FEATURE: Swansea City demonstrate the importance of a footballing philosophy

Watching Gary Monk and Ashley Williams get their hands on the Capital One cup is a memory that will forever be etched in the history of Swansea City football club. After all, they were able to celebrate the club’s centenary season by lifting the club’s first major trophy.

However, it was also a stark realisation as to how far this football club had come. It was only 10 years to the day since Swansea found themselves 21st in League Two, in a season where they only managed to save their football league status on the last day of the season. 

Since then the only way has been up for Swansea. The secret for which is of no huge surprise even if it did require a lot of conviction in its execution by the board. Chairman Huw Jenkins does deserve particular credit for this as he has overseen a period where Swansea have been converted from a team being saved from the footballing abyss to a well polished premier league outfit now crowned League Cup champions. 

What is this secret? Simple, find a football philosophy that matches your aspirations and build to that plan. For Swansea, this was to have a side that was not afraid to play a very technical brand of football that involved passing from the back and took advantage of space through passing triangles in the opposition half. A system much like we have become accustomed to with Barcelona and Spain in recent years. 

This chosen style was one that really came to the fore from the moment that Roberto Martinez took over at Swansea to help them escape the grasp of League One. That statement in itself is a shock as a ‘keep the ball on the ground’ system is not one which you would expect to succeed in what are very tricky lower leagues whose difficulty are born from the physicality of the game.

This is especially the case when you have a club that does not have an abundance of cash to invest in the ‘best’ personnel for each position. Instead, it is a matter of investing wisely to find players that match the club’s system and this is something that Swansea has managed to do with incredible regularity. 

Having said that, it could be argued that the key cog for the way Swansea play was blessed to them when they were in dire straits in the depths of League 2. That man is Leon Britton. The metronomic way in which he dictates the tempo of Swansea’s midfield was a perfect fit for this system and is comparable to the way in which Xavi has pulled the strings at Barcelona over the years. Such is his ability that he has been able to be a mainstay within the team throughout the leagues. 

Even with a player of Britton’s ability at Martinez’s disposal, success was not going to come easily. At the start of his reign he had to deal with the loss of midfield maestro, Lee Trundle as well as a formation (4-4-2) that was simply not a good match for the style of play he desired for the club. This therefore brought about an enforced changed to a 5 man midfield which contained 2 advanced wingers who made the formation in effect a 4-3-3 when Swansea were on the attack.

It was this along with the effective use of Swansea’s collaboration with Ado Den Haag, in order to bring in Ferrie Bodde, which turned around their fortunes. Bodde introduced to Swansea a deep lying playmaker, a growing trend amongst continental football and an integral figure for the style of football Swansea had now adopted.

These changes saw Swansea achieve promotion and immediately contend for the playoff places in the championship. It also saw them earn the nickname ‘Swansalona’ the downside of which meant that premier league sides were now casting their eye over the managerial talent of Roberto Martinez.

A win against a strong Reading FC side demonstrates the effectiveness of the style Martinez implemented:

It was no surprise that Martinez was soon cherry picked by Wigan Athletic, which brought about Swansea’s first real test. This is where in my opinion the Swansea board set the perfect example to clubs throughout the leagues.

Instead of going after managers that could be considered the ‘best in the championship’ they targeted managers that were a better fit into the ideology that they had now embedded into the club. This in turn saw Paulo Sousa appointed manager. 

In his first and what turned out to be his only season at the club, Sousa started magnificently, continuing the good work that Martinez had started. However, his horrendous run at the end of the season partnered with the lack of financial backing that he had desired eventually saw him leave the club. While this was extremely disappointing for the Jacks, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. 

I say this because it led to Brendan Rodgers being brought in. Having had what could only be described as a mixed record as a manager, Rodgers was pin pointed as someone who would mesh perfectly with what Swansea were trying to achieve.

Such was his prowess, Rodgers was in discussions to join Mancini’s coaching staff before Swansea jumped in and got their man. Considered a football purist, Rodgers insisted on passing from the back, much like Martinez and he invested almost perfectly to make the most of this system. Adding Neil Taylor, Scott Sinclair and Fabio Borini in his first season ensured promotion for Swansea via a memorable playoff victory against cash laden QPR. 

He then helped Swansea impress the premier league by bringing in Caulker, Graham, Vorm, Routledge and Sigurdsson, all of which were hugely impressive in Swansea’s debut season in the premiership. Much like Martinez though, his good work at Swansea was promptly noticed and Liverpool snapped him up as someone that could lead them for the next decade. 

Now Swansea’s board were being tested for the third time. How can they sustain the integrity of their ideology when the strengths of the English game laid elsewhere? This was particularly a problem as retaining a place within the top division was now so heavily reliant on investing well and in some cases plentifully which is not ideal when working to the tight budget a club like Swansea have. 

So it wouldn’t be short of the mark to say the board pulled off somewhat of a coup by bringing Michael Laudrup. As a manager who has continued a footballing mentality that he followed during his playing career, there weren’t many better suitors for the Swansea job.

Furthermore, his knowledge of the Spanish market would mean they could invest sensibly while strengthening considerably. The evidence for which is proven with Michu (who is now considered as one of the best players in the league) as well as the likes of Pablo Hernandez and Jonathan De Guzman all of whom have been highly effective in their first season of English football. 

However, it was more than just his signings that helped lead Swansea to League Cup glory. Instead a large amount of the credit should go to how he has been able to evolve the system Swansea were used to.

The first goal in the league cup final shows how Laudrup’s Swansea is now more deadly on the break:

The system Rodgers and his predecessors used while easy on the eye, often involved heavy possession that was sometimes handcuffed by the fact that it involved slow, or rather, patient build up in their attack.

What Laudrup has introduced is the utilisation of more pace and guile in attack. With Swansea now more vicious on the counter, they have been able to combine the presence, which Michu brings to their attack, with the pace and skill that Nathan Dyer and Pablo Hernandez bring in stretching defences when on the break.

This has made Swansea a trickier proposition than ever before and has seen Swansea become good value for a place in the top half of the table. More importantly for the club and its fans however is that it has also brought in the clubs first major trophy. 

The test for Swansea has only just begun though. The board now faces the challenge of not only holding onto the manager, who has earned plaudits throughout the land, but also the players whose reputation only improves with every game that goes by. If they are not able to do so, will they be able to replace them as aptly as they have done in the past?

Perhaps more importantly, will they be able to add more strength in depth to deal with the rigours of European football? I ask this because even if they are able to hold on to their current assets, the only thing that will really hold them back is the thinness of their squad which will particularly be a handicap when playing 50+ games a season.

One thing is for sure though, the board will only bring in those who they feel is appropriate and they will not spend beyond the clubs means in doing so. It is this which makes all involved with football feel that Swansea are such a well run club. Long may it continue.

What does the future hold for Swansea City?

image: © swans100

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