After both surviving for a second consecutive season in the Premier League last season, Swansea and Norwich looked abroad to strengthen their strike force and further their ambitions.
The Welsh side signed Wilfred Bony from Vitesse Arnhem for £12million, while their Norfolk counterparts also broke their club record fee with the capture of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel for £8.5 million. Both players were well-known to football fans with a knowledge away from British shores and were seen as good signings for their respective clubs, however it hasn’t worked out for one of them.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel surprised many by choosing to go to Norwich, where many felt it was downwards career move leaving Sporting Lisbon for the Canaries. Scoring on his debut with his shot helped Norwich to a 2-2 draw against Everton, but his fortunes in Norfolk abruptly finished there; the fans lost patience with the Dutch forward with no goals following his strike and only 8 shots on target since.
Wilfred Bony on the other hand has gone from strength to strength since a period where he adapted to the faster paced style of play associated with English football where speed of thought needed is drastically quicker than in Holland. Bony’s 2 goals against Aston Villa at the weekend saw his tally for the season rise to 15 league goals, 25 in all competitions, and saved Swansea from relegation as they battled physical demands of European football.
The contrast of the two players performances this season can be put down to a number of things – form of team mates, quality of creativity from midfield, confidence, luck – but the main underlining factor between Bony and van Wolfswinkel is the physicality of each player.
The lone striker system that is utilised in English football, especially by smaller clubs in the league who are expected to have less possession in the opposition half, needs someone who is willing to run the channels and hold up the ball alongside their attacking play in and around the box. Van Wolsfwinkel can work the wide areas – Neil Adams mentioned this as the reason he started the Dutch striker against Manchester United on Saturday – but when challenged he has often lost out rather easily. Similarly when Norwich have cleared their lines, the ball has gone up to van Wolfswinkel and his battle for the ball – both in the air and on the ground – has been similar to a small child trying to get his ball from an adult who’s holding out of arms length.
This area of the game is something Bony excels in, often seeing holding off 1, 2, maybe even 3 opposition players which helps to create space for his team mates and hold on to possession rather than swiftly giving the ball back. The Ivorian striker has won 74 ground duels (42%) and 95 aerial duels (44%) compared to van Wolfswinkel who has won 35 of duels on the ground (32%) and just 14 in the air (an incredibly low 16%). Another difference in how each player leads the line is the number of minutes per each touch on average; Norwich’s Dutch forward makes a touch every 2.98 minutes while Swansea’s import from Holland is involved in play every 1.89 minutes. The difference between the two players in this area of the game is so alarming it becomes less surprising why one failed and the other succeeded.
With those points in mind, the blame shifts slightly off the player to the coaching staff for failing to determine van Wolfswinkel’s lack of a physical presence as an issue and to put him onto a fitness regime in the gym – many players have done this in the past when coming to the Premier League to help adapt and improve, most notably the current Ballon D’or winner Ronaldo.
As Bony goals in the previous 2 weeks have sealed Swansea’s place in the Premier League for further year and Norwich drop into the relegation area at the pivotal moment of the season due to a lack of goals, last summer’s transfer dealings for a new leading striker has had differing consequences for both teams.