Over at the Liberty Stadium it is very much a case of as you were with Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City side as they enter their third successive season in the Premier League with a very similar looking squad to last term.
Swansea this summer have, despite the fluttering eyelashes of several European clubs, retained the services of Laudrup as well as last season’s leading goalscorer Michu whilst at the same time adding to the squad with numerous moves being made by Laudrup to strengthen the depth of his squad ahead of the Swans’ inaugural Europa League campaign, namely Wilfried Bony and Jonjo Shelvey from Vitesse Arnhem and Liverpool respectively.
Laudrup has kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 system which served his side so well last season, with Leon Britton retaining his pivotal position as the anchoring midfielder sat just ahead of the Swansea back-four; however, whilst last season it was a main pairing of Britton and De Guzman, this year Laudrup has added a new, more fluid dimension to his central midfield pairing with the signing of Shelvey from Liverpool.
Shelvey, ever since his days with Charlton Athletic, has been thought of as a classic No. 10 - a technically gifted playmaker who had the physical ability to float around just behind the forwards and create opportunities with acute passing; however, Laudrup in Swansea’s opening Europa League qualifying fixture against Malmo FF deployed Shelvey as a central midfielder alongside Britton, just behind the attacking midfield three where you would normally expect to find Shelvey.
This tactical decision to play Shelvey in a deeper role was nothing short of a masterstroke by Laudrup; yes it may have been a decision forced upon him by the lack of fitness shown by Ki Sung-Yueng and De Guzman but it was a decision that has certainly opened up a whole host of options for Laudrup ahead of the 2013/14 campaign.
Shelvey looked like a completely different footballer, gone was the forlorn look of a frustrated Shelvey who couldn’t quite break into the Liverpool first-team setup on a regular basis and here now was the look of a Jonjo Shelvey who had finally found his ‘home’ so to speak.
He was energetic in the middle of the pitch always looking to break rank and move forward to assist attacking moves as well as utilising his aforementioned energy to get back and assist Britton in breaking down Malmo moves.
Due to Shelvey’s energy in the centre of the midfield, Britton was able to drop ever so slightly to be closer to the back four which gave Williams and Amat an option to quickly move the ball out of defence and kick start a Swansea City attacking move, very much like the way Cesare Prandelli’s Italian team used Andrea Pirlo in this summer’s Confederations Cup.
Britton was able to drop deeper in the knowing that Shelvey could cover the breadth of the midfield line comfortably, almost having a sweeping effect however I feel this may need reinforcing with another body once the Premier League begins with English teams likely to be more creative and physically powerful than Malmo who did have a small degree of success when South African winger cum forward Tokelo Rantie broke through Swansea’s midfield with power and pace.
Shelvey was described by Clarke Carlisle as being the ‘Quarterback’ of Swansea’s team against Malmo - and this was exactly correct. The former Liverpool midfielder looked refreshingly natural in Swansea’s midfield and more importantly as we approach the new Premier League season, sharp.
With Shelvey appearing comfortable playing in a deep playmaking role within the centre of Laudrup’s midfield it gives the Danish coach an increased number of options to choose from with the difficulties of combining both domestic and continental football likely to hit Swansea this year.
Swansea’s back-four was very much the same with only new signing Amat breaking into the starting line-up however the way of playing still followed the blueprint of last season with Michel Vorm looking to find Ashley Williams whenever possible and the Welsh centre half would look to play the ball out from the back.
Angel Rangel and Ben Davies were moving forward down their respective flanks at pace in order to cover the space left by wide midfielders Routledge and Dyer who looked to be cutting inside of lone forward Wilfried Bony whenever possible in order to overload the Malmo back-line who looked frail from the off.
With Swansea’s 4-2-3-1 system looking very similar to last year there has been, however, one sizeable change over the course of this summer and that is the addition of last year’s Eredivisie Golden Boot winner, Wilfried Bony for a fee rumoured to be around the £12m mark.
Bony has been thrust straight into the role of the lone frontman by Laudrup with Michu relinquishing his role as lead striker to play in the number ten role with the Spaniard given the freedom to orchestrate all of Swansea’s attacking play in the oppositions’ half.
Make no mistake, Michu is still very much the main man in Swansea’s forward line, which could well become a worry in terms of team morale if the attitude of Michu in the second leg against Malmo is anything to go by; however, in terms of an on the pitch partnership between Michu and Bony the signs are already significantly positive for Swans supporters.
Bony and Michu look even at this significantly early stage look to be on a very similar wavelength with Bony staying mainly on the periphery of the penalty area and Michu positioned just behind him whilst at the same time gliding unnoticeably in and around all the pockets of space created by Bony’s movement and ability to hold up the ball.
The two forwards showed against Malmo that they can certainly work together and on several occasions displayed an ability to find each other with clever reverse passes and back-heels as well as interchanging positions with each other should the situation require it.
Michu has the ultimate free role in Swansea’s 4-2-3-1 system and this is a role which suits him right down to the ground, he has no defensive responsibilities as such, nor is he required to press an opposition defence with that task left to the trio of Bony, Routledge and Nathan Dyer.
However, the problem with this is Michu can become very isolated if Swansea aren’t seeing a lot of the ball in an oppositions half.
Furthermore if a player is played alongside Michu in a wide area who prefers to move into a central position like Pozuelo did in the second leg against Malmo in Sweden then Michu’s space becomes crowded and Michu cannot get into the game which then went on to show a distinctly negative temperament within the Spaniard which could be a worry to Laudrup this year if he cannot find a way to restrict the drifting movement of Pozuelo from the right hand side.
This Swansea City side is looking quietly impressive heading into the new season, they have kept the core of last year’s hugely successful squad together whilst at the same time adding to it both in terms of quality and depth.
However, it looks to me as if the side are heading into next weekend’s opener with Manchester United slightly short on fitness with the team that faced Malmo in the first leg still looking like it needed to gel and get used to the movements and tendencies of the new signings.
The match against Manchester United will be particularly interesting as the Champions don’t have a powerful force in their midfield like Manchester City do in Yaya Toure and Fernandinho or Chelsea do in Ramires and this will certainly benefit Swansea’s midfield pairing should Leon Britton and Jonjo Shelvey play in the middle together next weekend as there will be no individual in the United midfield who can make Shelvey work physically and take advantage of the slight gap between the two that was evident against Malmo.
With Swansea’s additions this summer they have increased the team’s versatility with several members of Laudrup’s team able to fill more than one position competently.
Alejandro Pozuelo the new signing from Real Betis looks as yet an inspired signing, the twenty one year old is technically gifted and can link up play impressively very much like Michu, against Malmo he displayed a good first touch and his movement was difficult to track which eventually led to his goal.
Pozuelo can play both in a wide attacking midfield position and in the number ten role which gives Laudrup options should Michu be unavailable or in need of a rest which is likely to occur with the Swans competing on the continental front this season.
With the demands of Europa League football likely to affect Swansea’s domestic form provided Laudrup’s men progress through to the Group Stage I can see the Swans struggling to match their impressive early form in the Premier League last year; however, they do have the quality within their squad to mount a charge for a top seven finish and the depth to sustain challenge which is an area they faltered in after the League Cup final last season.
The combination of Michu and Bony will be of vital importance to Swansea’ success this season with the pairing already showing the potential to be prolific in the matches they have played together thus far.
The opening day fixture against Manchester United is a tough start but arguably there is no better time to face the Champions with David Moyes’ men having as yet not added to their squad as well as being in the midst of the latest in a long line of Wayne Rooney sagas.
To conclude there will be little change in the way Swansea City approach their football this season, possession retention and creative flair will be mainstays in the 4-2-3-1 system favoured by Laudrup.
The real test will be how the squad manages the physical difficulties of playing in both the Premier League and Europa League and that for me will ultimately decide whether or not they can reach their potential in terms of a top seven Premier League finish.
Swansea could find themselves under threat by teams such as Southampton who have bought well this summer but do not have the pressures of European football to contend with. This season could well be one of success for Swansea; however, there has to be a lot of learning along the way in order to achieve it.
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