Clean and Tidy: Can Town’s great defence earn them promotion?

Bernt V. Heiseldal digs deep into the numbers to prove if Swindon Town can win a top-two spot…

As the race for automatic promotion looks to be decided between four teams with Swindon among them, I’ve broken down some of the numbers to see if there is any hope for a top-two position in May. Compared to last season, there are several factors that are promising, not only the league position. As I wrote in an article at the same time last year, Swindon should strengthen the defence as keeping a clean sheet (CS) is much more important than scoring a goal. And they certainly have done so.

When writing this article, the transfer window has just closed, so I would say that the most important factors this time has been not selling Wes Foderingham or Nathan Thompson and extend the loan for Jack Stephens. The statistic will show why this is so important.

Halfway through the campaign, (the home game against Port Vale being the 23rd match), Foderingham have eight times applauded the fans after the game without conceding a goal. Compared to the other three promotion rivals, this is not very impressive. Bristol City have managed only seven clean sheets while MK Dons and Preston NE a massive 11. Five of Swindon’s clean sheets have been at home and three away. Swindon have won all of the matches in which they have achieved a CS. The figure below shows the average points gained when scoring goals and keeping a CS. A 2-0 win will count in two times in the statistic.

Chart 1

As we see, scoring one goal only generates two points in average and doubling this number to two goals actually generates fewer points in average, only 1.88 points. Breaking it down to home and away, it looks like this:

Chart 2 and 3

Scoring two goals at home gives us only 1.25 points in average. Swindon have scored two goals at home in four matches and won only one of them (2-0 vs Crewe). Away from home, they have scored one goal on two occasions and managed one draw, but scoring two or more goals eight times and winning seven of these matches.

For all of these, it is very clear that not conceding is highly valuable and that Swindon enjoy scoring goals away from home. The manager and the players have said that it is often easier to play away from home as they are more space to play as the opposition is more offensively minded at home than when travelling to the County Ground. The results away from home are also very impressive as Swindon are top three in the football league regarding away results.

I have used the statistics from BBC for the Swindon matches for the next chapter. Looking further at the young defence and goalkeeper with an average age of 22.5 (Foderingham, Stephens, N.Thompson and Turnbull), they are very impressive in not allowing the opposition take a shot at goal. On average, Swindon have faced 12.65 shots and 5.74 shots on target per match, and the opposition have only managed eight shots and 3.48 on target. Splitting this into home and away, it makes impressive reading; away from fortress County Ground, the home team only managed 9.9 shots and 3.82 on target in average.

At County Ground, the opposition made 6.25 shots and 3.17 on target. The midfield should also be praised as they have either managed to break the attack or force the opposition to make inaccurate crossings or passing leaving it easy for the defence and ‘keeper to clear the danger.

Chart 4 and 5

The defence struggled at the start of the season with the relatively new formation with three at the back and Nathan Thompson is the leading player regarding collecting cards. Too often he had to hurry back to stop the striker who had got behind the defence after a long pass, resulting in yellow cards and sending offs. For the first part of the season, the cards were mostly received by the defenders, but around a quarter into the season; it has turned to midfielders and strikers. As I don’t attend all matches (difficult being a Norwegian supporter), I can’t state for sure the reason, but rather speculate that the team is working as a unit in winning the ball back further up the pitch.

Mark Cooper has also said during interviews that the team had to adjust at home to other teams that are more defensive and focuses on counter attacks. The precise long pass behind the back three is now more an inaccurate long ball because of the midfield and strikers pressing the player with the ball, or Gegenpressing as Jürgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund calls it. Is Mark Cooper turning into a mixture of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola? Meaning patient with the ball and applying high pressing to win it back.

Bear with me for some more positive statistics; Swindon have won an average fouls 8.78 times per match and the opposition 12.43. We know that the team who has the ball will not concede a goal and the team without the ball needs to get it back in able to score. On average, Swindon have the ball 58.65% of the time and the opposition 41.35%. But still, the opposition tackles more to win the ball than Swindon have to. Lots of people like to see a sliding tackle or a players dashing into a duel for the ball. But ask yourself, who would you prefer to have on your team; Colin Hendry of Paolo Maldini? I have chosen these two opposites of defenders. Hendry was famous for his last-ditch tackles and dogged style. Maldini barely made a sliding tackle in his entire career and his white shorts were still white after the match as he would stop a potential dangerous situation long before it happened. Or to put it into a more local comparison: is Nathan Thompson turning into a new Glenn Hoddle with Foderingham, Stephens and Turnbull being the incarnation of Digby, Taylor and Calderwood?

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* Statistics are prior to the Barnsley match

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