When it comes to Swansea City’s absolute storm of a season, it’s easy to hail “Michu! Michu! Michu!” His prolific goal scoring exploits in Swansea’s ground breaking year thus far has made him a symbol of the small Welsh outfit; an easy, quick direction where people can lazily attribute the sole reason for the club’s success.
But what if that is painfully wrong? What if Michu is not the Atlas on which Swansea is carried upon? Swansea’s success is made not only of another, more important player’s continued masterful though unspectacular performances.
Swansea is one of handful of clubs that have been lucky enough to retain a long-serving, crucial player who provides consistent and irreplaceable services every week. Barcelona has Xavi Hernandez, Manchester United has Paul Scholes, and Swansea City has Leon Britton. Interestingly enough, mention of Britton to non-Swansea supporters are likely to draw blank stares as much as mentioning the name Michu is likely to perk ears and solicit flowery praises.
Despite the diverse definitions of 4-3-3 across different countries, every variation of 4-3-3 has a midfield pendulum; the one man whose sole purpose on the pitch is to keep the clock ticking. Defensively, this individual will monitor the passing lanes, intercept passes, and recover balls. As the team transitions to offence, the player’s role will become very simple: look for space, pass, look for space again, pass again.
Leon Britton is Swansea’s pendulum, and the key piece that Swansea does not look right without. When he does not feature for Swansea, the effect is more jarring and palpable than any other player in the team. In a system where the maintenance of a short passing rhythm is crucial to the flow of the team, his presence is the key ingredient. With a 91.1% passing percentage over 1304 passes in 25 appearances this season, he has proven to be one of league’s most accurate and consistent passers.
However, players like him are easy to go unnoticed in the public eye because they rarely register an assist or a goal. Instead, they allow others (like a Michu, Dyer, or Hernandez) to finish moves that they started from deep in midfield. So it is far from the misconception that they are less important, but rather that these unsung heroes are trusted with a less glamorous, though equally if not more important role in the team.
This is not to say that Swansea’s most talented midfield in its 100-year history is Leon Britton. But the fact remains that Britton is and continues to be the foundation on which the new signings are flourishing. For a mere fourth of income from Joe Allen’s sale, Laudrup brought in technical midfielders in Ki Sung Yeung and Julian De Guzman. Playing on Britton’s clock, they have proven to be one of the league’s most aesthetically pleasing midfields. The numbers say likewise.
Swansea is the only team in England’s top flight this season that has two players in top 10 passing percentage. Ki Sung Yueng, ranked second in said list, is the only player who surpasses Britton; passing at 92.1% at 1313 total passes. He also has 23 key passes to Britton’s 7, which shows how their contrasting roles mesh into a cohesive midfield unit. Britton will win the balls and pass them off to Ki, who will then use his vision to switch the play, spread the ball long, or advance forward. De Guzman will link the two with his movement to bring the front three into play. This formula has served them well, and culminated in thrilling results during their triumphant League Cup run.
Michu is likely to keep scoring goals and earn the headlines going forward. While such a great impact deserves the plaudits, Leon Britton also deserves the spotlight and recognition for what he brings to the team on a week-in and week-out basis. Loyal and outstanding players like him are too often unrecognised and under appreciated except by a dedicated few simply because the game of football is quick to praise those who are closer to goal. This has to change, and doing so will allow teams like Swansea City to be appreciated more for their inherent complexities rather than for one star player.
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