Swindon 3-2 Bristol City: Ten things we learned
A depleted Swindon side showed steel and resilience to twice come from behind and record a fine 3-2 win. Ben Beaumont unpicks a breathless local derby.
1. Aden Flint just wants to be loved
Snarly face, angry tattoos and an unseemly cash-signs-for-eyeballs transfer to local rivals – you’d think that Flint would have been the perfect pantomime villain on Saturday. And he got the expected 90+ minutes of (actually pretty tame) abuse. But he also showed a hitherto hidden softer side. Of course, he’s pretty bloody good from corners, as a flappy Town defence found out with just minutes gone. To his credit, he didn’t seem to celebrate his goal as enthusiastically as he might have done.
Perhaps he’s not so bad after all, we thought. But then, with 15 minutes left and his City defence under the cosh, his ungainly limbs shanked poor Ajose high into the September sky. It was a reminder of Flint’s fabled immaturity – in his boyish eagerness to assert his team’s dominance, he actually put them under further pressure. It gave Town fans a reminder of what they’re not missing, but the vulnerability it exposed is rather touching. The boy just wants to do well, after all. And he applauded all sections of the Town fans after the game, too. Bless.
2. Nicky Ajose has the striker’s habit
I thought Ajose was completely absent in the first half, but then he went and scored two goals. This proves two things. Firstly, that I know very little about football. But also that Ajose has that happy knack of scoring goals when he’s not playing very well, or not very involved in the game.
His first combined a neat bit of control with a low smash from a tight angle, after a quick throw from Nathan Thompson caught City’s hapless defence snoozing. His second was a half-yard bundle-poke after all the hard work had been done by the ever impressive Luongo. Ajose really ought to have snaffled his hat trick in the second half – twice shooting too close to the keeper when well placed – but, if he can keep popping up with goals when you’re just about to announce to all around you that he hasn’t done anything all game and Cooper should bring on Storey instead, then I’ll be happy.
3. 4-3-3 leaves Swindon exposed
The lack of available midfielders meant that Swindon effectively played with a front three on Saturday, with Nile Ranger in the middle and Ajose and Dany N’Guessan on either side of him. I think there’s a part of every football fan which loves the derring do, the jumpers-for-goalposts chutzpah of a 4-3-3. And Swindon’s front three certainly put City’s defence under real pressure, especially in the second half. But the narrow formation left Swindon’s midfield and defence vulnerable.
To be effective, you probably want the 4-3-3 to switch to a 4-5-1 when your team is defending, to offer protection to the full backs, and to bolster your central midfielders. But that wouldn’t play to Ajose or N’Guessan’s strengths, so Jay McEveley and Nathan Thompson were left exposed on the wings, which occasionally pulled the centre backs out of position too. The central midfield trio of Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Louis Thompson were asked to cover too much ground, and were overrun for long spells in the first half, and in the second half too. What’s more, there was a lack of natural width when Swindon were in possession. Ajose offered more of an outlet on the right side, but this gave Town a very lopsided feel, with little support for McEveley on the opposite flank.
4. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is pretty bloody good
The Bristol City number 10 gave Grant Hall a torrid afternoon. Sure, Town backed off for his goal – City’s second – and offered him the chance to shoot with his favoured left foot. But it was a fine finish, and his work throughout the game – holding the ball up, turning his marker, linking up play – was very impressive. He forced Wes Foderingham into a fine save in the second half, and really didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
5. Louis Thompson is a genuine option
With no Ryan Mason, Ryan Harley or Alex Pritchard, the game gave Louis Thompson the opportunity to show that he’s more than a squad player. And the little barrel-chested warrior didn’t disappoint. He put in a hell of a shift, covering ground for his less mobile colleagues Luongo and Kasim. Of course, he’s only human, and his brave efforts couldn’t disguise the fact that Town were outnumbered in midfield. But his running and tackling helped to keep Town going right till the end.
6. Back heels are in
I counted at least three on Saturday, with Ranger the main protagonist. And they actually worked, too, helping to set up genuine goal-scoring opportunities. I love this entertaining Town side.
7. Referees get things wrong
The referee wasn’t that bad on Saturday, but I think he probably got two things wrong. Firstly, Louis Thompson should not have been booked for a brilliant – and fair – ball-winning tackle in midfield, midway through the second half. (You got the feeling the ref was influenced rather too much by the City player’s reaction.) Secondly, he wiped out a lovely goal by N’Guessan for a shirt-pull in the build-up. I haven’t seen a replay, but in real time this looked a shocking decision.
8. N’Guessan and Ranger are great together
These two were brilliant in the second half. Links, flicks, hold-ups, back heels, deflected shots, disallowed goals, through balls, knock downs, and a 87th minute winner – they had everything you want from a striking partnership. Just when City appeared to be exerting some telling pressure at the other end, they were able to get Swindon back on the front foot for the final quarter. Ultimately, the City defence couldn’t cope. The net-bulging turn-and-whack from Ranger for the winner was ace, too.
9. Pritchard is the new Matt Ritchie
OK, this is hardly news. But, just as Town’s previous incarnation was much diminished in Ritchie’s absence, so this version is not quite the same without Alex Pritchard. The natural width and pace he offers gives the team more options in attack, and more balance in defence. Swindon were able to muddle through on Saturday against a pretty shambolic City backline, but they will want Pritchard to stay out of the referee’s book for the rest of the season.
10. This team is more than pretty passes
This was a very important win for many reasons. With a much depleted team – and a 15-year-old making up the numbers on the bench – Swindon were able to twice come from behind to claim victory in a local derby. And they did it without ever playing their best football. This showed a resolve that some people might not have associated with the pretty-boy passing of previous displays. City were able to dominate possession for spells of the game, but were never able to make it count.
Swindon will be concerned at shipping soft goals for the second week on the trot, but they seem to have found a frontline that will get them out of trouble. Town’s formation was born of necessity, and you got the sense that Mark Cooper was effectively crossing his fingers in the second half as he had so few options on the bench. But, despite lacking shape and coherence at times, they stuck at it and exploited the weaknesses of a City team which has forgotten how to win games. The boisterous crowd gave the team a boost just when they needed it, and hauled them over the line at the end. A thrilling victory which sets things up nicely for Tuesday.