Reading 0 Swans 2
Swansea strolled to the kind of functional 2-0 victory over lower league opposition a Premier League team should expect on Tuesday, with a 2-0 away victory over Reading in the Carabao (League) Cup. That’s not to say these things have always been routine for Swansea, and this season’s cup aspirations hit a roadblock of sorts before I could even write this, with the round-of-16 draw dropping Man United on the path. Regardless of how far the side progresses, Tuesday’s game still brought several positives.
First there was a rare clean sheet for Kristoffer Nordfeldt, who usually has to play behind a an inevitably reshuffled defence in cup games but got the benefit of Swansea’s first string stoppers here. Further forward, Roque Mesa made his most convincing case yet for regular first team starts. Yes, this was Reading, but it’s not as though we’re talking about blooding a prospect here either.
Mesa is used to facing the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and while the tempo of the Spanish game is slower owing to the weather, the dampening air of South Wales as winter approaches has likely already persuaded Swansea’s Great Canary that the best way to stay warm is to do move around more quickly. Reading were playing a shuffled side themselves, but no league in the world has the same balance of skill and physicality as the Championship. If Mesa could run the game on Tuesday — and he could — there’s no reason he won’t be able to do it at the higher level, where the physicality is diminished.
Luciano Narsingh showed he probably won’t struggle to make the transition from winger to second striker or #10, scoring a fine goal that was ruled out somewhat unfairly. He had an almost carbon-copy chance moments later, but the Reading ‘keeper was wise to it the second time and made the save. No matter – the Dutchman looks like he has enough versatility to contribute.
Renato Sanches’s acclimatisation also continued apace, with the Portuguese again showing encouraging flashes. It’s worth bearing in mind that a big reason he often seems wasteful with his passes is because he’s operating at a different level to most of his teammates. Swansea have historically favoured a cement-slow, ball-to-feet possession system in the Premier League – Sanches’s passes are nearly always into space, but rather than his teammates reading his intention and running on to those often perfectly weighted balls, they instead stand on their heels, far too slow to read or react. In many ways, Sanches will come good not when he gets up to speed in this squad, but rather when this squad gets up to speed with him.
Paul Clement’s decision to put Sanches on set-pieces should give the 20 year old a chance to feel important and build some confidence in the meantime. His rehearsed corner assist for Alfie Mawson’s opener suggests that Sanches might be more capable from dead ball situations than either Sam Clucas or Tom Carroll, although Mesa has a decent dead ball in him too. Lots of decisions for Clement ahead of Saturday’s match with Watford then, not least which shape to play in.
Anyone who reads me regularly knows I’m heavily in favour of the 3-5-2, and assuming the defence isn’t completely exhausted, Clement should go the same way on Saturday. Watford are among the league’s most physical sides — they commit the most fouls per game with 13.6 — which suggests Clement should call on some muscle. That ought to mean starts for Leroy Fer and Wilfried Bony, and it could be that in this game Sanches is best used as a sub — imagine the impact he could make coming on fresh against tired opponents, who would otherwise almost certainly be instructed to kick the enthusiasm out of him from minute one, the way every other side has so far.
There’s no reason the supposedly defensive shape can’t generate attacking opportunities either, and part of the beauty of the 3-5-2 is how much it can flex with only minor positional changes. At home in winnable fixtures, Swansea could easily play a 3-4-1-2 variation, fielding the central midfielder as a #10 behind two strikers while retaining the 5-man defense without the ball and 5-man midfield with it:
Away from home or against tougher opponents, the central mid could become an anchor man to protect the defence, with the same 5-man dominance in each phase of play and once again two strikers:
As I’ve talked about previously and is fairly obvious to anyone looking over Swansea’s squad — this team won’t be able to play a three man backline continuously without some reinforcements since the side only has three fit central defenders. It would be no bad thing if the board would heed the growing cries of the fanbase and pop a WhatsApp message to Chico Flores, as the stats suggest Swansea could have a very good season sticking with the new shape.