Following their Capital One Cup glory last season, the attention of Swansea City was fixed firmly on the future. For the duration of their two year stay in the Premier League, pundits and fans alike have at times been caught reflecting upon the remarkable rise of the proud Welsh club.
Ever since having to beat Hull City on the final day of the 2003 season to avoid relegation from League 2, the Swans have gone from strength to strength, with the eight years it took to reach the bright lights of the Premier League seemingly a fairy tale for football fans to enjoy. Having conquered Bradford City 5-0 at Wembley, the prospect of a first Europa League campaign became a reality, and fans eagerly anticipated a new chapter in the tale of Swansea City.
After comprehensive victories over Malmo and Petrolul Ploiesti in qualifying, excitement in Swansea grew to fever pitch when the group stage draw was made. Drawn against Valencia, St. Gallen and Kuban Krasnodar, fans of the Jacks flocked to get their tickets for the plum ties against the Spanish giants.
However, with the Europa League kick-off around the corner, is the Swans' European adventure a one-off to be enjoyed, or do they have a realistic chance of succeeding in the competition?
Key to the prospective success of the Welsh club is the passing philosophy first introduced to the DNA of the club by Roberto Martinez. The current Everton manager worked wonders before departing for Wigan, while Brendan Rodgers recovered the damage done by Paolo Sousa in the Portuguese's solitary season in charge by leading the Swans to promotion, and then to an 11th place finish in the Premier League, by maintaining the inclination to pass the ball.
This was continued after the succession of Michael Laudrup, who also found success with this particularly attractive brand of football. Indeed, the team dubbed Swansea-lona's playing style drew compliments from such esteemed names as Cesc Fabregas, who tweeted: “I like the way Swansea plays... Respect.”
High praise indeed.
Central to the way the Swans operate over the past few years has been Leon Britton. The English central midfielder does not offer much in the way of going forward, but instead sits back and calmly distributes the ball between Swansea's defenders, midfielders and wingers, allowing City to set the pace of the game and to dominate proceedings, preventing the opposition from getting into their stride. Last season the diminutive 30 year-old completed 1614 passes with a completion rate of 91%. In term of accuracy, this was second only to Mikel Arteta in the Premier League in the 2012/13 season.
Despite Britton playing a slightly less indispensable role this season following the signing of the equally capable Jose Canas, the Swans have maintained their ball-retention tactics, reminiscent of the way the teams on the continent play, with Spanish, Italian and Dutch club sides springing to mind. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that Swansea can benefit from a possession-based style of play in Europe.
The English national team's struggles in recent years are also telling in this respect, with the Euro 2012 quarter final loss to Italy, where the Azurri dominated 63% of the ball, a clear demonstration of the way a failure to keep the ball is a shortcoming that is almost impossible to compensate for. Keeping this in mind will be important for Laudrup's men, who must surely be tempted with Wilfried Bony now in the ranks to launch long balls up to the Ivorian.
It is not just the midfield who are confident on the ball, however. Swansea's Spanish core is clear for all to see- almost as clear, in fact, as Newcastle United's French invasion. Keeping hold of the ball is ingrained into Spanish brains at a young age, and this results in technically gifted players like Angel Rangel, Chico Flores and, of course, Michu. What makes Michu so special to Swansea is that despite spending a fair amount of time shooting, he is equally comfortable in linking up with the midfield and retaining possession.
Add that to Ashley Williams' seamless transition from the more direct methods of Stockport County to the slicker plans of Roberto Martinez's Swans in 2008, and Michel Vorm's comfort at having the ball at his feet, and you have a group of players all equally capable of picking out a pass and retaining possession. This will be essential when Swansea play teams such as Valencia, as sitting back and allowing players such as Helder Postiga and Sergio Canales to find their rhythm could be deadly. Going to the Mestalla and dictating play is easier said than done, but this is what the Swans will need to do if they are to get a result.
The main question over Swansea's potential success this season is their relative lack of strength in depth. Though players like Alvaro Vazquez, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jordi Amat are great deputies to have, and more than capable of doing a job for the first team, the gruelling Thursday-Sunday run of fixtures can be extremely tough on players, and it is dubious whether there are enough players like these who can come into the side and perform well.
The 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool last season when Laudrup made wholesale changes before the Cup final is still fresh in the memory of Swansea City, and despite strengthening the squad over the Summer, the departures of Ki Sung-Yeung, Luke Moore, Kyle Bartley and Kemy Agustien will be felt when legs get tired after a long-haul flight from Russia.
Still, if Michael Laudrup cans successfully juggle his players' fitness levels and field a competitive team for each European match, Swansea fans should be optimistic of a season to remember in their inaugural European campaign.
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