen numerous times the lovely drag back he performs before delivering a cross. If there was one criticism, it’s that he perhaps holds on to the ball too long on occasions. I believe, as he gains league experience game after game, that timing will improve.
And perhaps by the time Humphrys does return, he may initially come in to the side in place of Beesley, for a game or two at least, in order to let the forward recover his confidence and energy levels, before we see what Barry-Murphy’s grand plan really is.
So, there is still much to be optimistic about. When both Humphrys and Kwadwo Baah resume full fitness, there will be plenty more options for Barry-Murphy to deploy and perhaps that missing cutting edge will be found razor sharp.