The Cheltenham midfielder passes well, shoots superbly but lacks the all-round game and experience to thrive for STFC in League One, says Alex Cooke.
Ever since the second league game of last season Marlon Pack has been on many Swindon fan’s wishlist. That day the Cheltenham midfielder’s display of calm passing, neat control and precise corners marked him out as one of the best in the division. Since then the 21 year old has gone on to earn himself a place in the PFA League Two team of the year, scored 5 goals in 43 appearances and a big reputation for playing tidy football.
Pack is an elegant, almost languid, two-footed central midfielder. He doesn’t dribble and he rarely tackles and lacks pace but he reads the game well, relying on his touch and technique to keep him out of trouble. His passing is superb – delivering accurate balls both long and short with his right foot. Playing often in a deep position he flights balls into others’ runs, altering the direction of attacks and all the while making sure that he is always open to receive a simple pass-back from those around him.
The system that Cheltenham use away from home really suits him too. As the most defensive of the midfielders in a 4231, Pack has time and space to function as a deep-lying playmaker – a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo if you will. With two quick wingers hugging the touchline, a physical centre forward and a tough, attacking midfielder directly ahead, he always has forward passing options. He is able to play accurate, almost Hoddle-esque passes to the two widemen even his own half as well as put short passes into the man in front to feed into the striker.
While he is fairly mobile, Pack relies on Luke Summerfield, son of Town’s former coach Kevin, to do the bulk of his running. So while the ex-Plymouth man tackles, tracks and attacks the opposition box, Pack holds his position in front of the back four, rarely being drawn into the attack.
Pack also excels at set-pieces, something Swindon didn’t last season scoring from just 7 corners and 8 free-kicks in the league. Pack’s delivery of highly accurate corners has been one of Cheltenham’s key attacking weapons – combining with the weighty bulk of centre back Steve Elliott. It worked against Swindon that day at Whaddon Road and it has worked numerous other times since. Pack has variety in his delivery with backspun balls dropped onto the penalty spot, driven crosses into the morass and short corners too. He delivers free kicks with equal quality, demonstrating real ability to bend and dip the ball with his right-foot, including a beautiful strike against Torquay. In fact, he is a surprising good finisher off both feet. He has one final weapon in his creative armoury, but it is slightly more agricultural than his cultured right foot – a Delapesque long throw which is hard and flat.
Pack has a style of play and an ability with the football which fits beautifully with Paolo Di Canio’s recently stated aim of adding players who comfortable on the ball. “I want to change the way we play this year. I want to play many balls from the back, many balls from the middle,” the Swindon manager told the Adver recently. “I want to give my team more options to damage the opponents.”
However, Pack is distinctly lacking in many of the other areas that Di Canio identified in the same interview: he wants players who are mature and also able to look after themselves. “We need to improve our physical presence and also our experience,” he said. “You try to win in League One and it is more tough so we need more experienced people at 27 or 28 that already have experience in League One.” Pack though has played just 9 games outside of League Two – one in the Championship with Portsmouth, the rest were in the league below while on loan at Wycombe. Otherwise he has played most of his 99 league appearances in the bottom division with Cheltenham, as well as a loan spell at Dagenham. More significant is Di Canio assessment of League One as being more robust, more physical than the basement division, as Pack certainly isn’t that.
It isn’t that Pack lacks strength or bulk, he’s actually 6” 2’ tall and certainly looks solid enough. However, he seems to lack the desire to contest balls, to fight for possession once a move break down, or to track runners breaking towards his own goal. All of which after a season of watching Swindon player under the Italian, we know Paolo Di Canio demands much of his midfielders. We also all know from experience that one of the main differences between League One and Two is in the speed, strength and skill of the midfielders and it seems unlikely that Pack would be able to find such time and space against the likes of Jonathan Douglas or Darren Potter. Even the great Glen Hoddle had to use a 352 to buy himself the room to play his passes.
The League Two play off final provided perfect illustrations of both sides of Pack’s game. He was neat and tidy, then put in some lovely corners too but he was also caught out. An early shoulder challenge from the retreating Nick Powell, knocked the unaware Pack off the ball and left him feebly mewling for a freekick and as Crewe broke and created their first clear chance of the game.
Similarly for Crewe’s second goal, Pack made no effort to follow the breaking Ajay Leitch-Smith on the counter-attack. The Crewe striker then found himself unchallenged on the edge of the box and free to play in Byron Moore to score. The challenges Pack did make during the game were often limp and half-hearted – more of the ‘dangling leg’ variety rather than the brave block demanded by Di Canio.
In the air, Pack is merely okay. In fact, his manager at Cheltenham, Mark Yates, uses him on the near-post at corners which is usually a position given to one the weakest headers of the ball in the whole team. But then that isn’t that much of a criticism in a team as packed full of bulk and heft as Cheltenham.
The way that Swindon play at the moment Pack would be a defensive risk in League One. In a 442 with Simon Ferry, Swindon would be short in height, power and physical strength in the centre, and with Matt Ritchie and Luke Rooney on the flanks the whole midfield would be small and lightweight. Alternatively if he was paired with either Jon Smith, Oliver Risser, Swindon would be stronger, if slow, but they would also be seriously stymied in attack. While possession would be retained, without Ferry’s mobility and probing in the final third, Town would find it hard to overload teams on the flank and overwhelm the rival full-backs.
Ultimately signing Pack would demand either a change in system, swapping to a central midfield trio, or a discarding Ferry and adding another defensive midfielder. It looks likely that that Di Canio is thinking about the former with his recent comments on adding tactical flexibility to his fairly one-dimensional 442. The most likely option would be a 4231 as this would give Pack some defensively support and incorporate his other stated targets of Jay McEverly and John Bostock. Di Canio could even try the 343 used in desperation at Wembley with Pack fulfilling the deeper role that Di Canio gave Bostock in that game.
Pack wouldn’t be cheap though. He has a year left on his Cheltenham contract and many clubs beyond League One are already aware of him, which potentially pushes his price even higher. And while Swindon is close to his existing base and has the attraction of his friend Matt Ritchie, he looks keen to stay at Whaddon Road for a while longer – and time is certainly on Pack’s side.
Also Swindon might find much better value elsewhere in the market. Numerous clubs including Scunthorpe, Carlisle and Colchester have let the contracts lapse of vast swathes of their squads, including a few very experienced pros, and a Swindon Town side undoubtedly on the up could be very attractive for a number of them.
While Marlon Pack is clearly an excellent and hugely talented young footballer, his lack of League One experience and physical power could mean that Di Canio find a better value, and a better fit for this team, elsewhere than in the regista of the Robins.