How do you judge Swindon’s manager Mark Cooper?

With players signed by a director of football, a team shaped by his predecessor and defined by loanees, Mark Cooper seemingly has little freedom to manage, so how can we how well he is doing? By Alex Cooke.

Do you judge Swindon manager Mark Cooper? By his team’s 7th place in League One? By his 47% of matches won in the league? By the shameful FA Cup defeat by Macclesfield or the exhilarating win away at QPR? By the team’s beautiful passing football or by its defensive calamities? Or, by the squad’s relatively stability in spite of Nile Ranger, Lee Power and Jed McCrory?

Like no previous Swindon manager before, Mark Cooper is bound by the decisions of others – above him and prior to him. So how can any objective judgement be reached without know where responsibility truly lies?

Thirty years ago it was easier. Managers were responsible for everything from scouting and strategy to transfers to leading training. Each and every manager could be judged on players signed and sold, deals done and wins gained. Since then football has specialised, globalised and professionalised. No longer can one man perform every role and so responsibility has become shared between directors of football, chairmen, coaches and even agents.

In Swindon’s case it seems that new chairman Lee Power has a significant input in playing staff and deciding a playing style which gives “young, technical players (who might struggle in other sides at our level) a chance to shine”. Power has also taken a significant role in creating a squad strong in midfield creativity but weak in experience and defensive areas. What we don’t know if this imbalance is intentional, after all expansive, attacking players demand higher sell-on fees than defenders, but also Cooper and Kevin MacDonald could have requested, or supported, this inequality.

Further complication is provided by the relationship with Spurs and the way that Cooper even got the job. For he inherited a half-built, (almost) fowardless squad when MacDonald unexpectedly quit almost on the eve of the league season. Talk about blurred lines of accountability.

It should be easier to judge Cooper by the objectives set for him, except even these are muddied. Former chairman Jed McCory claimed the objective had to be a tilt at promotion when the season began, but Cooper recently said that the former board had given him the objective to merely survival in League One.

Di Canio versus Cooper

So far he is on course to deliver both, particularly as his record is comparable to Paolo Di Canio’s for the same period: after 19 league games, Cooper’s men are one league place and two points worse off than the Italian’s more expensively assembled team.

Which, accepting the correlation between wages and league placing presented in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book Soccernomics, indicates that Cooper seems to be operating above what could be expected by the financial situation. After all if Swindon’s wages have truly been reduced by more than one quarter then almost matching what came before is exceptional.

It isn’t only the signing or sale of players which can’t be used as an indicator of Cooper’s ability – it is also his staff. First-team coach Luke Williams regularly receives public praise from players and press alike, and while it seems likely that Cooper should take much of the credit for bringing in the Brighton man so swiftly between KMac’s resignation and pre-season tour, but we can’t be certain.

What seems clearer is that Cooper has created an environment in which his players, especially the younger ones, feel supported. Wes Foderingham recently described him as “a bit more understanding” than those who came before while Jay McEverley told the Adver how the manager allows him they are all “expressing their talents.” He went further, “They don’t need to be thinking ‘if I do this or I do this the manager’s going to be screaming at me or the manager’s going to drop me the next game’.

Man management

It is a clear sign of Cooper’s measured nature, and perhaps modesty, that he is yet to attribute blame to individuals. He has frequently spoken of how little value he sees on doing so. Instead he either generalises criticism to a unit of the team or praises his young charges for their fortitude and resilience rather than publicly chastise.

Clearly Nile Ranger has tested this resolve but rather than seeing it as a failing of Cooper’s to keep the striker in order, it could easily be seen as to Cooper’s credit that Ranger has actually managed 11 first-team starts at Swindon when his previous career high was a mere seven.

The style and elegance with which Cooper’s team plays is also of huge credit to him. While it might frustrate some fans, it suits his players allowing their courage and creativity to flourish against larger and more experienced opponents. And for those who throw accusations of sterile domination (‘tippy-tappy passing’ in their own half), Swindon’s position as third highest scorers in League One provides evidence that they aren’t playing it safe.

Form and formations

Cooper’s use of shape and evolving formations have been hugely flexible, bold and, for some, even educational. Each has also proven how he has acknowledged his hands are tied, adjusting formation since he can’t change personnel.

Cooper has played a huge variety of systems, from the radical 4-6-0 and an experimental 3-5-2 all the way to an orthodox 4-4-2 diamond, sometimes in the same game. And while Massimo Luongo admitted that even the former Spurs academy players were unfamiliar with some systems, none have looked underprepared or ill-planned, even if the final result hasn’t always been as desired.

Perhaps most importantly the team’s intention is always clear. So while we can’t know what the players have been told to do and of they are delivering Cooper’s ideas, we can see that the team play with purpose and direction. They seem to know what they should be doing – even if they haven’t always executed that plan perfectly.

What makes this more remarkable is that 11 players have arrived at Swindon since Cooper took over in mid-July, and plenty more have left. While such a turnover has been used as an excuse for Spurs and Sunderland’s performances, for Swindon the vast majority have been integrated neatly into the team, including eliciting performances of endeavour from the loanees – and if they don’t perform, such as Alex Pritchard didn’t against Walsall, dropping them.

The final testament to Cooper’s burgeoning managerial reputation has to be his ability to unite and to soothe. So far he has united his players, despite the distraction of the boardroom struggle and the internal disruption of Ranger’s refusal to train. Both could have been, and could yet be, damaging to the squad’s moral and to motivation – and yet neither seems to have affected performances.

Cooper’s future seems secure with Power commenting that Cooper and Williams, “have implemented what we have asked fantastically well”. However, as Power’s elevation to chairman and owner will change the relationship somewhat. With Power unlikely to sack himself, there is one key area of responsibility will rest solely with Cooper, making him more aware than ever of John Kennedy’s maxim that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.

How do you rate Mark Cooper? Is he doing well as Swindon boss in a difficult position or do you think that someone else could get more out of this talented team? Comment and vote below.

5 comments

  • Why are we still mentioning Paulo in this vote???? We played some real dross under him too and on a massive playing budget. Just remember that when the going got tough, he walked!!!!!

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    • I mentioned him as some do seem to miss his more direct style of play – you can hear them shouting ‘forward’ or ‘get it in the box’ or ‘berate your players by name in public in the post-match interviews’.

      Should add this here – a link to the fans’ phone-in from Monday night. Took me some time to find it, and two different devices to get it to play.
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01n2fm9

      Like

  • An other interesting thing this season is the average age of the players. A you mention, according to the brilliant book “Soccernomics”, Cooper has overachieved regarding the wages. The authors of the book thinks that higher wages = better results. They also state that experience is very important. Maybe more important at a higher level then L1 (e.g. Champions League or World Cup og Euro Cup), but still worth looking into.

    Looking at Swindon’s last season, the most used players (13 players with more than 20 matches each) had an average age of 25,15. This season, 14 players have played more than 10 matches (I included all competitions to use 10 as a limit) and their average age is 22,64.

    Yeovil got promoted last sesong with a small budget. Looking at their players, their 10 most used players had an average age of 25,73. Not that old maybe and they were a surprise when they got promoted through the play-offs.
    But looking at the two teams that got promoted directly, Doncaster had an average age (most used players) of 27,46 and Bournemouth 26,00. Now we are talking experienced players.

    Age doesn’t always equal experience. The number of matches each player has played on which level is a larger investigatement that I haven’t done here. But at a lower level as L1, age does normally tell something about the number of matches played through the player’s career.

    Based on this I would say that the Swindon have achieved more this season so far than expected when looking at two of the factors age and wages.

    For further reading, I would recommend this interesting article about age and experience in the last four World cups: http://espnfc.com/world-cup/story/_/page/worldcup101-04192010/ce/us/does-experience-matter&cc=5739?ver=global

    Like

    • Wonderful point about not only age but also games played – partic as Hall, Kasim, Bartram have been the most erratic where other young players, such as Thompson have been more stable.

      Prior to the season, I did write something on the age if the squad – https://thewashbag.com/2013/07/22/too-much-too-young-will-towns-youngest-team-in-30-years-fade-or-thrive/ – and found little obvious connection between age and performance, although I lack the skill to analysis properly. And the team has changed hugely – getting even younger probably!

      It is something which has to be added to Cooper’s list of achievements to guide so many through their debuts – and perhaps to do so again after Christmas if Pritchard and Wes go…

      Like

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