Swindon Town’s most natural finisher is on loan to Cheltenham, not because he is too old, but because Paolo Di Canio demands more than just goal-scoring. By Alex Cooke.
Few players have left Swindon of late with a kind word from manager Paolo Di Canio. Not Paul Caddis, not Medhi Kerrouche and certainly not Leon Clarke. However, striker Paul Benson is one member of that select group.
Throughout his year at Swindon, Benson has been a paragon of effort, professionalism and eloquence, which also explains how the former Dagenham striker has remained as popular with his manager as he has with the fans.
“Paul is a fantastic lad, a fantastic professional and a very good player”, Di Canio told the press on Monday. “Last year he was one of the main reasons why we went up. The fact that he joined us gave more belief to the others and more options up front and he scored many goals for us.”
And score he did, Benson managed 12 league goals in 31 games for Swindon, including a fortuitous winner against Wigan in his second game for the Town. He also scored against his new club, Cheltenham, displaying exactly the predatory talent which has lead to him notching an impressive league goal in every 0.39 games throughout his career.
While few of his goals were ascetically pleasing, most were scored from close in – latching onto crosses or feeding on the opposition’s mistakes- but so many were vital to promotion. Without Benson, Town’s won 54% of their games last season. With him it was 74%. Town also drew seven games without him, but just one with him – testament to what he brought to the side.
Not that Benson is just a finisher – although he certainly is that – for Swindon he was also a leader of the line, a linker, the focal point that Alan Connell, Lukas Magera and Leon Clarke had failed to provide. Despite his slender frame, he gave strength and resilience to Swindon’s attack, seemingly able turn much hold off defenders with his a flick of his pipe-cleaner-thin legs, almost magically sniffing out crosses in a fashion not seen since the departure of Charlie Austin.
Benson also played with an uncomplaining enthusiasm too, often performing despite injury and ever-changing striker partners. His ability to hold the ball, interchange with, and support the likes of Matt Ritchie, John Bostock and Simon Ferry lead to some genuinely scintillating Swindon play.
And it is partly because of the way Benson plays with those around him why Di Canio doesn’t see a future for him at Swindon. Despite being 33, which his manager says it isn’t a factor, “…at his age, even if he is a very fit and very athletic player and very professional”, Di Canio sees the problem as tactical. “In League One, I tried to play in a different way, not with a typical target up front even if he works so hard around the field. I would like to play more directly but attack the space. It’s not his best characteristic.”
It is clear from this comment why the Italian is willing to move on his most natural finisher: Benson plays with his back to goal – and his arse jammed into the defender. He wins headers and flick ons, and he draws fouls through experience and guile.
He doesn’t, as Andy Williams so often does, drift across his marker looking to spin off into the corridor between full-back and central defenders. He doesn’t as James Collins so often does, play on the shoulder of the marker, using pace and a willingness of test the linesman’s eyesight, to run into space. Benson tends to come short, as he doesn’t have the speed or dribbling skill to go ‘in behind’. He doesn’t, as his manager puts it “attack the space”.
This, of course, makes Swindon’s attack more predictable, compresses the field and limits his strike partner to making the run beyond the defensive line. Benson also demands closer support from central and wide midfield, who in turn become drawn further up the field. While it worked in the lowest division, Swindon had the majority of possession then and Benson was closely supported by a deeper striker, such as Ronan Murray or Bostock.
While his style might be a limitation in Swindon’s aggressive 442, it should be very useful for Cheltenham and their 4231 system. With his effort, finishing prowess and awareness, he could become the final piece in their promotion jigsaw – just as he was at Swindon.
And once there he can hopefully also earn himself not only a permanent move, but also the same of respect from fans, and the admiration from his manager that he received in a wonderful year at Swindon Town.