By Graham Ruthven
When Brendan Rodgers left Swansea for Liverpool he took his football philosophy with him. He began implementing his trademark attractive, passing style of soccer upon arrival at Anfield.
However, what Rodgers left behind at the Liberty Stadium has not been wasted. His replacement has used it to develop a side and style of his own. Is Michael Laudrup’s Swansea even better than Rodgers’?
Although hyperbolic, Swansea was labeled the Barcelona of the Premier League last season. Stylistically there were similarities between the two teams. And the comparison could be drawn this season too.
Laudrup has taken Rodgers’ ideology and developed in much the same way Tito Vilanova has taken on Pep Guardiola’s philosophy at Barca. Both inherited a side of passing pedigree but have focused on maximizing attacking potency by favouring a more direct approach.
Laudrup has made three key personnel changes. With Joe Allen, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Scott Sinclair all leaving the club in the summer, Laudrup signed Ki Sung-Yeung, Pablo Hernandez and Michu to replace them. This shrewdness in the transfer market has been central to Swansea’s continued progression this season.
As a passing pivot in the centre of midfield it could be argued that Ki has been even more effective than his predecessor in that position, making on average three more passes than Allen per game.
Although Allen offered more from a defensive perspective, averaging two more tackles and two more interceptions per game than Ki, if the centre of midfield is Swansea’s engine, the South Korean is providing more traction.
Rodgers’ fluid 4-3-3 system could quickly transform into a 3-4-3 to implement a high-tempo pressing approach. Subsequently attacking moves often started with goalkeeper Michel Vorm and the interchangeable backline. And indeed five of their seven leaders in passes per game last season were defenders.
Given his upbringing as a coach it’s perhaps unsurprising that Rodgers’ Swansea borrowed elements of Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
The system favoured by Rodgers last season saw wide creators, normally Sinclair and Nathan Dyer, pinned to the flanks, keeping his full-backs as part of a flat back four, only permitting them to overlap when it represented no defensive risk. Rodgers used his wide players to stretch the pitch when in possession and press high when chasing it.
From a tactical perspective Laudrup’s system resembles more of a 4-2-3-1 that can seamlessly become a 4-3-3. Full-backs Ben Davies and Angel Rangel are encouraged to exploit the space vacated by Hernandez and Dyer, who are tucked into more central positions as something of a mobile front four with Routledge and Michu.
The signing of Spanish forward Michu for just £2 million from Rayo Vallecano in the summer has given Swansea an extra dimension in attack. Having netted 16 times in 31 appearances this season Michu’s impact is obvious, but his influence across the Swans’ front-line has been just as profound.
The partnership between Michu, Hernandez and Jonathan De Guzman (another shrewd Laudrup signing) has provided Swansea with the sort of attacking platform they sometimes lacked last season. Different variations of the trio dominate Swansea’s most common attacking pass combinations (De Guzman to Hernandez is the most common with an average of 14 combinations per match) giving them a platform to keep possession high up the pitch.
Using the crudest statistic available (goals) Swansea has found the net six more times than at the same time last season (after 25 Premier League games).
Swansea under Rodgers was often criticized for the lack of goal-scoring opportunities created. The most obvious progression under Laudrup has been the increase in the number of chances created. This season Swansea are averaging 12 goal-scoring chances per game compared with an average of just seven-per-match under Rodgers.
But for all Swansea’s perceived defensive prudence under Rodgers last season, Laudrup’s side have actually conceded just 28 goals compared with 32 after 25 games last season. To borrow a cliché, attack may be the best form of defence in Swansea’s case.
Laudrup has pushed his defensive and midfield lines further up the pitch, with Swansea have enjoyed 27% of possession in their own half compared to 31% last season. As a result 25% of the Swans’ total possession has been in the attacking third compared to 22% under Rodgers.
Overall possession has dropped under Laudrup, 55% this season compared to 58% with Rodgers as manager, but Laudrup’s short-range passing game is more purposeful.
The focus on a possession game that Rodgers’ side became renowned for has been retained by Laudrup. They may not revert to that approach as often as last season but statistics show Laudrup’s side play what can be classed as ‘short passes’ 83% of the time.
What’s even more impressive is that although Laudrup’s Swans might afford the opposition more of the ball, when they are in possession their pass completion rate stands at 88% for the season, higher than last season and ranking them as the second most accurate passers in the Premier League and fourth in Europe.
Of course, Rodgers cannot be credited with the inception and establishment of the attractive, passing style of play for which Swansea has become renowned without mentioning Roberto Martinez, his predecessor who first gave the Welsh club the identity they have today.
Laudrup isn’t just progressing Rodgers’ philosophy, but the philosophy that now permeates throughout the whole club.