It may seem an odd statement to make about a side currently sitting in a mid table position in the Barclays Premier League, who were playing against a team in the bottom two, but yesterday, at The Reebok Stadium, Swansea City put in a second half performance that really saw them arrive as a Premier League team. Yes, there was the humiliation of Fulham, yes there were the home defeats of Manchester City and Arsenal, and yes there was the dismantling of an experienced Aston Villa side to deliver their first ever away win at this level in January, but yesterday, against a team fighting for their lives, this Swansea City side rose to another level. That of an experienced, committed and accomplished Premier League team.
Look at the background to the game first. Following their emphatic victory over a toothless Blackburn Rovers, Swansea had all but secured their place in the division for next season thanks to last week’s 3-0 victory. Bolton, as solid a Premier League team as there has been in recent years – especially at home – were a team fighting for their lives with survival at stake. In terms of hunger for a victory, surely the home team would possess the greater appetite for the battle against visitors with – on paper at least – little to play for? Then, as if to reinforce this possibility and after initially taking the lead with a quite sublime Scott Sinclair strike, Swansea began getting pegged back by an uncompromising Bolton team, who not only equalised with an Eagles goal at the end of an excellent and flowing move and pinpoint cross by Petrov, but finished the half with such dominance in terms of territory, that I feared for Swansea in the second half, had Bolton resumed in the same manner after the interval.
But I shouldn’t have worried. I don’t know exactly what Brendan Rodgers and Captain Ashley Williams would have said to their troops at half-time, but whatever it was, it resulted in 45 minutes of controlled, committed and attacking football, that completely – bar the odd breakaway – snuffed out the Bolton threat that had become evident in that first half. The stats also confirm this. Even though Swansea’s passing was down from usual highs – 480 attempted yesterday against 612 in the Blackburn game – and the accuracy also dropped slightly – 85% against the 90% excellence of last week – the directness of Swansea’s passing was better. Yesterday, the percentage of passes attempted in the final third of the field by Swansea was 27% of their total passes, compared to 21% against Blackburn. When you think that’s 6% better than in a game they won – at home – 3-0, then it speaks volumes for the positive way Rodgers’ men approached that second half. This positivity is also confirmed by the possession stats that show Swansea dominated possession, unsurprisingly, by 62% to 38%.
Even though I’d have taken a one all draw at half time yesterday, such was the manner Bolton grew to pressurise Swansea in the first 45 minutes, it’s clear that after the full 90, Swansea could easily have walked away with a three or four one victory, that not even the most ardent of Bolton fans could really have complained about. Not that Bolton didn’t have chances themselves though, they did of course, with Swansea grateful to Michel Vorm for an excellent save from a dipping free kick and also a great chance for Chris Eagles late in the game to pinch it for Bolton, that he just drew wide of Vorm’s right hand post. But overall, the stats show that Bogdan was by far the busier keeper, producing three saves to just the one by Vorm, but with the Bolton stopper also being extremely grateful to his defensive line for helping deal with the 26 shots Swansea threw at him, with 13 being blocked before reaching him. When we realise that the home team produced just 10 shots, with the bulk blocked or off target, it confirms that Bolton – despite their desperate need for a win yesterday – will have been relieved to walk away with a crucial point in their relegation battle.
In the second half, Swansea completely dominated, not only by running Bolton ragged down both flanks thanks to Rangel and Moore – in an unfamiliar wide role – on the right flank and Sinclair and the marauding Taylor on the left, but also by the direct running through the middle of the field by Sigurdsson and Allen.
Once again, Allen was everywhere, completing 55 of his 57 passes (96%) which compares extremely favourably with the 37 out of 45 (82%) completed by his opposite number Reo-Coker, and if in previous games this season Allen has been criticised by some at times for looking to retain possession by often turning back and seeking out Britton or Williams as his out ball, yesterday he seemed more intent on either driving forward himself and linking well with Sigurdsson or looking left and playing in Sinclair and the excellent Taylor, who enjoyed possibly his best performance in a Swansea shirt this season.
It’s interesting if we compare Taylor’s effectiveness yesterday as an attacking option to that of his opposite number, former Swan Sam Ricketts. Taylor attempted 35 passes (80% success) compared to Ricketts’ 28 (68%). Of Taylor’s 35 passes, 19 were offensive (the same number of passes Ricketts completed anywhere during the game), compared to just 10 offensive passes attempted by Ricketts. When we see that Taylor also delivered four crosses to Ricketts’ none, then it’s clear just how more attacking Swansea were down the left flank than Bolton.
Next Page: David’s thoughts on Scott Sinclair… (click below right or top right for link)
Finally, I must make mention of Scott Sinclair. There were two moments in the match that summed up his season and also perhaps where he is right now as a player. First, the goal. It was simply a magnificent strike that, years ago, would have won Match of the Day’s Goal of the Season hands down. He used Taylor’s intelligent run to cut inside, run in-field parallel to the 18 yard box, and unleashed a shot of such precision and power, that Bogdan in the Bolton goal would have been better served just standing still and applauding. It was a goal that only a handful of Premier League players have the ability to produce, such was it’s genuine World Class. But then, in the second half, with Swansea enjoying wave after wave of attacks but not scoring the goal that would surely have opened the floodgates that would have swept Bolton aside, Sinclair tried to back heel a goal through a crowd of players, when a simple three yard lay off to Sigurdsson would have delivered a straightforward goal for the Icelander. Sigurdsson’s annoyance was clear, but the option that Sinclair took probably reflects where he is currently as a player. The reason that the critics tend to jump on him is that he’s blessed with the type of ability that only the lucky few in the Premier League posses, as his goal suitably demonstrated, so they get frustrated when he either spurns an opportunity or appears to selects the wrong option. Yet, being a winger and a young player – both historically unpredictable characteristics in a footballer – Sinclair doesn’t always deliver to the level he is undoubtedly capable off, hence the frustration of some.
But I am certain of one thing, he is still only 23 years old and the level of consistent brilliance will soon come. Yesterday, he could do worse than take a look at the performance of the veteran Bolton winger Martin Petrov. If I were a manager and both Petrov and Sinclair were for sale today and I could buy only one, then I would buy Sinclair every single time. No surprise there. But in a game Swansea performed extremely well in yesterday, Sinclair provided two offensive passes to Petrov’s eight, delivered just two crosses to Petrov’s 13 and attempted 17 passes (82% success) to Petrov’s 28 (79%). If Scott had walked off the Reebok with Petrov’s stats yesterday, then I think the Swans would have won by four or five. These stats are not highlighted to criticise Scott, it’s just to emphasise that when he improves and matures (Petrov don’t forget is 10 years his senior) as he undoubtedly will, then he has every tool in his armoury to become one of the most complete and potent forward players in the Premier League today, and players like that are priceless, just as his stunning goal showed.
So with three games left to play, Swansea City have mathematically confirmed something that most of us have known for the past few months, that in 2012/13, they will be a Barclays Premier League team once again. And on yesterday’s performance alone, they have proved that they will enter next season as an experienced, committed and accomplished Premier League team, just like Bolton Wanderers have been this last eleven years. Is that possibly the future for Swansea in terms of residence in the top division? Now that’s a nice thought for every Swansea City fan to have entering the last three weeks of the season.