Tiki-taka and the Swansea Jack

In the summer of 1911, Vetch-Field was a waste land on which cows fed. Swansea city’s landscape was apathetic towards the lack of a professional football team due to the dominance of rugby union. A year on, began the ascent of Swansea City AFC under its current guise with the first ever Welsh derby on September 7th. The first fixture in the coming Premier league season marks more than a 100 years of a fierce rivalry. While Cardiff City were the established Southern League side during Swansea’s formative years, the Swans have turned the tables this time around with their first foray into Europe after a span of 22 years, most of it in lower echelons of the Football league.

Although Swansea have had some famous names adorn their traditional white strip such as Alan Curtis and John Toshack, the most eminent of them all will grace the dugout and not kick a ball. Michael Laudrup took over Swansea City at the start of the 2012-2013 season after considerable progress through the lower divisions under the tenures of Mssrs. Martinez, Sousa and Rodgers. After winning promotion to the Premier League 2 seasons before , Brendan Rodgers molded them into a determined Premier League team playing in what I can unashamedly describe as a less cultured version of the Barcelona style of play. Even if signs of progress were plentiful under Rodgers, last season may well be described as the culmination of an efficient playing system buttressing an intricate cosmopolitan scouting network.

While question marks remained as to whether there was more to Swansea than a decorated manager and an attractive brand of football, a respectable ninth place finish in the Premier League along with an unexpectedly impressive League Cup win indicates more substance. Looking closely at the tactical evolution in Swansea’s play, Rodgers utilized a hybrid 4-3-3 which morphed into a more attacking 3-4-3 with the full backs pushing forward. On average, Rodgers’ Swansea averaged around 58% possession belying a mid-table finish and some early cup exits. Comparatively, Laudrup’s Swansea averaged around 55% possession, allowing the opposition more of the ball and played in a similar formation. While Swansea’s overall goals scored tally was only 3 more than the previous season, it does not take into account the eventual petering out of their season after their Cup win. But more importantly they had scored 6 more goals than their previous season after 25 games. In terms of playing style, Laudrup has taken Swansea to the next level, evidently indicated in their decisiveness in the final third.

On the account of their philosophy, having Laudrup not only meant evolution in their playing style but revolution in their scouting network. The standard price comparison for many a Premier League commentator is Michu. Brought in from Rayo Vallecano for £2million, a mere pittance by modern standards, Michu scored a season high 22 goals for Swansea. While Michu’s success can be gauged just by his goal tally, some other successful buys of the Laudrup era require deeper analysis. Chico, a center half purchased from Genoa was arguably Laudrup’s best buy. He averaged a pass completion % of 89.3 and an aerial dual win rate of 2.5 in contrast to 78.2% and 2.4 for Phil Jagielka, statistically the Premier League’s next best central defender. In addition to these two were other successful transfers in Jonathan De Guzman, Pablo Hernandez and Ki Sung-Yeung. The intricacies of Laudrup’s scouting can be demonstrated by the failures of two players who left the Liberty stadium for greener pastures. While Scott Sinclair suffered the ignominy of playing less than half their league games for Manchester City, Danny Graham has departed for Hull City after drawing a blank in his 11 games for Sunderland. On the other hand Laudrup seems to have reinvigorated Jonjo Shelvey after his spell on the fringes of Liverpool. Seemingly a talented player, his growth had stalled at Liverpool due to a lack of playing time.This emphasizes that a manager and his scouting network must not only recruit the best players for his system but also aid players with tactical understanding and giving them space to express themselves.

Finally and most importantly, Laudrup seems to have instilled the abiding Welsh quality of resilience in his Swansea players. Starkly evident was their perseverance in two tough League Cup fixtures at Arsenal and Chelsea where Swansea deservedly came through en route to a famous day at Wembley. Among all the optimism for Swansea’s tiki-taka and their enduring spirit, there were warning signs in how their form deteriorated after their Cup win. With considerably more fixtures this year in terms of the Europa League and more awareness of their strengths and weaknesses among fellow Premier League teams, Swansea must be wary of a similar scenario. But with the additions of Bony, Shelvey, Pozuelo, Canas and under the stewardship of their widely heralded manager, a stirring season for the swans might be on the cards.

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Liverpool; stagnant or progressive

In football, we’re all well acquainted with the “we don’t sell our best players” rhetoric. It is usually employed by football clubs who either wish to drive up the price of a player or quell fan unrest atleast for the time being. But, in the era of the modern players, the player generally gets what he wants.

Brendan Rodgers has slowly started to put his imprint on Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has slowly started to put his imprint on Liverpool

With Liverpool, it seems like its January 2011 all over again where inspite of all the well-worded statements put out on behalf of the club, Fernando Torres ended up being a Chelsea player.While Chelsea were never really considered as rivals in that season as they were the reigning champions of England,Arsenal,the club courting Suarez are seen as a club with very similar ambitions. As is often the case, there will be little element of surprise if Suarez ends up in North London come the start of the season. If the quoted figures are to be believed, Liverpool will have atleast £40 million to spend on a replacement.It’s all well having the money to spend but which top level player is going to be available at what will be near the closing of the transfer window and is Liverpool an attractive destination without the lure of Champions league football? The second part of that question is what seems to be the main bone of contention for Liverpool in selling Suarez. On the other hand, if Liverpool do decide to sell and not spend in light of there being no value in the market there will be even more cause for worry. Looking at the transfer window until now the majority of the teams that have strengthened finished below Liverpool last season. Swansea, Norwich and Southampton have all had big money buys from across the continent in an increasing prevalent European scouting system used by teams in the Premier League. Breaking into the top four is seemingly all the more difficult with Manchester City spending more money, the return of Mourinho at Chelsea and especially if Arsenal get Suarez. The signings so far for Liverpool can described as underwhelming as they have brought in Toure who was surplus to requirements at City and two players who whose teams will be in the second tier of Spanish football.
Inspite of all that though, Liverpool seem to be one of the very few teams in the premier league who seem to be growing organically. Admittedly mired in guruspeak, the term explains teams which have a defined way of play as well as as a scouting system that operates to find players to fit certain roles in the system. It also radiates a progressive set of formations and tactics that emphasizes fluid movement of players. The signings as of now, though unknown, reflects the new scouting committee at Liverpool. While the jury still seems to be out on the first set of Brendan Rodgers’ signings in Borini and Allen, the committee’s brief foray into the transfer market so far looks promising in the form of Coutinho and Sturridge. And if the latest in football analytics have it right, losing Suarez might not be a bad thing after all. Suarez has the worst shot to goal ratios among the top strikers in the premier league and takes more shots from outside the box than any of the other premier goalscorers as explained here http://www.7amkickoff.com/2013/luis-suarez-the-selective-attention-player-of-the-year/ and http://differentgame.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/1089/. While Liverpool might have benefited until now in having a player of Suarez’s qualities, come the era of Financial fair play and with the aid of stats such as shots to goal ratios, key passes, chances created, Liverpool would do well in finding players who contribute more than just looking good in the highlights package. While the proverbial cliché of the best teams not selling their best players might be true, there are increasing instances of teams selling their best player only to improve as a whole. Napoli and Fiorentina are two instances this summer where they have sold their best player probably at their peak price only to invest the money across the board in a variety of positions. One thing to be emphasized though is that the improvement as a squad only happens if you invest wisely and not throw silly money for the sake of buying.
A little nous in the transfer market and clever management might also exploit the flux at the top of the Premier League. Although the clubs above Liverpool look good on paper, an organic team with in form players might push them into those Champions league spots. All signs until now tell us that they might surprise quite a few this year.