Glovers burn the fingers of stone-cold Swindon

Adam Tanner visited the County Ground to witness the latest twist to an unpredictable season

Swindon Town went into the game looking for a third consecutive win. With a play-off place guaranteed, the intention was to keep alive slight hopes of automatic promotion. Yeovil Town had been relegated with four games to play, and had managed a measly two points and four goals from their last 11 away matches, stretching back to mid-December. Ideal opponents, surely? Mark Cooper settled for the same team which had stormed to victory at Rochdale in the week, with Yaser Kasim named as a substitute on his return from suspension.

The first 25 minutes were fine. Swindon dominated possession, and Yeovil didn’t threaten. Although clear chances were sparse, and too many set pieces were wasted, Town should certainly have taken the lead in the 19th minute. Nathan Byrne did well to reach a loose ball down the right ahead of the Yeovil keeper, who had dashed from his line in pursuit of it. Byrne’s cutback to an unmarked Jon Obika was perfect, but Obika hastily lashed a shot wide when there was really no excuse for missing the target. Ben Gladwin had a relatively quiet game, but he came closer to establishing a lead moments later when he found space for a curling right-footed shot from 20 yards. Unfortunately, it clipped the outside of the post, with the keeper beaten.

Things began to turn in the latter stages of the half. Swindon lost all attacking momentum, and play inevitably started to drift towards the other end. Jack Stephens, who was sloppy and casual all afternoon, carelessly conceded a corner, and from it Yeovil’s giant lone striker, Kieffer Moore, was left completely unmarked at the far post. Wes Foderingham made a strong flying save from his header, but things didn’t really improve, either before or after half-time.

As soon as the second half got underway, Nathan Thompson did well to win back possession just in time after more loose passing in dangerous areas had led to a Yeovil break. The visitors squandered a couple more chances, as might be expected of a team which had managed just 33 goals in 43 matches. However, they took the lead on 59 minutes when midfielder James Berrett drilled a low shot in at the near post from 20-yards.

Within moments, Swindon had two real chances to equalise. First, a close-range Massimo Luongo shot was blocked by a defender with the ‘keeper beaten. Next, a goalmouth scramble resulted in a firm Michael Smith shot, which crashed against the underside of the bar and was cleared. It looked as if the goal may have kicked Town into gear.

Unfortunately, although plenty of time remained, that was as good as it got, and the game gradually fizzled out, with very little to write about. Kasim hit a sweet free kick in the 96th minute, which drew a decent flying save… and served as a reminder that Town had barely tested the visiting ‘keeper all day. Very disappointing.

A post-mortem is certainly needed:

  1. The first goal

It’s interesting to note that we have won nine and lost five of our last 14 home games. We haven’t drawn one since Colchester visited in October. It’s even more interesting to note that, in each of those 14 games, the team to have scored first has gone on to win.

These stats capture Swindon in a nutshell. Of course, it isn’t all bad news. ‘Plan A’ is great, and, more often than not, it works a treat. One of the great attributes of Mark Cooper sides is their tendency to see out winning positions. That has not been a trait of Swindon teams with which I have grown up, and it’s great to finally have a side which has the confidence and composure to see the job through.

The trouble is, when things don’t go to plan, there simply isn’t a ‘Plan B’. There’s no middle ground. When we lose first blood, games routinely tend to slip away pretty tamely, even against very poor sides. There’s precious little urgency or tactical flexibility. And that isn’t good enough. Both players and management must share the blame for this.

  1. Team Selection

Ever since taking charge, I feel Cooper has tended to persevere too rigidly with a winning team. Whereas I fully respect the midweek win, Rochdale are clearly very different opponents to Yeovil. Yeovil were always likely to play a very defensive game, so surely the focus from the start should have been on breaking them down. If we had managed an early goal, we could well have been in for a comfortable afternoon.

Anton Rodgers is a very defensive midfielder who never shows any sign of playing a killer pass; he’s always eager to get rid of the ball, and quickly release it sideways or backwards. Kasim has his faults, but is an intelligent player who is capable of splitting a defence. He should have started the game.

I will save my detailed thoughts on the use of strikers for a separate article, suffice to say that Cooper has displayed a worrying habit of signing good ones, and watching them lash in the goals in the early stages, before we gradually see the confidence and ability drain out of them.

Dany N’Guessan, Michael Smith and Jon Obika are all examples. Jermaine Hylton scored a tidy winner last weekend, which suggested that he might act as a “wildcard” during the final few weeks. Therefore, when our poor form up front is factored in, it’s hard to explain why he has been given a grand total of four minutes during the subsequent two games. Instead, Andy Williams was unleashed yesterday for his customary stroll in the sunshine against his former club. “You only play for the money” sang the travelling fans. Since he has now managed two goals in 16 games (one of them a penalty), and has missed two penalties during the same period, it’s hard to see the logic in using him ahead of Hylton.

  1. The next few weeks

Town’s participation in the playoffs is now all but inevitable but, whereas most sides only have a couple of games remaining, we must cram four into the next fortnight. We have limped into the play-offs in poor form in each of 2004, 2010 and 2013, and have fallen short each time. History certainly suggests that momentum would be worth a lot, and we must simply try to win several of a reasonably winnable set of games. There’s little scope for rotation in such a small squad anyway, though the return of the reliable Jordan Turnbull on Tuesday will offer options at the back and, as suggested above, more action for the likes of Hylton would seem sensible.

Our play-off opponents look almost certain to be either Sheffield United or Chesterfield, and probably the former. There’s nothing to be scared of. Yes, we have a poor recent record at Bramall Lane, but they have won only 10 of their 22 home games so far; we have 11 wins from 21 away. They haven’t won at the County Ground in seven visits since 1994, we put five goals past them here this season, and they have never been promoted through the playoffs in seven attempts. Bring them on.

But we do need to get the basics right, as it would be a travesty to let such an unexpectedly great season cheaply slip away. Walsall may be stranded in 15th place, but they have lost one game in eight, have the fourth best defensive record in the division, and are unbeaten in their last three visits to Swindon. If we give them anything to defend on Tuesday, recent history suggests that it could be a long evening. If we start on the front foot, we might just see some of what we all know the team is capable, to rekindle a bit of excitement ahead of the play-offs.

See you there.

Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @adamtanner87

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