Swindon Town FC

Key player: Johnny Smith

Aged 23 and with only one season at National League level as well as two at League Two, it seems bold to pluck Johnny Smith out as the key player at Swindon. Or maybe it seems opportunistic, given he scored a lovely solo-goal against Charlton on Saturday. Yet, I’d been given the tip off about Smith before he even joined Swindon nearly two weeks ago. 

Swindon fans are already excited, and rightly so. He’s a proper modern winger: good ball carrier, comfortable taking the ball inside or outside, good at cutting in and bending the ball into the box or at the far post. Nine goals and six assist for Oldham follows four and two for Tranmere, and nine and six at Fylde.

But it’s not just that Smith is a good player, it’s that he suits what Wellens wants to do perfectly. Sit back, play compact, but with explosive attackers ready to carry the ball quickly into the opposition half. He wants wingers who can hold their width, gallop with or without the ball and pose their opponents problems. Smith fits the bill more than any other player at Swindon right now (more on why that is later) and that’s what makes him their key player at this moment in time.

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Manager: Richie Wellens

Wellens only retired from professional football in 2016 but he’s already built a good reputation in management. He started as caretaker at Oldham, taking over with the club bottom of League One with only four points from an available 27. The turnaround was instant, going unbeaten for six games as they pulled into 17th. From there things stalled. 

Their form was good enough to keep them just outside of the relegation places, but not to pull clear. Going into the final stretch of the season things looked good. They were just above their nearest rivals in a mass of seven clubs battling to avoid three spots. Helpful, though, was that they had by far the easiest run-in as they faced off against five of their six competitors. A win in any would have pulled them clear, but they drew against all of them, making it eight draws and one loss in their last nine games. On the last day, a fairytale story for Joe Thompson at Rochdale saved them but relegated their close rivals, sending the club down by a point. 

Wellens left during the summer as the club showed signs of imploding, including a Daily Mail expose about the ridiculous money being paid to some foreign imports to the club. When Phil Brown was then sacked at Swindon, he took over but there was no notable improvement in form as the club stalled to 13th. However, one astute summer later and Wellens had all the players he needed to unleash his master-plan: swift, lethal, counter-attacking football.

Creator: Jack Payne

Among a summer that has seen Swindon lose their best attackers, Jack Payne is one of the few quality players that has arrived at Swindon to make up for the loss. Payne was a hot commodity a few years back. Excellent for Southend at the age of 21, he was signed by Huddersfield and had a series of semi-successful loan spells at big League One clubs before Lincoln signed him in something of a coup last summer. 

Yet, Appleton let him go for free because he doesn’t fit his system, which relies on wingers and central midfielders rather than central attacking midfielders like Payne. Like Appleton, Wellens’ style relies heavily on wingers who are comfortable as wingers. If he did his homework on Payne, he’ll know that’s not him. 

Payne has a good burst of acceleration and is an accurate passer with great vision. He either wants to be in midfield with his head up, creating openings, or in a 1-v-1 against a defender where he can slow the ball down, make space and use his turn of speed, quick feet and passing to find gaps in defence. 

What he isn’t, at least right now, is a player to be leading those counter attacks. He wants to be in the Doughty role, pinging balls forward into the spaces, not the one charging forward to receive them. Short of changing the system, Payne might struggle to adapt to Swindon, too attacking to be a central midfielder but not good enough on the wing. His class is undeniable though, so hopefully Wellens can find a way to effectively use this still young talent.

Last season: 1st in League Two

Only Crewe outscored Swindon last season as they took the league title on points-per-game. With the side mostly playing 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, the system revolved around wide, fast wingers who could carry the ball swiftly up the pitch on the counter and deliver it to Doyle or Yates to finish. The transition from defence to attack was as quick as it was efficient. 

Swindon started fast but stalled in Autumn, yet clicked into gear once again by October and occupied top sot for nearly half the season. They dropped into second by the time the season ended following a loss to Forest Green, but their game in hand saw them claim the league title after it was abruptly ended. This was probably fair, as their run in was relatively straight-forward and they seemed the favourite to go on to claim the title because of it, but both Argyle and Crewe would have fancied their chances at catching their rivals.

Key departure: Eoin Doyle

Eoin Doyle was undoubtedly the best player in League Two last season. The man scored well in excess of his expected goals, snaffling half-chances left, right and centre. 

He found the back of the net every 96 minutes for Swindon, an incredible record, and with ten games left he looked set to reach as many as 35 goals, which would have probably been a record total in a single season at League Two level. 

He won the player of the year award for League Two and rightfully so. His goals were worth at least 19 points, probably more, meaning his instinctive but lethal finishing was the difference between another mid-table season for Swindon and the title. It’s more than fair to suggest that most other strikers in the division, when placed in his shoes, would have only scored 10-15 goals across the season, so good was his finishing.

Target: Avoid relegation

Swindon Town will probably end the season comfortably in midtable, but the thing is it’s hard to predict that when the team has changed so much. 

Swindon’s replacement for Eoin Doyle, thus far, is Brett Pitman, who is a completely different kind of striker. He’s slower, better with the long-ball, and enjoys playing as a link-up attacker, not a purebred finisher. He’s no slouch when it comes to scoring but, compared to Doyle, he’ll get in the box less and finish fewer half chances. 

Thing is, Doyle isn’t the only one Swindon are replacing, as at the time of writing they’ve lost their entire attack. Yates and Anderson have joined Blackpool while Isgrove and Woolery have yet to sign contracts. Johnny Smith looks a great signing but Pitman and Payne look like square pegs in round holes at the moment. Short of a change of style or formation, they will be unlikely to fill the shoes of their predecessors. 

With so much time left in the transfer window, the Swindon that emerges in October might be more suited to Wellens’ superb counter-attacking system. Had they kept the core of last season’s attack together, I’d be tipping them to storm into the play-offs. It’s only because of a poor summer of recruitment – to my eyes at least – that I think they’ll be fighting at the opposite end of the table.

Opposition view

(provided by Swindon Town podcast The Loathed Strangers)

Swindon Town have had a pretty standard, albeit obviously prolonged, pre-season. There is a sense that Town have felt the impact of the suspension of football as Richie Wellens has not been able to build on the promotion success as adequately as he would have liked. Wellens lost his three top goalscorers from the League Two championship side; Eoin Doyle has left for a better commute and contract (understandable) at Bolton while Keshi Anderson also moved to the North West with Blackpool (former-Town loanee Jerry Yates also joined Blackpool this summer). Elsewhere, Danny Rose joined Grimsby, Luke McCormick returned to Argyle and Lloyd Isgrove’s new club is currently unknown.

Incomings wise? Lots of Smith’s on loan (Jonny, Matthew and Tyler) while Manchester United goalkeeper Matej Kovar also signed for the season (Kovar is ‘Smith’ in Czech – true story).

Richie Wellens was able to convince Diallang Jaiyesimi to sign permanently which could be a significant bit of business for the club. As could Jack Payne’s arrival from Lincoln while the experienced Brett Pitman has joined from Portsmouth with the expectancy of being Town’s talisman.

It feels a bit like we’re still a few weeks behind in terms of recruitment but Wellens does like to hold his nerve in the market in order to secure some decent late business. Town do have the potential to compete with the top 10 but will need a few more bodies and remain as close to injury free as possible.

After a wobbly performance in the EFL Cup it would be great to start the EFL League One season with a good performance and 3 points against Rochdale.

 

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League One Season Preview 2020/21