352: The shape of things to come for Swindon?

Swindon’s manager Mark Cooper switched to a 3412/352 for Town’s first away-win of the season but will he stick with the system? By Alex Cooke..

Why is it only at Rotherham? Before Saturday, Swindon hadn’t started a league game with a back three since 2005. That game was also in South Yorkshire but in very different circumstances…

Eight years ago at Rotherham’s former home of Milmoor, Stefani Migloranzi showed the value of the spare man at the back with a mixture of graft and craft which helped earn Town a 1-nil win. He was able to block midfield runners breaking beyond the two central stoppers and provide a second line of tackling against any forward who beat his fellow defenders – it was a great advert for using a sweeper when your backs are against the wall. It was effective too. It was also as dour as Greece winning the Euros.

However, with his ability on the ball, Migloranzi was also able to move into midfield, pass swiftly to the flanks and even feed the lone forward, and sole scorer, Rory Fallon.

But this week, Mark Cooper’s use of a back three was very different in execution, if not in idea. For, like Iffy Onuora did that day at Milmoor, he wanted to stiffen a porous defence away from home.

But where the elegant American played with a hotchpotch of Hall of Shame contenders: Aaron Brown, Patrick Collins, Michael Pook, Petr Mikolanda and Gareth Whalley, Swindon’s current team are technical and flexible.

So where Onuora had a deep midfield, shielding his back three, and Fallon as the isolated striker, Cooper had Nile Ranger and Nicky Ajose up top, closely supported by Alex Pritchard. And Pritchard was liberated from much of his defensive work by the defensive midfield pivot of the holder Yasser Kasim and Massimo Luongo. http://footballformation.co.uk/team/352/231013110024.png

Also, where Onuora had full-backs outside his back three making a five, Cooper was able to keep Nathan Byrne and Nathan Thompson higher and wider, as part of the midfield. There they were able to add width to what is otherwise a solid, but narrow, formation.

For 352, and Town’s 3412 variant, are exactly that – doughty, solid and durable formations, originally created at least partly, to combat two strikers – and 442.

For that is the inherent problem with 352 – it can easily become ‘reactive’. So good is the system at containing the opposition’s attack centrally and retaining the ball that it can also strangle your own attacking play.

However, some teams have even made a virtue of this, such as Napoli did until recently using the counter attack, and 64 million-euro man, Edison Cavani. They had wingers in the wide positions and made rapier thrusts with quick vertical passes.

Whether possession based or counter attacking, the system places huge demands on the wing-backs, both physically and mentally. For not only do they have huge amounts of ground to cover, they also need to show great discipline in knowing when to attack, when to cover, when to tuck in and when to ‘hand over’ the opposition winger.

For a good attacking full-back doesn’t automatically make a good wing-back – the roles are simply different.

Attacking full-backs, such as Nathan Thompson, excel because they have space in front of them to move into, largely created by the wingers or widemen. However, a wing-back doesn’t get the same space because he starts higher up the field, facing a direct opponent.

He has less space to accelerate into and so he needs to be able create for himself, to pass and move, rather than just attack the gap. He needs the skills of a winger: to dribble, to turn a man, to accelerate past with the ball from a standing start. It is a role which would seem to suit Nathan Byrne most, and partly explain why Jay McEverley has moved into the back three.

One if the other reasons for McEverley’s move is the problem of how to control the flanks behind the wing-backs. This is a dangerous area to drag the defence, if the centre backs aren’t mobile enough. Like England did during Euro ’98, converting a robust left back called Stuart Pearce helped cover any gaps.

These strengths and limitation of 352 was beautifully highlighted by Town’s recent game against Bristol City. Sean O’Driscoll’s muscular side stifled Town, matching Swindon in the midfield 3 v 3 but using wing-back Nicky Shorey to deliver dangerous crosses from deep for the two strikers.

However, as the game wore on Nile Ranger and Swindon’s wide forwards caused problems, 3 v 3. They were able to run at City’s less mobile centre backs in wider positions, removing the luxury of the ‘spare man’ as they all had a marking job.

This was particularly obvious for Nicky Ajose’s first goal when a simple throw-in went into the gap between pushed up wing-back and centre back to put Ajose in on goal.

Town’s current interpretation of the back three negates some of these inherent problems due to the personnel involved and their flexibility – 433 can easily change to 3412 with little more than an adjustment in shape and mentality.

However, it seems less likely that we will see this 3412 or 352 at the County Ground very often. Already this seasons, sides have come to Swindon to defend and these formations are ill-suited to break them down. For example, if a side plays with a lone striker, Town don’t exactly have a Glen Hoddle in the back three ready to step forward as a libero. Similarly, when up against a ‘parked bus‘, such as Tranmere used, clearly width is needed higher up the field.

Also there are other narratives at work here: the team have finally played enough games to start to gel, key players have returned from injury and suspension, and experience had been gained by those previously with none.

Finally, Cooper hinted that this system had been coached and tested against Preston (briefly) and Torquay specifically for this game. “We put something in place a couple of weeks ago with this game in mind”, he told the Adver. So, once again might it be a case of only at Rotherham?

Whiteboard image pilfered from Daniel Hunt.


  • Brilliant analysis. Thanks. (No wonder I never made the grade!)


  • Thanks, I owe a lot for this one to Sam Moreshead, Andrew Hawes, Adam Tanner, Scott Munroe and Gary Trinder on this one for info and advice.

    Also tried not to fill it with quotes from Wilson or Sacchi, like I normally do.


  • A cracking read. As a long-term admirer of Town’s attacking (and less attacking) full backs over the years – Kerslake, Bodin, King, even Hockaday – and a rather defensively minded right-back myself, I found your description of the difficulties of playing a back three, and the pressure it puts on the wing backs, spot on…


  • Ah, I forgot Caddis! And Summerbee… I could write a whole piece on my love affair with Swindon’s full backs…

    Also, meant to add: before reading this, I hadn’t considered the impact of Bristol City’s formation on our comeback, makes perfect sense now!


  • I was an appalling full-back too so much of that was taken from the translated words of Italian coaches Andrea Mandorlini and Renzo Uliveri. Stuart Pearce talks about it in this video too http://www.uefa.com/trainingground/coaches/video/videoid=1605297.html It covers much of the same detail as the Hodgson one in the article but it is worth a look.


  • If only Cooper would’ve started with a 3-5-2 at Wolves, or variant of three at the back. The issue there was the space left behind Thompson that allowed Wolves with an obvious counter attacking outlet. That day the defensive two of Ward and Hall should’ve been better supported by McEveley, however the role he was given didn’t allow him to be in the right place to react quick enough.


    • What I would say, Ron, is that in many ways 352/3412 actually makes that problem worse not better. Space is created behind the wing-backs, and, having seen Friday that gap behind Thompson is even bigger as he dropped back less. County were hopeless at exploiting this and their widemen looked very narrow so offered no threat to Thompson or Byrne.


      • Completely understand that, however, at Wolves the issue was more that Hall and Ward were the only two defender with Thompson and McEveley out of a defensive position. While there is naturally more space behind the wing-backs in a 3-5-2 there do remain, at least, three defenders with Hall (on the right) and McEveley (on the left) of Ward to quickly react to cover the wider area with any diagonal ball..


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