Time for Swindon to adapt to ensure that their early promise is fulfilled

12 games have gone so Adam Tanner gives his thoughts on Swindon Town’s start to the season, and how he feels they need to adapt to ensure that their early promise is fulfilled…

Like most fans, my expectations heading into the season were relatively low. And like most fans, I’ve been delighted by some of the football that we’ve played. Under the circumstances, our start has been pretty good. But we’re now at a stage at which patterns are developing, and there are signs of clear hurdles that we will need to overcome in order to reach the level that a team of this calibre should aspire to.

Style of Play

I would say that the best performances so far, in no particular order, have come against Queens Park Rangers, Crewe Alexandra, MK Dons and Wolverhampton Wanderers. All four are ‘footballing teams’, who allow their opponents time on the ball. It’s no secret that our midfield is full of class, and can cause real damage under such conditions.

Against more direct, functional teams, who do their best to bypass midfield and allow little time on the ball, we have invariably struggled. Defeats at Preston North End and Shrewsbury Town have been tame, and a home draw against a very limited Gillingham side was disappointing.

This is worrying in the sense that we could quickly become typecast as a side incapable of ‘mixing it’. If we reach a stage at which taking points from Swindon involves little more than kicking it high and long, and this becomes common knowledge within the league, current patterns suggest that we will struggle.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Whereas the average age of the side is low, we are far from a team of little boys, and no first team regular is under the age of 20. Physically, the team is far from lightweight; Darren Ward, Grant Hall, Jay McEveley, Dany N’Guessan and Nile Ranger are all big in stature. Louis Thompson, Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Ryan Mason may all be under six foot, but none of them are shy in the tackle; in fact, most of them positively relish physical football. So we shouldn’t find it so difficult to deal with robust opponents.

We’ve essentially played the same 4-3-2-1 for 90 minutes every week. Although this has worked fantastically at times, we have never really adapted it, regardless of circumstances or opposition, and it’s time now for the management to establish clear alternatives for the many occasions on which another style would be more appropriate. Although nobody can argue with our general home form, the lack of tactical flexibility late in games has left us exposed, as we have persevered with a relatively attacking formation when the time has come to ‘shut up shop’. As a result, Stevenage missed a couple of glaring late chances, Bristol City were an inch away from scoring after our 87th minute winner, and Gillingham did force an equaliser.

Away Form

Although the ends have justified the means in our home games, we have managed one point in our last nine away league matches, stretching back to mid-March. That is clearly an alarming stat which cannot be ignored.

In mitigation, we have had a lot of tough games during that run, both this season and last, and we have played pretty well in a couple of the recent ones. But we haven’t helped ourselves. Far too many early goals have been conceded and, worryingly, we have conceded inside 11 minutes in four of this season’s five away league games. Although the Wolves goal was unfortunate, the other three have all been soft.

Our style really should be tailor-made for playing away. We are at our best when knocking the ball around and beginning to frustrate opposing teams and fans, before pouncing out of nowhere as they begin to lose patience and are drawn out of position, as was the case at home to Crewe. It’s so much harder to play this game at 1-0 down as teams have a lot less incentive to attack, and this makes the spate of early goals conceded all the more frustrating. To be fair, Mark Cooper acknowledged the need to be more streetwise for the first time after the Preston game, and a quick response is needed, as our next away opponents, Rotherham United, are exactly the sort of side who will gobble us up if we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Defence

The question does arise, of course, as to why so many goals are flying in against us. Over the course of September it has averaged two per game, which cannot continue. We are clearly falling below the standards of recent seasons.

As previously discussed, we have effectively played the same system at all times. Regardless of whether it is called a 4-5-1, 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1, the wingers are invariably stationed a lot further up the pitch than they were under the rigid Di Canio 4-4-2, and are given fewer defensive obligations. Although Kasim is often asked to sit deep and provide cover, he is far from an ultra-defensive, Makelele-style midfielder; he regularly ends up much further forward (take, for example, his assist for the third goal against Crewe, at which point he was inside their penalty area during a passage of open play).

This places a lot of strain on the defence. Whereas there are no obvious liabilities within it, when it’s broken down to its component parts, it’s easy to see how problems are arising. Jay McEveley deserves credit for getting through 90 minutes every week despite what appears to be a chronic injury problem, but he clearly starts to struggle after intense periods. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his display at Preston was partly down to exhaustion, but unfortunately we currently have no feasible alternative so he will need to soldier on as far as is possible.

Grant Hall does okay; he has responded pretty well from some early mistakes, and generally looks competent, although his concentration tends to slip at times and he still needs a lot of guidance. Whereas Darren Ward is able to offer this, he in turn needs a lot of physical cover, as he now seriously lacks mobility. And Hall cannot yet give him the all-round defensive support that the excellent Aden Flint used to.  Nathan Thompson is a great asset, but seems to have been given increased attacking obligations and, with limited defensive cover in front of and around him, he can only do so much.

There is no prospect of the defence being refreshed any time soon, and so we will need to adapt our style to give it the added support that it needs in particular circumstances… especially away from home. Something as simple as a switch to a more rigid 4-4-2, just for the first half an hour of games (and potentially the last 15 minutes if things go to plan) could well do the trick.

Summary

We have stumbled upon a terrific team. The central midfield is a sight to behold; I can never quite decide in which order to rank Kasim, Luongo and Mason, but I want them all to be here for a long time. We have scored 15 goals in the six games in which Nile Ranger has played more than 45 minutes, which I think speaks for itself. Alex Pritchard is a genuine talent. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by N’Guessan. We have our best goalkeeper and right back for a generation. I could go on.

This is why I’m so eager to see this side succeed, even though I acknowledge that the league looks strong. The early signs of Cooper’s management have been good, both in terms of player recruitment and general performances. His challenge now is to fine tune things so that we have a better rounded side, capable of bringing home the points under all conditions. If this means, at times, that we need to lose just a little bit of our visual appeal, and effectively take one step back in order to take two forward, few fans would argue. As we should all know by now, high-calibre teams at this level don’t stay together for long, and it would be so frustrating to look back on a season of missed opportunities this time next year when half of its stars have sailed off into the sunset.

Over to you, Mark…

5 comments

  • Hard not to agree with this, although I think calling Flint excellent is very generous (although I get the point that it is in terms of his physicality)!

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  • I don’t disagree with your conclusion, but I’m not sure about some of the evidence…

    Can I ask who these orthodox wingers would be in this 442? Pritchard and ?
    It seems a hole in the plan and one Cooper acknowledge last week in an interview in the Adver.

    4321? Okay, so we can use different notation (I think 433 is a better descriptor) but all season? What about the 442 diamond we used 2nd half against Chelsea? And near the end against Gillingham? What about the 352 used on late against PNE?

    There are other issues but I will leave those for others.

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  • Who says a 442 requires 2 orthodox wingers?? In recent years we’ve played that system with the likes of McGovern and de Vita in wide midfield roles and it has worked perfectly well.

    We’ve rarely deviated from the usual system and have only done so for short spells here and there. Doesn’t change the point that Cooper’s tactical nous needs to improve, as we haven’t got the desired result in any of the games that you mention.

    Feel free to raise these other issues that you refer to.

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    • Okay, perhaps I could have said wide man rather than orthodox winger but interesting that you cite JPM, a player who spent an entire career as a wide man, as not being a winger. And De Vita, who was actually very orthodox – once he settled in to the role. What Cooper is trying to avoid is another Ferry out wide – something a flat 442 would force Luongo or Harley or Mason into. And dropping Mason or playing him out of position just seems madness.

      You argue that none of the change in formations worked in the games listed – so your solution is a change in formation?

      But what if I cited others – Bristol City for one and Stevenage for another when the desired result was produced? What if, a tactic can be right or wrong, if the correct result isn’t achieved? Does only victory validate any experimentation? So how do you judge the change against Chelsea? No goals concede second half? A success for the system or more likely Chelsea’s reluctance to risk further injuries in pursuit of a un-needed third goal? Otherwise it sounds like reductive, doesn’t it?

      Otherwise, I agree with the assessment – Ranger is vital, we have a very good team who can get better.

      However, I can’t agree with the claim that Cooper doesn’t change systems very often, just because you’ve missed them.

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  • Yes, de Vita looked comfortable out wide… but we weren’t to know that would be the case when we signed him as a striker. Both he and Danny Ward only played wide in the first place because we were desperate. Just because Ferry looked lost in an unfamiliar position, we shouldn’t just assume that, say, Mason or Luongo couldn’t fill in out wide when required. I’m not talking about permanently converting them. Just asking them to compromise for 20 minutes here and there in the interests of winning us some points. It isn’t going to ruin them; it will probably improve them and develop their understanding of certain things. Yes, in an ideal world we would let them carry on doing what they are doing… but that isn’t winning us enough games.

    To me, there is a major difference between “wingers” and “wide midfielders”. Pritchard and McGovern are almost polar opposites in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and the way in which they slot into a system… even if they nominally play in the same part of the pitch.

    My argument is that a conventional 442 would benefit us in some situations, not just any formation. And, as far as I can tell, we haven’t tried yet.

    I’m standing by my belief that we aren’t good enough late on in games. As stated in the article, we’ve come under severe pressure late in 3 of the 4 home league matches (aside, obviously, from Crewe), all of which have been against struggling sides. Twice we got away with it, but not due to any positive managerial influence; Stevenage squandered 2 golden chances, and Bristol City hit the bar. Away, we’ve failed to recover any of the games we’ve been losing, and although we held on at MK, they had a good goal disallowed in about the 89th minute. Swindon teams of the recent past have tended to see games out far more convincingly. And clearly part of the reason behind that is tactical. Regardless of the nature of the adjustments being made (if any), what we are or aren’t doing isn’t working well enough.

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