#23 The Fluency Has Gone


ver the last two seasons Swindon have been one of the most technically assured, fluent teams in League 1.  Swindon fans have been utterly spoilt by the football on offer.

Unfortunately, at present, this is no longer the case with Walsall currently reigning supreme in this regard. Swindon’s possession based style remains, but it is sterile.  Thus far, Swindon have only been fluent in the second half against Bradford and in spells against Port Vale.  They are not outplaying teams as they did in most games last season. 

Admittedly, we are only eight games into the season and the new players will need time to adapt to Swindon’s demanding playing style, and in the case of Louis Thompson, Ojamaa and Ajose they are lacking match fitness.  Any criticism of the team and management should therefore wait until we are a further into the campaign (but because I hold myself in high regard I’ll weigh in with mine a little earlier!).

The most obvious explanation for Swindon’s performances (apart from the ‘bedding in’ period) would be that Swindon no longer have the players with the requisite technical quality to reach the performance levels of previous campaigns.  Certainly, losing players of the calibre of Stephens, Luongo, Byrne and Gladwin, and expecting the footballing levels to be unaffected, would be blinkered.  To other non-Swindon supporters this would be the obvious explanation and perhaps offering other explanations is therefore over-complicating matters unnecessarily.  Naturally, this explanation for Swindon’s recent performances is rarely cited by Swindon fans, particularly those with unrealistic expectations.

One criticism amongst Swindon supporters for the current performances, which I think has some weight, is the change in formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3.  Mark Cooper seems to think that playing four at the back suits his current group of players and would argue that pundits/commentators attach too much importance to formations in any case (which has merit).  Some would contend that Swindon no longer have the players to play 3-5-2 with no-one in the squad capable of playing as a right-wing back, without Nathan Byrne and the injured Kevin Stewart, except for the green Bradley Barry and possibly Will Randall.

My view is that playing 3-5-2 still suits the current squad in light of the restrictions imposed on team selection by having to play players on loan; the squad imbalances with a surfeit of deep lying central midfielders (Kasim, Traore, Rodgers, Williams (if not at centre back) and Marshall) and number 10s (Robert, Ojamaa and J.Stewart); and four good strikers, but no number 9s. My first XI for Swindon with everyone fit in a 4-3-3 formation from right to left (leaving out K.Stewart while Louis Thompson is on loan) would be: Vigouroux; N.Thompson, Branco, Turnbull, Ormonde-Ottewill; Williams, Kasim, L.Thompson; Robert, Obika/Thomas, Ajose; a line-up which has problems.

Firstly, playing at right-back negates Nathan Thompson’s influence on Swindon.  Last season, as a sweeper, N.Thompson (and Stephens) were pivotal in Swindon’s build up play from the back.  Indeed, in the second half against Bradford, Swindon were so much more assured in possession with a back three of Branco, N.Thompson and Turnbull, which quickly filtered through the side. 

Secondly, Ormonde-Ottewill, who is confident going forward, less so defensively, would be more suited to a left-wing back role. 

Thirdly, given that Swindon are seemingly obliged to play on loan Williams and Turnbull, one of them will be played out of position assuming that Branco and Kasim play (which they should).  As Turnbull is a centre back – lacking the pace to play left back – his inability to overlap and provide the requisite width in the 4-3-3 means that the wide left-sided front player has to offer the width instead thereby isolating the central striker in the front three.  In a 4-3-3 formation the full-backs need to provide the width for the formation to function effectively in an attacking sense.  N.Thompson is capable of doing that, Turnbull isn’t.  Alternatively, playing Williams as the holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 means that Kasim has to play more as a box-to-box midfielder and further up the pitch, negating his strengths.  Similarly, playing Williams to the right of Kasim is problematic as he too is unsuited to the right/left of centre role in the central midfield three.

Fourthly, playing three up front does not suit Swindon’s attacking players.  Robert and Ojamaa are more effective centrally and all of Swindon’s strikers prefer playing in a front two (which probably applies to most strikers, I concede).  Ajose, Hylton and Obika are not particularly effective out wide.  Similarly, neither Obika nor Thomas are natural number 9s.  Given Thomas’s size, superficially, it is easy to bracket him as a number 9, but, as Birmingham fans will tell you, he is not particularly adept at holding the ball up or dropping deep.  He plays ‘on the shoulder’ and, ideally, would prefer to play alongside a target man.

Playing 3-4-1-2 would suit the majority of Swindon’s current crop of players.  I would play from right to left: Vigouroux; Branco, N.Thompson, Turnbull; L.Thompson, Kasim, Williams, Ormonde-Ottewill; Robert/Ojamaa; Obika/Thomas, Ajose/Hylton.  This system would involve playing Louis Thompson as a right-wing back.  Norwich played him at right-back for parts of pre-season and I would be confident that he could play as a right-wing back as he has the requisite qualities: quick, energetic, great at winning back possession and defensively minded.  Clearly, playing him as a wing-back would be a bit of a waste as he is more suited to a central role, but the overall balance of the team would, I feel, be better.

Of course, suggesting that a change in formation is a ‘silver-bullet’ to Swindon’s travails is simplistic. Swindon ought to improve in time – though probably not reaching the technical heights of last season – and the current malaise is not that bad.  Additionally, the 4-3-3 has tightened Swindon up defensively with Swindon generally looking more organised and cohesive off the ball (the Barnsley game aside).  Branco, in particular, has been superb.  There are very few quick, technically assured, good in the air, physically imposing, 6’4”centre-backs in League 1.  Clubs higher up the football pyramid will probably be monitoring him.     

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