As Aston Villa arrive at the County Ground, Alex Cooke looks at how the Town boss always gets Swindon ‘up for the cup’
Under Paolo Di Canio Swindon have a great record in the League Cup, FA Cup and even the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Stoke, Wigan, Huddersfield, Colchester, Burnley, Bristol City, Brighton, AFC Wimbledon, Barnet, Southend and Exeter have all been defeated during his tenure. Only Chesterfield, Oxford, Southampton and Leicester have beaten Town in any of the three competitions, meaning that Di Canio has won 75% of his cup matches. So what is to stop Paul Lambert’s stuttering Premier League side becoming the next victim of the Italian’s tactical tinkering?
However, each of these cup games has been very different. Certainly some were easier than others and some have demanded more of a battle just to play but throughout Swindon have changed their system, set up and line up to ensure that they have the best chance of winning through to the next round.
1. Swindon always believe
There is no sense of inferiority in Swindon’s cup performances. Many lower league teams when presented with an away tie to a Premier League team will dig in and defend with nine men – as they are perfectly entitled to ‘the right of the weak’ as Italian football writer Gianni Brera calls it. Under Di Canio, Swindon Town simply don’t do that. There is no falling back to the edge of the 18-yard-box with everyone but the lone centre forward and ‘parking the bus’ for 90 minutes.
However, Town don’t just play their normal game either. They instead make sure that the game is played on their terms, even if it isn’t played on their turf. This season’s cup tie against Brighton offered a superb example, with the manager calling it ‘playing passively’. During the first half, Swindon eschewed the usual rapid vertical play that has characterised them under Di Canio. More balls were worked across the deep defence. This was a strategy deliberately chosen by the Italian who knew that while Brighton loved to dominate possession, they rarely pressurised their opposition to win the ball back. So while two cautious teams standing off each other made for a dull first half of football, it meant that come the second half, when Swindon engaged Brighton higher up the pitch, they were fresh and ready to impose their own higher-tempo, short-passing game on the Seagulls.
2. Swindon are tactically flexible
If you only watched league games you might think that 442 is stamped through every double helix of Di Canio’s DNA, but that certainly isn’t true of the cup matches. Against Huddersfield, Di Canio employed a more flexible 451 with Raffa Di Vita supporting lone striker Alan Connell. De Vita often drifted wide, particular out to the right flank to play short passes with Matt Ritchie, hoping to draw fouls or getting crosses in.
While the Terriers’ reserve central defence were strong and sizeable, they were not mobile. Had De Vita attempted to play directly against them the pair would have dominated him. By moving into areas they didn’t want to go, De Vita could find space to play adding the width which Swindon used to trouble Huddersfield.
By contrast against Chesterfield at Wembley, Swindon kept both Paul Benson and Connell high and central, but used the width of the pitch to give Lee Holmes the space to play crosses in. And, it is easy to forget in the disappointment of that day, it worked wonderfully well in the first half. Holmes put in ball after ball, Swindon had numerous corners and bountiful possession, and, bar a horrible miss from Connell and an own goal from Oliver Risser, Swindon dominated and should have taken home the trophy.
3. Swindon make sure they meet their match
Against Huddersfield, Di Canio played a midfield to combat the Terrier’s virtues of strength, height and power. Risser played in a deeper role, working almost as a centre back in front of the back four. From there he offered not only in imposing barrier on the floor, but also a sizeable rival in the air shielding the back four. And while Risser didn’t complete a vast number of passes from that position, he clearly had an impact in breaking up play.
By contrast, Di Canio matched the midfield mobility and numerical superiority of Wigan by playing the aggressive but more nimble John Smith in tandem with Simon Ferry. Smith still made sure that he bit into tackles but he also kept and moved the ball with simplicity and speed. He also linked often with Ferry, who in that match covered vast swathes of the pitch, working more as a ball carrier than defensive barrier, linking closely to Matt Ritchie and Benson.
4. Swindon always take it seriously
By now everyone knows that Di Canio never lets his players relax. In contrast with so many modern managers, no game is every written off as being too hard or too easy to try. From the away game at Stoke when few gave Town a chance, to the second leg against Barnet when it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion, the first team – or a near first team- are always put out.
Contrast that with Stoke or Huddersfield who decided that they could rest numerous players when they played Swindon, including their key strikers in Peter Crouch and Jordan Rhodes, only to find themselves desperately chasing the game.
The only real exception to this was against Oxford in the JPT when four new loan signings made their debut, including an out-of-position Adam Rooney and the out-of-favour Luke Rooney. And Oxford fans with their commemorative DVDs, T-shirts, coasters and tattoos seem all too keen to remind Swindon what happened on that evening.
5. Swindon should play Raffa De Vita
He might have been superseded and supplanted at various points by Gary Roberts, Luke Rooney and Lee Holmes but Raffa De Vita has been the surprising near-constant in much of Town’s cup success. It might be his skill, or it might be pure chance, but the Italian played against, Stoke, Brighton, AFC Wimbledon, Colchester, Wigan, Leicester, Bristol City, Oxford and Barnet (twice). The only games he seems to have missed were the JPT win at Exeter, the League Cup against Burnley and the defeat by Chesterfield at Wembley. Certainly there are players such as Simon Ferry or Wes Foderingham who have been on the pitch for many of these games, but De Vita’s record is remarkable precisely because he is no longer the first choice forward or winger.
Next up…Aston Villa…
So, what can we expect from Villa and how can Swindon adapt?
It is hard to say as like Di Canio, Paul Lambert has shown himself to be a manager who is happy to react to the opposition, changing style and formation to counter his opponents. In the past he has used everything from a solo striker and diamond midfields to three at the back and 442. His sides have looked for long passes against those who are weaker in the air and built slowly against teams who lacked mobility. However, that was at Norwich, and with Aston Villa it seems that he might be more restrained in his ability to tinker with his formation and line-up, especially as Premier League survival must be the priority at Villa Park.
A 4321 or 442 seems most probable as Lambert still seems to be bedding in his young team, although if he does opt for experience he can still choose from the likes of Shay Given, Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland. But whatever Lambert plays, we can be sure that Di Canio will have a plan, or five.