The underlying fact about football is that there are many ways of playing to achieve success, and nobody can really prove which is right or wrong. Look at Stoke City. They are the embodiment of footballing Marmite, you either love them or hate them and there never appears to be any middle ground when it comes to appraising their particular capabilities. If you are a bit of a football purist, you might be alarmed by the fact that this season, Stoke players have attempted 17 defence splitting through balls for their attackers to run onto, compared to the 225 tried by Arsenal. It’s hardly ever along the ground and the beautiful game for Stoke, it’s aerial, win the header, pick up the second ball and see what develops from there. It’s not my cup of tea to be honest, but I don’t criticise them because they get success with it as their solidity in the Premier League, an FA Cup Final and a place in this year’s Europa League attests.
Yesterday at the Liberty Stadium, whilst I knew that both teams would approach the game differently, one thing I didn’t expect when I turned up was a clash of two completely differing styles. In the game at St James’ Park, sorry I mean the Sports Direct Arena, back in December, I saw a very dynamic home team, at times running Swansea ragged, especially in the first half when Obertan had probably his best half in a Newcastle shirt and Jonas Gutierrez became a threat all day, using every inch of the pitch to stretch Swansea’s midfield almost to breaking point. It was only Swansea’s defensive excellence and a great display from Michel Vorm that kept a very impressive Newcastle at bay. Gutierrez himself put in a particularly notable performance I recall, and the stats confirm this showing he attempted 40 passes, completing 33 (83%), putting in 12 crosses and having a shot, for an impressive afternoon’s work. Since then, Newcastle have added the extremely impressive Papiss Cisse to their ranks, and confounded the doubting experts by not just maintaining their position, but actually mounting an extremely credible challenge for Champions League football, largely based on the positive way that they employ an attacking three of Demba Ba, Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa supplemented by the width of Gutierrez as a constant attacking threat.
With all that in mind, as I took my seat yesterday, I was predicting a really dynamic game and expected to witness Newcastle taking the game to Swansea, utilising the controlling excellence of Gutierrez, Ben Arta and Cabaye. In fact, I thought that Ashley Williams and Steven Caulker could possibly be in for a busy afternoon having to deal with the threat posed by the marauding duo of Ba, who Williams had publicly said was one of the top centre forwards he’d competed against this year, and Cisse who has been Les Ferdinandesque in his superb start to his career in the North East.
How wrong I was.
Alan Pardew definitely had the personnel to fight fire with fire yesterday, but he chose instead to fight fire with sand by defending from the start with 11 behind the ball and offering very little in terms of attacking intent. A la Stoke, I won’t criticise him for that, it’s his right to approach any match in a tactical manner of his choosing and he will point to the victorious 0 – 2 score line as complete justification of his tactics, so for him it was a job very well done, but having watched the game first hand and now analysed the stats, I still find it almost beyond belief that Swansea came away from the game with nothing.
Next Page: In-depth stats report on the game, including Swansea’s astonishing passing stats…
Possession first. Swansea City had an astonishing 77% possession, compared to Newcastle’s paltry 23%. That possession resulted in 19 shots from Swansea (8 on target and also 8 from within the box) against Newcastle’s five shots (3 of which were on target).
Now passing. Swansea attempted an astounding 914 passes against Newcastle’s 271. If those numbers aren’t impressive enough for the Swans, the fact that they completed 835 of them for a 91% success rate certainly should be. Newcastle’s passing accuracy was poor, with just 181 of their passes finding their target for a success rate of 67%, quite below their season’s average of 76%.
What about crosses? In their home game in December, Newcastle threw in an astonishing 41 crosses, 14 of them accurate. Yesterday, they attempted three, none of which reached their intended destination. Swansea, whilst not quite matching the numbers of Newcastle’s 41 in the previous fixture, still managed 26 – almost nine times the number that their opponents attempted.
Chances and corners? Swansea created 15 chances yesterday, 13 from open play, compared to the two from Newcastle that resulted in the winning goals. Swansea also defended well from corners – because they didn’t have to face one – and on the other hand, they forced seven themselves.
So it was all Swansea then? Well, in fact, yes it was, and what Swansea fans had the misfortune of witnessing yesterday, was football’s ultimate smash and grab. As a result of that, on leaving the ground I heard several mutterings of disapproval from certain Swansea supporters who were levelling the usual frustrated cry when no goals result from all their possession, that their team were “playing and passing in the wrong parts of the pitch”, i.e. not in attacking areas.
Wrong I’m afraid.
Swansea attempted 215 passes in the final attacking third yesterday, just 56 less than Newcastle managed across the whole field over the 90 minutes. If we include the whole of the Newcastle half and not just the final third, Swansea’s passes carried out there increases to 567 attempted. That means 59% of Swansea’s attempted passing took place in the opposition half. Figures like that do not back up those disgruntled fans who perpetuated the myth following the game that the bulk of Swansea’s possession occurred deep in their own half and across the back four and keeper.
In terms of personnel yesterday, again it’s interesting to compare some key players. I thought both Gylfi Sigurdsson and Joe Allen were excellent yesterday, and overshadowed the performances of their opposite numbers, Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye. Sigurdsson out passed the talented Ben Arfa completely, with the Icelander attempting 65 passes, completing 58 for a success percentage of 89% compared to just 16 successful passes by the gifted Ben Arfa from only 23 attempts for a percentage of 70%. The comparison between Cabaye and Allen is even starker. Allen attempted an astounding 101 passes more than the Frenchman’s 23, for a truly superb success rate of 96%.
But there is one final statistic, and as all football fans know, it’s the most important one of all. Swansea City failed to score and despite being completely outplayed, Newcastle United scored two. As Lee Trevino once said “there are no pictures on the scorecard” and Alan Pardew and Newcastle fans will point to the two goals and the victory as the be all and end all of yesterday’s 90 minutes, and it is very hard to argue against that.
But do you know what? As much as I can’t really criticise Pardew for his negative, but ultimately successful approach it doesn’t mean I have to like it and I just wish he’d remembered how well his team had played against Swansea back in December and had turned up with that same intent yesterday. I know he had a couple of key defenders missing and wanted to protect what he had – especially after scoring the early goal – but did he cast a glance a Jonas Gutierrez at any point during the game I wonder? The player who impressed me most back in December as a constant attacking threat contributed almost nothing to the game offensively yesterday in his unfamiliar narrow midfield role, and his performance is summed up by the fact that to compliment the 14 crosses he made the last time these two teams met, he didn’t manage a single one yesterday.
Being a football fan, aware of the game’s long and rich history in this country, I’ve always been a bit of a closet Newcastle United fan, largely for the entertaining impact that they’ve had on the English game over the years, but having watched them walk away with the three points having contributed so little to the game as a spectacle, I must admit the only feeling they left me with yesterday was one of a taste of Marmite in my mouth.
And I’m not always a big fan of that.