“Everyone knows the style of football Swansea play and it suits my way of thinking”
Much has been written recently about Michael Laudrup and Swansea City since his appointment as manager of the Welsh side. Perhaps amidst the media bubble that has developed following Laudrup’s appointment, there should be closer scrutiny of how Swansea will perform this year. How can the side develop the short passing game that has been their trademark for a number of seasons now? Can Gylfi Sigurdsson be adequately replaced? And, crucially, will Swansea suffer from that most peculiar of conditions commonly known as “Second Season Syndrome”?
The Premiership is littered with numerous examples of teams who thrived in the Premiership following their promotion from the Championship, only to struggle badly during their second campaign in the top flight with a number of casualties returning to the dogfight of the Championship. There are, of course, clubs who have continued the process of establishment in their second season in the Premiership but that is conveniently overlooked by the proponents of “second season syndrome”.
Should Swansea struggle this season, there will be some dissenting voices over the appointment of Laudrup given the bulk of the playing squad remains intact from Rodgers’ time in charge. The accusation will be that any decline is the fault of Laudrup perhaps aided by the loss of a key player such as Sigurdsson and maybe even Joe Allen (should he depart for Liverpool). Similarly, should Swansea continue their upward spiral, Laudrup again will take a back seat as it’s simply the same players who are continuing the work initiated by Rodgers.
If Swansea do find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle at any point of the season, conventional wisdom will simply state that they are a victim of “second season syndrome” and the discussion will end there. There will be no forensic examination of why this may be the case and crucially, how it could be, or should have been, avoided. It’s a given. Second season syndrome exists and there is absolutely nothing you can do to remedy matters.
Or is there?
With a more detailed analysis of the performance during the first season, key trends and issues can be identified. The issue to be addressed could be uncovered by a laborious process of analysing statistical information. Or sometimes, the issue can be relatively clear to identify such as those surrounding the relegation of Birmingham in season 10/11.
Following promotion in season 8/09, Birmingham finished their first season in the top flight in 9th position but the warning signs were beginning to emerge although the finishing position was able to camouflage this to a certain extent.
Birmingham scored 38 goals and conceded 47 when securing their top 10 finish. They averaged 46% possession per game whilst managing 12 shots at goal. The high finish was secured with thirteen wins, all of which arrived via a single goal. There was a feeling of a last chance saloon for many of the players as they entered the veteran stage of their careers. There is nothing that remarkable in those statistics other than to highlight the margin at which Birmingham were operating. Fall the wrong side of that margin and trouble would loom.
And so, the following season recorded a 19th place finish with relegation back to the Championship ensuing. Remarkably, the key stats were broadly similar. They scored 37 goals but conceded 55. Average possession increased marginally to 47% whilst attempts at goal dropped to 11. The single goal victories were drying up with five single goal victories replaced by four draws and one defeat. A loss of 11 points which was enough to send Birmingham to the Championship.
The style of the team had remained the same throughout despite the problems developing. Birmingham were a defensive, reactive team hoping to counter attack. The small details were no longer falling in Birmingham’s favour.
Birmingham arguably failed to recognise that standing still is not enough. Constant evolution is needed to maintain your position and thereafter to build and progress, not just in the Premiership, but also in any league. Having played against you, your opponent will learn and adapt accordingly. The element of surprise, if such a thing still exists in the modern game, is lost.
It’s not can Swansea learn from last season but what will Swansea learn from last season.
“What we do have is top players – players who come in every day to work. There are no big-time egos around … They are players who have an inherent belief in our system and style of play.” Brendan Rodgers
For a number of seasons now under the tutelage of young, aspiring managers, Swansea have played a short passing, possession-based game. It’s a testament to the planning of the Swansea Board and Chairman Huw Jenkins, in particular, that consistency and stability is achieved without radical squad overhaul being required each time a managerial appointment is made. It’s the logical progression from their continental style on the pitch. The Swans adopt a continental approach to appointing a manager who fits a long-term strategy and acquire players in a similar vein. All that is really missing is the separation of general administrative duties and coaching and you would have a continental set up in the heart of South Wales.
The appointment of Michael Laudrup continues the trend. Laudrup’s tenure in club management began with Brondby followed by short spells at each of Getafe, Dynamo Moscow and Mallorca. With the exception of a somewhat disastrous spell in the Russian capital, each of the teams has produced an attacking game based upon possession football where the ethic of the team triumphs over the individual.
Laudrup is unlikely to deviate from the 4-2-3-1 which has served Swansea so well to date. There are certain key features that Laudrup seeks to install in his teams focussing around improved movement and technique. In this respect he seems an ideal and entirely logical choice for Swansea. It will be evolution rather than revolution under Laudrup.
The Challenge Ahead
The table below compares Swansea’s possession based statistics against the teams who finished in the top six last season. Whilst a top six finish is not Swansea’s priority, it is instructive to compare them against these teams to highlight some key aspects which Swansea need to improve upon.
Swansea recorded the second highest average possession and the third highest open play passes in the Premier League (all teams) last season. Retaining possession is clearly not an issue for Swansea. A patient approach has been developed, with goalkeeper Vorm, playing a role in building the play demonstrated by the continued practise of short goal kicks. Indeed, 58% of goal kicks from Vorm find a teammate.
What is arguably most noteworthy from the table above is that Swansea recorded the lowest percentage of forward passes (indeed they recorded the lowest percentage of forward passes of any side in the Premiership) and had the lowest number of shots at goal.
In general, the team that dominates possession has more shots at goal. Often, but not always. Swansea are evidence of that. Much of Swansea’s possession occurs in their own half of the pitch with sideways, particularly to the right, passing occurring. There is nothing inherently wrong with this patient approach but it does allow the opponent more time to reorganise themselves into defensive positions. A more vertical streak is needed. This does not mean that Swansea starting hitting long balls but that they retain the option of long passes when the opportunity presents itself. Last season, Swansea scored only one goal from a fast break.
It leads to the somewhat inevitable assertion that Swansea have possession for possession’s sake. It’s wrong, but until a greater degree of penetration is achieved, the label is likely to stick.
Once Swansea to rectify their own chance creation issue, the next item on the agenda is limiting the opponent. In twenty-three league games last season, the opponent had more shots at goal than Swansea. True, not all shots are of equal value. An unobstructed shot from a central position in the six yard box is clearly a better scoring opportunity than a speculative 30 yard effort but the case remains that Swansea are conceding more shots and at some point that could have repercussions. Can Swansea really match last season’s total of fourteen clean sheets again? If not, they need to start creating and taking their chances.
Should Swansea press more aggressively? Should they commit more fouls to prevent opponent’s constructing attacking moves?
The accumulation of just 40 yellow cards and 2 red cards saw Swansea finish with the best disciplinary record in the division last season. Whilst this is perfect to prevent the loss of key players through suspensions, the more cynical amongst us would question if Swansea could be slightly more aggressive in their approach. This is not advocating switching to a completely robust style of play but occasionally committing fouls in specific parts of the pitch can allow the team to regroup after an attack has broken down.
The challenge for Swansea is therefore twofold. Firstly, turn their possession dominance into clear-cut chances. It sounds easy but it perhaps requires them to take more chances with their passing in the final third. Attempting the more difficult pass more often will mean conceding possession more often but it could lead to greater chance creation.
Secondly, Swansea needs to control the space to control the game. Possession alone does not equate to control. The possession statistics, irrespective of how impressive they are, are ultimately meaningless if they cannot translate this into chance creation and ultimately goals.
Can the new signings for Swansea make any difference?
Michu has joined from Rayo Vallecano and should be deployed as the central point of the attacking trident behind the sole striker. Although tasked with replacing Gylfi Sigurdsson, it’s important not to label Michu solely as a midfielder. He operates more like a deep-lying striker.
The table below shows how they fared for their respective teams last season: –
The loss of Sigurdsson who averaged more shots per game and more key passes per game than any other Swansea player last season must be overcome. Whilst Michu’s stats are disappointing compared to Sigurdsson, it must be remembered that he was playing for a Rayo Vallecano team who played an aggressive, pressing game and were encouraged to take chances on the pitch. Also worth consideration is that Rayo played a fairly direct game at home owing to a tight, bumpy pitch.
It’s a degree of this element that Swansea need to capture in their play; to take a chance on a pass rather than favour the safer option. To grant the more creative players increased freedom to try something different. Allied to this approach is the need for tactical fouls. If you give the ball away more often, your team is likely to be exposed during the transitional phase. That is when the cynical nature becomes a necessary trait in some respects.
Interestingly, Michu was cautioned eight times last season which could contrast sharply with Swansea’s good disciplinary record.
Two other acquisitions have arrived in the form of Jonathan de Guzman on loan from Villarreal and Chico from Genoa. Both men played under Laudrup at Mallorca. Ostensibly brought in to replace Caulker who returns to Tottenham, Chico could add that element of physicality having been cautioned 14 times in 33 league games last season. One of Chico’ best performances in La Liga came when he man marked Xavi at the Camp Nou as his former club Almeria lost out 1-0 to Barcelona in a tight game. Xavi did not appreciate the close attention he received all night.
It’s harder to see where de Guzman fits in other than having played under Laudrup; he will understand the manager’s philosophy. A decent midfielder, he neither excels defensively or offensively and despite being a £7million acquisition for Villarreal last season, he quickly fell out of favour starting just 11 games in La Liga with another 8 appearances from the bench.
Laudrup will shortly begin dialogue with Joe Allen to persuade him to stay. If he succeeds, Laudrup will seek two other reinforcements for the squad being a winger and a striker. Swansea is heavily reliant upon their right side of the team with 41% of play occurring on this side. A left-winger could help redress the balance here and provide Swansea with genuine attacking intent on both sides of the pitch.
Let’s be clear from the outset here. Swansea is not going to challenge the top six in the Premiership for a European berth. Having said that, there is no reason why Swansea cannot challenge season after season for a top ten finish.
In their debut season in the Premiership, Swansea won plaudits, and points, for their possession based attacking game. There were occasions however, when it was clear that such an approach was going to be unsuccessful.
This is the challenge that confronts Swansea in their second season. To retain the hunger, desire and technical quality which they showed last season allied to an ability to make subtle changes to their tactical set up when required to overcome the obstacles being presented.
Does this point to Swansea requiring a Plan B? If you are a subscriber to the “second season syndrome” school of thought then you are most likely also a devout follower of the Plan B theory.
Most teams will have a Plan B. They will also have a Plan C, Plan D etc. Plan B is not an abandonment of your beliefs; it’s just a slight modification of what you are doing. It’s pushing your full backs higher to overload the opponent in midfield whilst retaining the same 4-2-3-1 shape in the defensive stage of the game. It’s switching your three midfield players around to enable them to support the attack more often.
It’s the small details again.
Swansea has to be prepared to face teams who will increasingly allow them to make the running in games this season. Opponents are now aware that Swansea will seek to dominate possession in a pro-active manner. The opponent will adopt a reactive style. The home match against Newcastle last season was an excellent illustration of this clash between pro-active and reactive styles. Newcastle was never going to compete for parity of possession so focussed instead upon retaining shape and controlling the space. Despite controlling possession overwhelming with 77% compared to Newcastle’s 23%, Swansea were never in control of the game and Newcastle won 2-0.
It’s the dichotomy that faces modern football and one that I believe we will see more and more of as the season progresses across European football as a whole. The clash of beliefs – pro-active attacking football against reactive counter attacking football. We saw it during key games last season in the Premiership, Europa League and the Champions League.
Should Swansea abandon their beliefs and adopt a more robust style of play? No, I don’t believe it will help them move significantly higher up the league table.
It must be remembered within a league of twenty teams, only one team is going to be crowned Champions at the end of each season. The remaining nineteen teams have to ask themselves at the end of each season “What did I achieve? What did I bring to the league?”
Swansea bring much to the league in terms of their technical ability and with some subtle changes to their squad and their style of play, there is no reason why they cannot enjoy a long stay within the Premiership playing a lovely brand of football that is as close to the continent as you are likely to see within the British Isles.
All of the stats from this article (Apart from Michu Stats – via WhoScored.com) have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Read about new additions to the stats centre.