Preston North End have taken Town’s loaned left winger but would he really fit Paolo Di Canio’s new attacking plan or is Luke Rooney the solution? By Alex Cooke.
Paolo Di Canio was keen. Whatever is said now, Swindon’s manager clearly once saw Southampton’s winger Lee Holmes as a very useful signing: “In terms of my opinion on the way they [Jay McEverley] play and the quality they have got, obviously I would like to keep them.” And during the three months in which Holmes was on loan, he played in every game he was available for. Not only did he become the first choice left winger, but as was proven when Matt Ritchie was injured, he was also second choice right winger ahead of the naturally right-footed Luke Rooney and Raffa De Vita.
But Holmes didn’t fit the current Di Canio model for inverted wingers perhaps playing him opened Di Canio’s eyes to doing something different next season, particularly considering what Holmes brought to the team – and what he didn’t.
The simple truth is that Holmes didn’t work as an inverted winger. As a devoted left-footer his performances on the right for Swindon were patchy – his abilities didn’t suit the system – especially as his shooting is one of the weakest parts of his game. He tends to stroke the ball, to lift it slightly as if trying to cross the ball into the corner of the net, rather than going for power into the near corner – as Ritchie does. It means that his shots have to be extremely accurate to beat the ‘keeper, but they are often not. In fact Holmes’ only goal for Town, against Northampton, was one of this ‘cross-shots’ that just crept in at the far post. And that was just one of 11 career goals he has scored since making his debut almost a decade ago.
What Holmes does well though is take on his man and cross from the left flank – just as an orthodox winger should. His problem was that he lacks exceptional straight-line speed, and real acceleration. What he does have though is a good touch, an ability to receive the ball with his body nicely open and to go in either direction from that static position. He also has a nice line in step-overs and tricks, so while he might not accelerate past a full-back but he is certainly able to buy himself enough space to get a first-time cross away. As an example, he attempted 20 dribbles in the Wembley final against Chesterfield, completing 16 of them, despite some very attentive marking.
His technique is often to start moving slowly in-field from the flank towards his marker with the ball under his body only to roll the ball onto the outside of his left and head back out towards the touchline. This sudden change of direction is just enough to unbalance the full-back for just long enough to hit a cross. The problem is that injury seems to have robbed Holmes of the raw pace required to escape beyond the marker once he had made the room to do so.
The contrast here has to be with Luke Rooney. On the left flank Rooney naturally looks to drift inside, but also when he receives the ball he often does so with his body closed – i.e. with his back directly to goal – this restricted his ability to turn and attack the full-back, usually forcing him to lay the ball off to his own left-back. This slows the attack and forces him deeper. So while Rooney might seem to have greater technique than Holmes, he lacks the experience of playing on the wing to maximise those talents.
The criticism of Holmes though has to be that being so one-footed and short of speed makes him predictable. Any defender can be fairly certain which way Holmes is liable to turn and so show him the other way and, if they slip, they can still have the time to recover their position and balance to tackle.
Holmes’s delivery is harder to judge than his dribbling. He certainly provides a good number of crosses, 12 against Chesterfield in the JPT final, but the quality is harder to call. For the problem is that Swindon’s forwards are not the biggest, strongest or the most aerially dominant. So while Holmes is often able to put balls into the six-yard box neither Paul Benson or Alan Connell could connect with them. Also with Town’s use of 442 there wasn’t anyone late arriving into the box to cut the ball back to making a defender’s job much easier. At Wembley this resulted in 12 crosses into the area, three reached Town players, two were blocked early on, five were cleared by Chesterfield players and one went straight out of play. (This leaves one cross which Connell dummied before a defender cleared, so it is tricky to categorise as it was accurate but a Swindon player didn’t actually touch it).
What is also interesting about Di Canio using Holmes on the left flank is that it stretches the playing area. For in that Chesterfield game an approximate 75% of Holmes’s touches came in a narrow 10-yard wide strip between the halfway line and the Chesterfield goal. Most of those came midpoint in that area too. This shows how Holmes’s positioning was wide, if not especially high – very useful especially on a large pitch such as Wembley – but also how he doesn’t become involved in defending or supporting the centre.
This seems to be an evolution of Di Canio’s tactical thinking from the narrow system of two inverted wingers he used for most of the season. The reason is that two inverted wingers allows the opposition to become very narrow and very compact, where as a true wideman looking to go outside his marker opens the pitch for others, as Michael Cox highlighted in the Guardian.
“A fine example was Spain’s terrible performance in their opening World Cup 2010 match, when [David] Silva and Andres Iniesta started as – in theory – Spain’s wide players, but both drifted inside into a zone already occupied by Xavi Hernández. Spain often attacked across a width of no more than 15 yards, so the Swiss defence could play extremely narrow, prevent Spain from playing through-balls, and snatch a 1-0 win.
Spain only looked threatening once Jesús Navas replaced Silva and stretched the play, and from then on Vicente del Bosque always used a more direct player on the flank – either David Villa pushed wide, or Pedro Rodríguez. “I get the feeling that the coach doesn’t really need me,” Silva complained last year. “When we lost against Switzerland at the World Cup, I was the only one who felt the consequences.” He played no further part in the tournament, but Del Bosque was right to introduce width to the side, retaining Iniesta as the sole “interior” wide player.”
So does Di Canio’s recent talk of Plan B and C and D hint at see Swindon playing without an orthodox winger to complement Matt Ritchie’s narrow brilliance? Is that the reason that Holmes wasn’t chased more seriously? There is a chance, but there are other factors. If Di Canio is thinking of a move to a 4231, Holmes probably wouldn’t suit working as part of that 3 as he lacks the all-round game. Also if the thought is to attempt the 4411, as used at the end of the season with John Bostock dropping off the front line, Holmes again might not be the ideal player as Swindon would undoubtedly need more raw pace from at least one of the widemen in support of that lone forward for quick counter attacks.
Of course, there are many other, probably more significant, factors which could have mitigated against Holmes’s move taking place – one of the main ones clearly being the interest of a club with the history, wages, and proximity to his home town, of Preston. A long injury record could easily discourage any manager – he has made only 100 appearances in the league, despite being 25. And while it is easy to overplay other factors there are clearly some adjustments still going on at Swindon in the boardroom, as demonstrated by the withholding of the holding company’s accounts and the delay to the promised AGM.
So missing out on Lee Holmes, talented is as he is, might not be less about Di Canio not getting the winger he wanted, it might also be part of a plan to expand Swindon’s footballing horizons in a different direction.
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