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Thursday 09 January 2014

Talking Tactics: How Swansea could soar again

Adrian Clarke suggests that tinkering with their formation may help Swansea improve their fortunes

Images 1 & 2: Michu is more a threat as an attacking midfielder, such as v Liverpool

Michael Laudrup's debut season with Swansea City could hardly have gone better. Steering his side to their first major trophy and achieving an ninth-place finish in the Barclays Premier League, the Dane earned many admirers.

This season it has been more of a struggle for the Capital One Cup winners. Seeking consistency, the Swans have spent most of the campaign languishing in the lower half of the table. Adrian Clarke takes a look at what has changed at the Liberty Stadium.

Missing the Michu magic

Signed from Rayo Vallecano, Miguel Michu was the best value-for-money acquisition made by any manager in the summer of 2012. Scoring 18 Barclays Premier League goals, the Spaniard was deservedly named the club's Player of the Year last season.

However, choosing where best to deploy the tall, midfielder-cum-striker is a quandary Laudrup has grappled with since day one. In the absence of a prolific goal threat up front last term (Danny Graham and Luke Moore netted just three apiece) there was a temptation to use Michu as a centre-forward, but, as outlined in Table 1 below, he almost always proved to be a greater threat when given free rein to float around behind a target man.

With a knack of timing his forward runs perfectly, the Swansea No 9 arrived in the penalty area to score goal after goal, one step ahead of his markers. Comfortable on the ball and intelligent at finding space, this is a player who prefers to face the opposition goal, and attack from deep.

table 1: Where Michu is most striking
  Matches Team goals Michu goals Points
Lone striker 2012/13 17 15 (0.88pm) 6 (0.35pm) 17 (1pm)
Behind striker 2012/13 20 30 (1.5pm) 12 (0.6pm) 30 (1.5pm)
Lone striker 2013/14 6 4 (0.66pm) 0 (0pm) 2 (0.33pm)
Behind striker 2013/14 6 10 (1.66pm) 2 (0.33pm) 11 (1.83pm)

The arrival of Wilfried Bony in the summer appeared to be the ideal solution. With a strong, hardworking natural centre-forward to play off, the Spaniard, freed from the pressure of being expected to score all the goals, was tipped to shine even brighter.

Things did not pan out that way. Due to injuries, and Laudrup's occasional reluctance to go with two such attack-minded players, the pair have started just four of Swansea's 20 Barclays Premier League matches together. As a consequence it is no surprise they have just one league goal each from open play when they have appeared together.

Even before sustaining the ankle and knee injuries that have sidelined him for all but two matches since 3 November Michu's form had dipped. His chance-conversion rate plummeted from 20.5% to 8.7%, but even so, as shown in Images 1 and 2 above, the Spaniard poses a more potent threat when used in an attacking midfield role.

Fitness permitting, if Swansea can get Michu and Bony, who has found the target six times in the Barclays Premier League, on the pitch together more often, there should be both an upturn in both the team's goal output, and the Spaniard's individual form.

Statistical improvements

There has been no radical change in direction or tactics from Swansea this season. Laudrup still starts most matches with a 4-2-3-1 formation and their patient passing style remains at the core of all they do. Statistically speaking, no team in the Barclays Premier League have dominated possession or passed the ball better than the Swans.

The recruitment last summer was excellent. Holding midfielder Jose Canas has taken over from Leon Britton as their chief defensive midfielder, and provided wonderful protection. His 2.6 interceptions per match, 58% tackle-success rate, and 91% passing accuracy prove how well he has fared.

Elsewhere, aside from the contributions of Bony and Canas, midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, who was bought from Liverpool, has given the midfield more drive and attacking intent than the man he replaced Ki Sung-Yueng. Shelvey has scored and created three goals, compared with no goals and two assists from the Korean last term.

Signed for less than £500,000 the 22-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Pozuelo has also been effective in his cameo appearances, carving out goalscoring chances for a team-mate every 36.6 minutes, from an attacking-midfield berth.

As you can see in Table 2, the team is performing better in most areas this season compared with last.

table 2: Swansea's attack statistics
  2013/14 2012/13
Average possession 62.5% 58.3%
Pass completion 86.5% 85%
Shots per match 10 9.9
Chance conversion 13% 12.5%
Crosses per match 24.6 20.8
Cross completion 20.6% 25.2%
Goals per match 1.3 1.23

However, at this stage last season the Swans boasted two more victories, three fewer defeats and an additional eight points than now. Instead of sitting in 13th place, they were ninth.

So, why have results been worse? With 10 extra UEFA Europa League matches to squeeze in, fatigue has hampered their sharpness at both ends of the pitch, leading to more mistakes and poor decision-making at key moments.

Although it is unquantifiable, those travel commitments and additional fixtures could easily have accounted for a slight dip in sharpness, mentally and physically.

Less productivity in the final third

The Swans are strong down the spine of their side, with Chico Flores, Canas and Jonathan De Guzman influential performers, especially in keeping the ball. All three are placed in the top 18 most accurate passers in the Barclays Premier League.

Where Laudrup's side tend to fall down is with their creativity inside the final third. This season the problem has been exacerbated, with wide men Wayne Routledge, Pablo Hernandez and the now-stricken Nathan Dyer contributing less than last term.

Too many crosses are being wasted (the side's cross-completion has dropped by 5%), too many hopeful long shots are being attempted (efforts from outside the area have increased from 39% to 49%), and their inventive players are not supplying enough goals or opportunities for team-mates. See Table 3 below.

Although Laudrup has shown little inclination of being prepared to contemplate an alternative system, he might consider the occasional use of a 3-5-1-1 formation between now and the end of the season. See Image 3 below for my suggested line-up.

Swansea wingers' performances
  Season Dyer Routledge Hernandez
Minutes per goal 2012/13 769 505 734
  2013/14 242 1008 772
Successful crosses 2012/13 25% 23.8% 15.6%
  2013/14 18.2% 11.8% 21.4%
Chances created (per match) 2012/13 1.05 1.66 2.03
  2013/14 1 1.17 1.9

With four bold, attacking full-backs to choose from, and a plethora of central midfield talents available, this formation could be a viable option that helps to bring the best out of Shelvey, De Guzman, Michu and Bony, the four players who have mustered the most attempts on goal this season.

Final thought

In spite of their mixed results, Swansea have a more talented squad this season, who should improve now that they have fewer European fixtures to fulfil.

The key to their success will be bringing the best out of Michu and Bony. If Laudrup is able to select them together more often, and allows time for their partnership time to blossom, it could make all the difference.

For now, though, the Dane will be focusing hard on his side's trip to Manchester United on Saturday. The chance to win at Old Trafford for a second week running does not come around too often.

Image 3: Swansea in a 3-5-1-1 formation would help their attacking players thrive

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke analyses how Swansea have performed this season compared with last
  • A modification to a 3-5-1-1 formation could reap rewards for Michael Laudrup
  • Clarke suggests how to make the most of Jonjo Shelvey, Jonathan De Guzman, Wilfried Bony and Miguel Michu