5 ways Swindon need to improve their defence in a 352 formation

After defeats against Walsall and Oldham, Swindon manager Mark Cooper needs to tighten up his new defensive system. By Alex Cooke.

It was a simple, but brave, solution. Swindon were conceding too often and so manager Mark Cooper added an extra defender to the back four. However, the switch of systems to 352 from 433 seems to have created as many problems as it solved.

It had all started so brightly. Against Rotherham, the change to a back three was the foundation of a resolute, if fortunate, defensive performance fused with an incisive counter attack. Since then a weak Notts County side folded with little threat, but a very good Walsall team tore Town open.

Last Saturday, the match against Oldham was a less one-sided, however, Swindon again failed to create chances or control the game. So, how can Town tighten up this new defensive system, and their recent patchy results?

1. Close the lines

Since the change of formation, Town’s defence have become deeper. This might be to counter the lack of pace within the three, but it is opening up bigger and bigger gaps between the lines, giving the opposition more room to play in. The midfield are now further away from the defensive trio, both preventing Yasser Kasim and Massimo Luongo shielding them properly or passing easily between them.

Alex Pritchard has become the sole link man, isolated behind the front two, making it too easy for the opposition’s midfield to keep him quiet. He also drifts left wide too frequently.

2. Get the central defence, central

Since the adoption of the new formation, McEverley has been playing more as a left-back who stays in line with the centre-backs than a third central defender. This leaves Grant Hall, as the right-sided defender, with a disproportionate large expanse of the pitch to cover on that side. This invites smarter, quicker teams to run, or pass, into this space, just as Walsall did three or four times in the opening ten minutes.

This doesn’t mean that Darren Ward should be playing as a sweeper, requiring that he step forward, creating and passing out from the back. Instead, as Stuart Pearce explains in this video, the central position can be held by the least mobile defender. Instead, the central defence remains almost ‘flat’ dropping into a triangle only when the ball is central.

This lop-sided shape also distorts the position of those flanking the
defence; Nathan Byrne and Nathan Thompson. Byrne knows that he has McEverley covering behind him and so is free to push further up-field to engage the opposition winger, pushing him back. On the other side, it leaves Thompson with a real problem…

3. Support Nathan Thompson

Swindon’s right-back is a stalwart of the side, a rough, tough, energetic defender of some talent, but he is not the re-incarnation of Brazil’s Cafu. With the space behind him and no support in front, he has an almost impossible task. No longer does he have space to run into and a wide forward up ahead to link with, now he is given the ball when stationary as if he was a winger, and expected to take on his man.

Either the ball needs to be worked across from the left flank, with the opposition drawn, and Thompson released on the overlap, or Alex Pritchard needs to start working on the right flank as well as the left.

4 Start passing and moving again

As mentioned previously, 352 and 3412 do suffer from often being reactive formations, designed to stop the opposition playing rather than impose yourself on the opposition. Swindon seem to have taken that to heart by stopping the movement and passing which once allowed them to dominate.

It might be tiredness as Luongo suggested, but it isn’t helped as the formation has cut down the passing options. Not only has only player moved back from a wide position into a deep defensive one but with a defensive three not a spread two, one passing option has effectively gone. After all Ward’s position when the midfield has the ball is the same as than Wes Foderingham, just slightly further forward.

However, having two forwards does facilitates a more direct style of play as quicker passes can be hit behind the opposition’s line for the swift Nicky Ajose to run on to or held up by Nile Ranger.

5. Re-start the pressing game 

At the start of the season one of the strongest elements of Town’s game was their ability to press and harass the opposition when they had the ball. Teams were stopped playing their own game as the wide forwards closed down the full-backs and Swindon’s full-backs stopped the wingers turning. Now, Town stand off and close individually. This does seem to be partly due to the formation as there is no way that the wing-backs can press, not without leaving even bigger gaps behind them.

What would you do to improve Town’s game? Keep the system or change the shape? Will Town get better with three at the back or is it time to revert to a back four?

Empty your synapses in the comment field below and we’ll be discussing this this week’s PODCAST which will be available to download on Sunday.


  • Ok but we’ve won and lost plenty of games whatever formation we’ve played. I don’t mind if we start with something, it doesn’t work and we change it. I do mind if we start with something, it doesn’t work… and Cooper does nothing to change it. Don’t know if you were at Oldham but that’s exactly what happened. They are obviously a poor team and a simple change could have made a big difference.


    • I wasn’t there but felt the same against Walsall. But Cooper does seem determined to stick with the 352 – even if he has changed from a 433 to a 442 before – but perhaps this is the best way to get it to bed in.


    • I didn’t go, but hearing that there was just one substitution at Oldham, and after 75 minutes, was disappointing. However, the bench that day wasn’t the strongest. What changes would you have made then?


      • I think we have a decent range of attacking options. Just for example we could have taken off a central midfielder and gone 4-4-2 with Byrne left back, Pritchard and N’Guessan out wide, Ranger and Ajose up front. Or 4-3-3. I don’t understand why we suddenly have to play 3-5-2 at all costs – it’s not as if we were losing every week or playing badly before. Have it as an option, yes, but don’t just blindly stick to it when it blatantly isn’t working. I think Cooper has to take most of the blame.


  • With Kassim unavailable this week, it would be a great opportunity to employ a standard 4-4-2 formation with Luongo and Mason being the centre two, and Pritchard and Byrne out wide. Kassim was a pivotal player earlier in the season, but with the new system he has lost his effectiveness. Saturday would be a great opportunity to show that we can play well without him.


    • Would that be with N’Guessan or Ajose up top? I’m taking Ranger as a given.


      • Good question – there’s also El Gabbas to consider, and yes, I was taking Ranger as a given. I guess it’s up to the management to decide, based on the opposition defence, whether we’d be better off with a small nippy forward playing off Ranger, or someone with the strength and size of N’Guessan. Whichever we opt for, we have the opportunity to change it if its not working.


  • That Vale game was better, wasn’t it? Mason added some fantastic passing and passing options, keeping the ball moving at all times and the energy was back elsewhere.

    The pressing, while not as intense as a MKDonalds, was certainly back, particularly in the middle where Luongo closed with great intensity.

    N’Guessan and Ranger worked the width of the pitch, and Pritchard even turned up on the right flank once.

    Vale playing two up top played straight into Town’s hands with the spare man in the three, especially as they so rarely pulled in one of their wide men to go into the ‘pocket’ in front of the defence. Hence not really missing Kasim’s defensive ability..

    Not sure what happened in the second half though, when McEverley seemed to be front sweeping the defence – although it did appear less lop-sided than before.

    Reblogged this on stfconly's Blog.


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