Football League Round Up: Hope for rejuvenated Rochdale?

by Gabriel Sutton / 11 March 2018, 20:26

Gabriel Sutton, aka @_FootbalLab, looks at Daniel Farke, Rochdale, Swindon and Phil Brown in his latest Football League round-up.

Maddison carries Norwich

The words to describe Norwich City’s 4-3 defeat at Hull City on Saturday could now just as easily describe their season as a whole: a poor performance lit up only by a James Maddison wonder-show.

The attacking midfielder became the first ever Norwich player to score a first half away hat-trick by scoring two penalties and one impressive strike to put his side two-goals up. Instead of celebrating his first senior hat-trick with a victory though, Maddison was instead on the losing side.

It is easy to blame the referee, who became the first man in black to give four penalties in a game in English football for four years – including one to penalize Alex Tettey for no obvious wrongdoing.

However, Daniel Farke deserves some criticism for how he set his side up. Norwich have looked most solid this season with a back three of Grant Hanley, Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmerman, especially when a possession-based approach is used. The extra defender’s presence allows two of them to occupy wider positions and find passing angles to release midfielders in space.

Zimmermann’s recent injury dissuaded Farke from adopting that setup, although some fans feel Sean Raggett should have been used alongside Hanley and Klose. Instead, the duo partnered one another in a 4-2-3-1 system and spent much of the game too far apart, leaving a huge gap in central areas.

We saw evidence of that problem for Hull’s sixth-minute opener, but it was an issue all afternoon and led to the Canaries conceding a high volume of chances to the hosts. Having blown a 3-1 lead to be level in the second half, the rear-guard didn’t learn it’s lesson.

Academy graduate Jamal Lewis, who looked lost for much of the game, was beaten in the build-up to Hull’s winner while substitute Ivo Pinto failed to put in a challenge as Harry Wilson fired past Angus Gunn.

The Manchester City loanee – who has a legendary status at Carrow Road for family connections - might have been partially at fault for the first goal but also made several saves during the game. Considering the tenacious Tom Trybull hasn’t been able to stay fit this term, one might argue that Gunn and Maddison have been Norwich’s only two consistent performers this season.

Given that neither are guaranteed to be in Norfolk next season, the club would be well-advised to begin planning recruitment for the crucial summer that lies ahead.

Dale’s cultural restoration

When Rochdale first landed on the League One scene back in 2014, they won a host of long-term admirers. That wasn’t just because of the results they picked up, although three success play-off challenges sustained with the division’s lowest budget helped. The most impressive aspect of their performance at this level was the energy and slickness of passing with which they played, putting in home displays good enough to tear apart bottom half sides who should have been their equals.

For much of this season, they had looked a shadow of that side, instead playing with a more subdued, circumspect mentality and results declined with performances. A 1-0 defeat at Wigan in late-February left them 11 points adrift and, especially with four teams getting relegated rather than two or three, they appeared to be marooned at the bottom.

In fact, what might have been underestimated was the number of games in hand they have on their opponents, partly due to the high number of winter games called off at the muddy Spotland pitch.

They have been given genuine hope by positive recent performances and back-to-back wins. The first of those was a 3-0 win at Walsall, in which midfielders Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon ran the show.

They had power in defenders such as Ryan Delaney and Jim McNulty – who headed in the opener from Brad Inman’s pinpoint corner - yet also the confidence to play out from the back and hold onto the ball in midfield.

That patience played a big part in their second goal, a tight-angled finish from the technically proficient Ian Henderson. Josh Lillis’ penalty save paved the way for substitute Mihai Dobre to round the game off with a fine, skilful individual goal in a significant victory.

Even more importantly, the Dale followed that up with a 1-0 win at high-flying Rotherham four days later. Their performance in South Yorkshire was just as dominant as the one in the Black Country; Cannon and Inman were denied long before Stephen Humphry’s second half opener and Henderson could have grabbed a second but for a last-ditch block.

Having looked uncharacteristically subdued for much of the campaign, Rochdale are now beginning to look more like the free-flowing outfit that won so many admirers during their first three seasons at this level.

Based on points per game ratios, Rochdale are on course to record 46 points when 50 will be needed survival, but recent displays suggest their return will improve in the final two months. It would be premature to say with great confidence that they will stay up, but now pride and principles have been restored, they at least have hope.

Why Swindon must appoint Brown

Following Swindon Town’s 3-0 home defeat to Cheltenham, there was a sense of resignation among fans that you wouldn’t ordinarily expect at a club that is level on points with the play-off places.

Such despondency is not without cause: the lack of care in possession and technical proficiency shown was not uncommon during the regime of David Flitcroft, who left for Mansfield a week ago.

Even after the win over Port Vale in mid-February, which left the Robins five points off the automatic promotion places, doubts lingered over the team’s credentials. There had been an unhealthy reliance on set pieces in the first half of the campaign and while home form improved after Christmas, helped by the switch to 3-4-1-2 that got the best out of Keshi Anderson, imperfections remained.

Matthew Taylor has been therefore left in an unfair situation. With no experience of coaching, let alone management, he has been asked to guide a limited squad - with key players such as midfielder Timi Max Elsnik and centre-back Matt Preston out injured – into the top seven.

The Swindon board willingly put him in that position, despite having a full week without any games to appoint a permanent manager. Now, they must bring in a manager with promotion knowhow and strong leadership skills to galvanize the squad.

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That man – in this blog’s view – is the current favourite, Phil Brown. The Geordie took Southend United from being a top half League Two side with one or two off-field issues, to a League One outfit that missed out on the play-offs on the final day last season.

Brown’s touchline behaviour and tactical methods aren’t universally popular – but then if they were, he would be perceived as a viable option for Championship clubs and Swindon would not have a look-in.

Lee Power should offer him on a 15-month contract and promise a healthy summer budget regardless of the club’s league, so that they are in prime position to execute good early recruitment in the summer if promotion isn’t achieved.

While Taylor is a respected, articulate man with the potential to be a good manager once he’s done some coaching, Swindon simply must return to the third tier in the next two years – they are in no position to take liberties.

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