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Jimmy McNulty’s Rochdale – tactical analysis

Jimmy McNulty will soon begin his second full season as manager of Rochdale in the National League. The 39-year-old is an exciting, young coach who has got Rochdale playing a possession-based style of football. In this in-depth article, I’ll analyse Rochdale’s playing style under McNulty; assess his on and off-ball approach; and determine how likely his tactics are to get them challenging at the top of the National League.


Rochdale are a possession-based side who look to regularly ‘play out’ from defence. They aim to keep the ball on the ground, and value ball-retention rather than an overly direct approach. On paper, Rochdale often set up in a 4-4-2 formation.

They regularly try to build play from goal-kicks, and can form a situational back-three by splitting their centre-backs either side of their goalkeeper – creating a 3-2 shape either from goal-kicks or during their ‘deep build’. Rochdale form a 4-2-4 shape further forwards during their ‘high build’. Their double-pivot sits ahead of the back-four, and two wingers feature alongside their two strikers in the last line.

They look to progress incrementally by taking small steps forward, pushing their opponent’s defensive block back towards their own goal gradually. With six outfield players involved in the first phase of their build-up, Rochdale have many passing options and often create overloads in the first phase against opposition presses. Together with their top technical ability, Rochdale can reliably retain the ball and control matches through possession.

Rochdale can also use a 5-4-1 formation, usually with Jimmy Keohane as the right wing-back behind a natural winger. In these situations, their build-up shape may look more fluid, depending on the positioning of Keohane. It can either look like a 4-2-4 shape with Keohane inverted (forming more of a 4-2-1-3, with Keohane in the right half-space); or a 3-4-3 shape Keohane and their left wing-back either side of the midfield.

Even if Rochdale form a 3-4-3 build-up shape, Keohane often inverts rather than holds the width. This allows their right-back, Kyron Gordon, to receive the ball in his preferred zone (wide on the right-side), and last season let exciting former loanee Cian Hayes hold the width.

With Keohane inverted, it makes it easier for him to occupy the right half-space in the final-third, rather than hold the width. This, in turn, allows a natural winger to hold the width on the right-side, who may be a greater threat than Keohane, increasing Rochdale’s creativity from their right-side in the process.

Irrespective of their build-up shape, however, Rochdale are still consistent in their approach to ball progression. They can position their two #6’s at different ‘heights’ to create space. Harvey Gilmour often pushes forwards during the build-up with Ryan East acting as the situational single-pivot, forming more of a 4-1-1-4 (or 3-3-1-3) shape.

In a match versus Maidenhead United, who set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, this dragged a Maidenhead #8 (who was man-marking Gilmour) away from East. The other Maidenhead #8 was responsible for both shadow-marking East and pressing Rochdale’s centre-backs. Consequently, when the centre-backs had baited the press, East could find space and time on the ball if the Maidenhead #8 who pressed didn’t effectively block the passing lane into him.

If Rochdale pushed East forwards instead, his Maidenhead marker was less inclined to drop deeper to man-mark him. With Gilmour now able to receive the ball from the centre-backs instead, he could quickly move the ball onto East – who was still close enough to connect, but in space.

By positioning players at four different ‘heights’ (for example, in Rochdale’s 4-1-1-4 build), it presents the opposition with a tactical issue. With players positioned between the three defensive lines, how does the defending side deal with this? Do they press aggressively and leave a player free between the lines; or do they set up with a slightly more passive approach to take care of the player between the lines, but consequently allow their opponents more time on the ball?

This is different to dropping a striker into the midfield, too. In this instance, it’s likely a defender could just follow them and step into the midfield when they drop off, rather than needing someone to take care of the player who is positioned constantly between the lines.

Rochdale’s full-backs are also intelligent enough to invert during the build-up when a #6 pushes forwards. This opens up passing lanes for those in possession, either to themselves or Rochdale’s wingers – who may not have been able to receive passes if the full-backs were positioned wider, and were marked by opponents.

A striker can drop deeper to overload the midfield, or Rochdale can play ‘bounce’ passes into them. These are passes which are played into the striker from the centre-backs, which are then immediately set back onto a #6. If carried out successfully, these passes draw attention away from the double-pivot who then receive the ball with space to run into.

Rather than drop a striker into the midfield, Rochdale can instead invert a winger to occupy the space between the lines, in an attempt to overload the midfield. Although it requires an element of risk due to the distance the ball has to travel, if successful, this is more difficult to defend compared to when a striker drops into the midfield. If a striker were to drop off, it can be fairly simple for a centre-back to step into the midfield to press due to the short distance they have to cover – as long as they have the athleticism to do so. However if a winger inverts to occupy the same space, it leaves the opposing full-back with a dilemma. Do they follow the winger into an unfamiliar midfield area, or keep their position? And if a centre-back were to step into the midfield, it would leave space in their defensive line.

Overall, though, Rochdale’s build-up shape is fairly rigid and doesn’t demonstrate many positional rotations. Although, within their 4-2-4 build, they have six outfield players in close proximity in the first phase of build-up, this does leave Rochdale slightly underpowered in attack.

With often just four players beyond the initial build-up structure, it means Rochdale have slightly fewer passing options higher up the pitch if they are to progress past the first phase. It should be fairly easy to press a striker or winger when they receive the ball during the build-up, as they should already be occupied by defenders.

With defenders close by, it can be difficult for Rochdale’s front-four to retain the ball. If possession is lost, Rochdale’s double-pivot are often too far away from the front-four to counter-press effectively, and they lack the physicality required to consistently implement a successful counter-press.

Although Rochdale can play at four ‘heights’, they don’t always do so. When Rochdale’s players are positioned at just three ‘heights’ (4-2-4 or 3-4-3), it makes it easier for opponents to press them because no players are positioned between the lines. However, even when they do push a #6 forwards, this can often leave their single-pivot isolated during the high build.

This puts a great responsibility on him to be the focal point during the build-up, as he will be expected to both receive and play a very high volume of passes to allow Rochdale to progress. With one fewer player now present in the first phase of Rochdale’s build-up, it makes it less likely they would have an overload and will also reduce the number of passing lanes available. In the event that Rochdale allow possession to be turned over easily during these instances, they may be exposed in defensive transition as their now lone #6 will have a lot of ground to cover.

Considering they almost always build play in their 4-2-4 shape and regularly try to ‘play out’ from goal-kicks, Rochdale are a bit too predictable and it can make them fairly easy to prepare to face from an opposition perspective.

In a match last season, Maidenhead pressed Rochdale in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Although Maidenhead were happy to sit in their mid-block, they utilised an aggressive, man-to-man press within this mid-block. Maidenhead’s mid-block allowed Rochdale’s two centre-backs time on the ball, but their two #8’s were in close proximity to Rochdale’s double-pivot, meaning they could be aggressive when Rochdale attempted to progress through the middle of the pitch. Maidenhead’s wingers pressed Rochdale’s full-backs if the play went out to them; they had a 4v4 in the last line; and their #6 could try to block the passing lanes into the strikers, and pick up a Rochdale striker if they dropped into the midfield.

Against Eastleigh – another side who use a mid-block rather than press aggressively from the front – their two strikers in their 3-5-2 formation shadow-marked Rochdale’s double-pivot; their #6 man-marked Gilmour; and their #8’s pressed a Rochdale full-back if the ball went out wide. An Eastleigh centre-back stepped into the midfield if a Rochdale striker dropped deeper, and they still had a 4v3 in the last line if he did so.


Against these mid-blocks – which give Rochdale’s centre-backs time on the ball, before pressure is applied once they have progressed past the first line – Rochdale find it difficult to sustain attacks high up the pitch. In these instances, they instead look to create artificial transitions in order to manufacture dangerous moments. These are situations where a side are moving at pace towards the opposing goal, similar to a counter-attacking scenario, but where there has been no turnover of possession. These transitional moments have, therefore, been created artificially through a change of tempo.

Sometimes Rochdale will come up against aggressive high presses. Last season both Altrincham and Wealdstone pressed in man-to-man fashion for large parts of their matches against Rochdale – either versus their 4-2-4 or 3-4-3 build. In these situations, where Rochdale can’t ‘play out’ from defence, their centre-forward, Kairo Mitchell, is tall and strong enough for them to play long passes towards for him to challenge for aerial duels. However, he also has the necessary athleticism required for Rochdale to play beyond opposing defences, either aerially or along the ground, for him to run onto.

When they do manage to progress the ball safely into the final-third, Rochdale transition from their 4-2-4 build-up shape into a 3-2-5 by pushing their left-back, Cameron John, into the last line. John holds the width on the left-side, with their left-winger tucked inside the front-five. Both strikers occupy the central space, with their right-winger holding the width on the opposite side. Their double-pivot sit ahead of the back-three, which includes the right-back – forming a 3-2 rest-defence shape.

However, they don’t adhere to a strict positional structure when in the final-third. Not all vertical lanes are consistently occupied, as Rochdale go with two strikers who both like to occupy the central space, and they can’t always move their left-back high to hold the width. In the instances where Rochdale can’t get their left-back to hold the width, their full-backs have the necessary athleticism and crossing ability to make overlapping runs beyond their wingers.

In these moments, however, full-back Keohane is usually the one holding the width, because he’s often used on the left-side of Rochdale’s 4-4-2. This is far from ideal, as Keohane isn’t able to consistently create separation from his marker to the same standards as a natural winger may be able to. This means that Rochdale lack threat from this side of the pitch when he’s selected there.

Gilmour, who often plays as a #6 within Rochdale’s double-pivot, likes to get forwards to join the attack. As a result, Rochdale frequently attack with at least five players in the last line. This does, however, mean that the midfield is regularly emptied during their final-third play due to the central space that Gilmour was occupying being vacated.

Consequently, and without a full-back consistently inverting to back-up the midfield, Rochdale’s counter-press can regularly be played through when play breaks down further forwards. Gilmour’s lack of constant positioning gives East a greater responsibility in defensive transition, as he has to cover more ground to make defensive duels. East also lacks the physicality to play as a single #6, and if a centre-back were to step into the midfield to engage in defensive duels, they aren’t always able to consistently cover ground at pace in transitional moments.

Although Gilmour possesses excellent technical ability, which is conducive to playing possession-based football, he lacks the necessary positional discipline to be classed as a top #6 for this level. Together with his slight over-directness and East’s lack of physicality to act as a lone #6, it’s clear that Rochdale need an additional starting #6 to partner East in the double-pivot – if they are to challenge right at the top of the division.

Out of possession

When Keohane is used on the left-side of their 4-4-2, Rochdale can drop him into the last line of defence as the left wing-back when they are without the ball. This forms a 5-4-1 off-ball shape when a striker drops into the left-side of the midfield – usually Devante Rodney. Last season this allowed exciting former loanee Hayes to hold the width on the right-side.

Keohane is a very important tactical weapon for McNulty. He can feature on either side of the pitch, and can invert or hold the width – which requires very good tactical understanding to carry out his variety of roles effectively.

This 5-4-1 shape can move into a 5-2-3 in the high press, with Rodney and the right-winger pressing either side of Mitchell in the front-three. Within this 5-2-3 shape, Rochdale can invert their winger in the high press to put pressure on an opposing outside centre-back – if they are up against sides who build play with a back-three. This front-three can allow Rochdale to effectively put pressure on their opponents high up in the wide areas when they’re in the high press. If they used wing-backs, however, it would be more difficult to consistently put pressure on the ball high up in the wide areas. This is because these wing-backs would eventually have to retreat all the way back into the last line to make up the back-five.

However, Mitchell lacks the intensity off the ball to be a great presser. In addition to the fact that Rochdale only press with one #9, Mitchell can often easily be outnumbered. Also, because Rochdale only have two central-midfielders, they are often overloaded in the middle of the pitch, meaning their press is often played through when they commit bodies forwards.

To prevent these overloads from occurring, Mitchell often shadow-marks an opposing #6, as opposed to pressing aggressively from the front. If done effectively, it prevents this #6 from receiving the ball, and frees up a Rochdale midfielder to mark another opponent instead.

In a match against Wealdstone, who implement a 3-2-2-3 build-up shape, this was present. Rochdale’s double-pivot would shadow-mark Wealdstone’s two #10’s; Mitchell would shadow-mark the ball-side Wealdstone #6; and Rochdale’s far-side winger would tuck inside to mark the free Wealdstone #6, but would be ready to press the wide centre-back on the far-side if the play was switched.

Even though all four members of Wealdstone’s ‘box midfield’ were being occupied by Rochdale players, it still left Wealdstone with two additional players in the build-up, giving them a 5v3 numerical superiority. Because two members of Rochdale’s front-three were responsible for marking Wealdstone’s #6’s, it meant Rochdale’s press was fairly passive, and they allowed Wealdstone’s defenders too much time on the ball. Wealdstone had a 56% possession share in this match.

If Rochdale then pressed aggressively, it would free up a Wealdstone #6, acting as the trigger for a Rochdale #6 to jump forwards to press. However, it was often difficult for them to do so as they had a lot of ground to cover, and this would free up a Wealdstone #10 if the press wasn’t backed up by a centre-back. If the press wasn’t backed up by Rochdale’s #6’s and wide centre-backs, it would then become disjointed and would then be played through.

This pressing structure requires a great deal of tactical understanding and communication amongst the players, and athleticism in order for them to cover ground quickly. That’s not to say that it can’t work. It’s just that it’s difficult for it to work consistently, and if not carried out successfully, it’s difficult to exert optimal control.

When Rochdale are forced back into their mid-block, their double-pivot are responsible for zonal-marking as opposed to man-marking opposing midfielders. They, therefore, keep fairly constant positioning and screen the back-five, aiming to prevent opposing forwards from receiving passes. The positioning of Rochdale’s #6’s mean that they aren’t able to shift across to the side of the pitch easily, as they need to ensure the middle of the pitch isn’t left empty.

In the absence of a third central-midfielder, it is the responsibility of Rochdale’s wide players in their 5-4-1 to both press opposing full-back and block the passing lanes into the wingers.

The back-five means that, when they are defending deep in their own half, Rochdale can defend with five in the last line. This enables them to cover the width of the pitch easier, whilst also having sufficient numbers centrally to defend the middle of the pitch.

However, with Keohane making up the back-five from his left-midfield position, it left George Nevett, who would play as the left-sided centre-back in their back-four, as the central centre-back. Nevett, who has recently joined Peterborough United, is an exciting prospect but lacks the strength to challenge the division’s most physical centre-forwards in aerial duels. This lack of physicality left Rochdale with a weakness in these moments.

I expect new signing Tobi Adebayo-Rowling to be used in this hybrid winger/wing-back role when necessary, but from the right-side instead. Gordon will, therefore, keep his place at right-back but will also tuck into the back-five when asked to do so. In attack, Adebayo-Rowling will provide Rochdale with an upgrade in this role in the final-third compared to Keohane. He is able to create separation from his marker with ease due to his dynamism, and will therefore offer greater threat in the final-third when he’s asked to hold the width.

One of Rochdale’s other new signings, Tarryn Allarakhia or Connor McBride, can hold the width on the left-side, or tuck into the half-space when Rochdale are able to move their left-back into the last line. Then out of possession, this player can invert to press as part of Rochdale’s front-three in their 5-2-3, with Rodney pressing from the right-side instead, and can then drop back into the left-side of the midfield in Rochdale’s 5-4-1 mid-block.

This will allow Adebayo-Rowling to defend as the right wing-back, with Gordon tucked inside. Consequently, it will then be captain Ethan Ebanks-Landell who will now defend as the central centre-back as opposed to Nevett. This will give Rochdale greater physicality during aerial duels when they are asked to defend their penalty area.

Rochdale can also use a traditional 4-4-2 out-of-possession shape, with natural wingers on either side. As a result, it means that their defensive structure would change – although their principles remain similar.

Last season against Altrincham – who built play in a 4-2-1-3 shape, with Chris Conn-Clarke operating between the lines – Rochdale pressed them with a 4-4-2 shape. Although this defensive shape gives them greater potential to be aggressive in the press, as opposed to a 5-4-1, Rochdale were still often too passive.

There were moments where they pressed in man-to-man fashion, with their strikers pressing the centre-backs; wingers pressing the full-backs; and #6’s quickly jumping to match up, too.

However, these moments weren’t regular enough. Too often, Rochdale’s #6’s couldn’t get forwards quickly enough to press Altrincham’s #6’s, leaving their strikers to both press Altrincham’s centre-backs and shadow-mark their #6’s. This meant they were often outnumbered 6v4 in the first phase, and the press was played through.

With Altrincham playing at four different ‘heights’ (4-2-1-3 build) and with their left-winger Alex Newby often inverting, a more passive approach in the midfield could have made sense. However, this approach is not conducive to exerting optimal control, as the opposition are afforded too much time on the ball, can progress forwards easily, and pin you back.

The below chart measures the amount of passes National League sides made in their own 60% of the pitch before the opposing made a defensive action, and how many passes they allowed before making a defensive action themselves. As we can see, Rochdale are in the top-left quadrant. This means they make lots of passes before their opponents make defensive actions, but are also passive in the press and allow their opponents to make a lot of passes before they make defensive actions.

In comparison, Chesterfield (who won the title last season); Gateshead; Barnet; and Southend United are all in the top-right quadrant. They make a lot of passes, but also press with aggression and don’t allow their opponents as much time on the ball. This is the blueprint for possession-based sides: keep the ball, and when you don’t have it, press with intensity to win it back – either by forcing turnovers or challenging for second-balls after the opposing ‘go long’.


In conclusion, McNulty has successfully implemented a possession-based style of football at Rochdale. They averaged the fourth-highest possession share in the National League last season (56.1%). This is what’s needed if Rochdale are to, eventually, challenge right at the top of the division. They can use a few different build-up shapes, have a number of methods of ball-progression, and can mix playing through or over opposition presses; although they’re still fairly predictable to prepare to face from an opposition perspective.

There are still a few obvious gaps left to fill in the squad – most notably goalkeeper, centre-back and in central-midfield – but they have recruited well so far this summer. Whether or not Rochdale can recruit the quality that’s needed to push them right towards the top of the division before the season starts remains to be seen, but they should still have enough for a play-off challenge.

Rochdale are still very early in their project under McNulty, and time is still needed for him to bring in the quality needed to take them to the next level. However, they have issues out-of-possession, and need to be more aggressive in the press if they are to eventually be considered as a top side for this level. Considering the size of the club, and the potential this gives them to recruit well, that should be the aim.

Until then, Rochdale won’t be able to consistently exert optimal control in matches. It will be interesting to see whether or not McNulty can successfully implement an aggressive out-of-possession approach that gives their opponents less time on the ball.

Joe Payne - @ShrimperStats


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