#18 The Tedium is Over, Let Battle Commence


windon supporters ought to feel confident going into the play-offs.  The players will be fresh, the squad will be injury free, bar long-term absentee Louis Thompson (admittedly a big loss), and possibly Harry Toffolo (should his dead leg not heal in time), and the only team who could claim to be technically superior to Swindon, MK Dons, will not be present.  Certainly, Swindon are capable of outplaying and beating Preston, Sheffield United or Chesterfield.  These are not sides to fear and I would be far more apprehensive as an opponent facing Byrne, Kasim, Luongo and Gladwin than Baxter and Murphy of Sheffield United; Clucas, Ryan and Roberts of Chesterfield; or even Garner, Beckford and Gallagher of Preston.

Moreover, as has been stressed in some excellent articles regarding the importance of momentum going into the play-offs (I recommend reading John Ashdown’s article - click here), Swindon’s meagre return of nine points from nine games will have no bearing on the outcome.  Cooper has done well to ignore the considerable guff from the stands, from other managers and from certain media outlets about its importance.  The priority had to be to shield Swindon’s first team players from potential injuries.  He has done that; mission accomplished.

Cooper has said that he has more or less settled on his first XI for Thursday’s first leg play-off.  Had Louis Thompson been fit his formation might have been 3-6-1, but, without him, it will probably be 3-4-1-2.  Foderingham will be in goal.  The back three, hopefully, from right to left will be: Nathan Thompson, Stephens and Turnbull.  Nathan Thompson’s extra pace will be helpful in covering the pockets of space left behind Byrne.  Playing Stephens centrally will allow him to dictate Swindon’s rhythm and tempo and impose himself on the game.

Branco and Ricketts should be on the bench.  I rate Branco highly and feel that the considerable criticism he has received in recent weeks has been excessive.  Yes, he is combustible and erratic, but his aerial ability, tackling and his passing (much improved) should be commended.  It should be noted that all of Swindon’s right-sided back three defenders have struggled at various moments this season principally because of the 3-5-2 formation* and Swindon’s Bielsaesque philosophy.  If Branco was playing in the middle of the back three or centrally in a flat back four he would seem more impressive.  Aden Flint wouldn’t be half as impressive for Bristol City if he had to play on the right hand side of their back three.

Ricketts has been a little disappointing.  I’m sure that his presence has helped Cooper in the dressing room and in training, and it was vital that Swindon recruited an additional defender for cover, but he has not improved Swindon defensively and has arguably slowed Swindon’s tempo and curtailed their attacking verve.  I suppose, given the short period of time in which he has had to adapt to Swindon’s ‘sin miedo’ passing style, this criticism is harsh, but he should not feature in Swindon’s starting back three on Thursday night, as he slows Swindon’s tempo, reduces the passing options and is no longer proficient in one-on-one defending.

The starting wing-backs should be Byrne and Toffolo.  Toffolo’s form has dipped in the last month, but in light of Swindon’s limited options, and the balance he gives the side by being left footed, he should be favoured.  Will Randall is promising, but defensively he is frail and would be exposed and targeted.    Gladwin is another option, but it would be an utter waste of his talents to shunt him out wide and saddle him with defensive duties.

The central midfield trio should be Kasim, Luongo and Gladwin, with the latter more advanced.  Cooper has seemed reluctant to play these three together, possibly concerned by their defensive frailties.  Admittedly, the midfield trio will be susceptible to the counter-attack, but not overly more than a midfield containing Jack Stephens.  Kasim and Luongo can defend.  If Swindon are to triumph they will do so through technical superiority and by dominating possession, not by setting up to stifle their opponents’ attacking threats.  Swindon simply do not have the players to play in a reactive, defensive manner.  Remember Ricketts and Stephens in central midfield against MK Dons because of Cooper’s pre-occupation with the late runs of Dele Alli?  Result: a loss of control in central midfield with MK Dons dominating and creating numerous goal scoring opportunities.  Had Kasim, Luongo and Gladwin been in central midfield Swindon, arguably, would not have lost control that day. 

Perhaps the biggest positive of the last month has been the form of Gladwin.  In an advanced central midfield role he has been formidable; cutting defensive lines with ease and possessing a considerable goal scoring threat.  His shooting is accurate and venomous.  Opposition managers will be more concerned about him than any other Swindon player.

Up front matters are not straightforward.  Until yesterday’s performance against Leyton Orient Andy Williams’s form had been dire.  His loss of form can be explained in part because of the changing set-up of opposing teams.  Williams is not a 'number nine' and thrives on space behind the opposition.  Against teams who ‘park the bus’ he struggles.  As the season has progressed, opponents have been defending deeper and deeper against Swindon which has had a particularly adverse impact on him.  Michael Smith’s loss of form seems to owe more to confidence.  Smith strikes me as a player who needs plenty of encouragement and an arm round the shoulder.  His performances have not been bad - better than Williams’s – but still some way off his early season form.  Obika is the form man and should start either alongside Michael Smith or Jermaine Hylton.  Cooper’s omission of Hylton from the match day squad against Leyton Orient suggests that he will start against Sheffield United.  Blessed with pace and the ability to weave his way through defensive lines, he has considerable promise.  Hylton’s inclusion excites, irrationally so.    

Swindon have a very good chance of triumphing in the play-offs.  As a pessimist I don’t think they will, and I’m not just saying that to steel myself for disappointment or tempting Fate to intervene.  If Louis Thompson was available and match fit I might feel differently.  Let’s hope I’m wrong, which is not an infrequent occurrence.

*This is not a criticism of Cooper adopting the 3-5-2 formation.  It is the best formation given Swindon’s personnel.

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