Swansea visited Lancashire in the opening fixture of the EFL Championship and faced the host Preston North End. After sending the squad to the play-off semi-final in his first season as Swansea’s head coach, Steve Cooper starts the 2020/21 season with several new names in the starting line-up, due to his two former loaned players Rhian Brewster and Conor Gallagher returning to their owner team. On the other side, Alex Neil’s Preston had more to aim for after claiming the 9th rank on the table last season. In this tactical analysis, we inform you about the tactics that brought victory to Swansea, also this analysis will instruct the way that Preston adapted and fought for the equalizer.
Preston North End played against Swansea with the formation of 4-2-3-1. Connor Ripley played as their goalkeeper, supported by Jordan Storey and Ben Davies as the two center-backs and the two full-backs were Andrew Hughes and Alan Browne. Ryan Ledson and Ben Pearson secured the midfield with the role of the defensive midfielders, meanwhile high up the field, Neil used a line of three attacking midfielder: Billy Bodin on the right-hand side, Brad Potts in the middle, and Scott Sinclair – who played against his former team – on the left-hand side. Tom Barkhuizen stood in the highest position as striker.
Swansea started with the 3-4-1-2 formation with Freddie Woodman stood in the goal, behind the three center-backs: Marc Guéhi, Joe Rodon, and Ben Cabango. Jake Bidwell and Conor Roberts were Cooper’s pair of wing-backs. Matthew Grimes with the armband, as usual, played alongside the new signing Korey Smith as the central midfielders. Morgan Gibbs-White – loanee from Wolverhampton had his Championship debut, played behind the two strikers André Ayew and Jamal Lowe.
Swansea players were not really putting massive pressure on their opposite goalkeeper and central-backs, but the first defensive block formed by the three attacking players had their own way to make it difficult for the host’s players in their build-up phase. Ayew, Lowe, and Gibbs-White together created a triangle that prevented any players at the back for Preston to progress the ball into the axis. Preston’s center-backs and goalkeeper, therefore, were forced to send the ball to the flank. The visitor’s strikers still stood in the central area, as the wing-backs pushed higher up the pitch to squeeze Preston’s full-back space.
In the case below, Bidwell pushed high to confront Browne and prevented him from doing anything. The space that the English wing-back left behind was covered by Guehi, who moved wide to mark the winger, Bodin. The axis still was secured by the other two centre-backs, Rodon and Cabango. Grimes was free to move and support, ready for any case that the opponent gets past his teammates.
Forced not to play short passes in the narrowed spaces when the central area was still locked, Preston had to play long using long passes from their full-backs; nevertheless, this plan became difficult because their competitors were good at challenging, especially aerial duels.
Cooper’s team thoroughly utilized the numerical superiority in the defensive phase with deploying the 5-3-2 formation; his side’s center-backs were confident in chasing and marking Preston players in their defensive third. Even if they were lured out of the box, there usually was a defensive midfielder dropped and filled in the space that appeared. By dominating the flanks using many players, the Welsh team made things really hard for Preston to play.
Deploying the 5-3-2 formation also means that Cooper’s players had to counter-attack more: with Ayew dropping deeper than Lowe, and Grimes was ready for progressing the ball forward, as Swansea possessed two “bridges” which connect their backline and the frontline together. If the defenders couldn’t deliver the ball to either Grimes or Ayew, they would pass the ball long and let Lowe use his pace.
However, the most dangerous attacking modality of Swansea is their switch of plays. Similar to the defensive phase, Swansea liked to create numerical superiority in the flanks; by doing so, they invited more and more opposite players to move wide and confront them. This made Preston’s defensive structure loose, also the opposite side was weaker due to many players coming to the other one. It was the perfect time for Ayew or Grimes to undertake a switch play from side to side. The visitors kicked the ball into the back of Preston’s net twice with the same plot, one of them was legal and it brought them to an opening day win. Bidwell was the key player in this match, the number 24 was the destination of many flank-switched passes and far side crosses – which exploited the weaker side efficiently.
Preston’s adaptation and effort to score
As we spoke previously, Swansea didn’t put huge pressure on Preston’s pair of center-backs and goalie; they just didn’t let them progress the ball into the central area. Therefore, instead of delivering the ball to the flanks in which it could be lost later, the host decided to play long, started with their keeper and center-backs. With Ripley, Davies, and Storey, Preston constantly undertook long balls that flew over Swansea’s first defensive line and went straight to Preston’s frontline. Neil substituted Jayden Stockley in and this decision immediately effective: The striker with the height of 188cm became the target of all long balls from the backline. With Ledson and Pearson waiting for the second ball, the five midfielders from the hosts easily dominated the middle third with numerical superiority and didn’t have to face Ayew, Lowe, or Gibbs-White anymore.
After taking the lead, Swansea deliberately pulled down their structure to secure their victory; that was the chance for Preston to find the equalizer. Instead of being numerically overwhelmed like in the first half, Neil’s players move to the flank more usual and didn’t let the Welsh team have the superiority. The structure of 5-3-2 was not easy to find space in when facing many players in the side of the field like Preston was, but it still had unexpected vacancies. By exploiting them, the Lancashire team had more ways to progress the ball, and they did just that. Unfortunately, they didn’t convert any of their crosses into an equalizer.
It was a balanced game between Preston and Swansea, but it seems like Preston were a bit unlucky with converting their chances. Swansea’s squad was quite steady in defending and quick, accurate in the attack. There are 45 remaining games that lie in both teams’ ways but winning three points in such a tough game certainly gives the former Liverpool youth team coach and his players the confidence they need in their campaign attempting to find promotion to the Premier League this season.