Paolo Di Canio has changed him from a midfielder to a defender, but playing at the back has allowed McCormack to change the way Swindon play, writes Alex Cooke.
It took an injury to get Alan McCormack’s Swindon Town career going: not an injury to him, but to Oliver Risser. For the Namibian had been deployed as an emergency centre back for the Southend game but just a few minutes into the match, Risser picked up another one of his almost trademark injuries. And McCormack’s shift from midfielder to make-shift defender has proved the making of his season.
Prior to that game, McCormack had always been a midfield; a 5’7” central midfielder, not exactly known for his defensive ability. Instead, he came to Swindon from Charlton with a reputation for playing with his heart on his sleeve, and an opponent’s liver, lungs and kidneys trailing from his studs.
Despite starting his League career with Preston, and bar a loan spell with Motherwell, McCormack had spent most of his career in and around London at Championship and League One level with Orient, Southend and Charlton. Over three separate spells he played 145 times for Southend, scoring 18 times, but his exit was ignominious with the Shrimpers terminating his contract due to his wages demands. His free transfer to Charlton didn’t quite work out either, as player and club had a poor year in League One.
After his move McCormack’s early performances for Town had hinted at a partial return his old form – his brief appearance against Crewe showed the midfield mobility that Risser clearly lacks, and against Cheltenham he bit and battled until a yellow card nullified his tiggerish impact.
So when McCormack moved into the backline against his former club it was hard to imagine how effective he could be as a defender. But with just 16 goals conceded in 23 games he has quickly made the position his own.
Not that his defensive debut was exemplary. In that first game against Southend, and in a few that followed, Town’s offside line snaked and wobbled rather than staying rigid, often with the Irishman noticeably wider and deeper than his defensive partner, Joe Devera. McCormack’s own positioning was sometimes suspect too. At times he relied on his on mobility and flexibility to hook balls away as they bounced over his head, rather than correctly judging winning the clearing header. Above all he relied on his pace to get him out of trouble.
It was a risky strategy but one only made possible because in that game McCormack and Paolo Di Canio managed something that few recent Swindon teams have achieved – they held a high line. Safe in the knowledge that with only Blair Sturrock up front, Southend lacked the speed to beat either McCormack or Devera on the deck, they were able to compress the play.
With the defensive line far away from Town’s goal, Sturrock’s side could only win knockdowns too far from goal to shoot and too far for their immobile midfield to run on. It also kept any crosses well away from Mattia Lanzano’s fumbling fingers.
It was the first time that Town has pushed the defence up, and it hasn’t been the last. And the higher line was a move that Paolo Di Canio has clearly been keen to implement for some time, and with McCormack replacing the seemingly arthritic Alberto Comazzi, he finally could.
‘When we are in trouble we prefer to drop and go across the goal line, so I will teach them to defend higher,’ the Town boss had said after the draw with Hereford.
With Di Canio’s exaggerated windmilling on the sideline and McCormack and captain Paul Caddis able to translate his motions into movement, the defence has moved away from its own 18-yard-line, becoming less shaky and less brittle in the process. The movement up-field has also helped Town’s lack of height at the back for, bar the giant Aden Flint, our defence is like an old hair cut – short at the back and sides. And so far, as Di Canio acknowledged, only Hereford have really managed to exploit this.
Other changes in personnel have also helped. As the defence has settled greater discipline and understanding have flourished, particularly with the confident Wes Foderingham behind them. But what is surprising is how the diminutive McCormack is able to more than hold his own in such as physical role. The division four centre forward is a mythical beast, a bullying behemoth, and yet, so far McCormack hasn’t really struggle against any of them.
You might think that he leaves the long aerial balls to Flint, but he doesn’t. Even when faced with Michael Rankine of Aldershot, a player whose torso looked wide enough to contain a hundred treetrunk rings, he won headers. Against Huddersfield’s brutish pair of forwards he still won 22 headers, and lost just three. A success rate he achieves because instead of entering a pushing contest, he leaves his own positioning to the last moment, and relies on his leaping.
If his aerial ability surprises, his confidence is startling. Most ‘orthodox’ centre backs want to clear the ball at any cost but McCormack is cuter than that. He is happy to draw fouls, to position his body to win freekicks rather than simply lofting the ball away. It is a risky strategy, relying on the tendency of refs to give freekicks against clumsy forwards’ tackling, but so far it has paid off every time.
Despite all of these improvements, there are still flaws in his defensive game. As the Morecambe game showed, he is happier being shoved and jostled by a centre forward leading the line than following one who drops into space, and into midfield. It seems to make him unsure of his positioning and liable to drift out of position. And while not many teams play as ‘false nine’ in division four, it does hint that McCormack is still learning his trade.
Also, for a former midfielder, McCormack’s distribution is surprisingly average. His short passing is fine but anything longer and he can struggle to pick out a red shirt. Again this shouldn’t be a surprise as in his former terrier-like midfield role most of his passing was over 10 yards, not the 60 now required of him. Again in the Huddersfield game, he completed five of his seven passes, most of which were short, and made 11 clearances.
While all across Europe former midfielders such as Mats Hummell, Javier Mascherano and Daniele Di Rossi are being used at club level as defenders but encouraged to spring forward to become extra attackers, McCormack is still learning to pick his moments.
He does sometimes step out with the ball, such as to great effect against Northampton, but with his limited dribbling ability and distribution, the risk is still often greater than the benefit. Particularly as so far it seems that neither Jon Smith nor Oliver Risser are yet prepared to cover his position when he goes forward.
And while he is still developing, Alan McCormack has become deservedly one of the first names on Paolo Di Canio’s team sheet – a fixture equal to Simon Ferry or Aden Flint. That is until a suspension kicks in, or an injury gives another player a chance to kick start their career back there…