Why Swansea City are struggling and how Spurs’ Sigurdsson could be the answer

Michael Laudrup's Swansea versus Brendan Rodgers' changes

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?

Swansea’s problems

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.

Michu

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)

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4 Responses to “Why Swansea City are struggling and how Spurs’ Sigurdsson could be the answer”

  1. Ryan
    January 10, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    To be honest you should be looking at the injury problems we have had, in which nearly every first team player has spent at least 2-3 weeks on the sidelines (Vorm, Rangel, Williams, Monk, Dyer, Pablo, De Guzman, Britton, Dyer, Routledge, Lamah, Michu). We have a very small squad and have had to play an extra 10 games including trips to Russia and Romania in the pointless Europa League. Without those games we would easily have 27-29 points so far.

    Remember Newcastle Utd went from Champions League contenders to just surviving relegation due to the same issues.

  2. spursfan33
    January 10, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    “He has looked a fringe player at Spurs under Tim Sherwood ”

    I don’t know about that. Sigurdsson started Sherwood’s first 3 games. I think he got a knock in the 3:2 win against Southampton and has been out injured for 2 weeks now i think.

    Going back to Swansea (even if it was on loan) would be a step back for Sigurdsson. He’s got the quality to fight for his place in the Tottenham team. He’s still one of the teams top scorer. (4 goals and 3 assists in all competitions)

    But if he’s not in Sherwoods future plans after the season, he won’t have any trouble finding a big club in England to play for next season. But let’s hope that does not happen. Gylfi has said he likes it at Spurs and want’s to play for the club.

  3. Eagle Eye
    January 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Great observations Jake. Sigurdsson would definitely improve our starting XI options and the fans would take him back tomorrow. Unfortunately he will be earning inflated wages at Spurs which may put him out of our financial limits and I suspect there would be competition for his signature. Wilfried Bony is starting to settle down now and the fans are confident that with a less congested fixture list for the second half of the season we should maintain mid-table position and avoid relegation battle.

    You seem to have missed the main problems for our current league status … lots of injuries to key players and the Europa League campaign which has seen us play 10 more competitive matches than teams in our ‘league’ within the Premiership.

  4. Jake Meador
    January 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Yeah, Europa and injuries haven’t helped, to be sure. Could perhaps have said more on that front.

    On the feasibility of adding Sigurdsson, I don’t think it will happen this window, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see it happen in the summer. a) He started those matches largely b/c we had so few players available due to injury. b) He can play three different roles for Spurs, but is probably 3rd or 4th choice in all three. c) I’m guessing his wages actually aren’t as high as you’d think. They’re probably slightly out of Swansea’s range, but not as much as you might think. d) The one thing that could hold up a deal to Swans, however, is that he’s home-grown. I don’t think Sig is a Champions League caliber player, but he’s certainly good enough for clubs like Villa or Southampton, both of whom have more money than Swansea and would probably be willing to pay it for a high-level home-grown player.

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