Who are Swindon’s transfer targets for 2013?

Target Logo 6

Alex Cooke looks at who is in and who is out of Paolo Di Canio’s squad as the January transfer window opens.

This transfer window is going to be significant for Swindon Town. Forget whatever Paolo Di Canio has said about the embargo stopping his shopping, the current Town team is built on loans. The spine of the side has been stiffened with hired muscle and is now heading up the table. Their departure will see the squad significantly weaker – and if Town’s own loanees return, bloated too. So Di Canio has the chance to sign up a few and shift a few this January as he builds his fourth Town team in two years, regardless of whatever Sir William Patey says about the financial situation.

As usual with the Italian, few things are certain – he enjoys flexibility and unpredictability too much to allow for certainty. However, it seems like he will aim to keep what he has – mostly by extending loans. After all he has clearly made an effort to speak positively and publicly about each of his loanees of late – a rarity in itself.

In doing so Di Canio has opened the door, not only because his loanees are known but also because Swindon have spent months getting these players fit and fitting in to Di Canio’s system– so now to look beyond them would meaning starting all over again.

The least surprising, and perhaps, the most important permanent arrival would be Darren Ward – and yet the defender presents the greatest dilemma. For the Millwall centre-back has clearly become a key player, boosting Town’s win ratio from 36 per cent without him to 50 per cent with him. His close marking, excellent positioning and leadership have given the defence much improved shape and discipline. The problem is that Ward is 33 and out of contract in the summer. So finding a shorter-term deal that is attractive to both sides could be problematic. After all the board won’t want to tie Town to a player who despite his diet, must be drawing to the end of his career, and Ward could be looking for the security of a longer deal instead of another half-season loan.

Ward’s arrival should also prevent the need for a replacement for the ineffectual and departed Fede Bessone. While Town seem short on cover at right and left full-back, Di Canio has shown that he is happy to play Alan McCormack and Joe Devera there, despite both looking better in the middle and the lack of width they lend to the attack.

The greatest area of flexibility seems to be in midfield, because John Bostock, Giles Coke and Danny Hollands are all returning home during January. This leaves Di Canio with just Tommy Miller, Alan Navarro, Louis Thompson and Simon Ferry in the middle, and that isn’t much depth for a manager who likes to change his midfield between one that pressurises with pace and vitality, such as against Tranmere, to one which is patient and reactive, such as against Brighton.

The third midfield permutation that Di Canio has tried was in using John Bostock as a deep-lying playmaker. The manager has invested heavily in Bostock, seemingly working with the player on positioning and attitude, asking the question would such an effort be made without some existing agreement that Swindon will re-sign the former Palace midfielder?

The concern shouldn’t be that Tottenham won’t renew – as he is a long way from Villas-Boas’ first team – more than Spurs will look to claw back some of their original investment with a quick cash sale, if one can be found.

If Town can’t keep Bostock, they will need to find a player who can match Bostock’s control and calm – which might be difficult in League One, without offering big wages or a bigger fee – meaning that Di Canio could choose to use that money to add elsewhere and drop his attempt to make the Spurs man shine in his midfield diamond.

If Bostock has added craft, Hollands has add experience and power, and as such should be chased by Swindon as doggedly as he chased Tranmere’s middle two. We already know that Di Canio moved for Hollands in the summer and Charlton manager, Chris Powell hardly ruled out a move when Hollands signed initially, speaking of the loan being of “benefit everyone in the long term”.

Charlton have also moved on too – with a new division and formation, which doesn’t seem to favour Hollands as Swindon’s 442 does. The only question is what did Di Canio mean by the second part of this comment to the Adver?: “I would like to keep him but I know it is hard”.

To balance these arrivals, departures are desirable but most will probably cost Town to see them go. Oliver Risser’s half-season loan at Stevenage is up and with just seven appearances so far, he seems unwanted there too. Similarly Luke Rooney, who managed just two starts when borrowed by Rotherham, is back. At least he could earn himself another loan but he is one year into a two-and-a-half-year deal at Swindon and so could be costly to move on. Another player heading home is midfielder Lee Cox, and unless he wants to become the new Milan Misun, he will need to negotiate a release for his last six months – probably back to Oxford who at least seem keen.

The most obvious departure seems to also come in a package with the strangest arrival – Paul Caddis and Adam Rooney. While it is clear that Caddis is off, the catch seems to be if Birmingham will meet Swindon’s valuation – or as is now likely that non-playing striker Adam Rooney will be part of the deal, as Di Canio hinted in his recent comments.

“I want to keep Rooney, like the contract is, until the end of the season. If they want to buy Caddis then they are two different situations at the moment”, he told the Adver. “If they come back because they don’t have money and ask that we have to negotiate then we will see.” The concern has to be that with Caddis’s deal soon to lapse, Swindon will see little reward for him – especially as any buyer knows there is no way he could return to the County Ground.

Interestingly in the same interview, Di Canio also cited Adam Rooney as the cover for his wide players, rather than solely as a striker. It is notable because while Gary Roberts hasn’t lived up to expectations, Raffa De Vita and Matt Ritchie certainly have. In fact, the pair are leading scorers for Swindon with seven and nine league goals respectively – ahead of all of the loan and permanent strikers.

Again the man brought in to fix this, Chris Martin, has been given lavish praise in the press, and again he has played with promise, but talk of Gary Madine has continued to circulate. That is despite the 22-year-old striker regularly appearing, if not scoring, for Sheffield Wednesday with a mere three goals in 23 appearances. But as we know goals aren’t the only thing to judge a striker on, but Di Canio clearly believes Martin can contribute too.

With his contract at Norwich ending this summer and seemingly little chance of renewal, Martin also needs to play games, and so would most likely be looking again for a temporary move, rather than a permanent one.

It also seems a good fit for Swindon, especially if Paul Benson has, as reported, talked of moving on permanently, then perhaps Di Canio would like both Madine and Martin? It seems possible. As he said: “If we can I would like to bring in a player between January 5 and January 12, and a player that I have in mind since three months ago. We will see.”

It seems unlikely that all of these deals would, and could, come off but clearly Di Canio intends adjust his squad once again, and it might be vital – but it certainly won’t be cheap.

5 ways in which Paolo Di Canio’s management has made Swindon cup winners

Paolo Di Canio with the League Cup 2

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.

Image swindontownfc.co.uk

Paolo Di Canio’s Uncertainty Principle

Paolo-Di-Canio 27

Wes Foderingham has followed Paul Caddis in falling foul of Paolo Di Canio, but even he won’t be the last, writes Alex Cooke.

First it was Paul Caddis, now it seems to be Wes Foderingham; the list of players who have offended Swindon’s Paolo Di Canio swells week by week. Leon Clarke was the first (and the fastest) to fall from favour but under the Italian there always seems to be something, or someone, to distract us all from the simple pleasure of watching winning football.

You might expect that the experience of seeing a popular captain demoted and dumped, or a good ‘keeper embarrassed and ostracised would be unsettling for Swindon fans, his fellow footballers, and the club, but no. In fact, it has become almost depressingly routine since Paolo Di Canio arrived. Time and again, since Swindon fell under the Italian’s spell, storm has replaced calm.

The unifying factor in all this disorder is Di Canio. The man seems to thrive in a state of permanent change or flux. He actually seems to cultivate and court it – both as a player and a manager. With his underdog obsession, cultivated in the slums of Rome and reinforced by every brush with authority since, he has become almost the anti-Saint Francis of Assisi: where there was harmony, he brings discord.

Last season provided one example after another: once Clarke was sent away, the squad united and results improve – then top scorer, Medhi Kerrouche was exiled. When the wins mounted during the cold winter, Di Canio publicly claimed that referees and the FA were conspiring against him, even taunting them to ban him. When the championship felt like it was finally in Swindon’s hands, swathes of the side had to be dropped for a night out that went on too long, and again the team struggled. Now, as the new season unfolds, Paul Caddis has added weight but lost his place and his armband, and the local media were temporarily sent to Sibera for mentioning it.

This pursuit of uncertainty seems to be part of a scheme by Di Canio to ensure his unassailable position as the strong man, the leader, a champion. To do so he creates enemies, real and imagined, internal and external, to bond his sides together and shape his players’ thinking.

But this procession of crises and threats not only gives Di Canio inspiration, they also give him license. And as any ruler knows claiming you live in tough times allow you to use tough measures – and Di Canio’s autobiography is littered with justifications: social class, geography, jealousy, conspiracy and racism. In Paolo’s mildly paranoid world of hidden Roma fans, deceitful chairmen and lazy players, his means are always justified.  Without trying to bring politics into it, you could almost see the Roman styling himself as Machiavelli’s The Prince.

There are as many examples of discord dotted throughout Di Canio’s playing career as his managerial one. For a man who preaches loyalty his time was iterant, at its peak taking in five clubs in just nine years. Granted, circumstances can cause players to move on quickly but he seemed to have been hell-bent on driving himself through conflict. He fell out with his home club, Lazio, argued his way out of Juventus, punched his way out of AC Milan, sulked his way out of Celtic and hit Ron Atkinson at Wednesday before falling out with pretty much a whole country with an officious shove. Few of these fights seemed necessary – two were over substitutions in pre or post-season friendlies and many others were over money – but Di Canio was always willing to embrace the ‘change’ of being slapped on the transfer list.

And yet, here is Di Canio the manager, the arch disciple of discipline: a man who would have little truck with his behaviour as a player. A clue to this conversion can be found in his autobiography. For while Di Canio once tried to ‘land one’ on former England boss Fabio Cappello, that man, his methods and his Milan squad have become his model.

“The club actively encouraged competition between the players,” he wrote of his time at AC Milan. “You were given the feeling that nobody was sacred, that if you were good enough, you would get your chance. In that sense, Fabio Capello, the manager was brilliant. He knew how to motivate us, how to pit us against each other in a healthy way. This does not mean I liked him, because I didn’t. It just meant that he was a winner and a successful manager.”

And while Di Canio continues to build a vast squad, he hasn’t had the riches that Capello had at the Giuseppe Meazza. There each player’s place could be taken by not just one international, but two. At Swindon, Di Canio has tried to replicate this competition for places, and this rivalry: he chops and changes, he drops and picks again. Of course, he also seems to have other methods for keeping the squad on their toes when a player’s position isn’t under threat, such as with Caddis and Foderingham, when removing the captain’s armband, subbing them, or selling them just seems to be acceptable.

For Di Canio that ruthlessness is vital: “I have come to realise that, with a few very rare exceptions, to be a successful manager you need to be mean, tough and often a little bit unfair.” While this thought struck him as a player, his comments on those managers he played for seems unchanged. While he fell out with numerous hardmen (Luciano Moggi and Capello) he has less respect for the weakness he saw in David Pleat or Danny Wilson in England. Instead Di Canio permanently poses as the underdog and the outsider. He even favours the almost Jose Mourinho-like position of shielding his players from the press and pressure – mainly through exposing himself. Fortunately so far this has involved copying Louis Van Gaal’s strategy at Bayern Munich of showing the team how big his balls are, literally.

The problem to come could be that so far the Swindon board have been ‘enablers’; they have backed him in every confrontation, selling the players he casts aside, taking any financial hits his spats cause. When Di Canio’s man-management has failed, they’ve not forced him to cope, to learn, to coach his underperforming player – they have acquiesced. Other boards, and Swindon’s when results aren’t so positive, will surely be less forgiving.

In the Caddis case, regardless of the details of the falling out - and whatever anyone says they remain unknown – no-one seems to have tried to stop the rift widening daily. Instead the press were blamed for talking to the player at all. So far only one player who has been found to be not up to scratch has survived – and he is the other man to lose the armband: Oliver Risser. And while he has now gone on loan, Risser certainly comes across as a man who is far more pliant and grateful to Di Canio than almost any other player.

With Wes Foderingham seemingly having taken a similar path to Risser in admitting that Di Canio was right all along, the crisis seems to have been averted, for now. But the question remains, how long has the crisis been averted for, and who will be next to fall out with the gaffer? Because this is Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon and stability is the enemy here.

A Season In Stats: Goals: What, where, when and how

Paul Benson 3

Alex Cooke looks at Swindon fired their way to the 2011/12 championship with patience, fitness and a fantastic home scoring rate.

It wasn’t the 75 goals scored that secured Swindon’s title last season; it was those that weren’t conceded. The forward line didn’t earn Paolo Di Canio’s side the championship; it was the back five. They allowed the team to win games without dominating in terms of possession, territory or chances. Because while Swindon’s defence was the best in the division both home and away, Town’s attack was actually 14th best on the road, and was only ranked first at the County Ground. But how, when and where all of those league goals were scored is not only crucial, it is also fascinating in what it tells us about the team, for now and for next season.

The received wisdom about Paolo Di Canio’s side was they won games through superior fitness but the goal statistics certainly don’t support that. For a side which works harder than any other we would expect to see late goals being rattled in: injury-time winners, late comebacks, the odd rout, and even consolation goals from a side who don’t know when they are beaten. We don’t see that in the numbers. We actually see two very different stories at home and away.

Goals Scored – As Hosts

1-15

16-30

31-45

45+

46-60

61-75

76-90

90+

3

5

8

2

10

10

10

1

6.1%

10.2%

16.3%

4.1%

20.4%

20.4%

20.4%

2.1%

At the County Ground, Swindon scored the bulk of their goals in the second half – from the 46th to 90th minutes – 63.27% of their home goals in fact with equal returns of 20.4% in each of the three normal time counting periods of 46-60, 61-75 and 76-90 minutes. In the first half, the percentage scored peaks at 16.3% and that is between the 31st to 45th minutes. This seems to indicate a side who are in control – perhaps not of possession – but certainly of themselves because they pick when to strike. Interesting the phases of injury time that bookend the game offer 4.1% and 2.1% of the goals respectively, hardly the numbers of a team who are hurling their buff-bodies against tiring teams. Partly this is due to the fact that they didn’t need too -  Town won 82.61% of their homes games and the vast majority were long over before injury time began.

Goals Scored – Away

1-15

16-30

31-45

45+

46-60

61-75

76-90

90+

2

6

5

0

5

3

4

1

7.7%

23.1%

19.2%

0%

19.2%

11.5%

15.4%

3.9%

Away from home the story is slightly different as it is from the 16th to 30th minute which yielded the most goals for Swindon – 23.1% of the away total. This slumps slightly from then until half time, and just after the restart, but peaks again from the 46th until the 60th minute at a constant 19.2%. So why were Swindon so deadly early on? Anecdotal evidence suggests that Town waited, either through opposition pressure, or managerial plan, before openly attacking their rivals. It certainly fits the stereotype that a home side sets out to impress their fans and attack for the first few minutes of a game as the away team settle in, as well as Di Canio’s own comments about keeping matches tight in the first 20 minutes.

Again the injury times in the away games offer little in the way of goals – none at the end of the first half and just 1 (3.9%) as the final whistle blew. And we know all about that one – it was at Northampton – and it is interesting that Town’s one away goal in injury time was when it was really needed, almost as if they could conjure them up to order.

Method Goal Scored

Shot

Header

Penalty Kick

Direct Free Kick

Own Goal

53

16

4

1

1

70.7%

21.3%

5.3%

1.35%

1.35%

How the goals were scored is also very telling: 70.7% came from shots, 21.3% from headers. This certainly shows how, despite Di Canio’s pre-season comments about how crosses would rain into the opposition box, Town’s inverted wingers delivered something quite different. This lack of quality of crosses being delivered and aerial power also goes some way to help prove how Swindon scored just 7 goals from corners. Clearly set pieces were a weakness all season for Swindon with just 7 goals coming indirectly from free-kicks and one directly. This will clearly be an area in which Di Canio will be looking to deliver – in terms of the quality of delivery and in those attacking the ball into the box.

Goal Originated

Open Play Left Side

Open Play Central

Open Play Right Side

Free Kick

Corner

23

13

25

7

7

30.7%

17.3%

33.3%

9.35%

9.35%

The source of the goals in open play is also interesting. While most people would expect the right flank with its combination of Matt Ritchie, Paul Caddis and Simon Ferry to be far the most creative, that isn’t true either. With 33.3% of all Town goals scored in open play originating from the right and 30.7% from the left, it is the central area which isn’t sharing the burden. The immediate reason for this is that Simon Ferry, Jon Smith and Oliver Risser all play far deeper than the wingers. So their 17.3% isn’t really a surprise as in Di Canio’s 442, their job was to anchor the side and combat counter-attacks. Again, this is an area in which Di Canio has talked about strengthening so it is highly likely both a defensive and an attacking midfielder will be added to the side over the summer.

Of course goals scored don’t really tell you about chances created, merely about what went in. A winger could be creating sublime chances for a poor striker and receive almost no ‘assists’ or a brilliant centre forward could be turning hoofs into goals, so making the winger look better, so caution has to be exercised with the data like any others. It is also why most people are turning away from ‘assists’ as a measure of anything. For this reason it makes sense to be dubious about drawing solid conclusions from the information on where on the pitch a goals was scored from.

Position Goal Scored

6 yard box

Penalty Area Right

Penalty Area Left

Penalty Spot

Out of Box

29

21

9

4

12

38.7%

28%

12%

5.3%

16%

The vast bulk of the goals come from the inside the six-yard box with 38.7% indicating that most the goals came from close range, which really isn’t a surprise. Second is the right-hand side of the penalty box but outside the six-yard box with a surprising 28%, which might be largely due to both Ritchie and Paul Benson favouring that area – it also might not be. With the left side equivalent offering just 12% it is tempting to similarly look towards Alan Connell, Luke Rooney and Raffa De Vita who often played on that side but the result could be equally spurious. Of course, Lee Holmes also played out there but as we’ve seen his left-foot crossing was usually aimed more the back post than near post.

The most interesting of the information is the amount of goals that came from long range strikes, outside the penalty box. While Swindon didn’t create much in the middle (not uncommon in most teams as the flanks are always more productive due to the greater space) they did finish from there. Risser, Smith, Ritchie and Holmes all scored from range contributing 12 goals, 16% of the Town total) from outside the box. It is testament to good technique from the players but also how many times Swindon faced deeper defences who, like England against France, dropped too deep and didn’t always offer the disciplined closing down in front of them.

The amount of chances created and the shots on and off-target are even more nuanced numbers. There seems to be little obvious pattern in either and with Di Canio’s constantly rotating line-ups the relative accuracy of each strike partnership is almost impossible to read, though overall for the season the total amount of shots on target (246) is almost identical to the total of those off target (256). In individual matches it seems that there is an overall trend for away games to produce less shots overall but more shots on-target, hinting at plenty of patience when Swindon aren’t at the County Ground but the data will need much closer study to produce definitive results.

What is clear from all of the statistics is that Swindon will need to add more goals for a League One campaign, not just from the strikers and in open play, and not just by creating more in the middle of the pitch but also by adding greater threat from free-kicks, corners and headers. All of will demand not just new strikers but also a different dimension in central midfield, and more power and height from those at the back.

Going Up! 2011/12 – A Season of Changes

2011-12 Champions

You’ve read many great factual reviews of the season, Alex Cooke takes a more personal view of 2011-12 and how it has changed how he watches Swindon.

2011-12 was a season played in the full glare of a nation’s attention. The media with their magpie-attention span were periodically fascinated because of who stalked the touchline, rival football fans saw Swindon in HD through Town’s many cup success and, for almost the first time, I watched the majority of the matches free from the blurring effects of beer due to the arrival of my second daughter. I also starting writing for The Washbag. 2011-12 turned out to be a bit of a revelation, for all of us.

It was a season in which everyone had an opinion on how Swindon, and Paolo Di Canio in particular, would do. Fortunately Jeremy Wray got his pre-season prediction closer than anyone else’s though.

“…I can’t wait for Paolo to get here and get started,” the interim chairman said before Di Canio’s media-unveiling. “When you see the man’s passion and love for the game, you will see why he stood out above the other candidates – he’s infectious. He’s already shown such pride and attention to detail, and it’s an exciting time for Swindon Town.”

Despite the misgivings of many in the town, and of myself, Wray was unerringly accurate, even though it went against the prevailing views of the pundits and the papers. After all the perceived wisdom is that you need a big side to win games in basement football – and bar Aden Flint, Paul Benson, Oliver Risser, Jon Smith and Joe Devera most of the Swindon’s squad is under six foot. The perceived wisdom is that you need a talismanic central striker – and yet Alan Connell and Benson are Swindon’s top scorers with just 11 league goals but 18 other players have weighed in with goals across the season. Again, the perceived wisdom is that you need experience of the fight – but only Benson, Connell and Risser and Alessandro Chibocchi were approaching, or past the age of 30.

Then there was the issue of the manager – too inexperienced, too unstable, too flighty said the pundits– and sometimes they were right: signing Ibrahim Atiku and Mattia Lanzano, his sending off against Rotherham, Leon Clarke and both games against Oxford showed a man liable to ludicrous displays of emotional and tactical naivety. But what we also saw fairly quickly was his abilities as a leader, if not a recruiter of men: Raffa De Vita was converted from lightweight striker to goal-scoring wide midfielder, Alan McCormack turned from impulsive midfielder to calming centre back and Paul Caddis went from early-season head-down runner into marauding full-back. It was real proof that Di Canio and his technical team could really coach a side and change where, and how, individuals played.

While my personal season took a short break in mid-October for the birth of child number two, Town had begun to change the national newspaper’s narrative and the columnists’ minds. The early defeats dried up and wins began to become almost the norm, but their attention was really grabbed by the FA Cup. While I had to stop watching the wonderful win against Huddersfield just after Raffa De Vita had stroked home Simon Ferry’s cutback to take the littlest one to hospital, no one still believed you couldn’t play a passing game and win in the lower leagues. It was a week before my family were all once again safely back home and I finally saw just how wonderful Town’s victory over the Terriers was, but it was worth the wait. The wonderful football played in the win over Wigan confirmed many in that opinion. I wasn’t there either but again a DVD allowed me to I count passes and to watch players who most don’t normally watch, and those who we can’t take our eyes off.

As the year turned the side became more settled and more confident. The homes matches I saw became almost mundane as teams were brushed aside, not through tactical innovation such as inverted wingers but simply though Town having the better, fitter players. However, domestic duties did force me to miss many of the night games – including some against the best teams in the division, such as Shrewsbury and Torquay which certainly sounded more tougher on the radio.

January’s addition of Luke Rooney brought excitement and flair but it was Benson who added the final piece – the cutting edge – with mobility, ability and determination. The only shame was that he was forced to play as linkman and finisher due to the poor quality of the strikers signed to go with him: Jonathan Tehoue and Ronan Murray. Again, questions had to be asked about Di Canio’s player recruitment.

One aspect which can’t be doubted in this the season has been the board of Swindon Town’s support for Di Canio. While most recent Town bosses asked to pick the team up after relegation have done so with background ‘financial engineering’ or at least boardroom disharmony and disruption, Di Canio has been backed, supported, paid and, if rumours are true, even protected throughout. Others outside the club might have doubted, and maybe even wobbled as the defeats mounted, but the boards support has been unwavering and so very unusual.

In a season in which victories came so regularly, defeats actually became the key points for analysis. After all something must have gone wrong? Chesterfield at Wembley fits that model exactly: Swindon expected to win, Di Canio expected to win, hence attacking the Spireites as if Town were the team from the higher league. Instead Chesterfield played intelligent cup football, waiting for the breaks, keeping their positions and then butchering Swindon on the break once Town’s plan A failed. There was no shame in the defeat, just a little hubris and a sign that Di Canio still had something to learn about handling good teams who weren’t playing as if they expecting to roll over Swindon – as Wigan, Huddersfield and Leicester had.

The only real upset in the final weeks of the season was the gradual decline in the performances once promotion was in sight. Some will point to the accusations of nights out but Di Canio showed his new maturity by dealing with it responsibility and, most importantly of all, equally. Largely Town became less potent due to disruption on the right-hand side of the team. Injuries to Matt Ritchie and Paul Caddis robbed Swindon of much of their forward drive but also of their creativity as it Caddis had become Swindon’s best cross-field passer, opening up the left flank for Rooney or Lee Holmes to attack to the full-back.

But that is the subject for another blog, when I can finally convince one of my children that watching the JPT DVD and counting every pass that Swindon’s captain is a good way to spend a sober Saturday afternoon. That is until 2012-13 begins anyway.

View the STFC squad, table, fixtures and results for the 2011/12 season on swindon-town-fc.co.uk

Read More Tales from STFC Promotion Campaigns

End of season player ratings – Part 1

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Neil Evans is to give his perspective on everyone who put on a Red shirt in our amazing record-breaking season. First up is part one including Mattia Lanzano through to Alan Connell, squad nos.1 to 17. 

Ratings are made out of 10. Anyone who was in the squad but didn’t play automatically gets a default 5 out of 10…e.g Nathan Thompson

Part One:

1. Mattio Lanzano: 4 out of 10

Bless him, FL action just proved to be a tad too much for the young Italian – as anyone who saw his rather hapless display at Burton will testify

2. Jay McEverly: 7 out of 10

Goodness knows how PDC contacted or even  knew Jay was surplus to requirements at Barnsley but thankfully he did. An odd time for his debut at Wembley but slotted in immediately at left back. His quality will be needed at the next level

3. Callum Kennedy: 6 out of 10

Never let anyone down and has the sweetest left foot. Still a young player I rate highly..though I have a sinking feeling he may be moved on. If so, that will be a huge shame. I’m not sure if PDC thinks as highly of him as many Town fans

4. Aiden Flint: 7.5 out of 10

Would undoubtedly have been in the League Two team of the season had injury not struck. A more aptly named central defender you could not find! A beast in defence and an increasing threat from set plays. Quicker than I realised and certainly not a ‘rabbit’…another exciting prospect.

5. Joe Devera: 7.5 out of 10

A real breakthrough year for Joe. Versatile and efficient defender who did whatever was asked of him…Another star in a stand out defence.

6. Alberto Comazzi: 5.5 out of 10

Obviously homesick and the wrong move at the wrong time in his career but he fought had and was a model pro.

7. Paul Caddis: 8.5 out of 10

The thing about Caddis was we only really appreciated his immense contribution when he got injured. Ritchie wasn’t the same without Caddis and vice-versa. An engine like few players I’ve seen in recent years and an immaculate crosser of a ball. Captain Caddis did himself and the club proud.

8. Simon Ferry: 8 out of 10

Probably our most reliable midfielder over the season. So much attention went on Ritchie (rightly) that Ferry slipped a little under the radar but some of his skill and passing was a joy to see. His underpants, however, was not!!

9. Paul Benson: 9 out of 10

The goalscorer we needed, acquired at the time when he was wanted most. I have to admit I thought he was past it when I heard he’d signed…WRONG! The man’s touch, predatory instincts in the box and hold-up play were magnificent. Benno took straight to us and we were just his cup of tea. More goals a certainty in League One.

10. Matt Ritchie: 9 out of 10

Mercurial match winner capable of blistering shots and mazey dribbles…telepathic understanding with Caddis which brought the best out Matt. A superstar and loyal (he was never interested in Bournemouth!)..deservedly stand-out player in League Two. On his day unplayable.

11. Etienne Esajas: 5 out of 10

Fleeting glimpses of the winger…man he has one heck of a shot on him though…could not force himself into contention.

12. Alan McCormack: 9.5 out of 10

We’re told nobody is perfect but at STFC this man is as close as it gets. Converted midfielder into ball playing centre-back. Played like it was his position all his life. Pacey, combative when necessary, and elegant; his run and goal at Northampton was the stuff of legend. My player of the season.

13. Oliver Risser: 7 out of 10

I’m sure that plenty had their doubts about STFC’s first ever Namibian player but, boy, did he win the doubters over. Another with a shot like a cannon..my only criticism was he didn’t shoot enough and sometimes lost his way in games but a good signing nonetheless.

14. John Bostock: 8 out of 10

Not many apps or subs and again a strange debut at the JPT final but Bostock is class. I would be very surprised if we could get him but a year’s loan from ‘Arry would do very nicely in League One please!

15. Nathan Thompson: 5 out of 10

Didn’t see enough of the lad to give a higher mark but another youngster with ability.

16. Lee Cox: 5 out of 10

To be honest I didn’t see anything in Lee that Risser and J.Smith didn’t already have. Found his limited displays disappointing.

17. Alan Connell: 8 out of 10

Deserves a 10 for patience when often on the bench. A fox in the box when we needed it and a tremendous grafter. I am a fan and I hope he lines up for us again next season

OK that’s the halfway point…there will be a part two to follow. Feel free to agree/disagree/throw rotten fruit at my assessment. After all, footie’s all about opinions!

Paolo Di Canio: Method man, not madman

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He’s wild, he’s exuberant, and he’s fantastic entertainment, but Paolo Di Canio is a more studied manager than his pitch-side persona reveals, says Alex Cooke.

“The media portrayal of Paolo Di Canio is very different to the manager I’ve come across. The one I have experienced is very meticulous in his planning, very knowledgeable about every level of football from the Premier League to the Conference.”

For those who don’t regularly see Swindon’s boss at as close quarters as forward Paul Benson does, it is easy to caricature Di Canio: he’s the media’s touchline theatre and rival fans’ pantomime. However, he is also a thoroughly modern, and surprisingly cautious, manager.

Former Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi once said “A jockey does not need to have been born a horse” and it seems to be a quote which Paolo Di Canio is at least familiar with. For Di Canio, like Sacchi –a ex-shoe salesman – knows that former position counts for little now. Instead Di Canio seems to have taken a more thoughtful, more Sacchi-like path, working up from the bottom. And when asked, he points to the role of manager needing more practical characteristics than simply a big reputation: “Having knowledge, desire, a strong character and a willingness to study counts for much more than if you were a top-level footballer before.”

For Di Canio hasn’t traded on his reputation; not to cherry-pick a managerial role or fill his team with former team mates. Instead he has become a willing student who has refined classroom knowledge through experience and a bold willingness to make mistakes. Characteristically he admitted as much on the Football League’s podcast: “The best manager, as in life with the best man, is not a man who doesn’t make a mistake, but how he learns from it, and learns how to recover from this mistake.”

And knowledge has been a key part of his armoury for not only did Di Canio pass all of his coaching badges to UEFA Pro standard at Italy’s Coverciano facility but, according to his biographer Gabriele Marcotti, he excelled topping the year in every one. He also seems to apply the same studiousness and patience to every match and every length explanation to a substitute. Certainly the opposition are scouted and studied at length, much as any manager does, but Di Canio goes further. “I look at the state of the field, whether it is good or not, I look at the weather two days before. Obviously it is really important to if you have a more physical player or a technical presence if you need that on a bad surface.”

The chief beneficiary of this approach of adaptation has been Oliver Risser who has been frequently brought into the side for his largely destructive play, but the same could be said for Billy Bodin. The Welshman had been surplus to requirements until Di Canio noticed Rotherham’s lack of defensive mobility, then he had no qualms about dropping the young striker straight into the side, ahead of far more experienced team-mates.

Di Canio also clearly drills his sides – including short corner routines – and talks about discipline post-match as often as fans talk about the passion. However, by his own admission he has learnt to simplify his instructions as the season has worn on: “I spend the most time giving the more specific jobs and the right details to my players, and not too much. I learnt this as before I used to give them many, many, many details and it got lost in the last few hours before the game. But now I always say to my players that if we are going to do A, B or C in a good way we win the game.”

The players also claim to understand despite his feverish delivery, as Alan Connell explained after the Wigan match: “He does a lot of research with his technical staff before every game, he shares all the relevant intelligence with us”. Not listening is certainly not an option though as many have been substituted or dropped for not following instructions, including Jon Smith. It also seems highly likely that Medhi Kerrouche’s positional indiscipline could have been an early point of contention between striker and his gaffer.

Despite his desire to change personnel to match even the lowliest of teams, Di Canio keeps his formation fixed and simple – if inflexible. Under him Swindon have played the vast majority of games in an orthodox 442, a formation that is increasingly rare, even in division four. And while they play it with a great deal of positional discipline and efficiency, when the situation has demanded change Di Canio has struggled to find a viable alternative. Which certainly suggests that ‘Plan B’ – the haphazard 343 of Wembley- has been rarely worked on. So the question remains does Di Canio use 442 because he believes that it works at this level or that division four players can only play 442?

At times he has also tried to jam square pegs into round holes, such as with Lukas Magera and perhaps Luke Rooney. Hypocritically Di Canio has pointed at this being a failing of Danny Wilson and Paul Hart. “I saw the likes of [Matt] Ritchie, [Paul] Caddis and [Simon] Ferry play last season. The problem was not that they did not play every game, but where they played and in what position… but if I judge the managers’ decisions at the time based on what I know I would say that they were mad.”

In Di Canio’s system each player has a defined position and a plan. It isn’t that invention has no place in his team, only in certain areas. No one dribbles in their own half and no one hits aimless balls into the channels-not if they wish to play again. But it isn’t that Town are utterly prosaic to watch, more that they are highly structured. It is an approach that has suited Roy Hodgson too, drilling his troops endlessly on shape and position. It has served him well at West Brom and Fulham, but when confronted with the tabloid fodder of Liverpool, it also became his great weakness. The same could be true of Di Canio when he meets those with bigger egos and trophy cabinets than his own.

Like Hodgson’s, Town’s approach at first is one of caution. Town compress their 442, keeping their shape, keeping the ball and waiting for chances. As the game progresses the gaps open allowing the wingers to operate further forward and one of his full-backs to attack in support of the wide-men. But Swindon are never cavalier and they don’t over-commit – so they rarely get hit on the break. Instead they defend as a unit and in numbers – especially at corners when everyone comes back to defend.

While Di Canio principles are attacking, he is also pragmatic – and typically Italian. As he told the Independent: “Obviously I’ve always said that I’ll try to play attractive football for this league. I want to win, attack with five players, but also not concede a goal.”

So despite the manager’s own flamboyance he places the emphasis on ball retention – or as much as is possible in a 442. “I’m never going to tell players not to try tricks, do their stuff, especially if they’re talented, but do it in the area, where it should be. It does not mean anything to do a backflick in midfield. Even Messi doesn’t do that. Do something incredible, special, but not where the risk is bigger of what can happen when you lose the ball for a stupid thing. I don’t want to stop their talent, but if it’s better to pass, pass.”

As a tactical approach, it is closer to that of Di Canio’s former manager Fabio Cappello, than perhaps he would care to admit. While Harry Redknapp might be the man who remains in Paolo’s BlackBerry but with Cappello’s belief in discipline, defensive solidity and fitting flair within a framework, the pair clearly think similarly. Both also tailor their team and tactics to suit and stifle, often putting stability ahead of creativity, just as when Cappello used a converted centre-back as a midfield destroyer. The only minor difference was that holding player was Marcel Desailly, not Oliver Risser.

If Di Canio’s man-management doesn’t quite seem to match his mentor, it is slightly better than the Leon Clarke incident suggests: Alan Connell and Raffa De Vita perform selflessly, despite being dropped numerous times. Also Risser has become a key member of the squad despite facing the difficultly of being dropped first from the team, then from the captaincy – and yet he has remained a willing servant. It’s remarkable journey to take a player on and expect them to be loyal, but Di Canio has managed it. Of course, that is if he wants you and if he doesn’t, as Clarke, Medhi Kerrouche, Etienne Esajas, Ibrahim Atiku and now Jonathan Tehoue have discovered, he is ruthless.

The question today is will his post-Aldershot outburst see other bigger names added to that list? Many will say that Di Canio should follow Sir Alex Ferguson’s example and keep things behind closed doors but that is to underestimate Di Canio’s savvy. He clearly understands the media and fans’ perception – hence his increasingly contrived post-match scarf waiving – but he also understands how to get a response to his rants, just as he did after the away game at Bristol Rovers. For, having been born a horse, Di Canio knows about pressure: “Too much confidence can be bad anyway. Too much expectation can put someone in trouble”.

So will we all one day see the same, calmer, controlled Di Canio that Paul Benson and the players have spoken about? It seems unlikely, according to Paolo. “I am a man who has to set a good example to my players. I am never going to lose my passion, even in the technical area because I am a passionate man and you need to send a message to your players with your advice.”