Town Tactics: Form Vs Formation

Is Swindon’s 442 too open? Alex Cooke looks at the blueprints for Paolo’s master plan.

No one could doubt that Paolo Di Canio is demanding: his pre-season training, half-time tantrums and full-time ABH prove at that. But tactically Paolo also asks a lot of his players because he has created a system that demands discipline and athleticism, and can yield great results, but also leaves little margin for error.

At first it looks like a traditional 442 – but it demands more than some defensive iterations of the system. Instead his 442 is built on attack and not possession. It is built on each player winning their individual battles, and built on wingers. And more importantly, it has only earned us three wins.

The key to Paolo’s 442 are the wide players. For him they are everything: creators, goalscorers and the cover for the central midfield pair. It gets the best out of Matt Ritchie, but it also puts a huge amount of pressure on him and whoever is on the other flank.

During the attack their job is obvious: start wide, take on their men and to put balls into the box. However, what is noticeable is that their crosses are deliberately played very deep, seemingly aimed not for the striker, but for the winger on the far side to head in at the back post. It’s something that Ritchie has already managed to do twice, but that didn’t work so well when Nathan Thompson was tried there against Cheltenham.

Interestingly Di Canio also favours the fashionable inside-out winger, often with the right footed Lander Gabilondo on the left and the southpaw Ritchie on the right. It is a trend that has flourished across the world with the liberalisation of the offside law meaning that the winger doesn’t have to beat his man every single time, instead the ball can easily be swung in towards the back post. It also allows for an overlapping full-back, such as Caddis, to go outside this tucked in winger. This then frees the winger to come inside, forcing the opposition fullback onto what is usually their own weaker foot and allowing him to shoot.

The role of the forwards in this set up should also suits mobile and intelligent strikers as they have to do a lot of work outside the box, linking play and pulling the central defender into the fullback positions, making space for the on-rushing winger to come inside.

It is also worth noting at this point how the left winger gets less support from his fullback than the right. Part of this is due to the difference in Callum Kennedy and Caddis as players but it is also due to the practice in 442 of one of the fullbacks staying close to the central defenders as cover.

This works the other way too, as so far Gabilondo and Raffa De Vita offer less protection to Kennedy than Caddis gets from his winger. Which goes some way to explain why so often opposition chances, and goals (both at Shrewsbury), come from our left side, particularly when such inexperienced defender is left to cope unshielded by his winger.

However, once the attack breaks down, you can see how much ground the  wingers have to cover. For not only must the they retreat from their wide and advanced starting position, they must also tuck in tight to protect the central midfielders and compress the space.

Because Paolo’s 442, built as it is on shape not possession, they need to win the ball back by pressuring the opposition. However, The forwards don’t pursue the rival defence deep in the opposition half, that would force the midfield to come up. Instead they pressure in the deep midfield – around the regista position.
This allows the central pairing in the midfield can hassle and harass, while also retaining their positional discipline to ensure that they always block any balls through to the opposition strikers.

This task which can be made more difficult when the pair are outnumbered in the middle, as Oxford’s and Crewe’s 433 and 451 did. For not only does the mean an extra body in their area it allows the opposition to create simple triangles and pass around them.

It is also a system that also doesn’t seem to suit all of its members, such as the youthful Jon Smith, whose positional indiscipline and tendency to dive into tackles, exacerbates the midfield gaps allowing the opposition straight onto the back four.

Arrigo Saachi found a solution to these problem by compressing the play into a much smaller area. In his 442, the team stretched just 25 metres from centre forward to centre back, but with Di Canio’s system there is less of this compression, and anyway the revised offside rules would make it far trickier to play. However, Town’s defence are cautious, tend to sit deeper and cover. They also don’t have a lot of pace at the back to cope with any runners. Also, if the forwards are drawn into pressing the rival defence, they pull the midfield pair up with them further increasing these gaps.

The remedy to this problem is of course familiarity: if the players knew each other’s game better, they would know when to cover and when to support. And that will come with time and games.

The other problem does seem to be being gradually solved. Against Southampton Di Canio played Medhi Kerrouche deeper behind Leon Clarke and used him to work with the midfield pairing to stop Saints attacks at origin in the second half. Against Rotherham De Vita played a more restrained left wing role than Gabilondo where his uncertainty made him more tentative and so strangely more disciplined. In the middle the return of the disciplined Alan McCormack offered the certainty to allow Simon Ferry to support the forwards.

The next stage in this evolution would surely to take a leaf from Dennis Wise’s playbook for away games, after all Paolo’s men have only won once on the road. For under Wise the 442 permanently brought the widemen in closer to the centre and let the forward line drop back from their harrying. This made his team harder to play though, stopping the kind of expansive football seen in the comeback seen at Shrewsbury. It also relied on a central defence strong in the air as yielding the flanks invites crossing. The team would then need to pick their moments to attack, but as Saturday showed there is enough talent in this Swindon side to flourish with only a little tinkering to be made.


  • I am in awe of your ability to read a game. Will require a second reading at some point, I think.

    Interesting point about the inside-out wingers. I had wondered about that.


  • Excellent piece as ever Alex

    One indicator that PDC’s new system hasn’t worked so far has been the lack of possession, we’ve only beaten our opposition three times in the eight games (Daggers, Bristol City and Rotherham). Because the players haven’t had control of proceedings they’ve needed to work extra hard and have resorted to chasing the game themselves, when the structure Di Canio has established relies on them being in control of at least 60% of the game.

    The key is what you say in the third paragraph from the end, familiarity is key, but also fitness and this relies on all players singing from the same hymn sheet, only one bad apple and the whole system goes to pot, i.e. at Shrewsbury.

    Transfer a player, like Clarke, into this system and they have to forget everything they’ve been taught in the typical English setting, and work hard, very hard. Hence Clarke’s issues, arguing against the amount of running he had to do chasing the ball top keep constant pressure on the opposition.

    Once the players get used to the system, get more acurate in their passing (take note McCormack) and understand the spaces which they need to pass into I’m sure they will create the fluid play and we’ll be on a winning run.

    The problem will be at the back and I’m not expecting many clean sheets this season, but then if we create chances we’ll score plenty.


  • It would have been nice to have some diagrams but time and my Photoshop abilities didn’t allow.

    As for the inside-out wingers Johnathan Wilson has written extensively on them and points out that even Finney and Matthews were used that way.


  • Really interesting article. I think as a team we are slowly improving, as you say Ritchie continues to be the star player. Most of the goals conceeded have come from set pieces. Perhaps Flint should pick up strikers like Revell, still some adjustments needed.
    Once the coaching staff can solve our defensive frailities we will be a hard team to beat.
    I am still hopeful for this season.


  • Great article, a very enjoyable read (as always) and provides a good insight into our current tactical game.

    Kerrouche definitely needs to keep playing deeper, he has good ‘hasslebility’ so is ideal to help out in midfield. I suppose this is why Di Canio has been craving a big striker – someone to hold up the ball, giving Mehdi time to rejoin the front line!


  • Pingback: League Two Rankings: Attacking and Overall After 9 Games « The Washbag

  • Just for any Sunderland fans reading, this was a very early piece on Di Canio’s tactics – largely before the players were truly following instructions – and before he’s signed his second wave of players that season.

    This was an end of season job…

    This more on the man…

    And a bit on wingers for Adam Johnson.


Comment Here...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s