Both Rochdale and Plymouth Argyle come into Saturday’s League One clash at Home Park needing three points to escape what is becoming a very tightly packed bottom half of the table as the relegation battle begins to heat up. Keith Hill’s side have currently won just once in their last nine games, losing seven of those whilst Argyle have lost just once in the same run, winning five of those.
Striker Calvin Andrew and winger Brad Inman look set to return to the Dale line-up following Tuesday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of relegation rivals Wimbledon.
Midfielder Ethan Hamilton will continue in the middle of the park. The Manchester United loanee has impressed since arriving in January, scoring three goals in six matches.
Fellow January additions Ethan Ebanks-Landell, Andy Lonergan and Joe Bunney will also maintain their places in Keith Hill’s starting line-up.
Predicted Line-Up (4-3-3 Defensive)
McGlaughlin, Ebanks-Landell, McNulty, Bunney
Hamilton, Camps, Dooley
Inman, Henderson, Andrew
Style of Play
Primarily Rochdale place a lot of their emphasis on getting the ball to forward Ian Henderson in their 4-3-3 formation. The 34-year-old has scored 16 goals and registered a further five assists. This accounts for 51% of the 41 goals that Dale have scored in the league and suggests something of an over-reliance on Henderson to score and create goals, much like Argyle had with Freddie Ladapo in the earlier stages of the season. The veteran’s 5ft 10in height ensures that his service is generally kept on the deck and direct. His hat-trick against Gillingham earlier in the season is a great example of this with three similarly played balls playing in Henderson for all of his goals.
Midfielder Ethan Hamilton has impressed in midfield since signing on-loan from Manchester United in January. The 20-year-old has already registered three goals in six appearances, including the opener in their recent 2-1 win over Walsall. Whilst he has done well to relieve the burden on Henderson unlike many of his teammates throughout the season, he is also a tough tackler in midfielder, though this has already earned his four yellow cards in his short stay at the club.
Rochdale lack an out-and-out playmaker with a regular end product unlike Argyle with Graham Carey. Aside from Henderson (five), midfielder Stephen Dooley and Joe Rafferty top the assist charts with four apiece for the season, although the latter left to join Championship side Preston in January. The burden of creativity is balanced throughout the side with a five further players registering two assists. However, to an extent this seems to work for them as their 41 goals is only bettered by Gillingham (44) in the bottom 10.
Forward Ian Henderson is the main reason why Rochdale still have a chance at survival this season. Conceding an average of two goals a game would be enough to cripple most teams but in Henderson they boast the divisions third highest goalscorer with 16 goals. With a lack of general quality throughout the side, the 34-year-old has often found himself to be their creative outlet as well, laying on a further five goals for teammates this season.
The former Norwich man is also versatile and has at times played on the left-wing for Dale when Calvin Andrew moves centrally to play the forward role. Argyle will know of this at first hand as Henderson featured there against them earlier in the season, coming up against Joe Riley and assisting Brad Inman in his side’s 2-1 defeat.
In games where they can’t fully utilise the veteran they have struggled for goals, while they continue to fly in at the other end. From December 29 to January 26, they scored just three goals in six games, two of which came from Henderson. During that time, they were on the other end of two 4-0 defeats (Bradford and Burton) as well as a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Doncaster.
Ultimately, it will be the 34-year-old’s form that will generally dictate whether his side will get anything from this fixture, or stay in the division. Yet, regardless of which league Rochdale find themselves in next season, offensive reinforcements are a must.
Defensively Rochdale have been rather woeful, conceding 67 goals from 33 league games which is the most in the division. To put this into perspective, Dale conceded just 57 goals in the entirety of last season. Their tally is 10 more than any other side in the division, with Scunthorpe and Gillingham (both 57) the next worse off. They have conceded four of more goals on a total of eight occasions in League One, a record high for the Football League this season.
Their achilles heel is often defending out wide and closing down opposition players, as their game against Doncaster showed earlier in the season when they were thrashed 5-0. Due to their style of play, their full-backs can often be caught high up the pitch when possession is turned over, leaving them and the team exposed on the counter attack.
Meanwhile, their centre-back pairing of Ebanks-Landell and McNulty are both quite limited. They stand at just 6ft 2in and 6ft, making them an unimposing duo, yet neither do they possess much pace. This allows countering players that added second of time to get in behind and poach a finish. Against an opportunistic, counter-attacking team like Argyle, they will be threatened by this style of play; it is one of the reasons that they are likely to revert to a 4-3-3 system instead of the 4-4-2 used against the slower, more limited Wimbledon side they faced in midweek, as the former provides more defensive cover against counter attacks.
With Rochdale conceding on average two goals every match it’s difficult to see Argyle failing to score in the same way that they did against Bradford given their current form in 2019. Ultimately Derek Adams will be looking to nullify the threat of Ian Henderson and expose a frail Dale back four who will be going into the game with little confidence after conceding four goals and losing to a late winner in Tuesday’s 4-3 defeat to Wimbledon. Argyle will know that three points drags them further away from the tightly packed relegation battle and in front of a home crowd I predict that they will win 3-1.