One of the major storylines entering this Premier League campaign was the fate of last year’s promoted darlings, Norwich and Swansea. Both sides took the Premier League by storm, finishing comfortably mid-table while playing an entertaining, attack-minded brand of football. Unfortunately, both clubs also said goodbye to their managers over the summer, hence the question marks hanging over the Liberty Stadium and Carrow Road as this season began.
Early on, it looked like the doubters would be vindicated as both sides stumbled out of the gates. Through 11 matches, Swansea’s lone wins came against QPR, West Ham and Wigan and they had only 13 points. Most alarmingly, they had drawn with Southampton and Reading and lost to Aston Villa.
Norwich also started slowly. They didn’t pick up their first win until mid-October and had only 3 points from their first 7 matches. But in the past month and a half, both have turned things around and now find themselves sitting comfortably clear of the drop.
Over the next two weeks, I hope to analyse how both clubs have changed their approach since promotion. Today I’m going to begin by looking at Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea versus Michael Laudrup’s Swansea. Next time we’ll turn our attention to Paul Lambert’s Norwich versus Chris Hughton’s.
Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea
The most important general observations to be made between last year’s team and this year’s concern the formation.
Brendan Rodgers preferred a 4-3-3 approach with fullbacks pushed up to midfield when in possession and one of the three midfielders acting as passing metronome/midfield sweeper.
The consequence is that the formation ended up being a functional 3-4-3 with one of the midfielders joining the two centre halves and the two fullbacks flanking the remaining two midfielders. This shape requires that all ten outfield players be comfortable passers and able to run for days in order to make the high tempo pressing game work.
Fitting nicely with the positional scheme described above, Rodgers’ Swansea valued possession to an almost dangerous level (meaning they were content to pass the ball for days without ever creating scoring chances). This explains why five of their seven leaders in passes per game were defenders.
Right back Angel Rangel played 66.9 passes per game in 2011-12, while left back Neil Taylor played 47.3. Centre back Ashley Williams was also a prominent figure in the attack as he actually led the side in number of passes played per game at 70.
The picture that emerges from these stats is of a side that valued possession and guaranteed they’d have it by playing a high defensive line, using their fullbacks as outlets when midfield became crowded. They were generally content to pass the ball in their own half as they looked for attacking openings.
One caveat should be added here. There are different types of 4-3-3. This is important when considering Laudrup’s Swansea because the seeds of this year’s team can be found in Rodgers’ side.
Swansea’s was most commonly compared to Barcelona’s version, rather than the Mourinho/early-Ancelotti version used at Chelsea. Barca’s 4-3-3 used one destroyer, one passer, and one runner in midfield–and when the destroyer drops deep and the fullbacks move forward it ends up looking a lot like a 3-4-3.
Chelsea’s midfield used a destroyer and two runners, one of them being Frank Lampard, whose most valuable contributions invariably came in the attacking third rather than the midfield area. As a result, Chelsea’s midfield sometimes functioned more as a 4-2-1-3 or even a 4-2-3-1 than a true 4-3-3, with Lampard operating in the space between midfield and front three.
Rodgers’ Swansea often ended up looking more like Chelsea positionally, with Gower or Sigurdsson deployed in the Lampard role – even if they played more like Barcelona.
Put another way, Swansea preserved the passer/destroyer part of the Barca system, with Joe Allen in the Xavi role and Leon Britton in Busquets’. But they didn’t really have an Iniesta-type runner. Instead, they had a Lampard-type runner, making them more of a hybrid and causing their 4-3-3 to, on occasion, look more like a 4-2-3-1 with Gower/Sigurdsson flanked by two tucked in wings.
To sum up then, the defining tactical vision of Rodgers’ Swansea was a hybrid 4-3-3 borrowing elements from both Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Chelsea (unsurprising, given Rodgers’ coaching history).
It emphasised frenetic pressing by the midfielders and fullbacks, short passing, and a high percentage of possession. (On average, Rodgers’ Swans side enjoyed 58% possession, a stat unheard of for a promoted side.)
This brings us to Laudrup’s Swansea. In many ways it’s a similar side. They still use high percentage passes, enjoy a good chunk of possession (though they’re averaging 55%, a slight dip from last year), and use a limited pressing game. But there are significant differences too, due in part to new personnel and in part to Laudrup’s more direct approach.
Let’s begin with the personnel. Joe Allen left for Liverpool, Scott Sinclair left for Manchester City and Gylfi Sigurdsson left for Spurs. Former Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung replaced Allen, Pablo Hernandez replaced Sinclair, and buy of the season Michu took over from Sigurdsson.
Ki has actually been an improvement on Allen as far as passing is concerned – on average he plays three more passes per game than Allen and his completion rate is a full percentage point better. The tradeoff is that Allen was a far superior defender, averaging 3 tackles per game and two interceptions.
Ki averages one of each, which is a significant dropoff for a central midfield player.
It’s hard to assess Pablo’s influence since he hasn’t seen nearly as much match time as Ki. Meanwhile, Michu has scored more goals than Sigurdsson (while taking fewer shots) but he’s also playing only one key pass per game, while Sigurdsson averaged three. He’s also playing five fewer passes per game than the departed Icelandic playmaker.
The sum total is that Ki and Michu offer more goal-scoring dynamism, but a drop in defensive workrate and incisive through balls. It’s not surprising, then, that this year’s Swans are playing on average 50 fewer passes per game and enjoying less possession, but also scoring more goals. That’s the sort of change you would expect to see in a squad that traded players like Allen and Sigurdsson for Ki and Michu.
Now let’s look at the positional differences. We already talked about how Rodgers’ 4-3-3, for all the Barca comparisons, also borrowed elements from Chelsea’s 4-3-3. Functionally, this meant that the Swans’ shape sometimes resembled a 4-2-3-1 more than a 4-3-3.
Laudrup has made the change more final, as the graphics below illustrate. The first image shows Swansea’s average positions in their recent 3-1 victory over West Brom. (Disregard numbers 19, 20, and 26 because they were all substitutes.):
Note the tucked in position of the wide creators, Pablo (11) and Dyer (12). Routledge (15) is playing in the central Sigurdsson role while Michu (9), is playing ostensibly as a striker but is almost adopting a false 9 role. Also note how incredibly narrow their attackers are. You’d never see that in Rodgers’ teams because they used the wide men to keep the opponent pinned deep and to give their midfielders passing outlets.
An even better illustration can be found from the 2-0 win over Arsenal in which Michu reprised his preferred role as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1.
In this map, ignore numbers 19 and 21, both of which are substitutes, and focus on the very obvious 4-2-3-1 shape of the starters.
The defenders are numbers 22, 4, 6, and 33. The midfield two are Ki (24) and Britton (7). The three creators are Dyer (12), De Guzman (20), and Michu (9). Up top leading the line is Shechter (17). Note also how much Dyer and De Guzman have tucked in up top, a far cry from the wide spacing, wing play and overlapping runs used to such devastating effect under Rodgers.
Practically speaking, this change in shape accounts for the change in Swansea’s passing stats so far. As mentioned before, the Swans are playing 50 fewer passes per game this season. They’re also winning nearly eight more aerial duels per game when compared to last season.
Interestingly, they’ve done that while still retaining one of last year’s staples – a short, possession based passing game. If you break down the passing stats into long balls, short passes and through balls etc, both teams played short passes around 85% of the time.
The difference is that last year’s side kept their advanced wide men in wider roles, pushed the fullbacks well up the pitch, and used overlapping runs to stretch the defence.
One of the staples of Swansea’s old attack – especially after the addition of Sigurdsson – was the defence splitting through ball. Sinclar, Dyer, and Routledge feasted on those all year last season. This year’s team is keeping its wide attackers much narrower and keeping their advanced central creator further up the pitch as more of a classic number ten.
This reduces the overlapping runs and through balls but allows for a more direct attacking game which creates more attacking opportunities.
The stats bear this out; Laudrup’s Swansea are averaging two more shots per match and two more shots on target per match. Add to this that Michu has been one of the Premier League’s most clinical finishers so far and you have a recipe for more goals.
Last year through 17 matches Swansea scored 16 goals. This year they’re at 26—and that’s in a league that has seen far fewer goals this year than last. Manchester City for example had 53 at this time last year – this season 33 – Chelsea 35 last year – 28 this. Spurs 32 last year, 30 this year. You get the idea. The only Premier League side to see a similar upturn in goals is Fulham.
To sum up, this year’s Swans have relied on a more direct attacking style that sacrifices some possession in order to create more scoring chances.
So far, it’s worked well. The side’s defensive record is comparable to last year’s (21 goals shipped through 17 matches last year, 22 through 17 this year) and the attacking record is much improved.
Part of this change is simply down to changing personnel, but part of it is also down to the fact that Laudrup’s side is pressing less and has sacrificed width in order to keep possession further up the field and generate more shots. It could be a dangerous game, of course, but so far it has served them well. But we’ll have to wait until May to give a more conclusive verdict.
(photo credit: Swansea University via Flickr)