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 expecting to keep improving and challenge for European places under media darling and Garry ‘Future England Manager’ Monk. Of course, the departure of Wilfried Bony had blunted them somewhat, but the tail end of last season saw Bafetimbi Gomis explode into form and suggested that the Swans still had enough about them to continue their upward trajectory.
Apparently not: despite a promising start to the season, in which Chelsea were totally outplayed at Stamford Bridge and Manchester United beaten (albeit luckily) at the Liberty Stadium, things very quickly went south. Gomis lost all confidence and made it clear that neither head nor heart were present at the club, with Chinese sides repeatedly getting in touch to offer more money than he can dream of; flying winger Jefferson Montero very obviously burned out, further blunting their attack (when I saw him in Ecuador in November, he could barely run); Monk was unceremoniously sacked via the media, kept waiting for two days to hear chairman Huw Jenkins tell him to his face, and the hunt for a successor lasted an absurd length of time. By the time new boss Francesco Guidolin arrived, Swansea were fighting for their lives.
Just about everything that can go wrong, did 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 a few short months. Frankly, they’re very lucky that Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa chose this season to be historically abysmal and a nice run of form in recent weeks has almost certainly has kept the Swans in the division.
The Season Ahead
With just a few games left, many of the Swans’ players are probably counting down the days until their summer holidays. The stars will almost certainly be planning moves to bigger/richer/non-relegation-battling clubs, unless they’re super-excited about the apparently imminent return of Brendan ‘Humility’ Rodgers. 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 "GET ME OUT OF HERE, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST/ALLAH/CTULHU/
While losing players of that calibre would hurt Swansea, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t replace most of them surprisingly easily. The Swans, along with Southampton, have had unparalleled success in the transfer market in the last few years, repeatedly turning up bargains and realising the potential of their imports so quickly and easily that it beggars belief.
Since Guidolin arrived Swansea have experimented with a few systems and the line-up has often changed from one game to another. January signing Alberto Paloschi’s recent return to goalscoring form has been appreciated: before the Italian found his shooting boots, Sigurðsson, Ayew and Routledge were 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. Gomis has played in a couple of games recently, but to no real effect.
Regardless of the formation, 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, usually with a designated holding midfielder. This player acts as the playmaker and the two alongside him do his running and offer 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, rather than relying on Paloschi, arguably 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 has forgotten how to attack, often appearing like eleven amnesiacs with no memory whatsoever of previous goalscoring exploits. Even in defence their strengths are middling, only looking relatively good when compared to their worryingly low output in front of goal.
In terms of defensive figures, they’ve done fairly well at limiting the number of shots their opponents can take at their goal. They’ve faced a total of 429 shots against, which is the figure of a lower mid-table team rather than a relegation battler, and 30-50 fewer shots than the sides they have to finish above to avoid relegation. When the other team has the ball, Swansea look like a solid, organised team, albeit one that is slow to react or press the opposition. That said, they’ve been rather more porous than normal of late, and Chelsea shouldn’t really struggle to make chances here.
It’s also worth remembering that each of their attackers is extremely good at one thing: giving Sigurðsson free-kicks 25 yards out is a very bad idea; Montero and Routledge are positively rapid and know how to beat a man, as Branislav Ivanović doubtless remembers in nightmares every other night; Ayew has a knack for popping up in space and finding a finish to jumpstart a smash and grab effort – again, as Chelsea have already found this season. The Blues can’t give those players the chances to do their thing and expect to get away with it. At least this time the manager isn’t going to explode and level sexist insults at the physio and destroy team morale in the process.
Pretty easy, this one: scoring goals. The absence of a number nine has hindered 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 (112, 6th worst in the league), a very low overall conversion rate (7.3%, 3rd worst), and an equally depressing expected goals figure (27.8, 4th worst, and just over three below their actual total – so technically they’re overperforming).
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 (16.1 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 (I don’t mean that in a possibly scandalous "so that’s how Leicester are winning the league" way).
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.
Most of Swansea’s team seems to pick itself, but so far Guidolin has sprung a surprise in almost every game, so it would be wise to expect the unexpected. Modou Barrow has impressed with his pace and directness, while Jefferson Montero could play given that the mere sight of him may be enough to render Ivanović a quivering, empty-bowelled mess.
As for Chelsea, the temptation to start Pato up front must be considerable after he
scored a penalty against the worst team in the entire world impressed last weekend, while Pedro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek should start after also scoring. The rest of the team surely follows as expected.
Normally this would be such an obvious Chelsea win, but god knows what this team is doing these days. Anything could happen. I’ll say 2-1 Chelsea.