He might be a favourite of Paolo Di Canio’s but Oliver Risser hasn’t impressed everyone at the Country Ground. Alex Cooke looks at the statistics behind the midfielder’s contribution.
Oliver Risser won just two tackles against Huddersfield over 90 minutes*. In the recent FA Cup tie, the midfielder went into four challenges but only came away with the ball twice. He also completed only 10 passes, lost five headers and gave away two freekicks. Contrast that with his rival for the central midfield slot, Jon Smith, who played just nine minutes of normal time in the same game. His contribution was brief but positive: he won all three of his tackles, one header and completed both of the passes he attempted.
This comparison seems to offer a bleak picture of Risser at Swindon and give evidence to the view that the Namibian’s hasn’t delivered on the promise of pre-season. On Town’s tour of Italy he was frequently praised for his calmness, strength and leadership. But once the season started he’s been criticised for looking slow of thought and of body, as if the frenetic English game simply moves too quickly for him: his touch has often been woolly, his passing erratic and, his injury history is already length.
But there is another side to Risser’s statistics: in that Huddersfield match he won 11 headers, mostly inside or just outside Town’s own box. And the one header that he tried inside the opposition’s box was the flick-on that allowed Aden Flint to score Town’s opener.
The 31 year-old also made one clearance and one interception, and two of his three miss-placed passes were fairly ambitious balls to the wing which could have opened the opposition up, had their reached their target. And, even with these passes factored in, he still completed more than 81 % of those he attempted.
But the reason that many fans look at Oliver Risser and see a player who appears not to be contributing is that the Namibian doesn’t join Swindon attacks. In fact, in the same game he only played one pass closer than 25-yards from the Huddersfield goal and had no shots, either on- or off-target. But Risser’s positioning on the pitch isn’t based on how he can hurt the opposition; it is to how he can protect the defence.
He plays sat in the gap behind the midfield three of Simon Ferry, Raffa De Vita and Matt Ritchie, but just ahead of Alan McCormack and Aden Flint. From here he tracks opposition runners that would otherwise overload the defence and cuts out passes played towards the feet of the opposition strikers. It’s a position at the base of a midfield diamond which better suits his muscular talent (and allows the excellent Ferry to probe and provide) than the flat central midfield pairing with which Di Canio started the season.
That lack of tackling seen in his stats isn’t due to laziness or a lack of commitment either. Risser will attempt to wrest control of the ball from the opposition – and rather than dive in, he does so in an area where failure to do so won’t leave Swindon open.
Both of the free kicks he gave away in the Huddersfield game were in the opposition’s half. Any closer to his own goal, he jockeys, he harasses and he shields. He also stays on his feet, and, more importantly, in position.
However, 13 attempted passes in one game is low, particularly given that Risser’s deeper position should offer an easy interchange between the defence and midfield. However, he plays the role less as a Claude Makelele, circulating the ball and prompting attacks and more as an Offensive Tackle – a strong central defender sat in midfield purely to stop the opposition. And so Risser turns his back to these simple passes out from defence, content to leave Ferry to create, or McCormack to lob the ball beyond him, both of which have the disadvantage of making Town more predictable in attack.
As the stats seem to prove Risser’s rival for the position is somewhat different, for Jon Smith offers a combination of creativity and aggression. The former York man is undoubtedly quicker across the ground, tackles with more vigour, and his left foot lends greater balance and drive to the side. He’s also strong in the air, and like Risser, able to shoot from range.
However, Smith is prone to wandering. Against Aldershot he was easily drawn out of his defensive position and bypassed. And while he has the tenacity and telescopic legs to often remedy his positional errors, he is better suited to a more open game when his ability to work with the ball, rather than having to work too much off it, comes to the fore.
Paolo Di Canio through seems intent on using both players to fit the circumstances. Speaking to the Football League Podcast recently he admitted he picks a side to match the conditions and the opposition, rather that aiming for consistency of line-up:
“I look at the state of the field, if it is good or not. I also look at the weather two days before. Obviously, it is really important that you have a more physical player than a technical presence if you need that on a bad surface.”
So when Swindon play the likes of Dagenham at home, we can expected to see the dynamic Smith in the middle, but when Wigan come to visit no one should be surprised to see the disruptive Risser there. It’s a tactic that can be even more clearly seen elsewhere with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid playing Pepe in midfield or Fabio Cappello doing the same with Phil Jones – strong or superior teams can often be stymied by stopping their midfield at source.
The ultimate problem is that it is a position that can’t really be counted in passes made, only in opposition passes not made. For the player isn’t a marker or a tackler, they are a deterrent. So Risser’s role is not to make dramatic interceptions but to push the opposition into playing passes sideways and backwards, into areas in which they can’t threaten Swindon’s goal. And Huddersfield did exactly that: the ball was shifted to the two wingers, who were in turn were nullified by Paul Caddis and Callum Kennedy, resulting in the League One side only managed three shots on target throughout the entire game. And, using that score at least, and the fact that the game ended Swindon 4 Huddesfield 1, Oliver Risser is clearly doing more than just making up the numbers.
Oliver Risser’s game against Huddersfield
Passes played 13
Complete passes 10
Incomplete passes 3
Percentage of completed passes 81.25%
Headers contested 16
Headers won 11
Headers lost 5
Percentage of headers won 68.75%
Tackles lost 2
Freekicks won 2
Freekicks lost 2
*Due to the DVD used, the first 47 seconds on the game were missing.