Today, where so much money rests on the result of a team’s soccer season, the number of clubs that aren’t being managed with the idea of sustainable competitiveness is crazy. Players come, players go. Even top clubs such as Arsenal or Manchester United are constantly faced with the threat of superstars leaving, while Real are forced to spend viciously every few years to attract the next set of galacticos. Very few clubs can build around the talent currently at their disposal in the knowledge that it will be there for years to come.
Far better then, to have a club-wide philosophy that maximizes the resources of whatever playing style the club chooses to adopt. Keeping the same management team is obviously a plus, but as long as the newcomer keeps the team moving forward in the same vein, refinement is achieved without taking two steps back for every one forward. Consider Tito Vilanova at Barcelona, who has continued work started long ago by the Dream Team of Johan Cruyff. Or even the evolution of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who have adjusted their playing style slightly year by year, while maintaining the same principles of technical football that were brought into the club in 1996.
A lot of my previous articles have stressed that the teams who outperform expectations are ones that have a strategy their club revolves around, a strategy hard to imitate. You cannot magically recreate La Masia and start a Barcelona-style conveyer belt of talent. The seeds for that resource were laid long ago and it would take a tremendous amount of money and time to replicate. To use another more drastic example, Lionel Messi probably wouldn’t be considered the best player in the world if he played for Stoke City. Is that a slight on Messi? No. It’s not his fault he’s 5’7″. Stoke have a system (one that’s worked well for them) revolving around long balls and physicality. Messi is no good if the ball is constantly going over his head. Similarly, to take advantage of Messi, Stoke would have to either spend a lot on good playmakers or change their entire youth setup to develop one.
All of which leads us to Swansea. An example of a club that started finding the process of finding what was right for them under Kenny Jackett, and keeping that style constant through Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and now, Michael Laudrup.
It’s not like Swansea are the first club to figure out that if you don’t have money or stature you need to compete in other ways. Here is an excellent three piece article on how SC Freiburg’s manager Volker Finke kept the German side punching above their weight simply by having a clearer vision than those around him.
Finke’s logic was simple. Most teams attempt to imitate what the top sides are doing, but without the resources. So if Barcelona are winning everything, suddenly everybody is scrambling to find a side capable of holding possession and playing a genius pass. However if you’re a small club, all the technical players who can do those things well are some way out of your budget. So the club breaks its bank on players who maybe can do those things, just not effectively. So Joe Cole is signed for more than he’s worth to do nothing. Bojan goes to Roma for €12m so that they can be somewhat like Barcelona, except the only reason Bojan was allowed to leave Barcelona was because he wasn’t good enough. And Roma have now sent him off to Milan this season and ended their Barca experiment. So obviously that doesn’t work.
The second option is to do the opposite of whatever the general trend is, in the hopes that top sides will be negated. So if Barcelona are dominating by having the ball and playing a high line, more and more teams are sitting extremely deep and using their limited possession to hoof balls behind Dani Alves. This rarely works. Although the few times it does, people get quite excited.
The option Finke chose was to do neither. He realized that the obsession with mimicry had led to lots of quite useful players being left unwanted because they didn’t fit into a stereotype. If a side with a cohesive strategy could be built around those types of players then it could provide quite a shock to the establishment.
Swansea have done similar to Freiburg. Much has been made of Roberto Martinez’s scouting. You can see it in the number of young players with fine technical ability brought in on the cheap at Wigan. Laudrup and Rodgers have done the same. Pablo Hernandez and Michu are Spanish players of old, before La Furia Roja became tiki-taka. Quite direct, but still with an excellent first touch, and players that hardly cost a fortune considering their output and reputation. Hernandez was on a Champions League team in Valencia. Michu was the highest scoring Spanish midfielder in La Liga last season. The only reason Swansea got them so cheap is because most other sides were busy trying to emulate the dominant tactic of the age or the dominant counter for the tactic of the age.
The style Swansea play is an extension of what had been installed quite some time ago. They still keep the ball on the ground, they still look graceful. All Laudrup has really done is to speed up the tempo. The possession statistics aren’t as high, and they do sit quite deep at times, but they have the technical ability to play their way out of trouble and the creativity to take advantage on the break. It’s a hybrid style that not many other teams are playing, and certainly not any teams with Swansea’s resources. QPR have just thrown money at a boatload of players, expecting them to fit in a 4-4-2. West Ham have a clear strategy as well, but one not nearly as attractive to the neutral.
Are Swansea going to continue on an upward trend until they reach Champions League nirvana? No. Freiburg made the UEFA Cup occasionally, but they also dealt with relegation as players they made into stars left for fatter contracts. But Swansea are in the last eight of the League Cup, and are one Middlesbrough win away from reaching the semi-final. Plus, with a good run of form, they could improve on last season’s 11th-place finish and sneak into the Europa League.
At the very top level, resources will always win out. Realistically being a version of Stoke City or Fulham, secure in the top division and with the potential to challenge for the Europa League, may be the ceiling. No shame in that, not every club can have an oligarch benefactor. And without one, having a proper vision is the best a club can do.