A new season is upon us but it still feels like the squad is far from ready for the long road ahead. Just about every position could do with strengthening and thus this opening game of the season feels more like a free-hit, another pre-season friendly than it does a regular season match.
The transfer activity this summer has not been what was expected, particularly as we gave ourselves a head-start by bringing in Jodi Jones and Vladimir Gadzhev last March. When players like Aaron Martin and Romain Vincelot were allowed to move on, you would have thought that some quality replacements had been lined-up to have made those decisions. Instead, whether it’s been down to broken promises, bad luck or poor planning, we have a paper-thin squad heading into this away trip to Swindon.
To be in a position where we’re sweating on the fitness of Sam Ricketts is particularly troubling. Unless Tony Mowbray moves away from the 3-4-3 he’s used in every pre-season game and barring a new defensive signing, youngster Darragh Leahy is the alternative should Ricketts fail to recover in time. With Chris Stokes out too, these opening few games could be a big chance for Ryan Haynes, Cian Harries and Dion Kelly-Evans to impress Mowbray before, you presume, more senior defenders arrive.
Given the lack of numbers in defence, you might be thinking that Mowbray should change to a four-man back-line. However, we’re also short on central midfielders with Chris McCann suspended for the first three games. Mowbray could deploy the team in a 4-2-3-1 shape, but you wonder whether there’s safety in numbers with playing a 3/5 in defence given the lack of experience at the back.
The only real selection dilemma is in attack. Jodi Jones, Ruben Lameiras and Marvin Sordell are likeliest to start in those front three positions of the 3-4-3, Marcus Tudgay and George Thomas were both in the goals during pre-season however, meaning the aforementioned three are not guaranteed starters for these opening games. Not to forget Kyel Reid either, someone who’s consistently made a big impact at this level but whose arrival has been overshadowed by the panic over the lack of new signings.
Last Time We Met
Not taking all three points against Swindon last March was pretty much the end of our play-off hopes, despite there being nine games left to play afterwards. Swindon were flying high at that point but were probably there for the taking had Tony Mowbray not set us up so negatively and with such little threat on the counter. Darius Henderson missed a great chance in the dying embers of the game but it was a fair 0-0 result.
It’s always worth mentioning that we haven’t beaten Swindon in the league since 1964 and haven’t won at the County Ground since 1960. In each of our last four visits to the County Ground we’ve been in great positions late on, only to throw three points away. We drew 2-2 having been 2-0 up in 2012, lost 2-1 having been 1-0 up in 2013, drew 1-1 having been 1-0 up in 2014 and last year drew 2-2 having been 2-0 up with just five minutes left.
How Are They Doing?
Given our struggles to bring players in this summer, we couldn’t really have picked better opponents for the opening day than Swindon Town, hoodoo notwithstanding. The Robins are operating a similarly threadbare squad heading into the new season, with a couple of injury concerns further weakening their position.
Their manager, Luke Williams, is heading into his first full season as a full-time manager having been a highly-regarded coach at the club responsible for the development of players such as Ben Gladwin and Massimo Luongo. Swindon were streaky under his tutelage during the second half of last season, playing some pretty, possession-based football but struggling to find the balance between patience and defensive stability.
The loss of their top-scorer Nicky Ajose is undoubtedly a massive blow for a side that struggled to convert domination into goals last season. However, Jon Obika should be expected to step up into the goalscoring mantle at the County Ground having been an effective strike partner for Ajose last year. Obika is strong and quick, capable of linking the play or bursting beyond the shoulder of the last defender, he’ll have to be well-marshalled.
In midfield, the key man is Yaser Kasim, who conducts the midfield from a deep-lying position. Hard to ruffle, if we can break his rhythm, Swindon are going to be in for a long, hard afternoon. Watch out for summer signing John Goddard too, scorer of 17 goals in the Conference with Woking last season, he’ll play just behind Obika up front and look to make runs beyond Swindon’s focal point in attack.
Swindon are short on numbers in defence but should be able to call upon captain Nathan Thompson despite a recent injury scare. Thompson isn’t the biggest of defenders but competes very well by either winning soft free-kicks or leaving his boot in to remind opponents that he’s there. One of those centre-backs who’s more at home in a back three rather than a four, injuries could mean that Swindon will have to use Thompson slightly out-of-position.
There are a few others with potential to come good this season for Swindon to keep an eye out on. If Luke Williams plays four at the back, it offers the chance for James Brophy and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill to link up down the left, two very attack-minded players who can interchange between full-back and on the wing. There’s also Conor Thomas who, given the opprobrium against him from a large section of Sky Blues fans, is destined to score in this game, if selected.
The opening game of the season is always the toughest one to predict, pre-season rarely gives you an insight of how a team is going to do, players you think are great can end up having terrible seasons, players who you’ve written-off can suddenly decide that this is their year. Despite both teams failing to bring in too many players in the transfer market, these are two different sides from the ones that ended last season.
Although we’re playing Swindon at a great time, we’re not in great shape ourselves, especially if Sam Ricketts is out and we can’t bring anyone in in time. In spite of the curse we seemingly have at the County Ground, I’ve just got this sneaky feeling we might sneak this 1-0.