Who would have thought that in the fourth match of the 2014-2015 Premier League season, the first match between the teams occupying first and second in the table would be a match between Chelsea and Swansea? It’s hard to believe, but here we are. With the precursor for a Saturday of football being the top-billing of Manchester City and Arsenal, at 3:00 PM, the Blues welcome the Swans to Stamford Bridge in a 1 versus 2 scenario.
While Chelsea will have expected to be in this position after a start that saw them face two newly-promoted sides and a tricky trip to Goodison Park, Swansea were in no way, shape, or form expected to be in this position. With the departures of Michu and Pablo Hernandez to Napoli and Al-Arabi respectively, this Swansea side under Garry Monk was predicted to find it tough to challenge for the top 10. While it’s hard to make any definitive statements after just three matches, Swansea have looked the part of a top-10 side and will be thrilled to enter this match with a maximum 9 points from 3 matches.
However, the Swans meet a Chelsea side that is beginning to loom ominously over the Premier League to this point. While last year Jose Mourinho griped about a lack of strikers and cutting edge, he certainly can have no complaints this season. Diego Costa has brought the goals that last year’s strikers didn’t provide, finding the net 4 times in 3 games, and Cesc Fabregas has added that dimension of creativity from midfield and control that was lacking at times. What Mourinho won’t be happy about is that 4 goals have been conceded in those matches, with all 4 coming down to defensive errors. However, those are fixable, and the more the holes in the Chelsea squad are plugged, the more of a threat they look.
Who says Garry Monk can’t manage?
Last season under Michael Laudrup, Swansea woefully underachieved given the bar that was set by his side in the 2012-2013 season. The Swans made it into Europe, something that neither Brendan Rodgers or Roberto Martinez were able to achieve, and it looked like the club would push on after that campaign. It didn’t happen. Between long-term injuries to important players like Michu and rumored in-fighting within the squad and management, Laudrup was replaced last February with Garry Monk, who was to carry on as player-manager.
This season, Monk has been named the full-time manager, but questions lingered about his ability to manage a Premier League side. After all, he took the interim job as a player and hadn’t managed a side in his career, although he possesses the qualifications to do so.
A lot of those questions were answered in the first match of the season when the Swans marched up to Old Trafford and stunned United in the opening match of the season. His side pressed a United back three that was unsure of how to play from the back in that formation, while exploiting the spare man near the back post when you get beyond the midfield, an area that is crucial to breaking that formation.
That was proved to not be a fluke, with wins over Burnley and West Brom to follow. More importantly, he has brought the style of play back to Swansea that I feel that injuries and dressing-room disputes removed from the squad last year.
So, what exactly is different about this Swansea team this season?
Simply put, in 2012-2013, Michu was key to the success of Swansea and crucial to the way they attacked. They’re not a team that get it wide, stretch you and play. Rather, they get between the lines, suck you in, and play through the channels. Generally, it’s the wingers that become the danger men because the central midfielders are asked to be a been more reserved when it comes to runs from deep, as they are needed to control the pressing game if they lose possession. In that case, it’s the wingers that need to make the runs through the channels, so it takes a player, like a Michu, that can come deep and give them space for the wingers to attack the channels.
Last season, Michu’s injury cost them because Wilfried Bony, while a very good striker and goal scorer, was not accustomed to having to drop deep into space to create space for runs beyond. In addition, the squad was largely left with a midfield consisting of either box-to-box or defensive midfielders and wingers, but no real true number 10.
This season, the return of Gylfi Sigurdsson to Swansea has made a whole heap of difference. Not only is he a more versatile player than Michu, but he’s also that number 10 between the lines that the side lacked last year. While his time at Tottenham wasn’t spectacular, I don’t think Spurs ever truly got the best out of him by playing him in positions where he was less than effective. His best role is athe number 10 role, because of his ability track back and defend in addition to scoring and creating chances.
I think this is what Laudrup envisioned last season, in an attacking sense – playing a number 10 behind a pure striker – but Sigurdsson has also allowed Monk to play his lines a tad bit deeper and not play quite as open as the Swans have in the past.
The signing that might make the most difference is the signing of Lukasz Fabianski on a free.
Towards the end of last season, it became clear that Michel Vorm’s time at Swansea was coming to an end. The confidence that he once exuded between the sticks had started to fade, and that caused simple errors to start creeping into his game. Luckily for Swansea, Arsenal had decided to allow Fabianski to leave once his contract expired, and that allowed the Swans to replace one goalkeeper whose confidence was fading with another goalkeeper whose confidence was growing.
In Fabianski, they get a very good goalkeeper who feels like he’s been around forever, despite being just 29. He has escaped the tag of “Flappy Hand-ski” to emerge has a quality goalkeeper, even though he’s been the number two at Arsenal for a number of years. However, last season, you could make an argument that he was a better keeper than Wojciech Szczesny by the end of the campaign.
A defence that looked awfully creaky last season looked a bit slow must help out Fabianski. This was partly an issue because of the high line preferred by Laudrup, but also because Ashley Williams and Angel Rangel looked short of pace last year.
Keeping ahold of Ki Sung-Yueng may prove to be a great move.
Despite people wondering what Ki actually was there to do last season and calling for him to be sold, Monk’s decision to keep him is looking justified by his early season performances. Ki came in last year with the reputation of being able to play a box-to-box game, giving you creativity, goals, and the ability to win the ball. Last season, he looked off the pace and as if he struggled to deal with the pace and physicality of the league. This season, he looks much more comfortable, and he’s given Swans an added dimension.
With the return of Sigurdsson, the midfield partnership of Ki and Jonjo Shelvey allows a more effective 4-2-3-1 to be played with those two at the base of midfield. In doing so, it allows you to be able to switch from defense and attack, allows one of the two to advance further up in support if needed, and allows Swansea to press the passing lanes in midfield, which is something they weren’t able to do last season. Having two box-to-box midfielders who can pass well keeps that energy in there and allows a bit more aggression in attacking the passing lanes.
So how do you beat Swansea?
Simplistically, you have to identify is what you have to stop and what you have to exploit. Swansea are what they are. They’re a more effective counterattacking team this season, but they aren’t necessarily a team that will sit deep in the transitions and look to spring forward. They are a team that will try to pick the passes off coming into their final third and then counterattack. But they’re not nearly as effective once they have to set up and defend that area.
The other thing you watch with Swansea is their wide men. The main outlet into space and a lot of the goals they create start with either Wayne Routledge or Nathan Dyer getting in behind their fullback or through a channel and getting space to open up a defence. They aren’t necessarily going to play crosses from there, but their out ball is always to play it centrally to either the striker or the number 10, then release the pressure wide. If you stop those runs from Dyer and Routledge, it denies them a true out ball and pushes them back.
The way you attack Swansea is pretty simple – pace. Last season, both Eden Hazard and Andre Schuerrle gave Angel Rangel fits down the Chelsea left, primarily because each could beat him for skill and pace. To this point in the season, he has not seen anyone with that skill or pace running at him, so Hazard should find some space out there. The second factor is that Swansea still play a line that is a bit high given the personnel they have in the center of defence. Ashley Williams isn’t pacey, and while Jordi Amat has a bit of pace, you can still get in behind them. Manchester United threatened them in that area, but didn’t have the pace to really take advantage of that. Unfortunately for the Swans, Diego Costa does. And if Costa isn’t fit, I expect that Loic Remy will get a debut start, and he also has that kind of pace.
This will be a match that should favor the Blues in the end, but Swansea have proven tricky to beat in recent years. Remember ball-boy gate.