Carlisle United 1-0 Swindon Town: ‘P’ word, what ‘P’ word..?

Adam Tanner headed north to Brunton Park, Carlisle to watch Swindon Town’s remaining promotion ambitions head south…

Approaching the game, the omens for Swindon were good. We were unbeaten at Carlisle United in our previous four visits, stretching back to 2007, and aiming for a fourth consecutive league win for the first time this season. By contrast, our opponents had managed just three goals and four points from their previous eight matches. Remarkably, each of their previous three home games had ended goalless. Only one change was made to the Swindon team that memorably beat Sheffield United last weekend, with Massimo Luongo replacing Ben Gladwin, who was joined on a strong looking bench by the likes of Alex Pritchard, Louis Thompson and Nathan Byrne. A 3-5-2 formation was used once again.

As their string of low scoring matches suggests, Carlisle set out with a rigid, defensive formation, and throughout the first half Town lacked the initiative to break them down. Some old demons reared their heads as our play was slow and directionless. We managed a grand total of one corner and zero shots on target during the half, and a couple of wayward 25-yard strikes were as good as it got; there really wasn’t much to write about. Whereas they were far from rampant themselves, the hosts clearly had the better of the half. Wes Foderingham made a point-blank reaction save from a close-range Gary Madine header from a corner; much like last weekend, some of Town’s marking from set-pieces had not been good enough, but as usual Foderingham’s reflexes were faultless.

Swindon could have no complaints when Carlisle took the lead after 37 minutes. With Alex Smith upfield, Carlisle broke down our left. Luongo missed a chance to intercept, and the ball was eventually worked inside for Madine, who had enough time and space inside the area to pick his spot and calmly finish.

Alex Pritchard replaced the ineffective Lee Cox at half time, and the change contributed towards a definite improvement during the early stages of the second half. Within moments of the restart Pritchard drew a foul; Alex Smith hit a fair effort direct from the resulting free kick, which Carlisle ‘keeper Pickford pushed behind from a corner. Minutes later, Pritchard played in Michael Smith, who closed in on goal but placed his shot too centrally and at a comfortable height for Pickford, who easily pushed it away. Next, Pritchard took control of a loose ball on the run and scurried into the Carlisle area, but, with Smith unmarked in support, Pritchard hit a tame effort straight at the keeper. Troy Archibald-Henville also headed a decent chance over after Jay McEveley had kept a corner in play at the far post.

Sadly, that lively 20-minute spell was really as good as it got for Swindon, and the remainder of the second half had more in common with the first, as Town struggled to break down their hosts. The final 25 minutes were disappointing, with no serious chances created. Carlisle did very little going forward, but they had done enough, and the dismissal of James Berrett for a second booking deep into injury time was irrelevant.

So there we go. In a nutshell, 39 points from 20 home games represents promotion-winning form, but 18 points from 21 away games doesn’t, and, as a result, we look set to go nowhere.

Here’s the post-mortem:

  1. Central Midfield

Ironically, I think that Louis Thompson’s winner last weekend might have cost him a place in the team. Following the goal, I suspect Mark Cooper may not have wanted to change a winning team too extensively, but, crucially, we were away from home yesterday. We have now lost one of the last nine away games that Thompson has started… and seven of the last eight that he hasn’t started. His style of play and attributes make him perfectly suited to playing away, we do not have an equivalent to him in the squad, and I don’t understand why he would be left out of an away game when fit. Perhaps his age makes him an easy target.

Maybe the one change that Cooper did make didn’t help the cause. Massimo Luongo is one of my favourites. But his recent form has been poor, and yesterday’s display really wasn’t good enough; in fact, it was a relief to see him substituted. His recent performances have certainly not been of World Cup calibre. Maybe it’s too late now, but I think that, for a while, he’s needed to be dropped. Yes, he’s been rested / left out due to injury, but I think he’s needed a bit of a rocket. He has been allowed to take his place in the side for granted for too long, and sadly both he and the team have suffered for it.

Luongo’s dip in form might not be entirely his fault. Maybe playing 50+ games in a season just represents too much, too soon. But something isn’t right. We paid big money for him, and I want and expect to see better from him in August. Much better. In the meantime, maybe Ben Gladwin should be recalled; his strong passing range, high-tempo style and physical presence all represent qualities that our other central midfielders do not share.

  1. Alex Smith

Smith deserves a mention as he was probably our best player on the day. He worked hard, found a bit of space down the left, and delivered a few decent balls in, although the Carlisle goal did come from his side. He has done well to complete four full matches, in a demanding wing-back position, on the back of having not played at all for almost six months. I can’t imagine that he breaks the bank and, at this stage, I would seriously consider keeping him on for next season.

  1. Transfer Policy

With playoff prospects now all but gone, I feel we can now think ahead when selecting teams. I have no issue with Lee Cox, but if we are looking at a squad of 20 for next season, and Luongo, Kasim, Thompson, Gladwin and Harley are all contracted to us, I can’t see how we can entertain thoughts of keeping a sixth central midfielder, let alone one who was effectively frozen out for over two years until a fortnight ago. I don’t feel that Cox should play for us again.

In terms of incomings, I would like to see more natural width added to the squad. Cooper’s transfer record has generally been pretty good, but not in wide areas. Signings such as Tijane Reis and Jacob Murphy have done very little for us, and the absence of wingers can make changing games that aren’t going to plan very difficult. If the tools had been available yesterday to switch to a 4-4-2 and really stretch Carlisle by adding a bit more skill and/or raw pace, the closing stages might have been a bit more interesting. Although each of our three senior strikers are capable in their own ways, I would also like to add a sniffer, Nicky Ajose-style. Both Michael Smith and Miles Storey still lack the tools to be prolific at this level, and Nile Ranger… is Nile Ranger.

Let’s hope that the remaining five games offer a firmer idea as to which out of contract players are worth keeping, and that we can go on to manage the top-ten finish that our performances across the season fully deserve.

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