BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Fan Fuel’s Premier League preview moves to South Wales, as Michael Laudrup’s stylish ensemble of players look to build on the success of Swansea’s first major trophy win last season.
There are times when writing a season preview can be a bit of a lottery, and there are plenty of sports journalists who have been made to look foolish at the end of a season. As Brendan Rodgers left Swansea to manage Liverpool, many were sceptical of Michael Laudrup’s appointment as the new manager, with favourable odds placed on Swansea getting relegated. Not only did the Danish legend keep Swansea safe, he improved the team and helped Swansea claim their first major trophy by winning the League Cup in style, trouncing Bradford 5-0 in the final at Wembley.
While the off-season started with rumours of Laudrup jumping ship to a bigger club, the manager has stayed for now. Laudrup hasn’t rested on his laurels, strengthening the club with some shrewd signings from the continent. As a result, despite having to compete on two fronts this season, Swansea head into the new campaign with confidence in their footballing ethos combined with positive momentum.
On defence: Michel Vorm was the best goalkeeper in the league during the 2011-12 season and his standards were maintained for the early part of last season until he suffered an injury in October. Vorm has a strong presence in the box, and is an excellent shot stopper in addition to being a good distributor of the ball, an element that is crucial to Swansea’s fluid style of play. Laudrup can rest easy if something happens to Vorm, as his replacement last season, German veteran Gerhard Tremmel did an outstanding job filling in for the Dutch number one. Tremmel recorded the second highest saves-to-shots ratio in all of Europe, and the highest percentage of saves in the Premier League. In what is expected to be a longer campaign, Swansea are well served by having two goalkeepers of the highest calibre.
Ashley Williams has developed into a centre-back of considerable repute during Swansea’s stay in the Premier League. The captain is a great organizer at the back and leads by example with his commitment and hard work. His ball-playing abilities from the back have led to him being linked with the top clubs in the league, and his assuredness of position breaks down many an opposing attack in its infancy. There were doubts about Chico’s suitability to the Premier League on his arrival, but over the course of the season the Spaniard formed an excellent partnership with Williams. While Williams is all finesse and calm, Chico personifies hustle, combining relentless chasing off the ball with physicality in the box. Similar to Chico, Laudrup will hope that new Spanish centre-back Jordi Amat will also adjust to the Premier League. In addition to Amat being the first back up, Laudrup won’t hesitate to play a 3-5-2 at times, so it will be key for all three centre-backs to be on the same wavelength. Swansea veteran Garry Monk is still going strong, and will certainly have a part to play as Laudrup rotates the squad.
Angel Rangel is the undisputed first choice right-back in the squad. The Spaniard can at times dawdle a bit defensively and doesn’t always make the best decisions in the danger zone, but is nonetheless an important cog in the Swansea wheel. He is excellent in supporting Swansea’s fast wingers on the right flank, and his passing in the final third featuring quick one-twos gives the team an extra outlet in the final third. Neil Taylor’s injury last season was supposed to be a big blow to the Swans last season, but Ben Davies excelled to make the left-back spot his own. Laudrup will nonetheless be glad to rotate between two quality options in the position during a congested season. Jazz Richards takes the back up right-back slot to Rangel.
The midfield: The engine that makes Swansea’s flowing game run is in midfield, and Laudrup is blessed with a surfeit of creative and intelligent midfielders. Leon Britton’s performances last season made many question whether Brendan Rodgers took the wrong Swans central midfielder in Joe Allen, with him to Liverpool. Britton functions like clockwork, his ability to find space and time on the ball is priceless, while his short passing always finds teammates in open positions.
Alongside him, Ki Sung-Yeung adapted easily to the Premier League after excelling for Celtic. Ki probably is the least flamboyant of midfielders in the squad, but his skill in transitioning the teams play from defence to attack by tackling and passing into open space is a crucial component of the Swans play. Laudrup has also signed defensive midfielder José Cañas from Real Betis, and the experienced Spaniard will be rotated with Ki once he is better integrated into the league. Jonathan de Guzmán was the most attacking of the central midfielders contributing seven assists and five goals in the Premier League. De Guzmán’s greatest asset is his ability to switch positions to always be involved in the play, equally adept at creating chances in the final third or dragging defenders out of their zones with intelligent runs.
Jonjo Shelvey’s purchase in central midfield might turn out to be one of the steals of the season. Shelvey has shown glimpses of his potential at Liverpool, and with the pressure off at the Liberty Stadium, he could blossom into a complete player under the tutelage of Laudrup, who will certainly give him more opportunities. Shelvey is creative with his passes, and also packs a wonderful shot, adding more variety to the Swans attacking play, while also being handy with his tackling when defending.
On the attack: The performances of Michu last season had managers up and down the league and all over Europe cursing themselves for missing out on the bargain of the season. Signed for the paltry sum of two million pounds, Michu proved that the goal scoring record he had at Rayo Vallecano was no fluke. Originally many thought he would play behind Danny Graham, but the excellent timing of his runs married to exquisite finishing skills meant that Laudrup soon started Michu as the lone striker in the team and Spaniard rewarded his manager with 18 league goals.
Reducing their dependence on Michu to score goals was Laudrup’s main priority in the summer, and along with the aforementioned Shelvey, the signing of Wilfried Bony should help reduce the burden on last season’s leading goal scorer. The Ivorian forward comes with a glowing reputation, and has already got off the mark for his new club with two well-taken goals on his Europa League debut against Malmo. They were signs that Michu and Bony could form an effective partnership this season, a situation that could cause defensive headaches for plenty of opposing managers and their defences.
The wingers that Laudrup deployed all had a crucial role to play in Swansea’s success last season. Pablo Hernandez was probably another player bigger clubs should have contemplated buying as the lively winger turned out to be a success at the Liberty Stadium. Hernandez’s decision making is his best advantage, often choosing between the right moment to dribble, or to hang a little deeper and release teammates with intricate through balls. Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge offer some variety with their pace and directness, both also capable of interchanging their flanks when Laudrup needs. Combined, the trio of wingers proved their worth by contributing 22 assists and 11 goals, and if they could improve their finishing skills, Swansea could be as formidable on the road as they are at the Liberty Stadium.
Conclusion: Swansea is that rare club where almost every bit of news that emanates from their camp is positive. Huw Jenkins is clearly a chairman with a vision, unique in his philosophy of hiring new managers to fit the playing style of the club. That philosophy has paid huge dividends in the Swans rise, culminating in last year’s League Cup triumph under Michael Laudrup.
Laudrup’s men have the added incentive of participating in the Europa League this season as a result of their cup success. Unlike the prevailing sentiment amongst British managers, Laudrup will take the competition seriously, while also wanting to improve on their Premier League performance, which rather petered out after February’s golden moment. To that extent, Jenkins has backed Laudrup in the transfer market, sanctioning some impressive purchases. With the addition of extra quality to the squad and the retention of the passing ethos so crucial to the team’s identity, Laudrup should guide Swansea to another memorable season.