I’m sure I will be one of the many who will blog about Swansea following their victory over Arsenal tonight; but I couldn’t help. I have to. As my friend Phume said, they remind me of the very reason why we love this game.
I have never watched any of their games so far this season (or ever) and, frankly and shamefully, I only turn on the TV because I was bored and it was already second half when I started watching. I have no idea who their players are, bar Scott Sinclair whom I know was a former Chelsea trainee; but I did see a TEAM BELIEVING in great football. I say they believe in beautiful football because from what they did on the pitch, the players are not instructed by the coach to do certain things, they firmly believe that’s the way of playing football.
Passing in own half
Quoting from The Guardian:
…There was also evidence of the sudden shift of tempo that marks Swansea’s attacking play: patient spells of deep possession spiced with precise thrusts often down the flanks. They are currently No1 by an absolute street when it comes to Premier League teams making passes in their own half. Swansea have made 2,474, practically lapping the team currently in second (yes, Arsenal) and making more than three times as many defensive passes as their tactical opposite, the get-it-forwards merchants of Stoke City.
And quoting Brendan Rodgers himself from another interview with Telegraph:
“People will jump on us whenever we make a mistake. We had it against Manchester United. Angel Rangel had the ball at his feet and the commentary after the game is that he’s got to kick it into row Z.
“He had time on the ball, why would he smash it up the pitch? He just made a mistake. We need to give our players confidence in their ability. To play this way you can have no fear. The players respect that if there are any goals conceded through playing football I take the blame.
“Here’s another example. We were 2-0 up away at Wolves with six minutes to go but we failed to manage the pressure. We stopped playing it out from the back. We kicked the ball long and they got it and just smashed straight back into our box. Eventually we drew 2-2 and the players were devastated.
“I told them we needed to learn the six-minute game.
“The following week we worked on managing the pressure. But with the ball. Low and behold the next game we are at Bolton. We are 2-0 up. With 17 minutes to go they go 2-1. You could sense the nerves in the crowd.
“How were we going to deal with it? For 10 minutes Bolton did not get a kick of the ball and, eventually, we got the goal to win 3-1.
“Afterwards in the dressing room it was fantastic — that was how to manage pressure. When they had the momentum we sucked the life out of them.
“Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you. Eventually you wear them down. We did that against one of the greatest teams in Tottenham. We did it against Manchester United in the second half. In the first half we were playing the history.”
And that is exactly what I saw from the second half after leading 3-2 with 24 (included added-time) minutes to go. Their players are comfortable with the ball and, most importantly, fearless in passing the ball around even deep in their own half. That doesn’t mean they’ll be pressed back towards the keeper all the time: the players, at the same time, are fearless in breaking away even when they are facing numerical inferiority. I have seen more than 5 times they can break away facing a 2 v 4 or so. Their immediate reaction is also very quick: they understand the pressure the player with the ball is facing and offer appropriate support right away, giving the man-with-ball options: the 3R’s (Retain, Release and Run) and yes, they can also make decent decisions in using the support as decoy and dribble their way out of trouble.
Of course this requires a lot of guts and a religious-like belief. As Rodgers said, they take the blame when they lose the ball deep in their own half and frankly, it looks stupid when you do lose the ball when you could have put it to row Z. But after tonight, I think Rodgers have another story to tell when it comes to managing pressure and keep recycling the ball in its own half.
Another quote from The Guardian:
The essence of Rodgers’s tactical approach is illustrated by Swansea’s most recent Premier League matches. Against Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Eve a first point against a top-five team was earned largely on the back of the suffocating high energy midfield play that has served Swansea so well, the dual defensive midfielders Mark Gower and Joe Allen relentlessly pressing high up the field and forcing Luka Modric to manipulate the ball rather desperately at times in his own half.
Yet another quote from Telegraph’s interview with Rodgers:
“People don’t notice it (pressing) with us because they always talk about our possession but the intensity of our pressure off the ball is great. If we have one moment of not pressing in the right way at the right time we are dead because we don’t have the best players. What we have is one of the best teams.
“The strength of us is the team. Leo Messi has made it very difficult for players who think they are good players. He’s a real team player. He is ultimately the best player in the world and may go on to become the best ever. But he’s also a team player.
“If you have someone like Messi doing it then I’m sure my friend Nathan Dyer can do it. It is an easy sell.”
The pressing was also first class from them. It could be hard to imagine Arsenal players almost got caught in possession (and actually quite a few times they did and lost the ball) and was forced to clear to ball towards the sidelines. The ‘switching-on’ is almost immediate from Swansea’s players: once the ball is lost, they are on a mission to squeeze the immediate space and time around the ball. What make me even more impressed is that their individual ability to gain back possession is also good. They press as units and are also good individual ball-winners; and obviously they are no strangers to some fierce dog-fight when necessary. Arsenal actually struggled to advance the ball on a few occasions .
Comparing with Rodgers’ ambition: FC Barcelona
Also, Swansea’s fast break attack is also of high quality and generally their players are relentless in creating space for the team and the man-with-ball: the overlaps, the diagonal runs and clearing space were present whenever they have the ball in the attacking third. Actually I am quite interested in Swansea’s style because to me, it’s like a counter-attacking team with dominating possession. Their number of passing in the attacking third was only 78 comparing to Arsenal’s 116 but yet they made almost 100 more passes than Arsenal.
So comparing with the mighty Barcelona, who prefers to tiki-taka in the attacking third and leaving half a pitch empty behind them to defend, Swansea opts to keep possession in their own half and wait for the time to fast-break. Both can be dangerous: Barcelona is vulnerable to swift counter-attacks due to the amount of space levying behind them and Swansea is susceptible to losing the ball deep in their own half. It would be interesting to see the 2 teams playing against each other because both teams will be passing in the very same half of the pitch: when Barça has the ball, they play around Swansea’s box; when Swansea has the ball, they still play around in their own half.
On a personal level, I am really thankful towards Swansea City and Brendan Rodgers. It comes at the right time that I first see a Swansea game during a downfall in my career as a coach. Thank you for showing me that beliefs can be turn into some tangible, beautiful things.