A famous man once said that the Swindon lot are little slugs, who are just jealous that we’re better at everything than them. Unfortunately, that person must have been confused (but not a plonker), because that’s simply not true. Just like the second half down at their place in October, they’ve proven their quality to me once again. I would apologise about the shameless David Brent references, but having a bit of fun with Eric Hitchmo gags really has been the most enjoyable part of playing Swindon Town this season. In the main, they’ve given us a jolly good hiding.
The speed of play on Saturday showed us up. It was a constant menace and contrast to our own languidness. Meanwhile, our contribution to the match mainly consisted of daft mistakes; a lack of composure; an excruciating slowness to react; and aside from the early goal and Leon Clarke header in the second half, very few moments to get excited about. It may seem a harsh assessment, but just remember that if you want the team to get out of the mindset of mediocrity, it’s probably OK to criticise occasionally.
It’s not about saying Nathan Cameron is the worst player you’ve ever seen, or that James Bailey is the laziest – because that’s simply not the case. But on Saturday, the team didn’t perform, and if we’ve any intention of developing a culture of quality at this club, we have to at least acknowledge when things fall below.
On this point, the people in my block had the good fortune to be joined by a new face this week. A chap with a peculiar haircut who seemed to get very frustrated with how much the crowd were voicing their concern in that first half. To paraphrase slightly, his loudly voiced sentiment after about 30 minutes was:
“It’s Coventry 1 Swindon 0 everyone! If we’re losing have a go, but we’re winning for God’s sake. It’s fine.” – Man with the mullet
“Fine”, he says? I’m all for defending the team against unnecessary criticism. I argued only last week about the amount of flack they got for daring to pass the ball backwards. But while we took an early lead on Saturday, that had no positive influence over the quality of our performance. It was a game riddled with a lack of alertness, and my overriding assessment of the way our players reacted was that they seemed scared. Swindon came at them and they looked bewildered. We still managed to get hold of the ball in good areas in the first half, but whether it was an underhit pass, or overhit touch, things continued to break down in a soft fashion.
We’ve been in that position plenty of times before and you can’t just ignore the signs in front of you simply because the scoreboard says you’re a goal up. Yes, we all take the scrappy 1-0 victories when they come our way, but during the match you still have to at least feel as though you have an element of control over your destiny. If it’s purely luck keeping you ahead – surely you’re entitled to expect some adjustments to bring the result back under your control? Football is a game governed mainly by individual quality and collective tactics. Luck will fall your way every now and again, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable relying on that as your main defensive tactic. The crowd were frustrated because we were not playing well, and regardless of the score, it was only a matter of time before an equaliser was coming. The noises of discontent this time around were justified.
Holding the lead for 86 minutes never really felt like an achievement of our own doing. Joe Murphy aside, it was luck, rather than any sort of judgement which kept the game at 1-0 for so long. The defensive heart of our system – Cameron, Martin, Bailey and Jennings – were bullied for the most part. The two in midfield struggled to get to grips with the continuous attention of the opposition. Jennings trustworthiness on the ball was simply not there and his backup tactic of being a general bastard in the tackle had also gone missing.
Bailey compounded the softness of our centre by being wholly anonymous in the tackle. I’ll give him his due – he would occasionally try to calm the play if ever he received the ball on the ground, but could find no way of balancing that mindset with the speed of thought required for his defensive duties. He had moments of hustle, but this merely offered the appearance of getting involved rather than any genuine elbow grease.
The central defensive partnership was clearly the most disappointing aspect of the performance. As far as feeling safe goes, there were very few moments of that match when I could say I was comfortable with their approach. The new chap Martin is really quite long, and started off OK, having some controlled moments in a frantic first half. In the second, it seemed he started to lose that control, and from set pieces in particular you could see the difficulty he was having against his opposing player (an even lengthier version of him whose name eludes me).
Unfortunately, there’s no disguising the performance of Nathan Cameron. He’s such a brutal physical specimen, but he produced a display which seemed to lack confidence, and worryingly, any sort of genuine control over his body. I know that might seem a peculiar observation, but he comes with such a rock-solid frame you can’t help but assume a certain amount of sturdiness. He just couldn’t get it to work for him, though.
You also have to question the amount of high balls he steamed onto, only to misjudge the flight completely and leave himself straining just to make contact. It was a baffling display from a player I was hoping could start to step up his level, and one which served only to invite the Swindon front line to gamble on him making a mistake.
After some sporadic attacking periods in the first half, the emphasis of our play had become entirely defensive by the second. Swindon were faster and better than us on the ball, but we didn’t help our cause by being equally as slow and useless in possession. For a team which still holds aspirations of making the play-offs, we were wildly off the pace against a supposed rival for the majority of the game, second to react to the loose balls and generally uncomfortable when given the opportunity to attack.
We’ve been racking our brains all week on things we can do differently and obviously the proof will be in the pudding that we’ve come up with a successful way of doing things. We’ll be changing it around on Saturday – Lee Carsley
Carsley told us they were planning to change things in an attempt to sort out the home form. Unfortunately whatever the specific adjustments were, one thing they had a huge impact on was our natural position as the team with most attacking intent at home. OK, you could argue that grabbing the goal so early on was what led us to take such a conservative approach. But 4 shots on goal all game? That goes beyond a tame return.
Whether it was a result of the goal or not, we ended up actively encouraging the away team to press us through our reserved positioning. We had confirmation from Carsley that it was a conscious tactic to drop deep, which in the context of that game was little more than an invitation for Swindon to have a pop at our fragile-looking defence. When you think about how the game panned out, that’s a really puzzling decision. We took the lead, but the approach clearly wasn’t working and by dropping deeper for the majority of the game it just seemed as though we were asking for trouble.
Of course it felt cruel to throw it away so late, but in reality, we rode our luck keeping the lead for as long as we did, and were eventually punished for that being our sole intention.
A win away at Scunthorpe might be enough to keep our hopes ticking along for a little longer, but time is running out. We’ve now entered the realm of needing 6 or 7 wins out of 10 games just to get into 70+ point region. That’s standard play-off form, but having not shown anything close to that in weeks, coupled with this horrible spate of home defeats, we’re left praying for a sequence of results we’ve managed just once all season.
If we’re going to manage it, we’ll have to do so in the most spectacular manner imaginable.
Murphy – 7: Fast proving himself to be the most reliable member of our team. Forced into a range of saves due to the lack of pressure on the Swindon attackers. Gave James Bailey an almighty rocket up his arse, and was booked for allowing a substitution to be taken.
Christie – 6: The problem with Cyrus is that he really doesn’t seem to care if he gives the ball away. By that, I mean he will happily slap it forward or throw it away, just to have something to do. Saying that, was decent enough, comparatively.
Martin – 5: Home debut for the big man, and we have to be fair here – it wasn’t the greatest. He’s a giant but didn’t dominate in the way his frame would suggest he should, losing his man too often from set-pieces. In a less frantic game, he’ll probably be OK.
Cameron- 4: No getting away from what was a nightmare performance. So much so, I actually feel sorry for him. One of his overriding strengths is supposed to be his strength. Was brushed aside and knocked off-balance all too frequently. Needs a strong character to turn things around after that.
Dickinson – 7: Seemed to be the only guy who was playing at the required pace, and the fact that he was so royally fucked off with the shambolic defending going on around him leaves him as one of only a couple who can at least have some pride in how they performed.
Baker – 5: Return of the anti-Baker. Ran around like a blue-arsed fly, but to absolutely no avail. The sticky feet weren’t working for him when he did get the ball in attacking areas, so he started trying it in defensive areas. Needless to say, that ended with him being swatted off the ball and causing his own team grief.
Bailey – 4: No. No. No. You can have all the technical ability in the world, but as a central player if you put in nothing but tentative effort to enforce yourself onto the game, that ability counts for nothing. Would sometimes offer the façade of bravery, but it wasn’t really. Yet another game has passed him by.
Jennings – 5: Bad first half, less so in the second half. His passing was off, was muscled off a lot, and positionally he and Bailey were all over the place in what was a display which left most people wondering how long before Conor Thomas steps in.
McSheffrey – 5: His touch was off, and even though he set up the goal, found himself in plenty of good positions only for this to let him down. Didn’t shirk the his responsibilities as an outlet on the left though and continued to offer for the ball. Not too sure about the Eoin McLove haircut.
Moussa – 6: Clinical with his goal and did a good job of protecting the ball when he actually got his foot on it. Seemed lost for large periods, but when it comes to fundamental quality, he still provided more than most.
Clarke – 7: I do see why some people may get annoyed. He’s very choosy about what he goes for, and often prefers to back off and allow the ball to come to him, rather fully committing to absolutely every physical challenge. For fans who want the hustling and bustling big man, that will be frustrating. But don’t let the appearance deceive you – he’s not that type of striker. He’s far more effective when he’s got the defender on the back foot. He had another good game considering the amount of times he found himself isolated, and was always an outlet for both the lengthy clearances and more considered passed into the space beyond the full-backs.