To three or not to three: Questions must be asked of Robbie Stockdale’s tactical rigidity at Rochdale

While Robbie Stockdale has done superbly to assemble a competitive squad considering an incredibly tough summer at Rochdale, questions must be asked of the manager’s tactical choices in recent weeks.

Rewind a month and Rochdale fans were singing the praises of Robbie Stockdale after his side had just beaten Tranmere Rovers 1-0 to move into the League Two playoffs. 

However, the Crown Oil Arena outfit have failed to win since then, drawing once and losing their five games in all competitions with just two goals scored, which has understandably led fans to question the 41-year-old manager’s choice of formation and tactics online. 

Dale had a lot of success with a 3-4-3 formation in September, with Stockdale extremely keen to emphasise it as a three-at-the-back rather than a more negatively perceived five-at-the-back when I spoke to him ahead of the Bradford defeat earlier this month. 

Corey O’Keeffe looked to be a revolution at right wing-back, whilst Jimmy Keohane was seemingly picking up where he left off last season when he hit 10 goals from left wing-back. 

However, the former was absent as Dale faced his parent side Mansfield on the 18th September, which is seemingly when the decline began, as Stockdale’s side only managed a 1-1 draw against a frankly awful Nigel Clough side in a game seriously low on quality. 

A superb first 49 minutes was to follow against Premier League side Burnley in the Carabao Cup third round, with Jake Beesley’s opener giving Dale fans hope before Jay Rodriguez’s four-goal haul. 

Few would have expected Beesley’s goal to be the last time Dale fans could celebrate, as they have subsequently failed to find the back of the net in games against Oldham, Bradford, Port Vale and Crawley. 

The 1-0 defeat against Oldham was perhaps when Dale fans began to worry, as the previously free-flowing attack struggled to create opportunities against our local rivals, despite them being at the foot of the table at the time and conceding seven against Brentford in their previous fixture. 

Dale then travelled to out-of-form Bradford but once again finishing let the side down, with Danny Cashman, Abraham Odoh, Beesley and Alex Newby all guilty of missing clear-cut chances in the 2-0 defeat. 

It was a similar story in the game against Port Vale, albeit in dreadful conditions, as a much-changed Dale side once again struggled in front of goal before a late own goal from Max Taylor gifted the hosts the three points in the Papa John’s Trophy. 

While the results were poor, the performances against Bradford and Port Vale, in general, were promising and there was renewed hope ahead of the game against Crawley, especially considering their woeful record away from The People’s Pension Stadium. 

However, a display devoid of quality, fight and passion was to follow, with the away side taking the lead early on and simply managing (time-wasting) the rest of the game away. 

Boos rang around Spotland as Dale players were seemingly unwilling to press and challenge their opponents, who probably won’t have an easier win all season. 

One thing that this poor run of form has in common is the formation, which begs the question – why hasn’t Stockdale changed anything yet?

His substitutions on Saturday were like-for-like and it seemed clear to everyone else in the stadium that having three centre-backs on the pitch when chasing an equaliser was completely unnecessary. 

Ahead of the Bradford game, the former West Brom coach reminded me of the threat the wing-backs were having in this system but both O’Keeffe and Keohane have been far from their best in recent performances, while those in the attack are clearly suffering a crisis of confidence in front of goal.

A trip to high-flying Swindon Town is to come on Saturday and if Stockdale sticks with the same tactics and formation again, then it is difficult to see Dale coming away with all three points considering both sides’ respective recent form. 

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