Swansea travel to Aston Villa on Saturday, having lost three of their last five games. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, given that Garry Monk’s side haven’t actually played that badly over the past six weeks. Rather than presenting any sign of obvious, structural deficiency, they have just seemed a little short on rhythm recently.
We generally associate Swansea with fluid, accurate football, but lately their gears have been audibly creaking.
Their most recently loss, on Monday night at home to Stoke City, provided a good example of that. While they did exert pressure over sustained periods of that game, it wasn’t the sort which ever looked likely to bring a goal. They out-shot their opponents 14 to 9, had the majority of possession (56%) and yet, aside from a few issues of his own making, Jack Butland was relatively untroubled.
Possession and territory isn’t really the problem for Swansea, rather the type of territory and possession is. During the opening weeks of this season, a lot of articles were written about the Premier League’s new so-called middle-class and, having been able to attract a player of Andre Ayew’s ability in the Summer, the Welsh club were rightly included in that bracket.
But that movement has been exaggerated and while all of the referenced teams - Palace, Leicester etc - are now more competitive, none of them have the squad depth to rotate their starting line-ups and all of them are built around small groups of influential players. Garry Monk, for example, is still reliant on familiar combinations to be successful - particularly in midfield - where any disruption to the Ki Sung-Yueng, Jonjo Shelvey, Gylfi Sigurdsson axis has serious repercussions.
Through the first few fixtures, when so much of Swansea’s play was swift and penetrative, Ki - when on the pitch - was the reliable backbone in that part of the team, providing reliable defensive security but also a varied and accurate range of passes into the midfield. Shelvey was excellent and his use of the ball was similarly eclectic, but his ability to exploit pace or shift the focus of attacks was - and is - reliant on the type of situation in which he receives the ball and what kind of activity exists ahead of him. And, just as Shelvey is reliant on the other components, so is Sigurdsson, who is at his most effective when he receives the ball in broken field situations rather than when he’s played into congested areas.
It’s a jigsaw and, seemingly, any interference with that combination dulls Swansea’s rhythm to the point where they become far too easy to defend against.
On Monday night, Shelvey was the only one of the three to start the game, with Jack Cork preferred to Ki and Mo Barrow starting ahead of Sigurdsson. Swansea were very predictable. Cork, fine player that he is, was far too comfortable shifting the ball from side-to-side, Barrow completed just nine passes before being substituted, and Shelvey - although varied and periodically bright - completed only one pass into the Stoke City penalty-box.
Visually - and statistically - it suggested a chemistry problem. Without the right balance in the middle of the pitch, Monk’s team either played themselves into trouble in the area around the “D” or were forced to shovel the ball wide and into low-percentage crossing areas. Consequently, the outcome was very predictable - Stoke may not quite be the physical force they were under Tony Pulis, but they have an organised, physical back-four who are all very good in the air and a goalkeeper who is extremely capable under a high-ball.
Of the twenty-three crosses attempted by Swansea that night, only one was completed.
The point here isn’t to assign blame to any one player, merely to emphasise just how important those three players are to this team. Mo Barrow, skilful and dynamic player that he is, offers a valuable alternative to Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jack Cork is probably a slightly better defender than Ki Sung-Yueng, but the combination is more important than the individuals and the three who started five days ago don’t yet work as a unit.
Ki, Shelvey and Sigurdsson to start against Aston Villa.