He can play 50 passes in less than 90 minutes and knits defence and attack but lately illness has deprived Town of Simon Ferry in full flow, Alex Cooke looks at what we have been missing.
“Less energy, more quality”. That was Paolo Di Canio’s opinion of what Simon Ferry brought from the bench to Swindon versus Shrewsbury on Tuesday. It might sound a strange view to take of a player who most fans would pick for not only for his excellence, but one who also exuding energy and enthusiasm in every performance. However, it is an idea which is backed up by the stats.
A look at his performances against Wigan and Leicester show that Ferry passes with both efficiency and accuracy.
During the 90 minutes (plus injury time) against Wigan he completed 91% of the passes he attempted. That is clearly an impressive number, especially as it wasn’t earned through a few tapped short exchanges with Jon Smith; he actually attempted 25 passes, all around pitch.
Against Leicester, he managed to complete an even more remarkable 90% of his passes over 81 minutes versus the Championship team, failing to complete just five out of 50. For an international comparison Xavi’s of Barcelona completes on average of 90% of his passes, but then he has been known to make 100 passes in just 45 minutes.
While Ferry’s passing is often unspectacular, it is like him; swift, precise and short. He also has the awareness and technique to play the ball under pressure, giving and receiving passes while marked and spin in little space. Other Swindon players might dawdle, shifting the ball to their preferred foot; Ferry links the play almost instantaneously.
So while it is Matt Ritchie who gives Swindon creativity and penetration in the wide positions and Raffa De Vita shuttles up and down the flank, it is Ferry who provides the possession, and so controls the pace of the game. He isn’t a box-to-box action man or even playmaker, more of a prompter.
He’s also tactically aware. During the first twenty minutes of a game, Ferry will often sit deeper – level with Jon Smith – offering ‘false pressing’ of the opposition. During this time he, and the rest of the midfield, doesn’t seek to win the ball high up the field, merely to jockey, to harass and to block – proof of which again comes from the FA Cup tie against Wigan when he made just three passes, 12% of his total, inside the opening 20 minutes of the match.
It is only when his manager removes the defensive shackles that Ferry starts to show his influence, pressing for real, and accelerating into space, feeding the vertical attacking thrusts of Ritchie, Paul Caddis and Luke Rooney with passes, as well as simply keeping, and circulating the ball.
As the game unfolds, he has the intelligence and flexibility to alter his role either to become the lead point on a diamond, or to remain square. For, in Town’s 442, with its inverted wingers, Ferry’s role isn’t to venture beyond the strikers, instead when attacking he holds a position inside the ‘D’ of the 18-yard-box ready to change the direction of the attack or to feed any clearances back into the forwards. It is much as Paul Scholes does now, but from a much higher starting position than the Manchester United playmaker.
What Ferry doesn’t do is hit hopeful 60-yard ‘Hollywood’ passes from front to back, or chip balls into the channels for the strikers – his passing to almost exclusively to feet. However, common perception is that he doesn’t look for longer passes doesn’t quite hold true. Against Leicester City, Ferry repeatedly sought to release Raffa De Vita on the left flank with a number of 30-yard balls. It might have been a strategy, it might have been pure opportunity – but it proves that that to go with his ‘tiki-taka’ there is also some ‘wacka’.
The Leicester match also revealed another pre-conception about Ferry’s passing that doesn’t quite hold true. Because of his position very much on the right of central midfield, and his right footedness, it is easy to presume that his passing would primarily mirror Swindon’s strength on that right flank. Instead, Ferry’s play showed greater balance between the flanks.
19 times he passed to the right flank and 12 to the left, switching the direction of the attack and 13 times feeding the advancing full-backs. Interesting for a player who likes to run forward with the ball, he also passed backwards 13 times, retaining possession with a pass to Alan McCormack four times, Wes Foderingham twice and Joe Devera just the once. Also interestingly, it was the two wingers who most often received the ball, Ritchie 11 times and De Vita/Gabilondo eight times. In 30 forward passes, Alan Connell came short to take five passes but in his nine sideways balls, only twice did he aim for his fellow central midfielder, Oliver Risser.
But there is a gap in Ferry’s game – regaining the ball. During the Wigan game, Ferry won just one tackle and was dispossessed three times. He also headed the ball just three times, twice finding a teammate. Instead he hustles and harries with superb patience, energy and positional discipline.
There often seems to be a short piece of elastic between him and Jon Smith as they shuffle from one side of the pitch to the other perfectly in line, presenting a formidable barrier to any attack and provide an excellent screen to the back four. It is the kind of discipline that comes only with understanding, training ground drilling and excellent concentration.
But Jon Smith isn’t a ball-winner either. Instead he tends to crash into his opponents with the leggy grace of a crane-fly hitting a window. And the stats bear this out too as in the same Wigan game, he won and lost the same number of tackles – two. He also gave away two freekicks, but he did make two interceptions. Key though is his pass completion stats – 93%. Which looks better than Ferry’s percentage but with only 15 attempted, and the majority being more conservative, more ‘square’ passes, he isn’t as attacking as his midfield partner. Instead he forms the rear point of the midfield diamond when Town attack.
But any look at a player’s statistics can’t ignore the opposition, and the Wigan game is the exception not the rule – it was open, clean and played on the floor, not in the air. So while Smith won all of his headers, he hardly faced the endless tossed-up balls that Macclesfield or to a lesser extent the physical tie that Leicester offered.
For these games, Canio clearly acknowledged Smith’s lack of power, aerial ability and perhaps even positional discipline, preferring the bulkier Oliver Risser. Plenty has already been written and said about Risser’s strengths, and weaknesses, but his influence and input into the side is clearly growing.
Against a hulking Macclesfield side Di Canio clearly selected the Namibian for his aerial ability to shield the relatively small backline of Alan McCormack and Joe Devera, winning five or six headers in a row during the second half. Similarly away at Rotherham, again it was Risser who was chosen to pick up Alex Revel at set-pieces, instead of either of the centre backs. Also against Leicester, Risser forced one of the better chances leaping to hit in a near-post header reminiscent of the flick-on he won leading to Aden Flint scoring against Huddersfield.
Whatever the changes Di Canio makes to Ferry’s partner, it is telling that the Scot has almost always played when he has been available – even when ill. Because while Smith and Risser might be used in certain games, in certain roles – and Lee Cox clearly offers a robust presence allied with vision – Simon Ferry can always adapt to any role, and the one change that is never required is to substitute him.