Sheffield Utd 1-0 Swindon Town: The Blades stick the knife in…

Adam Tanner travelled up to Bramall Lane in hope of some early festive cheer, only to witness Swindon Town’s attacking instincts going cold turkey…

In terms of personnel, Mark Cooper made only one change from the previous league game against Carlisle United, replacing Ryan Harley with Ryan Mason. In terms of formation and style, things weren’t quite so similar and, for most of the game, Town persevered with the 4-6-0 that had been used at Colchester United and Crawley Town. More on that later.

The first half was reasonably low-key. Sheffield United posed a regular threat down their left side, but failed to seriously threaten Wes Foderingham. A close-range free-kick that Grant Hall deflected over his own bar was really as close as they came. Town grew into the match and ended the half on-top. On 38 minutes, Nicky Ajose intercepted a weak clearance from United ‘keeper George Long in mid-air, before bearing down on goal and firing in a crisp low shot – that Long pushed away to his right. Mason then fired a firm shot from 18-yards straight at Long. On the stroke of half time, Mason was hauled down as he prepared to shoot 20 yards out. Afterwards it was disappointing to see Alex Pritchard strike the wall with his free kick. There was just about time for the corner to be taken, from which Hall hooked a decent improvised effort narrowly over the bar.

I was reasonably happy at half time. Town had given nothing away, frustrated the hosts and their fans, and begun to force them into errors. Time then to use that as a basis on which to come out after half time and really show our superiority.

The decision to replace Nathan Thompson with Nathan Byrne shortly after the break seemed a sensible one. For the second consecutive season, winger Jamie Murphy had given Thompson a hard time. He had been booked and was being deliberately exploited; a second yellow could very feasibly have followed. I’m a great Thompson fan, but he doesn’t look himself at the moment. I don’t know whether he isn’t fully fit, or whether it’s just a spell of poor form. He’ll be fine; he has all of the mental and physical attributes needed to play through it.

Unfortunately Town began the second half very weakly, and it soon seemed only a matter of time before they would concede. First, the dangerous Jose Baxter charged forward and drew a decent save out of Foderingham. Shortly afterwards a Chris Porter shot deflected onto the woodwork after Town failed to clear a corner. United continued to do all of the pressing and, eventually, the inevitable goal arrived when a high cross from the left was headed back across goal, and the 5 foot 9 inch Baxter easily outjumped the increasingly cumbersome Darren Ward to head home.

Over to Town to respond and rescue the game. First, Ryan Harley replaced Yaser Kasim, and shortly afterwards Dany N’Guessan came on for Louis Thompson who, as ever, had worked extremely hard and added some brawn to the brains in Town’s midfield.

On paper the changes made sense, but in practice they achieved little. Harley’s vision and composure on the ball were needed to break down a resolute defence, so it was surprising to see him stuck in central defence. This resulted in Jay McEveley and Nathan Byrne being pushed further forward; and he was anonymous as a result. Meanwhile N’Guessan played a wide role when his presence was actually needed up front, and he also offered nothing of note.

The game fizzled out and tame long-range efforts from Pritchard and Massimo Luongo were about all that Town offered in the 25 minutes that they had to save the game. Understandably, the travelling fans became frustrated. Chants of “Let’s pretend we’ve had a shot”, followed by an emphatic “oooh”, raised more smiles than the football did. In the end, Town were well beaten.

Here are my thoughts:

1.      Recovering from Losing Positions

On 2nd March, just hours after Town’s new management team of Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cooper had arrived, the team deservedly came from behind to win 2-1 at Coventry City. Since then, Town have played 16 regular away league games. They have fallen behind at some stage in 11 of them… and gone on to lose all 11.

That clearly isn’t good enough. We have a reasonably sized squad and a few feasible attacking options, but we tend to look completely devoid of ideas when chasing a game. In each of the last two away league defeats, yesterday and at Oldham Athletic, we have only been one goal down with 15 minutes to play, but have barely made our opponents sweat in the closing stages. The recent home defeats to Walsall and Leyton Orient took a similar theme; in both games, Town looked beaten after an hour.

2.      Choice of Tactics

Four weeks ago we played Colchester on the back of two dreadful away performances – at Oldham and Macclesfield Town. The team was clearly low on confidence, leaking goals both home and away, so a 4-6-0 formation was understandable. It took Colchester completely by surprise, they had little idea as to how to respond, and it worked well on the day.

Since then, we have effectively played the same formation at both Crawley and Sheffield United. I can’t escape the conclusion that we have done so not because it suits our game, or exploits our opponents’ weaknesses… but simply because it worked out a few weeks ago. A glance at the table shows that those two opponents are among the division’s three lowest scoring teams, so we have to query whether it was worth showing them so much respect.

It repeats a pattern that we saw earlier in the season. Cooper switched to a 3-5-2 for the Rotherham game which, of course, we won handsomely. So we automatically persevered with it for the Oldham and Macclesfield matches, despite the fact that we did not really have the personnel available to make it work (in those defeats, Jack Barthram and Massimo Luongo respectively were pressed into wing back roles that really do not suit them). Tactical versatility is, of course, a great asset, but we need to see more evidence of systems being tailored to suit particular matches and scenarios, rather than just being used by default.

3.      Entertainment Value

This is perhaps a secondary point but… I, like most fans, work hard all week, and view football as a treat of sorts at the end of it. Watching Town resort to tedious, turgid tactics in the hope of grinding out a 0-0 is not my idea of fun. We have managed three shots on target and no goals, in our last two away games combined. That is not a stat that should be associated with a team of this calibre and supporters deserve better.

Whereas we have an adequate defence, this team’s main strengths are clearly in the front half of the pitch. We have scored 24 times in ten home league games. I totally accept that we are not going to be nearly as prolific away from home, but I find it difficult to accept that we can go away and barely manage a shot on goal in 90 minutes; especially against teams who are well behind us in the table.

The next three league games are against the only sides that we have not yet played – Coventry City, Brentford and Bradford City. We have taken only seven points from the eight top half teams we have played so far. If we want to keep our place among these sides, we will need to start holding our own against them more regularly. The latter two games will be away from home, and the approach to them will be interesting. This team is too good to start playing with an inferiority complex every other week, and I feel it’s important that we begin to strike more of a balance. We started the season losing away games because of our very attacking style, and we are now losing them because of our very defensive style. Of course, there’s a pretty substantial middle ground between the two extremes, and that’s what we need to start finding more often.

In the meantime, the Coventry game next weekend should be a cracker. See you there.

Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @adamtanner87 

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