SwanseaCity are the latest newly promoted side to charm the neutrals and earn the respect of opponents throughout the Premier League. Following their 3-0 away victory over Fulham they currently lie 8th in the table – only three points off Liverpool, by mid-March find themselves just one point off the magic 40 generally reckoned to ensure safety in the division.
Blackpool similarly impressed match-goers, TV audiences and pundits in their 2010-11. They stuck to their guns by playing the same expansive and entertaining game that they had been promoted using. Sadly they fell short, but during the season they had wins over Liverpool (twice) and Tottenham, and some memorable away victories. West Bromwich Albion seem to do it on a 2-4 year cycle. Almost every year, at least one of the clubs promoted to the Premier League raise eyebrows with attacking play.
But this should not be such a surprise. Promoted teams have, by definition, had very successful league campaigns the year before. The same question is always posed to these clubs. Stick or twist? It applies not only to style of play, but also to investment. A Chairman can choose to rubber stamp ambitious moves for players with good experience or great promise, paying out on transfer fees and extravagant wages, or they can cautiously withhold funds (If indeed funds are available) and hope that the existing playing and non-playing staff can withstand the onslaught. The manager too is asked the same question, and of course in discussion with the money men at the club will choose to either stay true to their attacking ideals or try to adopt a defensive approach. The two questions are inextricably interlinked. Strangely though, although one decision informs the other, it’s often the case that if the decision is made to stick with the system, investment is made, and conversely if a club decides to change tack from attacking expansive football to gritty survival football, then the money isn’t spent. So a club would end up trying to implement a defensive strategy with their existing attacking squad. This is of course a simplification, but a promoted team will have to position themselves somewhere on a sliding scale of financial and football gambling.
QPR, for example, exclusively set out in an exciting 4-2-3-1 formation during their promotion year, but under Warnock and now Hughes they have chosen to try and weather the storm by playing defensively and picking up points where they can, rather than going for broke in each game and indeed the campaign. Not a huge amount was invested in the playing squad in the summer break. DJ Campbell (£1.2m) and Anton Ferdinand (£3m) were brought in, supplemented by numerous free signings and loan deals. Not an enormous outlay – and yet the football that the players have been asked to play is vastly different from what they were originally were assembled for. Football players, and even more so a group of players, aren’t the best at adapting to change – just ask Andres Villas-Boas.
What makes Swansea special – and different to most promoted sides – is that they have a manager with a firm belief in his footballing principles, and a set of players who have been instilled with that belief – in the manager’s instructions and in themselves, almost to the point of indoctrination. Whereas Blackpool begun with a 4-0 victory in their first ever Premier League match but ultimately fell short, Swansea have improved as the fixtures progress. After a poor start in the division, results have started to turn their way. A 4-0 defeat in the opening game to ManchesterCity, and a 1-0 win in the corresponding home game neatly encapsulates this trend.
SwanseaCity play the 4-2-3-1 formation which has brought success to many clubs recently. Neil Warnock’s QPR side romped the Championship title playing the same formation, but changed tack once in the promised land of the Premier League, and as a result are struggling. Since signing Joey Barton QPR have tried 4-4-1-1 with Taarabt supporting the striker, they’ve tried 4-1-4-1 with Derry sitting in front of the defence, and they’ve tried 4-4-2 with Cisse and Zamora up top. Apart from the 4-4-2 games, QPR have had five in midfield, but the way they’ve set that midfield up has varied from game to game and it has sometimes showed. That’s not to say that football managers shouldn’t vary the way they play against different teams – of course they should. But to having no default can leave players struggling to understand their role in the team.
Swansea have not only outscored some of their more affluent and popular opponents, but in the majority of cases out-passed and out-played them too. When they faced Arsenal – a team generally reckoned to have the best passing game in the country – they hit 99 more passes than Arsenal, had a greater pass completion % and had more than 55% of possession. Possession is precious to Brendan Rogers. Against ManchesterCity they not only won 1-0 but again completed almost 100 more passes than their fancied adversaries, and again had over 55% possession. Incredible… you might say. But it’s not, once those passes are looked at in a bit more detail.
Almost all of Swansea’s passes in the final third of the pitch originated in that zone. There are very few long hoofed balls up to a target man. And, as can be seen by the red arrow which eminate from Swansea’s half, the long balls that were played were not very successful in keeping possession, which is Swansea’s modus operandi. Compared to Fulham’s passing – and remember fulham are the established Premier League side, and were playing at home. Far more long balls played up to the attackers, so consequently far fewer of those passes hit the mark. Territory, but not possession.
Against Arsenal, 54% of passes were either played backwards or square, and Swansea – despite the greater possession – had less of the territory. Against ManchesterCity it’s the same story. More passes than City, but over half didn’t go forward and Swansea spent more time in their own half than the other team’s. Even the 3-0 win over Fulham (With all due respect, less of a surprising result than wins over Arsenal and ManchesterCity) the trend continues, as seen in the images below:
Possession is precious to Swansea. Possession not only allows a team to create chances, but it stops opposition from creating their own. Against Fulham, a 3-0 victory was achieved, Swansea had far more of the ball, but were in their own half with it most of the time – of the little time that Fulham did get the ball, they managed more pass attempts (although not completions) than Swansea.Swansea are happy to play the Spanish style possession game – stylish, patient and effective. A continental style 4-2-3-1 with patient building through possession and short passes is effect tive against the “English way” of 4-4-2 and long balls up to a big number nine. The only surprise about Swansea is that they had the self-belief to stick to their guns after a bad start to the season. Because they did hold firm to their beliefs about how the game should be played, they are now reaping the rewards.
There are of course other issues that come with playing very well. A club such as Swansea, even with all the respect they’ve earned on the pitch this year, will struggle to keep hold of star players. Perhaps they were lucky in that way not to really hit the heights before the January transfer window closed. Blackpool where less fortunate – star midfielder Charlie Adam was linked with a move to Liverpool in January 2011, and Ian Holloway stood firm and rejected bids for his player in the belief that he needed him to stay up. Charlie then suffered a loss of form, Blackpool were relegated, and Adam now warms the bench and occasionally misses penalties for the Reds. What is very important for Swansea is the system. The system of simple short passes, possession at all costs, and pressing the opposition needs to be believed in. Team spirit is key to Swansea. The player most are talking about at Swansea is Leon Britton. A remarkable story even in a sport full of remarkable stories. Leon Britton has played in all four divisions with Swansea city, and now finds himselfi n the Premier League and with better passing statistics than anyone sharing a pitch with him. The Wandsworth born wizard has even achieved a better pass completion rate than Xavi at FC Barcelona.
His passing against Fulham rather beautifully describes Swansea’s general style of play. Most of the passing takes place in his own half, the passes are short, often square of backwards, and 96% of them found the intended target. Simple really!