Perverse as it might sound, I was looking forward to tonight’s game, after having to sit out the Accrington Stanley match (just add no longer able to get a one-day Sky Sports pass in France to the never-ending list of adverse consequences of Brexit). Even though it was Rochdale. When we talk of Sunderland we always think Wembley, for Carlisle read promotion; but Rochdale always seems to conjure up desperate periods (in particular for me that freezing January 1973 night when a crowd of just over 5,000 was scattered around The Valley to watch King Arthur notch the only goal of the game).
Perhaps many went into tonight’s contest in that sort of mood, but I just wanted to enjoy a game of football, hopefully get a look at the two new players and some notion of how the next churn in personnel and formations might pan out, maybe even get to cheer a goal or two. Perhaps the past four games (and more if we’re being honest) have served to lower expectations as I think everyone knows that we have to be playing considerably better all over the pitch to have thoughts of promotion. Also, I wanted to see some signs that the players wanted to be out there, that they were enjoying themselves and ready to fight for each other. For sure a team (and a manager) not winning is usually miserable, but the spirit and commitment we showed against Portsmouth and Ipswich has gone missing of late and we need it back.
I’m not sure if I really enjoyed it but it undoubtedly had its moments and its positives, if there’s any hair left that hasn’t been torn out. Ship four in the first half, courtesy of a starting formation which failed miserably due to an awful match-up, then almost win it in the second thanks primarily to Aneke’s prowess, see Schwartz get off the mark with a beauty, share eight goals, then instead of the winner in the final five minutes or so we almost let it slip again after Pearce picked up a harsh second yellow for challenging for a ball that he surely had to go for. It was, as they say, a good game for the neutrals, although I’ve no idea what Bowyer will make of it. Hopefully like the rest of us he can see the funny side.
We knew we’d be missing Innis, Famewo, Doughty, Shinnie, Watson, Pratley and Maddison. So when the bench was added in not many missed out. The defence seemed to be unchanged, with in front of Amos Pearce and Oshilaja flanked by Gunter and Maatsen. The changes saw Williams in for Morgan and Aneke replacing Washington, which with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey retained along with Millar and Smyth suggested either a 4-4-2, with Williams and Millar in the wider positions, or a 4-3-3 with Millar and Smyth either side of Aneke. Either way, with Millar, Smyth and Aneke starting and the bench including Bogle, Washington and Schwartz it didn’t look as though we would be prioritising defence.
I doubt that many would have guessed from the starting X1 that it would be a back five, with Maatsen and Smyth given the roles as wing-backs, in a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, whichever way you look at it. The only problem was that the set-up matched Smyth, who isn’t going to win many outright physical contests, against 6’ tall Germany-born and ex-Palace wide man Baah. Rochdale didn’t take long to realise that this was something they just might be able to exploit. Thirty minutes in and three goals later we changed formation.
We’d made a reasonable start but on 12 minutes Rochdale created an overlap down their left, with Smyth turned inside out. Ball into the edge of the area to an effectively unmarked guy who shot inside the far post. On 20 minutes Pearce was sidestepped by their guy, who played in another who also shot well to score. Another game, another two goals conceded. That seemed to annoy Aneke and he picked up the ball outside their area, powered into it, brushing aside attempted challenges, and slotted the ball under their keeper. But any hopes that this might mark the start of our comeback were dashed on the half-hour as Baah just skinned Smyth and scored again, the finish once more leaving Amos with no chance.
That prompted the formation change, to a back four and a 4-4-2, with Gunter moved to right-back and Smyth up front to partner Aneke. It would be wrong to suggest that Rochdale were less of a threat after that, but at least they had to work to create openings. Not Smyth’s fault, just placed in an impossible situation in an unfamiliar position and not given the help he needed.
Before the break we were back in it as a Forster-Caskey curling shot took an important deflection off a defender’s head and looped over their keeper. Right, you think, we have the initiative, Millar and Smyth causing problems for them and Aneke just far too powerful for them to hand. Instead Gilbey mistimes a tackle and emerges from the subsequent fracas with a yellow, to add to the one Pearce picked up for taking out one of their guys. Their guy lined up to shoot and did, firing it into the net where you assumed a wall would be in the way.
Down 2-4 at the interval but by no means out of the game as we’d shown we could score, had many more efforts on goal than Rochdale (culminating in one just before half-time that Williams blazed over the bar), if only they would stop scoring every time they had a shot. It could easily have been 5-5 at that stage.
Two changes were made, with Gilbey and Smyth replaced by Morgan and Schwartz. And it didn’t take long for us to pull one back. Aneke took the ball on, Schwartz played it out to Gunter on the right, and his cross was met in turn by Chucks to head in. Just a couple of minutes later we were level, with Schwartz opening his account for us with what was the pick of the evening’s goals. Gunter dispossessed their guy, Williams took it and played into Aneke, he laid it on for the Dane, who scored with confidence. 4-4 and still over 20 minutes left.
Rochdale not surprisingly appeared shell-shocked but did gradually get their way back into the contest, helped by Aneke seeming to tire. But with around five minutes of normal time left he almost grabbed the winner and a hat-trick. Millar ran the ball from within our half and played in Chucks, only for their keeper to turn his effort around the post. That was the closest we came as not long after Pearce picked up his second yellow for the challenge on their keeper and for five minutes of stoppage time we were hanging on again, relying on Amos to keep us level (which he did) and prompting the introduction in the final moments of Matthews for Millar.
The final BBC stats showed we had 21 shots to their 13, but both sides had seven on target. I think at the break Rochdale had had five efforts on goal and scored four. It was that sort of night. So we might as well take the positives and gloss over failing to beat a team at the wrong end of the table. You don’t often concede four and not lose.
Amos – 8/10. Don’t think any of the goals can be laid at his door, did effective work in the second half, especially late on with one turned around the post.
Smyth – 5/10. What mark do you give a forward/winger asked to fill in as a wing-back and go up against someone twice his size who would be a handful for any defender? Really not his fault, had 10 minutes up front then subbed at the break.
Gunter – 6/10. Should have been giving Smyth more help in his normal area in the first half, good second half and instrumental in us getting a point.
Oshilaja – 6/10. Some good challenges, seemed to read the game well. But we let in four and he sometimes looks as if he’s playing on the edge.
Pearce – 6/10. Not going to mark him down for the second yellow and red.
Maatsen – 6/10. Another who had a better second half, especially when he was able to link up with Millar going forward.
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Much of what we did revolved around him, got a goal (might have been deflected but you have to buy the ticket), but in the first half especially Rochdale were able to run through and beyond our midfield.
Gilbey – 5/10. Difficult game for him, also culpable for our being overrun too often, gave away the foul for their fourth, subbed at the break.
Williams – 6/10. Was influential but didn’t make a decisive contribution going forward and blazed a good chance over the bar.
Millar – 7/10. Not a lot worked for him in the first half but he persisted and was more effective in the second. Clearly is going to give us a good attacking option.
Aneke – 9/10. Scored two, could have had another couple, and even managed to last the full game. They couldn’t cope with him.
Morgan – 7/10. More influential than in recent games, better performance, did pick up a petulant yellow for dissent.
Schwartz – 8/10. Have to love the way he took his goal, also some intelligent approach play and crafty use of the body to block opponents but not give away free kicks. Good start.
Washington – 6/10. Only on for 15 minutes and half of those we were down to 10 men.
Matthews – Only on for the final minute.