Ahead of a busy two weeks of fixtures, Chelsea travel to Wales for a meeting with Swansea City. This match will be the first match of a testing run for the Blues, as they face Liverpool twice in the Capital One Cup, face Bradford next Saturday, and welcome their title rivals Manchester City to Stamford Bridge in a fortnight’s time. Swansea don’t quite have that fixture pile-up, but they do have tricky away matches against Blackburn in the FA Cup next weekend and a trip to St. Mary’s to face Southampton on 1 Feb.
Regardless, Chelsea will be happy to be back on top of the league based on point total rather than alphabetical order. The 2-0 win last week over a plucky Newcastle side avenged their earlier defeat at St. James Park, but also raised one or two questions, as Chelsea appeared to sleepwalk through much of the match. It won’t matter much to Jose Mourinho because they got the 3 points in the end, but it is something worth noting because of the current run of fixtures and because of the ineffectiveness of one or two squad players when Mourinho rotates.
For Swansea and Garry Monk, a point at home to the league leaders would be great, but the Swans are in no real danger, provided they can make up for the loss of Wilfried Bony to Manchester City. Right now, Swansea sit comfortably in the middle of the table, 11 points clear of the mess at the bottom of the table and still within 7 points of the top 4. However, results haven’t been good in the league since their win over Aston Villa on Boxing Day, and they suffered a 4-1 hammering at the hands of an inconsistent Liverpool side. A match against Chelsea won’t define the rest of their season, but points would definitely be a boost for the remainder of the campaign.
Now that the sample size is larger, Garry Monk has kept a lot of Swansea’s style the same, but has changed a few key areas.
Now that Garry Monk has been in charge for almost a year, the style of play he’s settled on for Swansea is becoming much clearer. Earlier in the season, it was a bit hard to gauge because he was in the middle of trying to save Swansea from a relegation battle last season and we were facing him just four matches into the season.
Since that time, Monk has kept a lot of the principles of the passing football that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Swansea under both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers previously. However, Monk has changed that philosophy to include more of a mixed style of passing. Under Rodgers, possessing the football was a must, sometimes passing the ball just for the sake of passing it, and under Martinez, the short pass was favored over the longer ones. Monk’s ideas fall somewhere in between, and it’s allowed two things to emerge that have to be looked at.
The first thing is that his Swansea team tend to sit a bit deeper and tend to try to keep things tighter. That’s not to say we’re going to see 10 men behind the ball every time we go forward, but there will be a tighter shape and structure and they don’t press high up the pitch as much as they did before. They’ll still press high, but they do it in select moments rather than trying to do so for 90 minutes.
The second thing is that Swansea have started using the pace of wingers like Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge, and Jefferson Montero to counterattack effectively from a deeper position. In past years, you would see them still play through the center forward who would be responsible for bringing the wingers into play, but it would be a much slower build-up. This season, you’ve seen them play the ball quicker into the center forward who would bring the wingers into play and counter, which earned them a 2-0 win over Arsenal and gave Manchester City a bit of trouble.
That isn’t to say that they don’t do well in possession and build-up, but the style has evolved under Monk. What will be interesting to see is how it changes now that a key component is missing.
How will Swansea adjust to the permanent loss of Wilfried Bony?
For this match, Bony was always going to be unavailable. With the African Cup of Nations starting, Bony was going to be called to national team duty with Ivory Coast and most likely would have returned in February. However, he won’t return to Swansea at all after his sale to Manchester City this past week.
Bony has become a vital cog in the machine for Swansea, as his physicality and ability on the ball became key to their counterattack. A few seasons ago, Michu played an important role because of his ability to open passing lanes for runners from the center forward, but he wasn’t a true striker and could sometimes be bullied out of the match. That’s not the case with Bony. He’s a big, strong center forward, but also has the similar ability to create passing lanes. But what he has that Michu didn’t is the ability to turn a defender, run at him, or pass it off and find space to attack. It’s not surprising then that Bony, Dyer, Routledge, and Gylfi Sigurdsson all have combined to 23 goals this season with Bony netting 9 himself. It’ll be hard to replace that, and a lot of the burden will fall to Bafetimbi Gomis.
On a side note, I will say that a lot of Chelsea fans are upset at Bony having gone to Swansea City from Vitesse and the Blues not picking up the option to match the offer. Personally, I didn’t see this level of production from Bony in the few Vitesse matches I did manage to see. I saw a big, strong striker who relied heavily on his physicality and lacked a lot of technical ability. The potential was there, but unless he developed the ability to manipulate the ball via technique, he wouldn’t be productive at the top level. Credit to Michael Laudrup and Garry Monk then for developing that side of his game, because two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought at his age that it would happen.
Gylfi Sigurdsson – Does he also hate Tottenham?
Eye-catching tagline, eh? It’s an interesting one, too, because since his return to Swansea this season, he’s reminded everyone who had forgotten just how good he is as a player. That was sometimes forgotten at Spurs, where he got lost in the shuffle of changes of managers and managers asking him to play a position that he clearly wasn’t comfortable playing, particularly because it took his best skills away from him.
This season, he’s been played back in his number 10 role, and along with Bony, he’s been the engine that’s made this Swans side go. What Sigurdsson’s always had was a good range of passing ability, good vision, and great technique in striking the ball. That was always coupled with the ability to read the game well and find gaps, making up for the fact that he lacked a bit of pace. Playing out wide, it exposed a lot of his weaknesses, but now that he’s back in the center, he’s looked a lot more comfortable and he provides a bit of the guile that Swansea sometimes need to break teams down.
Swansea’s back line must have nightmares of Eden Hazard. Diego Costa might be a part of that soon, too.
Poor Angel Rangel. He’s not a terrible defender, but every time he plays Chelsea, he’s made to look like he’s the worst right back in the world largely in part to Eden Hazard. Hazard at his best can make anyone look foolish, but Swansea in particular have had a tough time dealing with him, particularly because they’re not the most mobile back line and can be exposed by skill players. Liverpool found that out when Coutinho, Adam Lallana, and Raheem Sterling ran roughshod against them at Anfield and Chelsea exposed that early in the season when Diego Costa scored a hat-trick for the Blues.
Hazard and Costa will again face that back line, and it’ll be interesting to see how they cope this time. The positive for Swansea is that while Hazard’s on a tremendous run of form, Costa hasn’t been as deadly as he was early on in the season. However, unlike his predecessors at striker, Costa is still managing to find the net despite not having a consistent impact on the match. Swansea will have to hope that both players have a bit of an off-day, along with one or two other Chelsea players, if they hope to get points.