After a terrible festive period that saw his side in relegation form, Swansea City boss Michael Laudrup said he’s not worried about falling into a relegation battle. At the start of the campaign, that’s likely not the conversation the Dane was expecting to be having in January.
Coming off last season, in which Swansea solidified their Premier League status, competed in Europe, and won their first trophy, the club was expected to become still further established in the Prem and perhaps contend for a top eight finish. As it’s turned out, however, Southampton have seized their ‘impressive underdog’ spotlight, while Swansea have stagnated. They’ve not been poor enough to grab headlines (yet), but the side’s form, taking only three points from their last 18, is worrying nonetheless.
So what happened?
Determining the source of Swansea’s problems, however, isn’t as easy as simply looking at the stats. In many ways, their stat lines are strikingly similar to last season. They are taking a similar number of shots, and playing a similar number of long balls, crosses, and through balls. They’re pass completion rate and number of offsides per game is roughly the same.
Ordinarily, these sorts of stats would tell you something about how a team has changed – they’re more direct, their strikers are looking to run off the defender’s shoulder, they’re becoming more intricate, etc. But none of those clues are there in those statistics.
However, there are two stats that hint at what the problem might be: First, Swansea’s possession percentage is hovering at around 59% right now – a four percent increase from last season. In other words, they’re having about as much of the ball this year as they did in their maiden season in the Premier League under current Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers.
On a similar note, the Swans are playing around 60 more short passes per game this year (without any significant increase in long balls, through balls, or crosses). Again, that puts this year’s Swansea closer to Rodgers’ side than Laudrup’s trophy-winning one from last year.
These stats suggest what any observer of the Swans well knows – this year’s side has struggled to have the same cutting edge in attack that last year’s team possessed. That has led to more possession, but consisting entirely of short, lateral passes that don’t meaningfully advance the attack. They’re also averaging 7.8 dribbles per game this year, up from 5.2 last year - which suggests that, absent of an obvious cutting edge up top, they’re trying to break people down through dribbling.
Rodgers to Laudrup…and back to Rodgers?
Unfortunately, for the Swans, this is a very different team from Brendan Rodgers’. The pressing is not as aggressive as it was under Rodgers and the defence has been less tight as a result. Under Rodgers, after 20 games the Swans had conceded 23 goals. Keep in mind that that was a freshly promoted side with a number of players from the previous year’s Championship team.
This year, with a more experienced side that, presumably, has better players, they’ve conceded 28. Additionally, whereas Rodgers wanted his side to have that amount of possession, Laudrup wants a more aggressive, vertical style – a style this year’s Swans haven’t been able to play consistently.
To sum up, then, this year’s Swans have the possession of Rodgers’ side, the pressing and openness of Laudrup’s side but not the cutting edge. Unsurprisingly, this represents Swansea’s worst Premier League campaign so far.
The concern with the lack of cutting edge suggests a further problem as well. In their first two seasons in the top flight, Swansea were carried for significant stretches by an in-form attacking player who was scoring and setting up his teammates regularly.
In their first year, it was loan signing Gylfi Sigurdsson who arrived in January and took the Premier League by storm. Over that summer Sigurdsson departed for Spurs, where he has struggled to replicate his Swansea form, and the Swans added Spanish attacking midfielder Michu, who started the year playing in the hole before moving up into a striker role where his height and technical ability turned him into one of the top stories of the Premier League season.
This dependence upon a single individual isn’t unusual in the Premier League. As much as we like to talk about teams in the Premier League, it’s often true that one talismanic figure is the difference between anonymity and trophies – or at least notoriety. If you look back at the last several campaigns, there’s no shortage of star players helping a side to a finish that is 8-10 points better than they would’ve attained without them.
The importance of being Michu
Last year’s champions Manchester United had Robin van Persie to thank for their title, Spurs had Gareth Bale to thank for keeping them in the Champions League hunt until the final day and Liverpool have Luis Suarez to thank for keeping them out of midtable mediocrity. The year before RVP carried Arsenal to the Champions League while Sergio Aguero’s scintillating form helped carry City to the title.
Amongst midtable sides, a similar story persists. Grant Holt carried Norwich during their first year in the Premier League. Last year with Holt struggling for form, Norwich flirted with relegation – a flirtation they have continued in this campaign. Rickie Lambert propped up Southampton for much of last year, while Stephane Sessegnon carried Sunderland at times.
As much fun as it is to talk tactics and strategies, it’s easy for the wonk bloggers of the football world to forget about the difference that a single iconic player can make to a side. That, more than anything else, is the story of the season so far for Swansea and explains why they are having more possession, which is mostly innocuous, and why they are dribbling and playing short passes more than last season.
The Swans never looked in danger of relegation in their first two campaigns. But this year that possibility may very well be in play. They’re level on points with a team that has already sacked their manager (WBA) and one point ahead of a team that has reportedly considered doing the same (Norwich).
And while it would help the Swans to rediscover the vertical attacking that carried them last year, the reason they haven’t been able to play that way so far is a function of their lack of a talismanic attacking figure. The biggest need for Swansea, therefore, is for a player to step forward and provide the goals and service offered by Sigurdsson and Michu in their first two years in the top flight.
Sigurdsson the answer?
Who will that player be? As of now, the best bet is Wilfried Bony, their record signing from the Eredivisie. But given his fitness struggles, it might be dangerous for the Swans to lean too heavily on Bony. Michu himself is a good candidate, of course, but he has had the same struggles with fitness and form as Bony.
One intriguing possibility is attempting to bring Sigurdsson back on loan. He has looked a fringe player at Spurs under Tim Sherwood and may be available. At Swansea he would likely reclaim the no. 10 role that he owned during his first spell at the club and would offer more of a goal threat than current starter Jonjo Shelvey.
He also would offer more of a set piece threat, which would be especially helpful for a side struggling for goals. Additionally, as he has shown at Spurs, he is capable of working on the left wing, which would be helpful if or when Michu and Bony are both available.
A front four of Sigurdsson, Michu, and Pablo Hernandez or Pozuelo supporting Bony is certainly midtable quality and more than enough to preserve Swansea’s Premier League status for another year.
(photo credit #2: XINK via Flickr)