Oldham Athletic 2-1 Swindon Town: Failing to push the boundary

Adam Tanner made it up the M6 (eventually) to Oldham to witness Swindon Town’s response to their midweek setback…

The suspension of Jay McEveley left Town without either a recognised left-back or a third centre back with any league experience. This meant that regardless of the formation chosen, some improvisation would be needed. Mark Cooper’s solution was to persist with the 3-5-2 used against Walsall, with Nathan Thompson deputising at centre back for the first time in his career, and Jack Barthram replacing him at wing back. In the only other change, midfielder Ryan Mason took the place of forward Nicky Ajose, as a result of which Alex Pritchard was pushed up and asked to play just behind lone striker Nile Ranger.

In the first half, Town created nothing. Not so much as a half chance, or even a corner. Oldham Athletic were also uninspiring, and during the first 20 minutes there was very little excitement, but as the half wore on the hosts became increasingly dominant. Their first real chance came when a dangerous ball was whipped in from the right flank and striker Kirk Millar eased in front of Darren Ward for a free header. He should have done better than put it wide of the far post.

A few minutes later, Luongo’s square ball to Pritchard was too easily intercepted, and Carl Winchester was played in down the right. He had plenty to do, but hit a strong, dipping 25-yard effort just above the reach of Wes Foderingham and into the net. Nearly 15 minutes of the first half remained, but Swindon were the team longing for the half time whistle, which sounded particularly welcome after Ward’s headed clearance drifted narrowly wide of his own goal in stoppage time with Foderingham beaten.

After a poor 45 minutes, the only apparent change ahead of the second half was a switch in flanks for Barthram and Nathan Byrne. In fairness, Town did begin to compete and, without being anywhere near their fluid best, put together some tentative attacking moves. Pritchard’s 50th minute shot was easily gathered by the Oldham keeper, but it was a start. Moments later, Massimo Luongo was just too slow to capitalise after a cross was fumbled, and the loose ball was deflected clear.

It didn’t matter, as, for the second consecutive away game, Town enjoyed a huge slice of luck in front of goal. The equaliser is a hard one to describe, and I can only suggest that you watch it for yourself. In attempting to intercept Thompson’s ball forward to Pritchard, Oldham defender James Tarkowski somehow managed to loop the ball over his own keeper from 18 yards. I suspect if he tried 100 times to repeat it, he would fail. Anyway, Town had a lifeline.

Swindon briefly built on this, and applied some light pressure. Byrne used his pace to burst into the box down the right, before just about being dispossessed by the last defender. Mason then fired narrowly wide from 20 yards after cleverly working some space. But Oldham soon regained control, using their numerical advantage in wide areas to fizz in a few dangerous balls. Foderingham was equal to most of what they offered, but the lead was eventually restored in the 77th minute when Danny Philliskirk got in front of Barthram to bundle in a far-post cross.

The best Town could offer in response was a couple of set pieces deep into stoppage time. Foderingham came forward, and took part in a couple of frantic goalmouth scrambles; at one stage, Dany N’Guessan poked in a shot which was blocked by a defender. But a point would have flattered Town, who were fortunate not to concede a third when Oldham’s Sidney Schmeltz scuffed his shot from 40 yards wide of the empty net with the last kick of the game. In truth, Swindon failed to get a serious effort on target all afternoon.

So what’s gone wrong in the space of a week? I think Foderingham and Ranger can largely be absolved of blame, so the issues must lie in between them…

1.       The Defence

Darren Ward has, in general, served us well over the last 14 months. But his last two performances have both been poor. Against Walsall, his serious deficiencies in terms of distribution, pace and mobility were all clearly exposed within the space of five second-half minutes. Yesterday, he looked cumbersome and unconvincing throughout. He appeared to be sitting deeper than Thompson and Grant Hall, effectively playing a sweeper role which requires a level of composure on the ball that he does not have.

Cooper must take much of the blame for this. Ward’s strengths are his aerial and man-marking abilities, and being the “spare man” of a back three simply does not suit him as those attributes become largely redundant. Grant Hall has more athleticism and footballing ability, but is a less resilient defender, so I’d suggest that he would be much better suited to the sweeper role.

Having said all that, I’m not seeing enough from Ward or Hall to justify being selected by default for each game. If possible, I’d love to see us sign up a reasonably experienced centre back to provide some genuine competition, and to keep them both on their toes. Ward is widely perceived to be an essential team member because he is by far our oldest and most experienced player, but that alone is not enough and he needs to offer more than we are currently seeing. Extra cover would also enable Nathan Thompson to stick to what he does best. He did a decent job covering at centre back, but it isn’t his natural role, and he was sorely missed out wide. Barthram has shown some promise, but yesterday he spent too long hugging the touchline, looked isolated and had no tangible impact on the game at either end.

2.      The Midfield

This week we’ve all had a reality check where the midfield is concerned. In both games, our central three have looked outnumbered and have failed to offer either the attacking or defensive support to which we had become accustomed.

Perhaps there is some weariness. Yaser Kasim collected his fifth booking yesterday and is now suspended. With no midweek games imminent, he gets a two-week break, which may not be such a bad thing. After the Port Vale game, I would consider giving Luongo the same. Not only did many of our first teamers lack a proper pre-season but, for the majority, playing a competitive 90 minutes every Saturday and every other Tuesday is a very new concept.

We are now past September, in which we had Wolves one week, Bristol City the next and Chelsea the one after that, and adrenaline might have prevailed. Now, we have the drudgery of playing Walsall, Oldham and Port Vale, and a different set of attributes is required. We have reasonable depth in midfield; Ryan Harley is apparently close to fitness, and Louis Thompson and Lee Cox are both capable deputies. We need to start using them more.

3.       Tactics

This time last week there was a consensus, and understandably so, that the main way in which run-of-the-mill League One sides could beat Swindon would be to bully us off the park.

Neither Walsall nor Oldham could really be described as physical. And, although Oldham fully deserved their win, I wouldn’t call them a particularly good side either. The disturbing point is that both teams have managed to almost completely nullify Town, simply by instructing the midfield to sit deep, leaving very limited space in front of defence, and ensuring that they had nine or ten men behind the ball within a second or two of losing it. They also applied pressure to any Town midfielder who had possession.

And it worked. We still haven’t shown any concrete evidence of a “Plan B” to counteract these tactics. That isn’t good enough, and Cooper urgently needs to devise an alternative plan to cope with these scenarios. Otherwise, word as to how to nullify Swindon will rapidly spread throughout the division, and we could be in for a tough time. On a related note, we need to become much more adept at “nicking” results when we are not playing well. As a general rule, whenever we do play badly we lose, and, for as long as that remains the case, we will always run the risk of going on a damaging run of defeats.

I suppose it’s time for some perspective. Three months ago, a mere three weeks before the start of the season, the unfancied Cooper inherited a messy situation. In the meantime, he has made several excellent signings and implemented an attractive and effective playing style. We are 8th in the league, and have performed well in the cups. Since the departure of Andy Williams, we have scored against every opponent except Chelsea.

The downside for Cooper is that the secret is out; we have all witnessed the quality of our side, and have therefore rapidly (and understandably) overwritten all pre-season expectations. Port Vale next week is a big game. A team of this calibre shouldn’t lose three games in a row, and we need to make sure that it doesn’t.

See you there.

Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @adamtanner87 

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