I have never subscribed to the idea that football has to be beautiful.
That’s not to say the game cannot possess beautiful moments between the first whistle and last, but, for me at least, it is a competitive sport where winning is paramount, not something to be ordered from an Avon catalogue.
Too much emphasis has been placed on aesthetics in the modern game. At the top level, it may even occasionally tally with success. But, down here in the bowels of the Football League, it more often than not leads to frustration and angst from supporters, as the players on the field lack the requisite skillset or polished refinement to pull it off week after week.
How refreshing it is then, that Rochdale AFC manager Robbie Stockdale has sought to move the club away from this approach and implement something that can equate more readily to triumph. I am still captivated by his comment at his first fans’ forum. “The right pass at the right time.” This is what we supporters are now seeing from our team. Gone is the apparent visage of passing for passing’s sake, and, in its place, is a more direct style that seeks to capitalise on any advantage as soon as it presents itself.
And let me be clear, while it may not always be beautiful, it certainly isn’t ugly either. Fans see beauty in goals – and winning. The beautiful game can live up to its moniker beyond appearance alone.
This approach may not always yield the right result after 90 minutes, but it will stop supporters leaving the stadium feeling frustrated as to what might have been. They will be entertained by the fact that they have seen their team compete in the simplest way possible – a style that marries skillset with desire. That’s what I mean by triumph. Perhaps I’m showing my age, but that’s why I watch football matches.
Stockdale had asked for patience on the fronts of recruitment and results. A very fair ask given the tumultuous months the club had endured prior to his appointment. On the field, Brian Barry-Murphy asked to be released from his managerial role, and, off it, the club was in the grip of a hostile takeover. Stockdale also had to deal with a squad that had lost key players Ollie Rathbone, Matt Lund and Stephen Humphrys – the propulsion and the shells of the howitzer.
He set about this task efficiently, bringing in no less than 10 players in a matter of weeks. Some already look like cementing themselves in Dale folklore (I’m looking at you, Corey O’Keeffe).
Stockdale has also inherited some fine players too. Abraham Odoh, Alex Newby and Jake Beesley all complement each other to provide a nightmarish front three for defences to handle; Aaron Morley remains a successful product of the youth academy (if utilised properly); Conor Grant looks like he could grow into the club’s next big asset; and the versatility of Jimmy Keohane is a benefit to any team.
Add to that that there is a clear emphasis from Stockdale on the team playing to its strengths and you can really see we mix it up now. He may be a novice first-team manager, but Stockdale does appear to have a firm grasp of the ropes already. Be that all on himself, or courtesy of the watchful eye of LMA-funded Sammy Lee or his assistant Jimmy Shan, it matters not.
So, 10 competitive games in, what have we learned?
After a pre-season of 4-3-3, with the addition of the opening day defeat at Harrogate, we’ve since seen a change in how we approach games tactically. The 3-4-3 may have been partly borne out of necessity, with COVID impacting the squad in the opening week, but it’s gone on to be our familiar set-up and one which does seem to suit the players we have.
After the draws with Scunthorpe and Colchester, a very small minority pointed to the negative connotations of ‘five defenders’, only for this current run of form to illustrate that’s far from the case.
Of course, it could result in a side being outgunned in midfield if those five are pinned back or the wing-backs are too wide, and we need only look at the opening 15-20 minutes at Vale Park to see how that is a potential issue. However, the team and coaching staff demonstrated their awareness in the way they responded to this during the game, ensuring Morley and Dooley were less isolated, with the game then turning on its head.
Crucial to this, and the positivity leading up to the Mansfield game today, has been the way O’Keeffe and Keohane are producing on either flank, in subtly different ways. The former has become a League Two Kyle Walker, who has the ability to step inside, adding to the midfield ranks, while at the same time still contributing out wide. On the other side, Keohane sticks to his touchline more and is a real outlet, who often ends up as high up the pitch as the forwards when we attack. Identifying that the central two need some support has also seen Newby and Odoh − principally seen as ‘wide men’ − usually stationed 10-15 yards further infield than you’d usually see a winger. This is creating the illusion of a four-man midfield at times, that’s without O’Keeffe’s excursions into that area.
Newby seems to be really getting to grips with the ‘in-to-go-out’ approach, as he drifts out should attacks require his presence to deliver quality crosses. Meanwhile, Odoh is tending to drift towards the ball with the aim to start runs from wherever he receives it. In combination, it’s quite unique to have two players in similar roles playing them totally differently.
The final addition that appears to be allowing Morley and Dooley to flourish when they could be exposed, is the regular appearance of a central defender stepping forward, usually the one stationed on the left. In fact, Max Taylor on the right is really the only one who rarely leaves his station as Eoghan O’Connell feels more than comfortable stepping in from his central role in the three. Jeriel Dorsett, despite a shaky last quarter against Tranmere, looks to have potential and he likes to channel his inner Jack O’Connell when joining attacks and swinging over crosses from the left-hand side.
Crucial to it all though, is the way Beesley is progressing to the point that it’s probably good Humphrys left for Wigan. They are different types of striker and what Stockdale’s Dale need are those Glenn Murray-esque qualities, where a centre forward can work across the opposition back line and occupy them all at once. That takes a certain level of ability and footballing know-how and it’s obvious Beesley not only grasps that, but looks to learn the role more each and every game. If he starts adding regular goals, our biggest problem will be fending off interest from other teams in January.
While it might be easy to be disappointed with the point at Mansfield today, especially having taken the lead, the fact that expectations are so high is a marker of how much Stockdale has achieved in such a short space of time.
I would say eighth in League Two, at this juncture, is progress that is ahead of schedule.
Rochdale AFC squad 2021/22
Jay Lynch (28)
Joel Coleman (25)
Brad Wade (21)
Aidy White (29) LB/LWB
Corey O’Keeffe (23) (on loan from Mansfield until January) RB/RWB
Matt Done (33) LB/LWB
Jimmy Keohane (30) LB/LWB/RB/RWB
Joe Dunne (19) LB
Max Taylor (21) CB
Sam Graham (20) CB
Jim McNulty (36) CB
Eoghan O’Connell (25) (C) CB
Jeriel Dorsett (19) (season-long loan from Reading) CB/LB
Aidy White (29) LW
Stephen Dooley (29) LW/RW/CM/CAM
Matt Done (33) LW/CAM
Alex Newby (25) RW
Jimmy Keohane (30) LW/RW/CDM/CM/CAM
Abraham Odoh (21) RW/LW/CAM
George Broadbent (20) (on loan from Sheffield United until January) CM
Aaron Morley (21) CDM/CM/CAM
Conor Grant (20) CM/CAM
Ethan Brierley (17) CM
Corey O’Keeffe (23) (on loan from Mansfield until January) CDM
Liam Kelly (25) CDM/CM/CAM
Matt Done (33) ST
Jake Beesley (24) ST
Danny Cashman (20) (season-long loan from Coventry) ST/IF
Josh Andrews (19) (season-long loan from Birmingham City) ST
Alex Newby (25) IF
Abraham Odoh (21) IF