Why Rochdale should appoint David Artell as their next manager
Even amid the reactionary nature of modern football, it’s too early to say a team and club is in crisis five games in.
The feeling at Rochdale, though, is not a million miles off that: after overseeing an 18th-placed finish last season, Robbie Stockdale was dismissed after four straight defeats and Jim McNulty was unable to end the losing streak in his first game as caretaker.
The Dale were a common ante-post pick for relegation but many supporters who passionately challenged external perception a month ago are now concerned about this season.
The National League is a notoriously hard division to get out of and while Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham bounced back at the first attempt in 2014/15 and 2015/16 respectively, it’s since got even more difficult with the external investment going into the division.
For that reason, it’s crucial that Rochdale not only stay up this year, but also put the wheels in motion for long-term progression: to do either of those things, they must get this appointment right.
John Askey is the current 1/2 favourite but there have been strong reports of interest in David Artell, who’s five-year stay as Crewe boss came to an end earlier this year.
Here’s why we think Artell is the right fit for the Dale, for their short, medium and long-term aspirations...
Short-term: solidify, stabilise, survive
When Artell first took charge of Crewe in January 2017, the club had just been relegated from League One in last place and while they weren’t in League Two’s relegation zone, form hinted at a fight to retain the EFL status.
After a demanding start and one point from four, a George Cooper inspired 5-0 thumping of Grimsby catalysed a return of 26 points from 17, which steered the Alex to a safe, lower midtable finish.
Although at this point Artell hadn’t established the patterns of play his Crewe side would become renowned for in future seasons, there was a solidity about his team and that’s what Rochdale need now.
The Dale have lost their first five games and it’s essential they stop the rot by getting something from their next two: going into Salford, Leyton Orient and Northampton – all currently in the top seven – without a point to their name would be a very dangerous position.
In that sense, it doesn’t matter quite how they play against Crawley and Carlisle: they simply need to get some points on the board.
Artell has shown he can adapt to the needs of an urgent situation, even in his first job in management.
Whoever takes the reigns will need to address the set piece deficiencies which have plagued the Spotland outfit, and there may be an emphasis on getting the version of Ethan Ebanks-Landell who can be an aerial dominator at this level, as opposed to the version that’s been in evidence this season.
Step one is to get this team organised, and not gifting cheap goals away: while confidence is low, playing out from the back may have to go to the back-burner for now.
Medium-term: reconnect the club with it’s academy
Staying up is the sole focus for Rochdale in 2022/23, but it’s important that they initiate the process towards a more sustainable route forward.
The jewel for the Lancashire club is it’s academy, which needs nurturing once again.
The Dale have an incredible setup led by Tony Ellis and won the EFL Youth Alliance Cup in 2020/21, but the whole crop were not offered senior terms, which was absolutely scandalous from the previous regime – David Bottomley in particular.
Had that not been the case, it’s possible we may have seen more in the way of youngsters coming through the ranks in 2021/22 under Robbie Stockdale, who didn’t offer a league debut to a single homegrown product.
True, Abraham Odoh got 32 league appearances after just two the year before, but otherwise it was clear that Stockdale was not as pro-youth as his predecessor, Brian Barry-Murphy.
For example, when Aaron Morley was sold to Bolton, a youth-centred manager would have given Ethan Brierley a run of games to see what he could do. Stockdale didn’t do so – he ended up loaning Brierley to National League North side Spennymoor Town in March.
Of course, the former Sunderland assistant may well have had perfectly valid reasons for taking that course of action, including having to assemble a team that is ready to compete in the here-and-now which, to a point, he did with some positive performances under his guidance.
Stockdale may well go on to do superbly somewhere else, especially if he has a little bit more luck keeping hold of his best players, but the issue comes back to what Rochdale are striving to be.
If the Dale are striving to be the club that tells young talent in the footballing hotbed of the north-west that they will get an opportunity to show they are good enough – which, with the quality of their academy, they surely have to be - then perhaps Stockdale wasn’t suitable.
Artell, by contrast, has developed top young players throughout his career, most notably (but not limited to) the ‘Golden Generation’ of Perry Ng, Harry Pickering, Charlie Kirk, Ryan Wintle, Tommy Lowery and Owen Dale.
Not only has Artell’s coaching and man management qualities played a huge part in the development of six players who are now good enough for the Championship – and in some cases, beyond – he’s also been patient at times.
Charlie Kirk, for instance, didn’t truly catch fire for the Railwaymen until he was two or three years into his senior career, by which point a lot of managers would have long started looking at replacements.
It’s that sort of patience that Rochdale need in their next manager, if they’re to maximize their academy.
It’s one thing claiming to be a club that gives youth a proper chance, but then it’s so important the boss sticks by that when it may not be immediately convenient: that’s how saleable assets are developed.
This is a difficult time for Rochdale, who are still picking up the pieces from the mess that followed Chris Dunphy’s reign - and preceded Simon Gauge and co.’s arrival on the board last summer.
However, if the club can start to sell its homegrown talent for the right amount of money, Dale can give themselves an opportunity to rebuild towards a brighter future.
Long-term: try to challenge for promotion
The very long-term ambition for Rochdale should be to strive to become a prudent, sustainable, academy-proud League One club in 10 years’ time.
Repeating the glory era of the mid-2010s under Keith Hill, who delivered three consecutive top half finishes after promotion in 2013/14 with an attractive brand of football, will be incredibly difficult.
Of course, half the third tier nowadays is clogged up with fallen giants – and almost another half backed by rich benefactors – so this is not to say that Rochdale being in League Two is a failure.
Rather, that it’s simply good to have targets, as long as they don’t directly dictate the investment, like it sadly did down the road, or stop the club from budgeting for safety in the worst-case scenario – but that’s not a danger under Gauge and co.
Naturally, this long-term plan would require Rochdale winning promotion from League Two at some stage, which is also a huge ask, especially in the context of the club’s current predicament.
Artell’s advantage is that he does have previous on that score: the 41-year-old led Crewe up automatically from this level in 2019/20, playing some of the best football seen outside the Championship in recent EFL history.
The Alex deservedly beat eventual 2018/19 title-winners Lincoln on Boxing Day that season, which was the game that saw Artell switch from 4-4-2 to the 4-3-3 that became the mainstay for the next two-and-a-half years.
Crewe had the best form in League Two from that game onwards and, after a summer of minimal turnover, took the division by storm the following year.
The Railwaymen would build attacks patiently through Ryan Wintle, they had some lovely rotations between full-back and the corresponding wide forward – most notably Pickering and Kirk – and find ways of accelerating play quickly yet smoothly into the final third.
The midfield had a lovely blend of Wintle, the conductor at the base, Paul Green, the gritty destroyer and Tommy Lowery, the effervescent magician who brought the sprinkling of stardust.
In Perry Ng, meanwhile, Crewe developed the best right-back in League Two, then League One, and someone now playing Championship football with clear Premier League potential.
That’s the type of model that Rochdale must move forward with if they are to get on the right track, in the short, medium and long-term.
Of course, it cannot be ignored that Artell’s last season at Crewe was incredibly disappointing.
After an impressive top half finish in 2020/21, five of the six had left for a pittance by 2021/22 while Tommy Lowery only started playing in November due to a dispute.
Recruitment was poor, injuries didn’t help, two key signings retired immediately after putting pen to paper and Crewe finished bottom of League One with a mere 29 points, the lowest tally at the level since Stockport in 2009/10.
Artell should take responsibility for his part in that, but the wider issue is that he was not given the support he needed, not having a chief scout nor any other reliable person to lean on in the recruitment process.
What the former centre-back needs at his next club, therefore, is a better structure and a stronger support network which will allow him to put more of his energy into what he does best: coaching, tactics and man management.
If Rochdale appoint Artell and give him the support he requires, there is a way out of their current situation: both right now and in the long run.