The Season Just Gone
Swansea’s eighth-place finish in 2014-15 was the second highest in the club’s history and it was achieved in typically eye-catching fashion, with plenty of swashbuckling football on show and a few more victories over more illustrious clubs to add to their growing collection. While rookie manager Garry Monk received the majority of the acclaim in the British press, most of the credit should really be given to his superiors: the way the club has been run in recent years has been nothing short of extraordinary. There can be few better environments for a manager in modern football.
Following the departure of the star of the show, Wilfried Bony, many predicted a meteoric fall for the Swans, but once again they defied the naysayers and maintained their excellent level of performance. Gylfi Sigurðsson, their other leading light, faded in the second half of the season, but the likes of Ki Sung-Yueng and Jonjo Shelvey stepped up to the plate and Bafétimbi Gomis was suddenly full of confidence having been given sole responsibility of leading the line.
As we will see later, there is good reason to think that Swansea will fare rather more badly this season, but there’s basically no way to argue that last season was anything other than a triumph.
The Season Ahead
One of Swansea’s biggest achievements has been to replace key players before they’ve left, thus sustaining their good form almost at all times. When breakout stars like Sigurðsson (the first time around), Scott Sinclair, Joe Allen, Michu and Bony depart, there’s always a talented but unheralded understudy ready and waiting to step into the limelight. Every year it seems like the Swans might fall away, but eventually it becomes clear that once again their squad has been underrated.
So the real question is not how they’ll do or where they’ll finish this time around, but who the surprise performers will be and how much they’ll go for at the end of the season. Ki and Sigurðsson are known quantities that opposition teams will set out to stop, so players like Shelvey, Jefferson Montero and new striker Éder will probably be the ones to watch. André Ayew, he of the £5m signing on fee, will also have a big part to play.
Although Swansea start the season with the most difficult game possible, their run of fixtures until the end of November is extremely favourable, and the conditions seem right for them to all but cement a top-half place before the new year.
Although the ‘Swansealona’ moniker persists in unenlightened circles, gone are the days of the Roberto Martínez-patented, Brendan Rodgers-perfected tiki-taka at the Liberty Stadium. One of the keys to succeeding in the Premier League these days, particularly for those sides whose aim is to stay as far away as possible from a relegation battle, is being tactically flexible and effortlessly adaptable.
It’s no longer enough to have a Plan B. Managers need to have a Plan C, a plan D and a Plan E, and their players need to be as familiar and effective with Plan E as they are with Plan A. Bosses need to analyse every aspect of their upcoming fixtures and select a strategy accordingly, and more often than not Garry Monk has chosen the correct plan for his charges given the task ahead.
Sometimes they pass the other team to death, sometimes they press them to death and sometimes they park the bus and bore them to death. This makes predicting their approach in a game like this very difficult, but one expects that whatever plan they go with, every player will know his job and he’ll do it very well indeed.
The ‘strengths’ column may seem an odd place to start the doom-mongering, but the fact is that Swansea’s shooting stats for last season were, frankly, insane. As this article on the excellent StatsBomb website shows, by any reliable and trusted measurement of shooting efficiency, Swansea overperformed to a quite laughable degree. They not only buried way more chances than they should have, but their opponents missed way more than they should have at the other end.
The last team to so spectacularly overachieve in these measurements were Manchester United in Alex Ferguson’s last season, and we all know what happened in the next campaign. Of course, one has to consider the Moyes factor when analysing Man Utd’s dramatic fall from grace, but the fact remains that their numbers were highly unsustainable and their collapse was, according these metrics, less an implosion and more a regression to the mean.
Unless it turns out that they actually do have the most insanely accurate shooters in the history of football and no-one has realised yet, the same will probably happen to Swansea.
Putting the above in a nutshell, as well as being due a collapse in the number of chances converted, Swansea are also due to concede an avalanche of goals at the other end. Łukasz Fabiański’s form at the end of last season would have been unsustainable for Manuel Neuer, and, well, he’s not Manuel Neuer. He’s Łukasz Fabiański – a man who once did this.
Speaking more generally: Argentine centre-back Federico Fernández is distinctly dodgy and any one of Chelsea’s forwards should fancy their chances against him; whichever right-back they choose will get absolutely massacred by Eden Hazard; Garry Monk’s haircut makes him look like an EDL member.
Thanks to their uber-scientific pre-season training programme, Swansea have no significant injury worries ahead of the big kick-off. Manager Monk therefore has a selection headache: with significantly more options in his third band than available spots, a fair few good players are going to miss out.
It would be something of a gamble to play with both Sigurðsson and Shelvey ahead of Ki and Chelsea youth product Jack Cork, thus with Ayew as the only natural source of width, but his only alternatives are leaving out one of his two most creative players or playing with only one natural holding midfielder, a recipe for disaster against a midfield like Chelsea’s.
As ever, Chelsea will be worried about Diego Costa’s hamstrings and it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see Radamel Falcao or Loïc Rémy leading the line. There’s also every chance José Mourinho could do something typically churlish, like leave Oscar out or play Ramires on the right, just to make a point to his players.
It’s the opening day of the season and getting the first three points on the board is all important. Swansea will be expertly prepared and on their day they could get a result at Stamford Bridge, but we know exactly what Mourinho does when he has to get a result – and with that in mind a drab 1-0 Chelsea win seems inevitable.