by James McMath
SWANSEA City fancy themselves as the Barcelona of the Championship and they’re not ashamed to say so.
Barça are almost certainly the greatest side on the planet, probably the best in a generation and arguably the finest in history.
But Brendan Rogers, the Swans manager, makes no bones about aiming to emulate them. His thinking is: if you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly.
Swansea, like the Catalan club, have won themselves plenty of admirers over the last few of years.
The Swans are a slightly smaller, South Welsh version, but the contemporary link between the clubs is genuine, if a little tenuous.
Swansea’s modern willingness to entertain started in 2007 under the stewardship of Roberto Martinez, who was born in the Catalonian town of Balaguer, two hours’ drive inland from Barcelona.
Under the Spaniard, who spent three years as a City player between 2003 and 2006, Swansea won promotion to the Championship from League One in 2008.
They finished eighth in the Championship the following season and, when Martinez left for Wigan Athletic and the Premier League, the philosophy at Swansea was maintained by Portuguese boss Paulo Sousa.
Sousa’s side finished seventh in the Championship last season, a point behind Blackpool, who were eventually promoted to the Premier League via the play-offs.
The Swans played some sumptuous stuff but, remarkably, had the worst goals-for record in the division, scoring only 40. Possession appeared to be the best form of defence during Sousa’s reign. His side conceded 37 goals – the best defensive record in the division behind champions Newcastle United.
Sousa made the ill-fated switch to Leicester City in the summer and Rogers, who is from neither Catalonia or Portugal, was handed the task of matching what his Iberian predecessors had accomplished.
So far, the Northern Irishman has done it better. Swansea remain the division’s best outfit to watch (honourable mentions go to Sean O’Driscoll’s Doncaster Rovers, Eddie Howe’s Burnley and Simon Grayson’s Leeds United) but, this year, they are scoring goals. And plenty of them.
Rogers’ previous stints as manager at Watford and Reading were pretty unspectacular. But he is held in high regard within the game and Swansea are reaping the reward for taking a chance on the 38-year-old.
Rogers’ preferred shape is a 4-3-3, not dissimilar to that employed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, with Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair wide of either Luke Moore or Craig Beattie. The focal point of that trio appears to depend on the opposition and circumstance.
In recent weeks, Moore has started in home games, with Beattie getting the nod away from Liberty Stadium.
It is the addition of Sinclair, though, that has helped them most. The 21-year-old, a £500,000 summer recruit from Chelsea, can clearly play at a higher level. With 21 goals in all competitions, he has scored twice as many as any other individual at the club.
Rogers’ determination to stick to his principles were particularly apparent last week at Scunthorpe United’s Glanford Park, where the surface boasts almost as much sand as Barcelona’s man-made beaches.
The Swans went down 1-0 in that game but emerged with great credit for persisting to play their way, defying the treacherous turf. Every player, from centre-back to creative midfielder, controlled the ball with confidence and was keen to receive the ball under pressure. They simply lacked a goal.
In an interview with the South Wales Evening Post last month, Rogers said: “The model of my coaching life has been based around Barcelona.
“I have spent time in Spain watching them and they are my big influence.
“I read a brilliant article with Xavi and he made the point that while everyone talks about players needing to be technically better, it starts in the stands.
“As he said, if Jamie Carragher makes a strong clearance and the ball goes into the crowd, he will get applause.
“If Carles Puyol does that in Spain, there is nothing from the crowd.
“But if a player over there can’t deal with the ball, the crowd will whistle.
“A lot of clubs in this country wouldn’t be allowed to play football like we do because fans don’t want to see it.
“But, thankfully, the Swansea crowd are knowledgeable. They understand what we are trying to do.”
James McMath is a regular contributor to Just Football focussing on the English lower leagues. Follow him on Twitter @MrJamesMcMath