1, 2, 3, 4, 5 defence is working overtime

Alex Cooke looks at how Swindon’s 3-5-2 is shaping up.

Suddenly 3-5-2 is fashionable. With Manchester United struggling, everyone is suddenly keen to talk about three at the back, and closer to home, to compare Mark Cooper’s use of it with Louis Van Gaal’s.

But Cooper’s 3-5-2 is slightly different to the one used at Old Trafford, and for Holland – despite similar origins. Both stem from March last year, two defeats and the same weaknesses. In the same month, Swindon lost heavily to Wolves and Holland went down 2-0 in France. Both managers seemed to see that their defenders were struggling 1v1 but quick, adaptable and young. Well, Town’s were once Darren Ward was dropped …

The system still seems to cause suspicion though, and perhaps with some reason. The national teams’s use of three at the back has been patchy. Steve McClaren’s 3-5-2 against Croatia in Zagreb still rightly sends a chill down the spine, even Terry Venables used it for just 45 minutes of Euro ‘96. And when Bobby Robson picked a back three in 1990 against West Germany he was still publicly defending 4-4-2 to the press mere hours before.

So it isn’t a surprise than many Town fans seem unsettled already by Mark Cooper’s sudden conversion to three at the back. Especially as the last Town players to use it really well were Glen Hoddle, Ian Culverhouse and Stefani Migloranzi (just once). But this team is different…

Swindon’s back three – without the ball
Obviously this trio hasn’t been perfect – at times it has been a very wobbly line rather than a shallow v and the covering has been sloppy – but other elements have impressed. The trio have largely maintained their discipline, refusing to be drawn into rushes into midfield without cover. They’ve also managed not to be pulled too far apart, avoiding leaving gaps either down the middle, or on the flanks.

Swindon’s back three – on the ball
The trio have also fanned out well, making sure that the full width of the pitch is used and both wing-backs can be pushed high up. In the picture below, Brad Smith can be seen on the half-way line but Nathan Byrne has joined the forward line, ready for the diagonal ball over the top. Hardly tippy-tappy stuff.
Swindon back 5 v Scunny
Each of the three defenders is also relatively comfortable on the ball, and rotating it quickly between themselves. This is vital as Crewe attempted to pressure the trio early on and while Raphael Rossi-Branco struggled, the others (and Yaser Kasim) always gave him a simple option. Interestingly during the first twenty minutes against Scunthorpe, when the Iron started with a 4-5-1, Kasim was also happy to drop into the middle of the back three, creating a flat four to pick up the runners from midfield.

Key to making this, and the whole system work are these ‘free men’ those who are unmarked. Kasim is a natural in this position and at making space for himself. Even when Crewe tried to press him by putting their nearest midfielder in as a marker, his tricks and technique created the space to pass them and begin attacks. Nathan Thompson is also able to step out with the ball and, if not pressured, advance into midfield, often swapping with Kasim.

The other ‘free man’ (and one who is free in every game) is the ‘keeper. And it was noticeable that against Scunthorpe that Nathan Thompson in particular was happy to use Wes Foderingham for wall passes. This works because the goalkeeper is effectively impossible to press. So, unless the opposition press all across the backline, he can play a simple pass to any of the centre backs and get it back. And if they do press that hard, he can go over the top.

Swindon’s back five – with the ball
With Town dominating possession, as the system demands, Byrne and Brad Smith have a lot of freedom to the opposition’s wide midfielders into high positions and get alongside Town’s own front two. This gives Kasim two great outlets but with Andy Williams running beyond the line it also makes space for Massimo Lunongo and one of the forwards to drop into the hole in front of the defence.

Swindon’s back five without the ball
The widely acknowledge weakness of the system is the narrowness of the three defensively, but with the middle trio marking zonally, Swindon’s wing-backs work as man-makers following runners back into these gaps.
Swindon back 5 against Scunthorpe
Under the system Van Gaal used at Ajax, these runners often had to be picked up by the central midfielders, leaving the wing-backs to play just as wingers. Not so at Swindon. By using players who have played as both full-backs and wingers, they are able to fill in on the back post as required.

What hasn’t been seen yet is how Town’s defence will cope with an aggressive 4-3-3: Like many teams to face Swindon, Crewe changed their system and Scunthorpe’s late try was halfheartedly.

Mexico back 5 One method might be to drop the wing-back on the far side into the defensive line while the one closest to the ball stays with the midfield – effectively making a temporary 4-4-2. With the nearside centre back closing the ball, it leaves a spare man in the middle covering the lone striker and a marker on the back post with the winger. When the ball is cleared, the shape returns to a 3-5-2 and when the ball comes on the other flank, the four reform from the five – like a Newton’s cradle. It is a method sometimes known as a ‘pendulating back four’ and it was used by Mexico in the last World Cup.

Swindon’s back three – the future
Clearly progress is being made with Town’s back three. Nathan Thompson looks more focused and more controlled than any season before. The addition of Branco instead of Josh Lelan has given the trio greater height and power but at a slight cost to the mobility of the trio.

There was also a noticeable difference in the amount of pressing going on in midfield between Scunthorpe and Crewe, so preventing the opposition having time to play balls behind. However, there does still seem to be a problem on transition, when an attack breaks down such as at Crawley. And, before tonight’s visit of Brighton, Town are still yet to face a truly potent, wide attack. And if that test it passed, perhaps it will be Van Gaal who will be compared to Cooper.

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