Over the course of Swansea’s first four games played during the 2015/16 season, I would argue that the biggest test for the club was the match against Sunderland, not the games against Chelsea, Manchester United or Newcastle. To an outsider, that opinion may seem bizarre given the immense talent at Manchester United and Chelsea, as well as the threat that Newcastle poses. However, Sunderland are exactly the type of team that the Swans have the toughest task of beating because the Black Cats (and other clubs such as Stoke, West Ham and Aston Villa) stop the Welsh team from playing its brand of football.
So while the draw against Chelsea and the win against Manchester United will last in my memory for years to come, the 1-1 draw versus Sunderland on August 22 was just as impressive. On paper, Sunderland is a team that Swansea should beat comfortably, but with hard-nosed players such as Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Jack Rodwell playing for the Black Cats, it was always going to be a tough test for Garry Monk’s side. As it turned out, Bafetimbi Gomis got the opening goal but a second half equalizer from Jermain Defoe brought Sunderland back into the match. While the final result wasn’t three points for the Swans, I was impressed by Swansea’s ability to defend well against a very physical Sunderland team, and as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Black Cats aren’t as bad as we first thought. Since drawing 1-1 with Swansea, Sunderland have picked up a 6-3 win against Exeter and a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.
The draw against Sunderland was key to me. It showed that this is a Swansea team that can defend better, adapt to different styles of play from opponents and keep their shape and mental fortitude to try to battle through for a win or a draw. Last season’s Swansea would have capitulated and lost 1-2. This one is a new and improved City team.
Swansea’s other game, a 2-0 home win against Newcastle United, was done and dusted in the first half as soon as Daryl Janmaat got sent off. However, it’s important to note that Swansea’s improved attacking flair (thanks to Andre Ayew and Jefferson Montero) and pinpoint triangle passing makesit more likely for opponents to put in rash challenges to try to break up the play. While Janmaat got a red card in the Newcastle game, Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole and Jeremain Lens should have received second yellow cards for professional fouls in the game at the Stadium of Light. But on that day, referee Neil Swarbrick kept the cards in his pocket, and Sunderland escaped with a draw.
Speaking of Andre Ayew, he’s been the major reason why the Swans have started the season off so well. It’s another signing of the summer for the Swans, in my book. The Ghanian international who was signed on a free transfer has made an immediate impact. He’s several classes above Nathan Dyer (who has been loaned out to Leicester). Plus he’s more of an attacking threat, and a better passer of the ball than Dyer.
On the opposite flank, Jefferson Montero seems like a new signing. He played well in his debut season last year but only showed flashes of brilliance. But so far this season, he’s started to cut inside more and has posed more of an attacking threat for Swansea.
The combination of Ayew and Montero on both wings has got to be one of the most potent pairings in the entire Premier League.
At the same time, Jonjo Shelvey is playing like a changed man. He’s matured as a footballer and is playing more of a composed game. Most importantly, instead of channeling his aggression into late challenges or petulant behavior, he’s taken that energy and focused it into being the lynchpin of the side, creating inch-perfect through balls and being the engine of the team in the midfield. Finally, Swansea have found a reliable replacement for Leon Britton to hand the keys over to in order to control the middle of the park for City.
Best Starting XI: Fabianski, Naughton, Fabianski, Williams, Taylor; Ayew, Ki, Shelvey, Montero; Sigurdsson; Gomis.
Best Performer: Andre Ayew.
Most Improved Player: Jonjo Shelvey.
Injury News: Jefferson Montero is out with a hip/thigh injury. No return date has been revealed as of yet.
Best business completed in transfer window: Andre Ayew on a free transfer from Marseille.
Rating the manager: A+. Swansea’s biggest worry right now should be finding a successor to Garry Monk. While the Englishman recently signed a new contract, there’s no doubt that big clubs will come calling to try to acquire him in the near future. But Swansea have been there before after losing Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers to bigger clubs. Swansea will survive, but finding a manager who has the same philosophy is easier said than done.
Weaknesses: Swansea’s over-reliance on Wayne Routledge is an Achilles heel for Swansea. With Montero still out injured, I hope that Monk doesn’t continue playing Routledge. He’s inconsistent in his football and doesn’t provide the attacking threat that the Ecuadorian does. The sooner Montero returns to match fitness, the better.
Also while Swansea added new signings this summer, depth will be an issue for the team if there are injuries. Eder can cover for Gomis. Mo Barrow and Marvin Emnes can cover for Sigurdsson or the wingers. Jack Cork is ideal cover for the defensive midfielders, while Angel Rangel and Franck Tabanou are adequate replacements for the full backs. Having said all of that, the drop-off in quality of the first team compared to the players on the fringes is too great at this time. Players can step in and perform their jobs admirably, but it’s not going to be a step up for the club.
Forecast for remainder of season: If they can keep this momentum going and win the matches against the mid-table sides and clubs at the lower end of the table, Europa League qualification is on the cards.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5.
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