Sitting just three points above the relegation zone, Swansea City find themselves in the perilous position where the club desperately need to begin winning matches to climb up the table.
The team is seemingly coming apart at the seams. The police were called to training on Friday after a report of a standoff between defenders Chico Flores and Garry Monk. MOTD2 pundit Alan Hansen says the team should change its playing style to beat the relegation trap. Star player Michu is still injured and won’t return until February 8. And, to make matters worse, the critics keep reminding everyone that the Swans have the worst current form in the Premier League.
On the surface, these seem like dire times at Swansea. While the results have been demoralizing, there are some reasons to be optimistic that Swansea City will avoid relegation. While they’ve been frustrating to watch on the pitch at times, Swansea continue trying to play football ‘The Swansea Way’ to get themselves out of trouble. They’ve been unfortunate that during this eight match winless streak, they’ve faced several of the top clubs in the league, including Manchester City (lost 0-1), Tottenham (lost 1-3), Chelsea (lost 0-1) and Everton (lost 1-2). In the other four matches, they lost against Manchester United (0-2), and drew against Aston Villa (1-1), Norwich (1-1) and Hull City (1-1).
In none of the above matches did the Swans play poorly or were outplayed. Even in the defeats against Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton, Swansea were in the game for large portions of the match but narrowly lost in the end.
Thankfully for the Swans, the next three matches are slightly easier, albeit against relegation candidates that may offer an X-Factor in their performances. Still, Swansea should (and need to) win two to three of their four upcoming matches against Fulham, West Ham United, Cardiff City and Stoke City.
Just playing pretty football against sides and monopolizing the possession statistics won’t win matches for Michael Laudrup’s side, however. As was the problem in Swansea’s first season in the Premier League when they were managed by Brendan Rodgers, the Swans need to improve on creating more chances in front of goal, and — more importantly — putting the ball into the back of net.
While that’s easier said than done, the reason why Swansea are having trouble scoring goals and winning matches is two-fold:
1. The squad has been ravaged with injuries to arguably three of their best players. Michu, Jonathan de Guzman and Michel Vorm are still on the injury list, not to mention Nathan Dyer, Pablo Hernandez, Jose Canas and Garry Monk who are all out injured. Even Jonjo Shelvey was injured in Sunday’s match against Spurs with a muscle pull, but there’s a 75% chance he’ll return at the weekend against Fulham.
With a team like Swansea that doesn’t have a ton of quality in depth, injuries are going to have an impact on the team’s performances. As a result, Michael Laudrup has had to rely on players who aren’t Premier League quality yet such as:
• Striker Alvaro Vazquez, who is this season’s version of former Swansea on-loan striker Itay Shechter; skillful but is knocked off the ball too easily,
• Winger Roland Lamah, who has potential but has been too inconsistent, and
• Right full back Dwight Tiendalli, who is not as dangerous going forward on the right wing as Angel Rangel is.
2. The team’s chemistry has been disrupted. Earlier this season, I criticized Laudrup’s decision to select Jonjo Shelvey as one of the first names on the team sheet for Premier League matches instead of the other midfield choices available. As the season has progressed, Laudrup has continued to stick with Shelvey, and the English midfielder has taken on a more prominent role in the side with Michu being out injured. As a result, Shelvey has moved up the pitch more, so instead of just creating chances with long balls over the top or passes that split a defense open, he’s been finding himself in positions where he’s had far more opportunities to score. Sadly, as we saw while he was at Liverpool, his shooting accuracy is — on the whole — woeful.
When Shelvey plays well, Swansea look dangerous. But his form has been too inconsistent. He has the potential to be a more well-rounded player in 1-2 years but Swansea can’t afford to wait that long especially with this season hanging in the balance.
With Swansea having a poor of a season as they’ve had in the league, the sad aspect about Swansea’s performances thus far is that Shelvey has been one of the standout players on the pitch. With Michu injured, Swansea have been lacking a leader on the pitch, and Shelvey has been the one to step up, albeit not perfectly. He’s the one demanding the ball. He’s the one directing the play. He’s the one player who seems to want to push the envelope and try something different.
However, Swansea’s impressive possession stats have failed to convert into goals. Shelvey is not solely to blame, but his inclusion in the side has disrupted the chemistry that the well-oiled partnership between Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzman had in the past. Laudrup’s decision to break up the midfield engine was necessary given the sheer number of games the Swans have played so far this season with Europa League qualification beginning back in July, plus the injuries that have hit Britton, de Guzman and Canas at different times. Still, the over reliance on Shelvey has had an impact on the poor results the club has achieved. Shelvey continues to give the ball away too many times, at inopportune moments, and his passing accuracy still could be better than what it is. But most importantly, Shelvey’s inability to put his goalscoring chances away is hurting the Swans.
The position that Shelvey plays is the key role to Swansea turning their season around. Either Shelvey needs to finish his chances that he creates, or he needs to step aside for Laudrup to bring in a player in the January transfer window who can not only create chances, but can put the ball in the back of the net. Right now, Swansea don’t have that player on their books with the injury to Michu. On-loan Ki-Sung Yueng at Sunderland is half of that player. The Korean can create, but he’s not the goalscoring force from attacking midfield that the Swans crave.
In too many matches in recent weeks, Swansea have become too predictable. The possession football has been beautiful to watch, but as soon as they let in a goal, it’s game over. The Swans need to find an impact player who is going to make a difference in the hole behind striker Wilfried Bony. If they don’t find that player in the transfer window, or if Laudrup remains too stubborn and continues to put his faith and trust in Shelvey, Swansea could be doomed.
If Swansea can somehow manage to stay up this season, Swansea supporters will still look back at the 2013/14 season as a success. Outside of the Premier League, Swansea have recorded two of their most impressive results in the 102-year history of the club. Swansea completely outplayed Valencia in the Europa League at the Mestalla Stadium, winning 3-0 in one of the team’s best performances in years. Plus, the 2-1 victory for Swansea over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup 3rd Round will go down in the record books as Swansea’s first-ever win at the stadium of the Red Devils.
If Swansea can get wins in the next four matches against relegation-threatened teams Fulham, West Ham, Cardiff and Stoke — and get enough points to be sitting pretty in mid-table, then the Swans will be able to head into its biggest match of the season against Napoli in the Europa League on February 20 more mentally prepared to give it a go against one of the top sides in Europe.
Until then, the Swans have a lot of work to do. The players need to continue playing their brand of football, knowing that the system works as long as they have options in attacking midfield that can score goals. At the same time, Laudrup and Swansea Chairman Huw Jenkins need to finalize deals for 1-3 players to inject new life into the team, add depth to the squad and, most importantly, find an attacking midfielder who can challenge Shelvey for his position and score goals.
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