The Season So Far
It’s pretty safe to say that Swansea’s 2015-16 campaign has not gone quite as planned. After yet another season of admirable progress last year, this time around they were ready to keep kicking on and challenge for European places under media darling and Future England Manager Garry Monk. Of course, the departure of Wilfried Bony had blunted them somewhat, but the good form of Bafetimbi Gomis at the tail end of last season suggested that the Swans still had enough about them to continue their upward trajectory.
Apparently not: despite a very promising start to the season, in which Chelsea were totally outplayed at Stamford Bridge and Manchester United beaten at the Liberty Stadium, things very quickly went south. Gomis lost all confidence and made it clear that neither head nor heart were present, with Chinese clubs offering more money than he can dream of; flying winger Jefferson Montero very obviously burned out, further blunting their attack; Monk was unceremoniously sacked via the media, kept waiting for two days to hear chairman Huw Jenkins tell him to his face, and then left unreplaced for an absurd length of time. By the time new boss Francesco Guidolin arrived, Swansea were fighting for their lives.
What went wrong? Just about everything that can go wrong. Amidst the perfect storm of questionable competence at all levels, dressing room unrest and the lack of a natural goalscorer (as well as any kind of head coach for much of the season), Swansea went from challenging for Europe to fighting to avoid the drop in just a few short months. Frankly, they’re very lucky that Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa chose this season to be absolutely abysmal and very probably spare them the drop.
The Season Ahead
With just a few months left, many of the Swans’ key players are probably counting down the days until their summer moves to bigger/richer/non-relegated clubs. Gomis is already gone in all but the literal sense, Ki Sung-Yueng knows he’s good enough to play in the Champions League and established top-level players like Montero, Gylfi Sigurðsson and André Ayew have probably told their agents to sort something out, sharpish.
These next few weeks really are the key part of the season for Swansea, and could turn out to be the most important period in the club’s history. Put together a run of form and escape the drop and they secure a slice of next season’s uber-delicious £5 billion-TV-deal pie and keep their top players. Continue to lose games and fall into the second tier, and they miss out on the biggest pile of cash any provincial club like Swansea can ever hope to sit on, and all their stars walk, leaving them up Championship Creek without a paddle.
Since Guidolin arrived Swansea have experimented with a few systems, but January signing Alberto Paloschi’s failure to hit the ground running has seen him benched in the last couple of weeks, with Sigurðsson, Ayew and Wayne Routledge taking turns to play as the nominal number nine in a strikerless and narrow 4-3-3/4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1, with the full-backs the only real sources of width.
The jobs of the first two bands seem to be uniform in every game, with a flattish back four protected by a narrower midfield three. The central player in midfield acts as the playmaker and the two alongside him do his running and offer him short passing options before feeding either the forwards or the advancing full-backs.
It’s the classic Italian base, still favoured by the majority of Serie A coaches to this day, even though the rest of the world moved on some 20 years ago. It provides defensive solidity but can make attacks rather predictable and one-dimensional, which doesn’t help the guys up front.
Speaking of whom, the front three’s configuration is variable, but their job is basically to combine and make scoring opportunities any way they can. Until Swansea replace Bony and Gomis with a proper and prolific number nine, the best plan Swansea have remains "pick the three talented guys, get them to stand near the goal and hope they can do something". Their reliance on a plan so obviously bad goes some way to explaining their slump.
It’s not easy to find too many strengths in a team that absolutely cannot attack. Even in defence their strengths are middling, only looking relatively good when compared to their disastrously low output in front of goal.
In terms of defensive figures, they’ve done well at limiting the number of shots their opponents can take at their goal. They’ve faced a total of 334 shots against, which is right in the middle of the Premier League pack, and roughly 70 fewer than the sides they have to finish above to avoid relegation. They have faced the 6th lowest number of shots on target and their expected goals against total is a respectable 30.4, four lower than their actual total, which suggests their opponents have gotten rather lucky at times. When the other team has the ball at least, Swansea look like a decent and well-organised team, albeit one that is slow to react or press.
It’s also worth remembering that their attackers are extremely good at one thing each: you don’t want to give Sigurðsson too many free-kicks around 25 yards out; Montero and Routledge are positively rapid and know how to beat a man; Ayew has a knack for popping up in space and finding a finish to jumpstart a smash and grab effort. Spurs can’t give those players the chances to do their thing and expect to get away with it.
Finally, long-time Twitter followers of mine (if you don’t follow me, you’re missing out) will know that in Jack Cork Swansea have the English Sergio Busquets, and that’s worth at least as much as any trophy (ahem).
Pretty easy, this one: scoring goals. The absence of a number nine hinders them in just about every aspect of play, but least helpfully of all it puts a hell of a lot of pressure on players who don’t score a lot of goals to suddenly start scoring lots of goals. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working. Swansea have registered a low number of shots on target (95, 7th worst in the league), a very low overall conversion rate (5.9%, 2nd worst), and an equally depressing expected goals figure (21.8, 3rd worst, and two below their actual total – so they’re actually overperforming!). There’s just nothing there to worry about.
Their good defensive record is something of a mystery, however, given that they’ve made the lowest number of tackles in the Premier League this season (15.3 per game) as well as recording average to poor interceptions, fouls and offsides figures. As a team that seems to record no defensive actions and still prevent their opponents hitting the target, they’re clearly doing something that doesn’t show up in the stats to put their opponents off. It may well be voodoo.
As well as highlighting individual strengths in attack, it’s definitely worth remembering that the guys at the other end are more than prone to inadvertently giving their opponents a helping hand. Lukasz Fabianski is mockingly known as ‘Flappy-hands-ki’ for a reason, while Ángel Rángel and Neil Taylor have deteriorated markedly in the last couple of years, and Federico Fernández is basically the village idiot.
Hard to predict. Guidolin has just had his first long spell working with the team with no game coming up, and could well have used that time to prepare a surprise, a new system that will suit his players better and secure their Premier League status for another year, or to have turned Paloschi into a genuinely competent finisher who understands his teammates movements and doesn’t kill his teams attacks every time he touches the ball. Or he could just go with his usual team.
In previous years this would have been one of those awful and inexplicable 1-0 home defeats for Spurs, where they do everything right but miss all their chances and concede a 30 yard rocket in the last minute. These are different times, though, and now the result isn’t really in doubt. The only thing in question is Spurs’ winning margin.