The first international break is upon us and Swansea City sit top of the 2019/20 EFL Championship after the first six games. In these opening six games of the season, Swansea have made a tremendously impressive start to the campaign, winning five games and drawing one. One of these victories saw an impressive 1-0 away win against Leeds United at Elland Road, a ground which not many away teams seem to get much joy at. This is a huge testament to the way that Steve Cooper has put his attacking and progressive style of football into this Swansea team. The Swans have bagged incredible 12 goals, highlighting the impressive football on show at the Liberty Stadium. Despite this attacking emphasis, they have only conceded four goals, and have the third-best defensive record in the division. This highlights the fact that they have managed to find an excellent balance in terms of attacking and defending.
This tactical analysis will attempt to look at how Cooper’s Swansea side have managed to make such an impressive start to the campaign. We will also be looking at how they can maintain these standards for the rest of the season, and ways in which they can look to push for promotion in line with the way they have started. Hopefully, this scout report will do justice to the start Swansea have made, and give credit to the excellent job Cooper has done so far.
Playing out from the back
A vital element of Swansea’s success thus far in the 2019/20 EFL Championship season is their ability to play out from the centre of defence. A big reason why Swansea have the highest average goal rate is due to this ability. A way in which Cooper has allowed the Swans to play in such a way is due to the central midfielders often dropping between the two centre-halves to dictate the game from deep. The player that does this the most for Swansea is captain Matt Grimes. Grimes will often drop between Joe Rodon and Mike Van De Hoorn to influence the game. This is the hub for most of the Swansea attacks, as having Grimes between both centre-halves allows passing lanes to be created. This is a trend that has been seen throughout Swansea’s opening six Championship games. Cooper’s emphasis is on building from the back and getting the ball forward in a strategic way towards the forwards. By allowing vertical solidity in terms of having an extra body in the centre of defence, it also means that in case of a counter-attack against Swansea, they have protection. Finally, these tactics allow the full-backs to push up much higher and overlap the attacking players (see below for the full breakdown of this).
Another aspect of this play is a clear strategy by Cooper to play out from the back more effectively. When one of the two centre-halves have the ball, often there will be a triangle formed with two of the central midfielders on the ball. This all stems back from the central midfielders dropping deep to pick up the ball- this allows the central defender on the ball to have multiple passing options to try to create attacking situations. This can be seen as a key reason as to why Swansea have been largely successful in using this tactic. The likes of Grimes have excellent technical ability to bring the ball out from the back, this coupled with the central defender’s technical ability means they get joy from using this type of systematic play. As we can see below, the defender on the ball Joe Rodon has multiple passing options to play into. This allows the full-backs to get higher up the pitch, and more importantly means that attacking players don’t have to come too deep to get the ball, as they can be found by the defenders and deep-lying midfielders.
A lot of teams in the current game operate with a high press. This means that the team pushes up in order to try and win the ball high up the pitch with the intention of a counter-attack. Steve Cooper uses elements of the high press in his own system of pressing which is pragmatic in the sense that it looks at the opposition it is being played against. Based on this and other factors, including particular players the opposition have in various areas of the pitch, depends on how they press the opposition. In some instances whereby the Swans know that the player on the ball can be isolated easily and as a result, the ball can be won back quicker, they will surround the areas of play and implement a version of the low block in order to win the ball back and move up the pitch. Below, we can see evidence of this from Swansea’s 3-0 home win against Birmingham City. Wes Harding has the ball on the right side of the pitch and is surrounded by three Swansea players, which means his only option is to try a risky ball into the centre forward which can be easily intercepted or to go back to his defenders which Celina has also got covered. This type of technical press is extremely effective in order to stop opposing teams from playing with the ball and against good technical sides, this sort of defensive work is key.
Furthermore, blocking off space in this type of press is vital. Not letting technically gifted players get the ball and create chances is key to keeping out goals. Swansea have only conceded four goals this Championship season, which highlights that the press they are implementing is highly effective in stopping the opposition attack towards goal. We can see below another example of this pressing in the 0-0 away draw at Derby County. Derby have some excellent technical players who can hurt any team, and not allowing them space is vital. In this image we see Jake Bidwell and Grimes blocking off space so that the ball cannot go into the attacking third. More significantly, the red line represents the space between Grimes and Jay Fulton, the two sitting midfielders on this day. This shows that the space between those two was never too much for Derby to play through. This compact nature of Swansea’s pressing meant they could win the ball back in central areas to counter-attack.
As mentioned earlier, Swansea have the third-best defence in the division, with only four goals conceded. One of the main reasons for this is due to the emergence of the exceptional talent in Joe Rodon. The 21-years-old Welsh international has impressed many with his ability to play out from the back and his excellent defensive ability. His stats thus far are also highly impressive. In 568 minutes played he has a 90.3% pass accuracy, 66.7% slide tackle rate, and 43 interceptions which have put him right up there with some of the best in the division. Coupled with his excellent partnership with Van Der Hoorn, this has allowed Swansea a lot of defensive rigidity. One of the aspects of his defensive game which has impressed so much this far is his positional play. Knowing when to be in the right place in order to prevent shots and key passes is something that is largely overlooked in the modern game. Rodon has this ability in abundance and has saved Swansea many points by being in the right positions. In the image below from the 0-1 victory at Leeds, Rodon positions himself excellently in order to prevent Pablo Hernández from having the shot on goal. By staying on his feet and jockeying the movement of Hernández it meant that he himself was able to block the shot. The two lines shown are also important, as they represent the space between Rodon and his left-back, and the other centre-half. These spaces are limited, highlighting how he was also able to keep his shape throughout Leeds’s attacks.
Further evidence of this can be seen from the game against Leeds in the second half. In this situation, Marcelo Bielsa’s team once again attack down the right-hand side, and Hernández once again tries his usual wizardry to break down the stern Swansea defence. Rodon stays strong and again is able to make a vital block in order to prevent Swansea from conceding. This comes down to his spatial understanding of what positions to take up in order to prevent a goal against the Swans.
Furthermore, another aspect of Rodon’s game which has really impressed this far in the Championship is his ability to play out from defence and his eye for a good pass. In the modern game, defenders are being asked to do this a lot more frequently and Rodon has fulfilled this requirement very well. Playing as a left-sided centre-half means he is able to switch the ball to the left side of the pitch much more effectively which allows different avenues of attacking play for Swansea. This can be seen as the main reason why Cooper favours the 21-years-old in the centre-back position, and in particular on the left-hand side. By having such a versatile player in the defensive line, it allows them to have such flexibility in attacking build-up. As mentioned previously, playing him on the left-hand side of central defence means that when he has the ball, the attacking players make runs in behind the midfield lines in order to receive the ball from either Rodon or the left-back. This is, therefore, a strategic move by Cooper to enhance the excellent technical ability Rodon possess.
Use of the full-backs
In this system used by Cooper’s Swansea City side, the full-backs are vital for attacking play. Their runs overlapping the wingers are vital in Swansea’s attacking set up as they offer support in the wider areas to provide crosses and intricate passes in behind the defensive line. The attacking players behind the striker for Swansea usually drift quite narrow to provide support and prevent isolation. The wider players make up for this by being the natural width of the team. As mentioned earlier, the likes of Grimes drop in between the centre-halves to provide cover so that the full-backs can make runs forward. This is a tactical and thoughtful approach by Cooper as the full-backs at Swansea are extremely talented at what he requires them to do. Jake Bidwell on the left side and Connor Roberts on the right side fit this necessity perfectly. They are both extremely good at crossing the ball and have excellent winger traits. More importantly, they are also able to provide a balance of defensive stability from the wider positions. As we can see from the image below, Roberts is in an excellent position on the wide right flank and has made an excellent run in which Fulton can find him with a cross-field pass. As he receives the ball, he puts in an excellent cross for Borja Bastón to head home from. This shows the importance of both the run that Roberts can make and the cross that he can put in for him. Furthermore, this example emphasises the importance that full-backs have in Cooper’s Swansea City side.
This use of the attacking overlap is vital for chance creation. In the modern game, full-backs tend to be much better at attacking and a significant amount of full-backs were once wingers who have moved back into this position. By having such overlapping full-backs it puts pressure on the opposition defence in the wider areas, giving the opposing full-back a problem as to which player to mark- the winger or the overlapping full-back. Therefore, by having overlapping full-backs such as the ones seen in the Swansea team so far, it creates structural changes in the opposing defensive structure which allows an advantage. Swansea have done this very well so far. Below is another example of this: Jake Bidwell makes a gut-busting run overlapping Celina in order to be able to put in a cross for the likes of Bastón to get on the end of. This is a trend that has been common with Swansea throughout the season so far, and it is likely something they will continue to do throughout the rest of the campaign.
Thus far in the championship season, Swansea have averaged around 52.2% possession. This highlights how Cooper wants to play, with good attacking football being the key. However, one aspect of Swansea’s game which have made them much more effective in front of goal is their ability to have runners in behind the defensive line which creates a lot more attacking situations. One of the main reasons that this can be seen as working is due to the role of Bastón. The Spaniard has bagged five goals and got one assist so far in the Championship. However, it is his play when he does not have the ball that has made him such a valuable asset for Cooper. Bastón’s hold up play and positional running abilities are some of the best in the division. He is able to hold the ball up and allow runners to run off him into space, and he himself is also able to make clever runs in order to drag defenders out of place so that others such as André Ayew can make runs in behind to shoot on goal. In the image below we can see Swansea on the counter-attack away at Derby. Bastón makes an exceptionally intelligent run, which allows acres of space for Nathan Dyer to run into and have a chance on goal. This highlights the importance of the runs that Bastón makes.
As mentioned, another important aspect of the Spaniard’s game is his ability to hold the ball up and allow runners in behind. In the same games versus Derby county, Bastón can be seen in the image below holding the ball up in the box which allows multiple Swansea attackers to run off him in the hope of creating a chance on goal. This is indicative of how there is more to Bastón’s abilities, not just the goals that he scores. This is important for Swansea, as they have various speedy attackers who can all make runs in behind with Bastón using his footballing intelligence to make it more possible.
To conclude, Swansea have made an excellent start so far to the EFL Championship and their style of football has impressed many as they are an excellent footballing side. This team has elements of the Swansea team that were so successful in the 2012/13 season, which saw them winning the League Cup. Keeping this football up is going to be key in order for them to have a successful season. There are many hopes that a push for promotion can be obtained in this campaign, but this will be difficult given the squad size and lack of experience that the squad itself has. However, they have a youthful squad, a manager who believes in young players and attacking football, and more importantly, a team that wants to do well with the fans on board. This analysis has attempted to highlight how Swansea have started so well, and what blueprints could be used to maintain this form for the rest of the season. Swansea would be a joy to see back in the Premier League, and if they can replicate the start they’ve made, then they have every chance of doing so.
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