Simon Ferry and the gap on Swindon’s right side
Alex Cooke looks at the tactics used against Walsall and how far Kevin MacDonald has to go to change how Town play.
“I didn’t play well, I don’t know why – I just didn’t.” At first Simon Ferry’s post-Walsall protestations sound odd. After all, it was obvious to most people in the County Ground that his new right wing position, and Kevin MacDonald’s new shape and style left Swindon slightly disjointed – and yet the team didn’t do much which was obviously wrong.
So we can understand what Ferry means: he supported the front pair, he linked play, and he scored. But he also left Nathan Thompson exposed defensively and the team’s shape started to become baggy as possession was surrendered and players drifted out of position.
It is easy to make too much drama out of the right and wrongs of formations and tactics, primarily because judging them is performed through the prism of results – and a significant unknown – how individuals carried out their given instructions.
So in this game, Swindon played a lopsided system with Ferry slotting into the right-sided midfield birth of a 442, but only when defending. On the attack, he became an attacking midfielder, lurking behind the front pair. There he sat ‘between the lines’ seemingly ready to slip the ball between full-back and centre-back, or become an extra body when the ball went into the box.
Which is exactly what he did, for the first ten minutes when Town controlled possession. When the contest became more even, he started to hover between these positions, perhaps unsure of his ability to cover the flank and attack.
Ferry, breaking forward into the box, as the new system demands
Behind him, Alan McCormack and Tommy Miller were playing the central roles with greater license and more gusto than previous seen. The result was a centre more dynamic but more open to gaps than anything seen recently under Paolo Di Canio.
Where Miller had ‘sat’ under his previous boss, he now roamed – and tired. McCormack was similar energetic but where Millar’s passing was conservative, McCormack’s was anything but. During the first half in particular, he was still looking for early, lofted balls, looking to turn Walsall.
McCormack aside, much of the passing was exactly as Jay McEverley said the boss instructed: “He wants us to get the ball down and play and to go through the midfield, and then get it up to the strikers and build from there”.
And that is what Swindon did, building the kind of short passing game which would have ensured no Perspex remained on either dugout if tried under the Italian. They interchanged and played one-twos, even giving Wes Foderingham a chance to show off his tricks.
It was as McEverley said ‘pass and move’ but he also hinted that sometimes the team became too focused on their new found freedom. “…you need to put the ball in the back of the net, and sometimes you have to know when to play short and when to turn them.”
However, what must also be remembered is the quality of the opposition. Having not been a Coventry, I can’t comment on that game, but Walsall and manager Dean Smith deserve great credit for this draw. As well as being a good team, Smith saw the burgeoning gap on Town’s right flank, and although swapping Gary Roberts for Ferry did stiffen temporary, both sides’ substitutions opened it again. And Walsall just kept applying the pressure there.
Despite this and the intricacy of Town’s play, much of the post-match comment has concentrated on Ferry’s positioning. Clearly the young Scot will refine his understanding of this different, freer role, as will those alongside him who will also need to cover him and Thompson, but the lopsided shape isn’t exactly unheard of.
For example, QPR versus Sunderland this weekend featured two lopsided 442s, one with a defensive winger (Park for QPR) and one with an attacker always liable to drift to the centre (Sessegnon).
Brazilian sides have also long played with drifting midfielder on one flank, using a wider forward and an attacking full-back to add genuine width. Even Fabio Cappello used Steven Gerrard as a tucked-in winger for England with Wayne Rooney slipping out left and Theo Walcott as an orthodox winger on the right flank.
It is a method that could also work for Swindon, with Andy Williams the most natural candidate to drift out to the flank. However, it would also rely on better shielding in the middle and ball retention throughout the side, and particularly up front where Adam Rooney was able to make a much greater impression through intelligent movement than James Collins was through just moving.
Finally it would demand a degree of bravery from Simon Ferry. If he can maintain that high, almost central position, keeping the ball and dragging the opposition to change their own shape to his will, then he will certainly have a good game, even if he isn’t always sure why.
Swindon could have been disjointed but this was as much down to Walsall. They had a game plan which they stuck to with great determination. They closed down our midfield for long periods and despite our short passing we weren’t going to get anywhere. Their marking was very tight and aggressive.
They did press, and kept a pretty high defensive line too. Brentford will be interesting too as they also keep things very compact – or they did in their win at the County Ground. We’ll need a bit more guile up top than was shown against Walsall – probably from Adam Rooney.
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