As a Swansea City supporter, it’s been a frustrating experience watching the team play this season. It’s not necessarily the results, or lack thereof. It’s more that I know they can play better. I’m sure many of the Swansea footballers feel the same way, especially Michu who has cut a frustrated figure at times.
On paper, the Swans are currently in a relatively comfortable zone. They sit in fifteenth position in the Premier League, and are leading their Europa League group with maximum points from two matches played thus far. But going into the international break, there are warning signs that have appeared that need to be addressed. Otherwise, the club could start slipping down the table.
First, the positives. Swansea were fortunate to hold on to all of their key players this summer, which is a huge boost for the club considering the reported interest in players such as Michu and Ashley Williams. On top of that, Swansea manager Michael Laudrup was able to strengthen the depth of his side by acquiring striker Alvaro Vazquez (on loan from Getafe), central defender Jordi Amat (from Espanyol), defensive midfielder Jose Canas (from Real Betis), attacking midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (from Liverpool), striker Wilfried Bony (from Vitesse Arnhem) and midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo (from Real Betis). Plus, there was the return from injury of Neil Taylor.
Swansea now have more depth and fresh legs in every position on the pitch, enough to ensure that there are plenty of opportunities to rotate the squad throughout the season without fear of players being too tired.
However, so far, the results have been largely underwhelming… in the Premier League, that is.
So far this season, Swansea have saved their best performances, and most spirited displays, for the Europa League — convincingly beating Malmo 4-0 (on aggregate), St Gallen (1-0 at home), Petrolul Ploiesti (6-3 on aggregate) and, most impressively of all, Valencia (3-0 away).
In those victories, it’s been the Swansea of old, where the performances have come together almost perfectly.
While Swansea’s European exploits have largely gone unnoticed, partly because few people bother to watch or follow Europa League games especially if it doesn’t involve his or her own team, the club’s Premier League performances this season have been disappointing. The average pundit would throw out stereotypical explanations why there’s been a drop-off in Premier League form — players are too tired, lack of depth, the players are having difficulty adjusting to Thursday and Sunday matches, etcetera. But all of those reasons are just excuses. Instead, I argue that Swansea’s disappointing performances in the Premier League thus far and why the side are playing better in the Europa League are due to two main reasons:
While Swansea City Chairman Huw Jenkins has said that Swansea’s priority is the Premier League, I don’t get the same sense from Michael Laudrup that he agrees, even though he too has said that the Premier League is the priority. Actions speak louder than words, and it really feels that based on team selection and how his players have been reacting in games, that the manager and players seem more ‘up for it’ in Europa League games than the Premier League.
Recently, Laudrup put the Europa League situation into context where he eloquently explained that it’s unlikely that Swansea City will win another League Cup or FA Cup in its near future, and it’s also unlikely that Swansea will finish in top five to qualify for the UEFA Europa League again or the UEFA Champions League, if they finished in the top four. So this Europa League conquest by the Swans is their best — and perhaps only — opportunity to play in Europe for the foreseeable future, and therefore it’s in the club’s best interest to try and make a go of it.
While the Europa League may be a joke league to some supporters and club managers (and players), the tournament means everything to Swansea City. And the astounding 3-0 victory against Valencia at the Mestalla — arguably one of the greatest victories in the history of Swansea City Football Club — is testament to that.
Despite the fact that Jenkins and Laudrup have not admitted it, the Europa League is a priority. But so too is the Premier League. The trouble is trying to find a balance between the two where the Swans can succeed at both. That leads me to my next point.
2. Player selection.
I understand that Swansea need to change and adapt in order to progress, but I’ve been disappointed by Laudrup’s team selection this season when it comes to Premier League matches.
The two unsung heroes of this Swansea City side are Jonathan de Guzman and Leon Britton. Those two players are workhorses that often get overlooked because they’re not consistent goalscorers, but both footballers are so important to how Swansea play. Britton is the engine in this team. When he plays, he’s the one that threads the ball through the middle of the pitch, opening up teams when moving forward with his crisp passing, creating wonderful triangles. Vice-versa, when the opposition has the ball, he’s the wall that teams hit, chasing down players and the ball, forcing teams to lose possession.
While Britton is an exceptionally gifted defensive midfielder, who is incredibly adept at not losing his composure when he has the ball and has players running at him, Jonathan de Guzman is the perfect partner in midfield. The attacking midfielder, who can also switch to a defensive midfielder, is the creator. His slick through-balls and vision to see passes that other footballers can’t imagine are sensational. Plus, de Guzman is wonderfully gifted at taking free kicks, whether it’s a direct free kick at goal into the top corner of the net, or as indirect free kicks into the box to find the head of Swansea’s tall defenders.
Out of Swansea’s seven Premier League matches this season, Laudrup has started Britton and De Guzman in the same side a total of zero times. Last season it was 4 times in the first seven games (in victories against QPR and West Ham, a loss against Aston Villa, and a draw against Sunderland). Having said that, there have been a couple of games this season where De Guzman was out injured due to a concussion he sustained while on Netherlands national team duty. But the point is that even when De Guzman is injury free, Laudrup hasn’t played him alongside Britton in any matches this Premier League season.
Even when Swansea have played either De Guzman or Britton separately in the starting line-up, Swansea’s performances have been improved compared to when neither player is starting. With De Guzman starting, Swansea have beaten Valencia 3-0, while also losing, barely, I might add, to Arsenal 1-2 and Tottenham 1-0. De Guzman also started in Swansea’s 0-0 second leg draw against Malmo in Sweden.
Britton, on the other hand, has only started in Swansea’s 4-0 win against Malmo, the 2-2 draw against Liverpool, the 1-0 win against St Gallen and the 1-4 loss against Manchester United.
My point is that when either De Guzman or Britton start, or ideally when both footballers start in the same line-up, Swansea’s performances on the pitch are more cohesive and effective.
Why the big change from Swansea this season? The main reason has been the introduction of Jonjo Shelvey and Jose Canas to the Swansea starting line-up. Canas is a like-for-like replacement for Britton. Meanwhile, Shelvey has started every single Premier League match for Swansea this season, pushing the combination of Britton and De Guzman to the fringes. In fact, Shelvey has started more Premier League matches this season than Britton and De Guzman combined. Part of that has been due to necessity due to De Guzman suffering from concussion and groin injuries, but the par for the course has been that Shelvey has been played far more often even when De Guzman was available.
With Shelvey starting for the Swans in the league, Swansea have lost 1-4 to Manchester United, lost 0-1 to Tottenham, tied Liverpool 2-2, lost 1-2 to Arsenal and lost 2-0 to Southampton. Shelvey also played in Swansea’s two wins this season in the Premier League — 2-0 against Crystal Palace, and 2-0 versus West Brom.
In the Europa League, Shelvey has been a bit player. Since the Europa League Play Off Round in late August, the only Europa League matches he’s started in were the 4-0 victory against Malmo and the 5-1 win against Petrolul Ploiesti. On the other hand, Britton and De Guzman have played far more often in the Europa League — Britton and De Guzman making four starts each, and both footballers starting together in two matches (the 1-0 win against St Gallen and the 1-2 loss against Petrolul Ploiesti).
The bottom line is that Laudrup, for whatever reason, has decided to prioritize Jonjo Shelvey for Premier League matches, while focusing De Guzman and Britton on Europa League matches. I’m all for squad rotation, but to me, this is more of a strategic decision rather than swapping players in and out.
By starting Shelvey in every single Premier League match this season, he has made Swansea more vulnerable in the middle of the park and less effective overall. Shelvey loses possession too often, makes errant passes into danger areas, is less comfortable on the ball when under pressure and isn’t effective when trying to thread balls through to the Swansea forwards. As we saw in the game against Southampton, and in other matches earlier this season, Shelvey adds a different element to Swansea’s attack, which is the diagonal long ball to either the wingers or attacking full-backs. But when these passes are unable to find their recipient time after time, not only do they became futile but the passes also become so predictable and easier to defend against.
Personally, I’d prefer to see Shelvey played more often in the Europa League, while playing De Guzman far more often in his place in the Premier League. The challenge is that De Guzman is still recovering from a groin injury, which ruled him out of the Southampton game. Hopefully the Dutch international can return from injury soon to make more of an impact on the Swansea City side who should be delivering better results than what they’ve achieved thus far in the domestic league.
At the crux of this debate is what priority the Europa League has for Laudrup and his players. The sense I get is that Laudrup sees the tournament as the best opportunity to deliver another successful season for the Welsh team, even exceeding the heights of what Swansea achieved last season with the League Cup win. If he can do that while rotating the squad and improving results in the Premier League, I’m completely behind him. He has a squad at his disposal who are talented enough to handle battles on two fronts. The only caveat is that Shelvey needs to be played in Europe more often to develop his skills and to learn to play “The Swansea Way.” He’s a quality player, but he’s not at the level where you can build a side around him. And with Swansea playing so much of their football in midfield, putting your faith in Shelvey is a luxury Swansea cannot afford.