Swansea started the season with Francesco Guidolin as their manager. The Italian had guided them to safety last season after taking over from Garry Monk but there was an air of resignation surrounding his future. From the outside looking in it felt like the former Udinese manager was on borrowed time and there was a feeling of when, and not if, he would be replaced.
The answer came after seven Premier League matches. On his 61st birthday he was given his marching orders and in his place the Swans turned to Bob Bradley. An narrow 3-2 loss to Arsenal in his first game was encouraging but in the 10 games he’s been in charge, the Welsh side have picked up just the eight points. Emphatic losses to Stoke (3-1), Spurs (5-0), West Brom (3-1) and ‘Boro (3-0) have left Swansea in 19th position and off the bottom of the because they’ve conceded fewer goals than Hull City.
Bradley’s team are porous. Since the American was appointed, Swansea have conceded an average of 2.5 goals per game. A marked increase in the 1.71 goals per game the team conceded under Guidolin. While the team only conceded three or more goals in one game under the Italian manager they’ve done so on seven occasions under Bradley. That’s 70% of the matches.
If Swansea are to have any hope of surviving the drop they’re going to have to shore up defensively. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should buy a centre-back though. If they are to improve then fans should expect to see a midfielder arriving at the Liberty Stadium this January.
The club need someone with a dogged nature. They need someone in that midfield who doesn’t know they’re beaten because in a relegation fight you desperately need the will to win. One such player who may interest Bradley and the board is Barnsley captain Conor Hourihane. The midfielder has been one of the standout performers in the Championship this season with four goals and nine assists in 20 starts. But his suitability to Swansea has as much to do with what he does off of the ball as it does with what he does on the ball. He’s much more than just stats and figures.
Many may feel a Championship midfielder may not have the requisite quality to save a Premier League club from relegation. It may well be true, but Hourihane would not be doing the job single handedly. He would be part of a unit. If the unit is improved with him playing then is there an issue?
The midfielder is averaging 3.2 tackles and 2.8 interceptions per 90 minutes. Jay Fulton averages 3.6 tackles and 1 interception, Jack Cork 2.1 tackles and 1.6 interceptions, Leon Britton 1.4 tackles and 1.2 interceptions and Leroy Fer 1.5 tackles and 1.2 interceptions. Hourihane attempts 53.8 passes per match and completes 80.9% of them, meaning he’s attempting more than any of the Swansea midfielders. He’s a captain, a leader and he’s a bit of a set piece expert and with resident set piece taker Gylfi Sigurdsson reportedly on the move, the club will need to find a replacement, and quickly.
In the four pictures above, taken from two different matches, you get to see Hourihane’s desire, recovery ability as well as his tackling ability. In both instances he has a lot of ground to make up but doesn’t let that stop him. He gets back a executes a slide tackle, from the side and not from behind. Not only does he put an end to the oppositions attack, but he wins the ball back for his side. This is what Swansea lack in the midfield. Teams will be able to play through you but it’s how you react to that which is key. Swansea are failing in that respect, they aren’t protecting their defence and the 25-year-old does just that.
Hourihane is out of contract at the end of the season and although Barnsley have offered him a new deal reports suggest he may be on the move with bigger clubs circling. Both Celtic and Rangers have shown an interest in the Irishman.
Where have Swansea been going wrong?
Simply put; the midfield aren’t protecting the defence. Bradley has favoured a 4231 approach since being appointed with Sigurdsson supporting the lone striker. The centre-midfield pairing differs, but it tends to be two of Leon Britton, Leroy Fer, Jay Fulton and Ki Seung Yung. When they’re tasked with pressing they can be pretty effective, but as soon as a team plays through their midfield the defence is just exposed. What makes it worse is a lot of the time the pass which takes the Swansea midfield out of the game isn’t that incisive. It’s just a simple ball and Swansea don’t deal with it.
In the pictures above, taken from the loss to Middlesbrough, Ben Gibson is seen in possession in the first picture. A white line shows the Swansea midfield. Gibson plays a pass straight down the middle and to the feet of the ‘Boro man, who had made a run from midfield without being tracked. In the second picture you can see how the home side have four men in behind the Swansea midfield. The ball is worked out wide to Gaston Ramirez who whips in a cross which is fired home. All too easy.
Similar to the ‘Boro goal. Spurs have possession on their right and the Swansea midfield is linked by a white line. This is just before half-time and the away side are already 1-0 down. What they should be doing now is ensuring it’s just the 1-0 but Spurs are easily able to pass through the midfield. As Harry Kane receives the ball in the second picture, Spurs have three men in behind the midfield. Swansea are exposed and go in 2-0 down.
Against Manchester United, Swansea are already 2-0 down, but a long ball from United ‘keeper David De Gea exposes the lack of defensive protection. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins the header in the first picture the closest man coming on to play is Wayne Rooney. The Swansea midfield pairing, joined by the white line, have already been taken out of play. Rooney is allowed to advance with the ball and get at the defence. He then threads the pass through to Ibrahimovic and the Swede fires home to effectively put the game to bed with just 33 minutes on the clock. One long goal kick and the defence is exposed.
The soft Swansea centre is being exposed time and time again. Until that’s stopped the Swans will continue to concede at an alarming rate.