Are Paolo Di Canio’s STFC a dirty, fouling, nasty side?
Swindon Town and Matt Ritchie especially, are among the biggest foulers in League One but is Paolo Di Canio’s STFC side really that rough? Alex Cooke looks at the numbers.
Former Pompey winger Matt Ritchie is Swindon Town’s dirtest, roughest, most aggressive player. That might be a surprise to many Town fans – and probably his manager – but it is true. The Football League’s own statistics show that after the Doncaster game the former Portsmouth winger had given away 26 free-kicks and collected 2 yellow cards, a score which puts him 29th out of all of the League One players. It also leaves him just three fouls ahead of our next biggest offender central defender Alan McCormack, on 23 fouls and 3 yellow cards.
What is also surprising that that Swindon are ranked 6th in the division for the number of fouls given away, trailing only Preston (282), Oldham (273), Orient (271), Notts County (267) and Yeovi (262). With 261 fouls, Swindon are 99 fouls ahead of fair play kings Crewe Alexandra, who have only been pulled up for kicks, trips and backchat a mere 162 times.
However, Swindon’s hefty number is only part of the picture because despite that high number of fouls, Town have picked up relatively few bookings. With just 27 yellow cards, they are actually lower in the bookings table than 17 other sides in League One. And so far Aden Flint (15 fouls, 3 yellows, 1 red) has claimed the only league red of the season – and even that was for two yellow cards.
So how to explain the high number of fouls Swindon make but the low number of cards they get? After all Town average 32.6 fouls per yellow card while a side such as Preston North End get booked every 7.2 fouls. And while it is there is not automatically a causal relationship between the number of fouls and cards, it is impressive that Oldham get a yellow for each 5.5 fouls.
So is it that Swindon players are better at talking their way out of the book than other teams? It seems unlikely. The most credible reason is shape. For while yellow cards can be dished out for a number of minor offences from dissent to handball, the majority are given for reckless, uncontrolled or badly timed tackles. And, shape matters to Paolo.
We know from watching one and a half seasons under Di Canio’s stewardship that the Italian drills his team on shape relentlessly, so much so that it was recently cited by Lee Cox as the big difference between training at Town and Oxford. But this focus on positional discipline also means that Swindon players rarely fly into tackles – there simply isn’t the need when your team-mates are covering.
After all, much as crowds love them, sliding tackles and desperate lunges are the result of failure in formation, not desirable heroics. Better to stay on your feet and rely on the others in red to block off the opposition’s passing options.
Two other statistics also support this notion. One is that Swindon are yet to concede a league penalty – and penalties are a surely a certain indicator that perhaps something isn’t right in the defence.
The other is that Swindon have only conceded three league goals from free-kicks. In itself, this perhaps says more about the quality of Swindon’s defending and goalkeeping but that only Michael Rose has scored directly from a free-kick is notable. The other two goals came via much longer balls from Coventry, perhaps hinting that when Town foul they make sure that they keep it away from their own box.
Looking at other sides, it is odd to see that a team with a robust reputation such as Crawley have made a lowly 191 fouls and yet they also have picked up four red cards and 26 yellows. Colchester are fourth for the number of bookings (38) but have done so from just 191 fouls – hinting that either they like talking back, or time wasting. Friday’s opponents are also interesting as Ronnie Moore’s Tranmere side have committed 171 fouls and received 23 yellow cards, making them one of the three most delicate sides in the division.
Paolo Di Canio, with his obsession in finding a ‘nasty’ striker, might also see something else interesting in the numbers – the six of the ten most foulers are strikers. Steve Howard of Hartlepool tops the table with 43 fouls with fellow forwards Marvin Morgan (Shrewsbury) Stewart Beavon (Preston) and Izale McCloud (Portsmouth) in the top five. By contrast, James Collins trails far behind with 18 fouls and two cautions. Not exactly a high number for a player whose function in the team is partly to score and hold up the ball, but also to close and press the opposition. Just for the record, fellow forward Andy Williams has just 12 fouls and no card, putting him behind even John Bostock. Norwich City loanee Chris Martin has eight fouls and a card – which after just four games (pre-Oldham) for Swindon proves he is a quick worker.
Also worth mentioning are Nathan Thompson and Darren Ward. Thompson has already proven himself to be a fierce, and often reckless tackler, with 15 fouls and two cards while the experienced Ward is proving very much the opposite. With just five fouls against Ward, if Thompson is looking for an example of how to defend while keeping his feet and his cool, he could do far worse than look to the Millwall man.
So what about Matt Ritchie’s fouling? It seems to point to nothing more than his high work rate. After all Ritchie is Town’s top fouler but he is also Town’s top scorer, top assist-maker and most accurate shooter. It’s exactly as former Milan, Turkey and Galatasaray manager, Fatih Terim once said: “Statistics are like mini-skirts, they don’t reveal everything.”