Swansea maintain their excellent start to the season with a 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland. Swansea, as expected, dominated possession and despite playing the last twenty minutes with just 10 men, following the dismissal of Chico, were still the side in the ascendency and pushing forward for a winner.
An enjoyable game despite limited goalmouth action for almost the entire first half, there are signs that Laudrup is making some small but important alterations to the way in which Swansea play.
Laudrup retained faith with same starting eleven who had comfortably defeated West Ham at home the previous week. New signing Ki started on the substitutes bench whilst Pablo Hernandez was not signed in time, consequently being ineligible.
Swansea began in 4-2-3-1 formation.
Due to the postponement of their game against Reading, this was Sunderland’s second league match of the season. Martin O’Neill made two changes with new signings Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson starting in place of the departed Kieran Richardson whilst Frazer Campbell dropped to the bench.
Sunderland used a 4-4-1-1- formation with Sessegnon tasked with supporting Fletcher.
Similar to the signing of Pablo, Sunderland had not signed Danny Rose in time to be eligible meaning that Jack Colback deputised at left back. With Craig Gardiner at right back, it meant two midfielders playing out of position at full back.
As was to be expected, Swansea began brightly with plenty of possession from precise, short passing but much of it occurring in front of the Sunderland defence. Similar to the approach against Arsenal, the Black Cats dropped into two narrow banks of four when defending particularly the defensive unit with Gardiner and Colback tucking in close to their centre backs partly for cover and partly due to their opponents style of play.
It was notable how both Routledge and Dyer were cutting in from their starting positions on the wings with width being provided by Taylor and Rangel. The use of inverted wingers was something Laudrup utilised in La Liga and its notable that his newest signing, Pablo Hernandez, is also an inverted winger. With Routledge and Dyer cutting infield, they often created a tightly formed triangle with Graham as the reference point at the edge of Sunderland’s penalty area but with Sunderland defending deep and in numbers, the moves frequently broke down.
With a reliance upon interchanging short passes between players, Swansea rarely moved in behind the Sunderland defence in the first half. Dyer was prepared to run and commit his opposing fullback but Colback received support from team mates. Michu was occupying space between the lines but was contributing little to the overall game in sharp comparison to his performances to date.
The central area of the pitch was simply too congested for anything meaningful to take place.
There was little in the way of goalmouth action with Swansea probing and Sunderland generally content to repel and seek to counter attack.
As half time approached, both Davies (on for the injured Taylor) and Rangel were pushing forward to provide the required width and supplied a number of crosses, many of which were badly over hit. With the game appearing to fade out as the interval approached, it burst into life courtesy of two defensive mistakes and a superb piece of skill delivering three goals.
Under little pressure, Williams miss-hit his back pass allowing Steven Fletcher a diagonal run on goal which he finished superbly, passing the ball into the net. His, and Sunderland’s, second arrived deep in stoppage time when a relatively harmless free kick was not dealt with by Chico and Fletcher tapped home at the back post.
Sandwiched between these goals was the first Swansea goal. The trident of Dyer, Routledge and Graham were all at the edge of the penalty area when Michu fed the ball through to Dyer who deftly flicked the ball through to Routledge for the first equalising goal.
The acquisition of Steven Fletcher for a reported fee of £12million has generated considerable media inches. This is a player who has suffered two relegations from the Premiership yet on each occasion has avoided the trapdoor via an immediate transfer to an existing Premiership club.
What makes him such a valuable player?
Listed below are a few statistics for Steven Fletcher in each of his Premiership seasons to date compared against the player who won the Golden Boot for top goalscorer.
With the exception of his first season at Burnley, as he acclimatised to life in the Premiership, Fletcher’s statistics provide an indication of why he is rated by many.
Given that he has played for clubs who are involved in relegation battles, Fletcher has a decent scoring record and his shooting accuracy and chance conversion are also fairly good.
It is reasonable to assume that by playing for a Sunderland side who should be safely in mid-table and with the likes of Johnson and McClean providing opportunities for him, that Fletcher should hit between 15-20 league goals this season.
O’Neill will certainly be looking for Fletcher to repay the faith shown in hm and score the goals to propel Sunderland up the league table.
The second half began in fairly tepid fashion considering the hectic conclusion to the first half. Rangel was now moving forward with greater purpose as Dyer repeatedly drifted infield, providing width on the right whilst his wayward crossing was gradually improving.
Dyer was pressing Sunderland with more aggression and Swansea were slowly increasing the tempo of the game but they remained very central in attack preferring to make one more pass when a long shot could be preferable or switching the play to the opposite side of the pitch would stretch the opposition. The narrow play by Swansea enable the Sunderland defence to stay compact and prevented Gardiner and Colback from really being tested when isolated in wide areas.
The Swansea equaliser arrived when De Guzman had time and space to cross from deep for the forward moving Michu to head into the net. This was the culmination of a period of about ten minutes when Swansea played at a much higher tempo and gradually pushed their opponents back towards their own goal. De Guzman was not closed down or pressed before he played the cross.
Sunderland had received a warning prior to the goal just a few minutes earlier when a Michu header went just over the bar following a corner. As with so many teams, Sunderland defend corners with a defender on each post. With the defenders on the posts deeper than the rest of their team, pushing out becomes difficult and the team faces two choices. Stay deep and defend until the ball goes out of play or is cleared high upfield or try to push out quickly and catch opponents offside. The inherent danger here of course, is that the players on the posts are a yard or two behind everyone else and when they push out, opponents remain onside.
Swansea were reduced to 10 men in the 70th minute when Chico received a red card for a quite bizarre attempted tackle on Louis Saha. Swansea adjusted their shape with Routledge and Michu departing for Tate and Ki, who made his debut, and they moved to a 4-4-1.
Despite being down to 10 men, it was Swansea who still dictated the tempo of the game although Sunderland did push further forward to press and close down. To facilitate their attacking efforts, Swansea switched Dyer to the left. This left the right side to Rangel on his own. One negative consequence of this, from a Swansea perspective, was that the change allowed Colback to attempt a few more forward forays as the game drew to a close.
At the start of the season, I highlighted a few of the key challenges facing Swansea in the forthcoming season. The issue revolved around ensuring their possession achieved an end product rather than “sterile domination”. Three games into the new season, has anything changed with Swansea?
Once more, Swansea are dominating possession against opponents but thus far they have enjoyed more shots at goal and greater chance creation in two of their three games. Achieve such a ratio for the remainder of the season and they will have reversed last season’s trend whereby the opponent had more shots at goal than Swansea in 23 league games.
It’s still very early days but the figures provide a degree of comfort for Swansea are moving forward in the right direction. The very low percentage of passes forward against Sunderland is perhaps slightly misleading given just how deep and well organised Sunderland were but it does against reinforce how some teams will set up at the Liberty Stadium.
If Laudrup persists with the use of inverted wingers, it is imperative that the full backs push high to provide the width and options.
Two away games to difficult venues (Emirates and Liberty Stadium) and two points returned for Sunderland will probably leave Martin O’Neill satisfied although there will be areas which need improvement. In both games Sunderland have enjoyed limited possession with a lack of creativity arising from the central area of the team but the work rate and discipline shown by the side will provide considerable encouragement.
The lack of natural full backs hindered Sunderland going forward but does provide the defensive stability which O’Neill seeks especially when the back four defend narrowly. Whilst the acquisition of Danny Rose on loan assist’s the problem at full back, is he an upgrade on Kieran Richardson? As the season progresses, Sunderland appear to have a strong central spine with Fletcher receiving support from the wings and possibly Sessegnon if he can rediscover form.
The somewhat bizarre prediction by some bookmakers of Laudrup being joint 6/1 favourite for the sack prior to the season commencing now looks silly. The team have most likely exceeded all expectations with their start as Laudrup has built upon the work of his predecessors and made some subtle, but potentially important, alterations to the basic set up.
This is still a work in progress however and should be enjoyed while it lasts as Laudrup suggests. There will be disappointments ahead as the team fine tune to Laudrup’s demands.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.