HOW old does a season have to be before you can start using the past as a marker for the future? A week? A fortnight? A month?
Inherited wisdom suggests with a brazen expression and a knowing nod of the head that “the table means nothing til Christmas” but, for those of us who have had just about enough of the “each game as it comes” diet, four weeks of action is plenty enough to figure out exactly how much potential a team has and where its weak spots exist.
Therefore, a month on from the League One opener against Scunthorpe, I’d say it’s a fair time to assess exactly how good this Swindon Town team is and how much better it can be over the course of the 2014/15 campaign.
Before the term began, in a moment of absolute realism, this writer plumped for 14th place when asked to predict Town’s finishing position. I’m probably going to have to change my mind pretty soon – delightful and ego-crippling at the same time – after just seven matches.
Though young in years, this Swindon team is becoming streetwise. That was shown in coming from behind at Luton, grabbing a last-minute equaliser at Gillingham and sneaking a draw against Coventry.
That was not a character trait of the 13/14 edition. A year ago, Swindon would have crumbled at Kenilworth Road after falling behind to a dodgy penalty, they would have let their anger get the better of them.
Now, however, they’ve progressed on from schoolboy strops to more cultured retorts – like undergraduates debating across the union bar. There’s more thought to their play now, more composure in the moment. They’re growing up.
They are also playing with all the arrogance of a multiple Crufts champion, particularly in midfield where Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Louis Thompson knock the ball around with conviction, safe in the knowledge that they are better than anything they are likely to face in the division.
Juicy in the middle
Perhaps the fact they know exactly that lends itself to dead patches in games. The clash with Crewe was noticeable for its lack of tempo. Town’s midfielders knew within 15 minutes that they had the game won. Quite frankly, they could have won that game with nine men given the opposition’s desperate lack of quality and cutting edge. There was little need to pop the ball around at pace and, as a consequence, the game didn’t justify its £22 price tag.
Instead, for £12 fans got to see one of the best team performances at the County Ground in recent seasons when Brighton visited in the League Cup. When they’re challenged in midfield, Town’s talented trio really come to life; when they’re forced to keep the game moving at pace they are at their very best; when they’re allowed to sleepwalk through matches it’s really rather boring.
Injuries have prevented a strike partnership from bedding down. Michael Smith and Andy Williams have both shown individual promise; Connor Waldon and George Barker have been given random cameos. No combination of the four has shown any strong signs of telepathic intuition. Perhaps Jon Obika’s arrival will change that.
Still pressing self-destruct
Defensively, Swindon are still suspect to a long ball down the channels. It’s daft really, for a team that plays such attractive and complex possession football, that hoofball is their Kyptonite. But it is. Well, that and their tendency to press the self-destruct button, an unhealthy two-a-match habit that may never be kicked.
Individual errors – and bad ones at that – have accounted for five of the 10 goals scored by the opposition in 2014/15, while long balls have created another two. In my book, only Rohan Ince’s spectacular volley and Adrian Colunga’s tap-in for Brighton have been the result of opponents attacking well rather than Town defending badly.
For those questioning my maths, the one strike I’ve left out is Luke Rooney’s penalty for Luton, awarded after a perfectly legitimate piece of chest control by Nathan Thompson.
It would be unfair to be too harsh on Mark Cooper’s side for the errors of their ways at the back. I’m sure the Town boss doesn’t need this column to point it out to know where it’s going wrong, but it remains cause for concern for now. Mild concern, though, like wondering whether you’ve left the bedroom window open as you board a flight, nothing too serious.
In Jack Stephens, Cooper now has a player to throw into his back three who has proven ability and leadership qualities. Perhaps his presence will help Town tighten up.
Most encouraging of all has been the fact that Swindon have yet to play badly this season. They’ve not been perfect, make no mistake, but in seven matches they have been incredibly consistent. Consistency is a key quality for a team learning to be successful. Though it remains unlikely Town have it in them to make the top six, they are showing all of us “realists” up for fools in the early weeks of the campaign.