Paolo’s First 10: Falling to Pieces at Set-Pieces
With Paolo Di Canio celebrating his first ten league matches with a clean sheet, Alex Cooke kicks off day two of our analysis with a look at how the goals have gone in…
Attention all rival managers: Swindon Town’s weakness is in the air. After ten league games and ten league goals conceded, it is pretty easy to spot the pattern and the problem – seven goals have been conceded from headers*.
But things are always more complicated than they first appear. For while an initial scan of those figures might lead you to think that the problem is a lack of height at the back, when the goals are broken down into their individual games, you can see something different: Aden Flint was on the pitch when six of the seven hit the back of the net.
The only game in which a header was scored against Swindon and the colossus of Alfreton wasn’t at the back was for Billy Kee’s ‘chest in’ for Burton Albion. And, in the three games that the diminutive Alan McCormack was playing in the rearguard, Town recorded two clean sheets and only conceded two goals. Could this be due to weaker opponents? Or that Town held a higher line to negate the lack of height? That is something the number won’t ever tell us.
Scouts will need to get scrawling again now because from these ten league games it is also clear that Swindon’s other weakness is set pieces. Three free kicks have lead directly to goals and Cheltenham and Oxford have both scored from corners (headers naturally). That is half the total conceded, and one of the remainder was a penalty.
Again all of this might point to a terrible weakness in the air but since Swindon concede on average 4.3 corners per game we’ve let in goals from just 4.65% of corners taken, and both of those were in the first four games of the season. But while there is there is some work to do on organisation, as a study of the 2009/10 Manchester United side shows even a very good side don’t score many from corners – a surprisingly low 2.5 per cent.
There is also a mitigating factor: this is the basement division. Teams and managers at this level don’t rely on fast flowing football and false nines creating space for fantasia, despite Di Canio’s dreams. They have big lads, they hoof balls into the box and practice set pieces day after day. Therefore the primary method of scoring is bound to be a header, and we don’t need Opta stats to prove it. Which is lucky as Opta don’t bother looking this far down the football pyramid.
Of all the goals Town conceded, four were shipped from inside the six-yard box, three from the right back area and one from the left side. With one penalty and only one scored from outside the box, completing the picture, this appears to show a team who are compact in midfield and a defence who are able to close down opponents. We simply aren’t getting passed around or through, which might explain the use of the aerial route.
The origins of the goals shipped in open play also reveals little: two from our left flank, two from the right. And for those keeping track, add to those to one from the central area. If you were looking for a reason for signing a new left back, you won’t find enough to prove the need for Liam Ridehalgh here.
When Swindon do concede goals it seems to point at a loss of concentration, not a lack of fitness. For on the road Town are yet to concede a single goal in the first 15 minutes of any away match. The same goes for the end of matches as we still haven’t had to pick the ball out of the net beyond the 76 minutes – and that includes the traditionally weak moment of most teams – injury and added time time.
Instead all of the away goals shipped, bar one, sit in a narrow band after half time. Aside from Burton’s first, on the road Town keep things very tight in the first half but have a habit of conceding straight after the kick off and then up to the 75 minute. It could be down to Swindon being cold after the break or confused after a team talk but it is far more likely that the home team are able to assert themselves with the words of their manager ringing in their ears and the crowd behind them.
At home things are slightly different, for while our goal has yet to be breached after the 75th minute, we have conceded three times in the first half – once between the 1st and 15th minute, once between the 16th and 30th minute and once between the 31st and 45th minute. So does this represent a weaker defence at home or the tendency of teams to attack early with the hope of sitting on the lead – much as Oxford and Rotherham did? Certainly we are attacking more at home and that can leave gaps but with so many goals coming from set-pieces it is hard to say.
However, what can be said is that Swindon’s late-in-the-game defensive solidity is very unusual. For example Bury, on their way to promotion from this division last season, still conceded 10 per cent of their goals in the last 15 minutes, including injury time. And they were the most resilient side in the entire Football League, at the other end of the scale were Bournemouth who conceded nearly 40 per cent of their goals in this small window.
Regardless of all of these details, it is remarkable how defensively solid Town are, both on the road and away. And despite all of the changes in defense, in goal and in midfield, the picture seems to be improving with three clean sheets from the last four games, ensuring Town sit a healthy 2nd in The Washbag League Two Defensive Rankings after 10 games.
Conceding just four goals at home and six goals away against what will prove to be our promotion rivals (Oxford, Crawley, Rotherham and Shrewsbury) offers substantial promise for the future. After all, if you extrapolate that record to a full season, Swindon would have just 46 goals in the Against column, which would make us six goals better off than any of the automatically promoted teams from this division last season. Just no one tell the opposition managers our weaknesses.
*Technically it was a Billy Kee and Constable’s chests but the effect isn’t vastly different.