Twenty Years Since Wembley ’93: Swindon 352 v Leicester City 442
Alex Cooke takes a look back at the pattern of play in one of the most fascinating games played at the old Wembley – Swindon Town v Leicester City.
One theme written throughout this bout nostalgia has been the comment that ‘it doesn’t feel like 20 years’ since Swindon won at Wembley. Not to me it doesn’t.
Watching Swindon 4, Leicester 3 again it seems as if more than just two decades have passed. Not because of the cast of milk-skinned, sallow youths, nor the surprising physicality of a match which in my memory was played by a Town team of rake-thin foundlings in velvet slippers.
The real surprise was in the systems on show – an orthodox 442 as British as cream teas, warm beer and casual racism versus an almost continental 352. For this wasn’t the defensive five-at-the-back system since used by Steve McMahon, nor the version once deployed at Milmoor with Stefan Miglioranzi as sweeper. This was Glen Hoddle as a libero; Glen Hoddle, one of the most naturally talented English footballers of all time, sometimes in front, sometimes behind and mostly betwixt centre backs. Just beautiful.
Leicester, by contrast, were English orthodoxy personified: big man/little man up top, two wingers and one attacking full-back, one defensive one. Their defensive line was far higher than Town’s own, probably safe in the knowledge that Swindon lacked pace and relied on possession to build attacks.
Watching now – as I couldn’t then – at least partly freed from choking emotion, Town’s football is the stuff of a fevered dream – yes, a 352 but with one forward who drops off, a screening midfielder allowing two wing-backs to attack, two man-markers and Hoddle the spare man at the back.
In the middle, Martin Ling and John Moncur were intricate and inventive as the ball carriers, while Ross MacLaren was what Eric Cantona termed the ‘water carrier’ shielding the central defence but rarely allowed his cloven hooves to touch the precious, precious ball.
Wide of them was Nicky Summerbee who played as a true wing-back, galloping forward, dribbling and crossing, while also falling back to defend as a full-back. On the other flank Paul Bodin was more tentative. He needed to be played in, to arrive late, attacking space.
In this game, Summerbee was key as his ability to make what those much vaunted ‘third-man runs’, essentially charging forward as Moncur and Ling played vertical passes to ensure the forwards could lay the ball off. The way he joined the attack was also vital in holding back Leicester’s stronger left flank. Each time Town went forward, Summerbee took both the winger and full-back with him, so in effect five were marking three – Summerbee, Craig Maskell and Dave Mitchell.
This created even greater space in the middle for Town’s trio to dominated Leicester’s two. It even indirectly led to the first Town goal as although Steve Agnew diligently followed Hoddle on a rare dart forward, when the ball was switched to Summerbee, Agnew switched off. He didn’t see Hoddle drift out then in, for he had turned his back. Instead Agnew was drawn to Maskell, before Hoddle broke from behind him to end a beautiful move with a beautiful goal.
Hoddle was, of course, a delight throughout. For much of the game, he stayed close to Shaun Taylor: beauty and the beast. Taylor man-marked, and dominated, totemic target man Steve Walsh. And Walsh was main Leicester’s outlet – target for some very good crosses, some poor hoofs and general focal point for their 442. Hoddle’s defensive job was to ensure that whatever flicked from the Neanderthal slopes of Walsh or Taylor’s brows, he would collect and distribute simply.
Taylor and Colin Calderwood took the function of ‘toe-treaders’, playing as dedicated markers to Walsh and Julian Joachim. Interesting they followed this brief precisely, never handing over their man, instead adjusting their position to make sure strength stayed with strength while pace followed pace. And it worked, for despite the final score line Leicester created very few chances.
A further reminder of how the game has changed in the past two decades came in how Town dropped off into their own half, rather than pressure possession. So the defence was deep too, mostly likely to stop the lithe Joachim being able to accelerate into space behind them.
Now, post Klopp’s Dortmund and Bielsa’s Chile, we are used to teams trying to win the ball back high up the field and make quick vertical transitions, but not here. Despite all the goals, this was a patient game, controlled by Town completely.
At the heart of it all Moncur and Ling were revelations to my fading memory. Both carried the ball fearlessly and with remarkable intelligence of when to dribble and dart or when to pass and pause. It was their talent, not tactics which made Town’s second goal though, Moncur’s driving dribble wasn’t stopped by the Foxes’ sloppy midfield but when the defence did, he had the vision to offload and Maskell had the incision to stay wide and onside and chime in with a delightful finish.
In spite of a small stature of so much of the side, it had some heft too. Ross MacLaren shielding the central defence (although the closely cropped shots of TV coverage make his contribution hard to judge properly) and Dave Mitchell – well, Mitchell was a monster. For all the beauty around him, Mitchell’s endeavour was vital. He might have had the beard of a geography teacher but if he wanted to show you an oxbow lake, you would have agreed. When Town tired or were trapped, he gave an outlet and retained possession, or when Bodin or Summerbee couldn’t find a simple ball he could be hit with an early cross from deep.
The combination of Town’s formation and personnel did create a problem though as the game went on. As Summerbee faded, the width evaporated. As Maskell slumped, possession higher up the field became harder to regain or retain. Also without pace anywhere in the team, the quick counter attack wasn’t an option, despite the balls that Hoddle could drop behind the Foxes’ defence. That is until Steve White came on to work the channels because even with his limited pace and Kevin Poole’s lack of judgement,
When Town slumped, part physically but seemingly mostly psychologically, Leicester were finally able to spread their wings – and their full-backs and get into the game. It might have been tiredness or shock at taking a 3-0 lead but Town’s midfield flagged. As a result Hoddle stepped forward and eventually calmed things but his side lost their shape for a while and the Foxes came back, and back, and back again to level the score.
Swindon v Leicester City – Full Match footage from ITV’s ‘The Match’
As that fight back began Leicester’s Steve Thompson seemed to have greater time on the ball just in front of his own back four. Was it a cause or just a contributory factor? It is hard to tell from the limited and low angles of much of the TV coverage but the qualities of a very good Leicester side suddenly became apparent. Finally Agnew and David Oldfield were both bold enough to get closer to Walsh, turning the striker’s headers into chances as Hoddle needed to mark one of the runners. No longer having the ‘spare’ man, Town’s became cautious of leaving gaps at the back and the wing-backs became flatter and no longer supported those in front of them as Hoddle stepped up.
While Leicester’s 442 was based largely on wing play and support from the full-backs, they also had some very good players, particularly in central midfield. However, looking back Brian Little’s tactics did little to help them. Instead of using the nippy Joachim wide and leaving Town over-manned in the middle of defence with a trio against just Walsh, he played the two centrally. Where as Joachim could have been used to keep Bodin or Summerbee back, they were allowed free, knowing that Town’s trio at the back could cover.
Little could have even switched to a full 433 using just three attackers to pin back Town’s five, evening up the midfield miss-match, pressuring the relatively limited MacLaren on the ball and forcing Town to change their game. After all, lone strikers were pretty much what sent the 352 formation into hibernation for a decade or so until sides such as Napoli reshaped and revived it.
But Little’s failings shouldn’t mask Town’s excellence. This was a superb game between two very good sides, and one whose see-sawing momentum represented the qualities of both teams: a wonderful Town side showed how possession and technique can be used not just as an attacking tactic but also a defensive one, while Leicester’s comeback showed their slightly more earthy blend of virtues but still remained thrilling to watch.
And despite the wonderful ability of this Swindon side, and of Hoddle, Ling and Moncur in particular, it is clear that they remain just like all the other Town teams before and since – it can’t be done the easy way. And that certainly hasn’t changed, even during the last 20 years.