The Season Just Gone
Oh, what could have been. This time last year there was so much hope at the Liberty Stadium, with Garry ‘Future England Manager’ Monk at the helm and a well-rounded squad seemingly set to kick on and challenge for a European place. Despite a very promising start to the campaign, in which ten-man Chelsea were thoroughly outplayed at Stamford Bridge (and in which José Mourinho torpedoed his second Blues spell by haranguing Eva Carneiro) and Manchester United beaten, everything very swiftly fell apart.
Starting striker Bafetimbi Gomis forgot how to play football; key winger Jefferson Montero spectacularly burned out, unable to run by November; Monk was booted out via the media, kept waiting for two days by ex-chairman Huw Jenkins; worst of all, the hunt for a successor lasted an absurd length of time. By the time journeyman Italian Francesco Guidolin arrived, Swansea were mired in an ugly relegation battle.
If ever there was a good season to collapse, however, it was last season: Sunderland, Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa were beyond awful and all it took was a brief upturn in form, thanks to some added steel and solidity in midfield, to keep the Swans in the division for another year. This time they’ll be hoping for much better.
The Season Ahead
After the fiasco of last season, the only thing most Swans fans really want this time around is to stay away from the relegation places. Following the surprising departures of titanic captain Ashley Williams and eye-catching forward André Ayew, that hope seemed somewhat forlorn. However, the extremely striking signings of Spanish strikers Fernando Llorente and Borja Bastón should mean that Swansea have the firepower to keep themselves out of trouble.
There’s still plenty of work to do for Guidolin, whose side have started by unluckily losing two of their first three games of the campaign, but there are plenty of good signs in the underlying numbers and no-one should be surprised if Swansea start bloodying some noses soon. They may well start with Chelsea on Sunday.
We can expect Francesco Guidolin’s side to line up in a very orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation, with advancing wing-backs, all-rounder central midfielders, speedy wingers, a technically gifted number ten and a towering number nine. Gone are the days of the Swansealona moniker: since signing Llorente Swansea have gone cross crazy, lumping the ball into the box more often than any other Premier League side.
Chelsea can reasonably assume they’ll come under a severe aerial bombardment at some stage and they must be ready to deal with such a high number of balls into their box. Antonio Conte should also make sure his team know how to clear their lines and push Swansea back up the pitch effectively, keeping them away from the areas from which their wide players can look to find Llorente’s trusty forehead.
As previously stated, there’s plenty to like in Swansea’s numbers so far this season: they’ve taken 16.3 shots per game, the Premier League’s 6th highest figure; 5 of those shots have ended up on target per game, the 5th highest number in the league. They’re winning a colossal and league-leading 24 aerial duels per game, and creating an average of 5.7 chances per game with crosses into the box, also a league-leading figure.
They’re also (generally) defensively solid: 11.7 shots received per game is a respectable figure, while 34.3 clearances per game, 19 tackles, 17 interceptions and 10.3 fouls are good numbers when it comes to defensive actions for a team that averages over 50% of the ball. They’ve been hard to get past, too: only two sides – one of them Chelsea – have been dribbled past fewer times so far this season.
It’s also worth remembering that Gylfi Sigurðsson has magic in his boots and that Jefferson Montero basically ended Branislav Ivanović’s time as an elite footballer in one half of football last year. Also, Llorente at his best is bloody good. Chelsea shouldn’t be taking this game lightly.
Every member of Swansea’s backline has a penchant for slapstick and Chelsea shouldn’t be surprised if they’re gifted a goal or two in laughable circumstances. Swansea have been especially vulnerable from set-pieces in the absence of the departed Ashley Williams, and if Willian and Eden Hazard can get their delivery right, Chelsea can reasonably expect to have good chances from dead-ball positions around the box.
Swansea are also taking an Andros Townsend-like 8.3 shots per game from outside the box – only Southampton have taken more so far this season. This means that, although their raw shot numbers are good, they’re essentially shooting from distance and trying to score with headers: it’s very unlikely that any team relying on those methods of attack will score many goals.
For some reason Guidolin has chosen Mo Barrow and Wayne Routledge to start ahead of the infinitely more talented Montero in every game so far this season, and the ever-impressive Ki Sung-Yueng has only played 53 minutes across two substitute appearances. If Guidolin again leaves his best players on the bench, Antonio Conte should be able to relax when it comes to picking his own team.
Speaking of which, with Marcos Alonso and David Luiz available for selection, Chelsea’s XI and system is bloody hard to predict. 4-1-4-1? 4-2-3-1? 3-5-2? Will we finally see César Azpilicueta at right-back and an actual left-back at left-back, and Branislav Ivanović benched? Only Conte knows for sure.
Based on the numbers, an upset could be on the cards here. Based on Chelsea’s absolute refusal to do anything other than win so far this season, 2-1 Chelsea.