Rotherham United 0-4 Swindon: Town crunch the Big Apple to the core
Adam Tanner was at the New York Stadium, Rotherham to spread the news and be a part of it as Swindon Town put a sledgehammer to their troublesome away form with a 4-0 win.
Since the previous away game, a defeat at Preston North End, both Mark Cooper and Luke Williams had spoken of the need for Town to be more tactically flexible and astute away from home. Their response was to start with a 3-5-2 formation. Few were surprised to see that Wes Foderingham had shaken off his mystery virus to reclaim his place in goal. Jay McEveley joined Darren Ward and Grant Hall at centre back, Nathan Thompson pushed up to play at right wing back opposite Nathan Byrne on the left, Alex Pritchard hovered in front of Yaser Kasim and Massimo Luongo in midfield, and Nicky Ajose partnered Nile Ranger up front.
The onus really was on Town to avoid conceding one of the early goals that had not only severely blighted their away form, but had also crept into recent home games against Bristol City and Plymouth Argyle. Although this objective was achieved, the opening 20 minutes were hard going to say the least. Swindon were overpowered in both midfield and defence, and several genuine Rotherham United chances came and went.
Firstly the strange case of Alex Revell, who seems to score more goals against Swindon than against everyone else combined, was given a clear sight of goal when he was left unmarked at the near post from a low cross. Fortunately, his clumsy lofted finish over the bar brought back memories of his time playing for, and not against, Town.
Rotherham’s next chance was an even better one, and Ben Pringle should have done much better than shoot wide after he ghosted through the middle far too easily and ended up one-on-one with Foderingham. The same player lashed a shot over shortly afterwards. Finally, from one of United’s many early corners, a brilliant fingertip save from Foderingham was just enough to push a Pablo Mills headed onto the bar, and the ball was scrambled clear. Whenever the ball did break upfield, Town lacked directness, and never really managed to penetrate the Rotherham defence. Relatively tame efforts from Pritchard and McEveley were as good as it got.
After those early scares, Town did begin to settle, and a period of calm followed. On 32 minutes, Pritchard took the ball and, for the first time, ran with purpose at the heart of the Rotherham defence. It had coped comfortably until that point with Town’s passing game, but suddenly it looked unsettled. The Tottenham loanee drew a clumsy foul to win a free-kick. He got up and beautifully curled the ball over the wall and into the top left corner.
The goal seemed to subdue Rotherham and Town began to take a grip of the midfield. Just before half-time, Pritchard once again drove at the defence. Again, they were mesmerised and forced to commit the foul, right on the edge of the box. This time his free kick sailed over, but it demonstrated how Pritchard’s dynamism and skill had changed the complexion of the game.
There was still time for a major twist in the tale before the whistle. Town worked the ball down the left, allowing Massimo Luongo hit a hopeful shot from just inside the area. The ball took a big deflection off a defender, which carried it beyond the keeper and into the far corner. Swindon had established a two goal lead which had looked so improbable 15 minutes earlier.
A two goal half-time lead represented unfamiliar territory for Town, and talk at half-time focused on how the team would cope with this situation which, frankly, didn’t reflect the pattern of the game. We needn’t have worried. The second half was magnificent. Town played composed, controlled football to which Rotherham had no answer. The sting was taken out of the game, and the hosts barely threatened; they certainly didn’t get anything on target. The game began to fizzle out until, on 77 minutes, the third goal arrived. On the counter, Nathan Byrne released Pritchard, who sailed unchallenged down the left and delivered an immaculate low cross which he made look beautifully simple. NIcky Ajose couldn’t miss, and the game was won.
One great feature of this Town squad is its love of the game, and the players certainly didn’t seem keen on settling for three goals. What would have been a special fourth goal nearly arrived when a move of around 25 passes (at a guess) culminated in a superb flick from Ranger releasing Pritchard, who shot narrowly wide with only the keeper to beat.
The fourth goal came in stoppage time, when Louis Thompson released Dany N’Guessan who, not for the first time in a Town shirt, showed real composure to gently stroke the ball into the corner of the net. I wasn’t alone in thinking that he looked well offside; in the sorry absence of a Football League Show, it’s hard to tell for sure. Perhaps it was just our day.
Here are a few thoughts:
1. Two-goal leads
There was an odd parallel with the Crewe Alexandra game six weeks ago, in that Town went 2-0 up on the stroke of half-time through a fortunate Luongo goal. In fact, these games represent the only occasions on which Town have taken a two goal lead in the League so far. In both games Town had been pretty uninspiring for the first half an hour, but went on to take a lead out of nowhere, before doubling it in fortunate circumstances. And in both, Town went on to totally dominate the second half, racking up more goals in the process. We clearly thrive when holding a comfortable lead, as opponents are forced to attack, and the team is so adept at exploiting gaps and pouncing on the break.
It’s a shame that the team hasn’t established more two goal leads so far. In both of the home games during the previous seven days, Town played pretty well prior to going in front, but then seemed to lose a lot of urgency and impetus, which allowed a couple of poor sides opportunities to snatch results that should have been out of the question. To be fair, we’ve held on for the win on both occasions, but we can’t assume that will always be the case. The team certainly has plenty of attacking prowess, so let’s see whether it can build on the confidence gained from the current good form and make life more comfortable for itself where possible.
Over the course of the last three seasons, effective Town forwards have been few and far between. Paolo Di Canio’s favoured option appeared to be Andy Williams; say no more.
By contrast, Cooper’s attacking signings have been superb. Although Ranger had no real sight of goal yesterday, he was, as usual, tireless and totally unselfish. There is still a huge contrast between our goals record with and without him on the pitch, and that is no coincidence. No midfield can be as prolific as ours (Luongo, Pritchard and Mason are all well on course to score 10-15) without genuine support from in front. Meanwhile, N’Guessan is averaging a goal every 108 minutes and Ajose one every 125 minutes, and it’s pretty hard to argue with those ratios, especially when we consider that they both spend a lot of time out wide.
The early signs are that Mohamed El Gabbas will be a decent option, and he was unlucky not to score on Tuesday. Between the four of them, they also offer pretty much the full range of attributes, as they are so different. What Ranger cannot offer, Ajose can, and vice versa.
Finally, I think both Nathans – Thompson and Byrne – deserve a mention for their excellent performances at wing-back. Thompson achieved so much on his own, and put in countless tackles and blocks, not to mention running what must have been about 20km. Byrne is in his element further up the pitch, and provided some excellent support and cover for Pritchard, who regularly drifted out towards our left. Between them, they play a big part in making 3-5-2 a very feasible option moving forward.
I hope we eventually look back on yesterday as a milestone. Although it was far from plain sailing, the management showed some tactical nous which was eventually richly rewarded with a terrific result. There is still plenty of scope for progress, and we’ll never know how the game would have panned out had Rotherham’s early dominance led to a goal. But we got the bit of luck that had eluded us in other away games, and went on to demonstrate, once again, what a bit of Premier League quality can do in the third tier. On the back of three wins, we now have a further two home games coming up, which I suppose will measure how seriously we can start looking at the top six. Bring ‘em on…
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