Raphael the Architect of Swindon’s Renaissance at Port Vale
Adam Tanner headed to the ‘Wembley of the North’ to watch Swindon beat Port Vale 1-0…
Although Swindon’s form on the road had been excellent until mid-January, with 27 points taken from 13 games, the four away matches since then had yielded just a single point. A trip to Port Vale seemed like an ideal opportunity to put things right. Town had won each of their last six matches against Vale, by an aggregate scoreline of 22-4. Mark Cooper named the same team that had beaten Notts County last weekend, which meant another outing for the lone-striker in a 3-6-1 formation.
The 593 travelling Swindon fans provided a “wall of colour” at the player’s entrance from the tunnel, with the balloons, streamers and banners organised by Jay Collett – the initiative returns for the City game in a few weeks.
Town’s start to the match was strong. Just seconds into the game, Ben Gladwin played Andy Williams through on goal. The lone striker shanked a poor shot well off-target, but fortunately Swindon only had to wait until the 8th minute to take the lead. Harry Toffolo whipped in a corner which was deflected on towards Raphael Rossi Branco. Vale had unwisely left the big defender unmarked in front of goal and he comfortably headed in his third of the season. Branco remains the only centre back to score for Town since Aden Flint, who left us nearly two years ago.
Swindon continued to dominate after the goal, and created several further chances before the 20-minute mark. Moments after the goal, Nathan Byrne got down the right wing and delivered an excellent ball towards the far post. Williams met it, unmarked, but looped a weak header well over the bar. Massimo Luongo, who has suddenly found form in front of goal, then hit a great strike after being found in space by John Swift, which the Vale ‘keeper did well to touch on to the post.
Midway through the half and a second Swindon goal was looking inevitable, but for some reason, Town’s performance suddenly dropped a few notches. The team stopped threatening and, although Vale struggled to create clear chances, they started to dominate possession. Swindon endured a couple of scares, including a sliced Jordan Turnbull clearance which drifted just over his own bar.
Half-time was welcome, but it didn’t change the flow of the game. Early in the second half, a long range Vale free kick hit the bar, with Foderingham beaten. Town needed to sacrifice some flair, so replacing Swift with Yaser Kasim was sensible, but that alone made little impact. In around the 65th minute, Swindon somehow avoided conceding from one of three close shaves inside a matter of seconds, as the ball pinged around our penalty area. Most notably, Foderingham made an excellent flying save low to his left to keep out a goalbound shot. Our keeper was back to his very best, with a faultless performance. He commanded his area brilliantly, claimed countless crosses with ease, and distributed the ball well.
Swindon’s fortunes improved drastically when Williams was replaced by Jon Obika. Obika was joined moments later by Michael Smith, and Swindon finally had some presence up front. This set the scene for a mad closing 20 minutes, in which Town regained their spark and gave as good as they got. The clearest chance came when a Vale attack failed, and Swindon quickly broke, with five players closing in on just two defenders. Kasim played a decent ball through to Ben Gladwin, but he bizarrely failed to shoot, allowing the keeper to smother the ball. Byrne and Branco also missed decent chances, though Vale continued to threaten in patches.
Six minutes of stoppage time came as no surprise; Nathan Thompson had suddenly collapsed on a couple of occasions when pressure began to increase, and hobbled off the pitch in apparent agony, but showed no ill-effects after play restarted. Our physio’s sponge really must be a magic one.
Town did a good job of keeping the majority of added time low key, but the final minute more than made up for it. First, Smith slammed a shot against the outside of the Vale post after Byrne had intelligently played him in. Seconds later, Jack Stephens was played in on goal, but his weak shot was saved. Finally, with time almost up, Vale’s Louis Dodds found space to take a shot which, thankfully, drifted narrowly wide of Foderingham’s far post. The final whistle was a welcome sound. It’s worth mentioning that the team was really well supported, and that the Loud and Proud day was definitely worthwhile.
Here are some thoughts:
- Defensive Set up
Town have now kept consecutive away clean sheets for the first time since November 2012. Factor in last Saturday’s equivalent at home, and it’s clear that we’ve found a reasonably happy combination at the back.
I like Branco. He has the occasional shocker, usually when faced with a quick opponent who likes to run at him with the ball. But aerially he is excellent, he does all of the dirty work effectively, and keeps things simple when in possession. He’s also a goal threat, and we are in no position to overlook those. He’s been a good signing. Jordan Turnbull is a safe bet, who has quietly played every minute of every match, rarely dropping below 7/10. For someone without any first team experience prior to joining, he has done extremely well and deserves great credit. I could think of worse shouts for Player of the Season.
Nathan Thompson can be error-prone, but he generally serves us well and his last-ditch defending can’t be faulted. Furthermore, Jack Stephens is definitely best used as a defensive midfielder. He is certainly the player best equipped to cover for Louis Thompson, and I think the absence of them both was the main factor behind the collapse against Gillingham. Let’s hope that we don’t lose any of these four players, to injury or suspension, during the remainder of the season. We seriously lack cover in the back half of the pitch.
- Attacking Form
Town have managed just three goals in the last five away matches; quite a contrast to 14 in the previous five.
The general form of the strikers is a concern. Obika hasn’t scored in over two months, though that’s unsurprising as he’s barely played. I can’t understand why he has featured so little. Michael Smith never short changes the team and has put in the odd good performance (such as at Scunthorpe). However two goals in three months is unimpressive and he’s definitely lacking in form and confidence.
Williams has scored 20 goals; a healthy number which deserves credit. But his form has dipped, and he has only 2 from the last 10 matches (one of them a penalty). I’m afraid I still feel short changed by him. How on earth can a 6’2’’ striker have failed to score a single goal from a corner or free kick, in 93 appearances for the club? Because he won’t put his body on the line and take the occasional whack for the team. Yes, he’ll chase the goalkeeper down over 40 yards, when he knows that no physical contact will be involved. But challenging a grizzled centre back for a header is a different kettle of fish. He’s done well but I’m convinced that with a different attitude he could have done so much better.
We now have just 10 games remaining. Bristol City’s promotion sadly looks inevitable, but it seems as if one of Swindon, Preston or MK Dons will take the second automatic spot.
MK have faded fast, and have taken only seven points from their last eight games. They have a tendency to blow their promotion chances in the latter part of the season, and are on course to do so again. Preston are in excellent form, and currently look most likely to finish second. However, their coming run of fixtures looks tricky; the next two are against the division’s most in-form sides (Peterborough and Barnsley). Our trip to Deepdale on 25 April (in the penultimate game) looks likely to be massive.
Now that the away form has taken another turn for the better, we are better placed to face a trip to Doncaster, where we have never managed to win. There’s no time like the present, and making a bit of history would suggest that we are hitting form again at just the right stage.
Photos and videos – courtesy @STFC007