Tuesday night, Stoke 1, Swansea 0, in the Ryan Words derby. Here’s a closer look at “the one that got away”, Sky Sports’ Man of the Match:
96% passing accuracy on 56 passes, 50 of which were as short as the playmaker himself (and many of which were made under no real pressure). No key passes. Dispossessed five times, more than anyone else in the game. Given Woods’ position as a defensive mid playing between two split centre backs, that’s not exactly awesome.
Swansea have had a player who’d regularly notch passing stats in the 90s, and who also inflated those numbers by playing safe five-yarders, and who even coughed the ball up under pressure quite a lot, exactly like Woods did on Tuesday night, but you won’t find too many love letters to Ki Sung-Yueng floating around the Liberty.
A ridiculous comparison? Not entirely. Woods is far more vocal than the Korean, a better organiser, but statistically the players are similar, at least according to Tuesday’s numbers. Admittedly this is based on just a single game from Woods, but his Man of the Match award suggests this was a performance worthy of basing a comparison on (although the award mostly seems to have been given to justify the televised pre-match narrative).
So maybe Woods isn’t the messiah. Maybe he’s just a pretty good player with a couple of holes in his game (wouldn’t he have moved to a Premier League club this summer otherwise?), and maybe Swansea were right not to overspend. Woods might yet prove to be an excellent addition for Stoke, but I don’t believe Swansea missed the chance of a lifetime, or — depth issues aside — be significantly better with him on board.
The price was set at £6m or perhaps £6.5m before Stoke presumably countered with seven. Swansea had identified this was the limit for a defensive midfielder. If the club had re-entered the negotiation and matched or bettered that figure, the price probably climbs to £10m+ before the kettle’s boiled and just like that Swansea are over-spending on players again.
It’s easy to criticise the club in hindsight for spending big on Borja Baston or Roque Mesa or Andre Ayew Pt II. It’s just as easy to criticise the club for not spending (relatively) big (this is the Championship, folks) on a player everyone just assumes would automatically be brilliant, when perhaps they might only have been quite good (or worse, who knows?), in a squad that already has some quite good players.
To put Woods’s 96% passing figure in perspective: Ryan Shawcross had 92% and Bruno Martins Indi had 94%, as did Swansea’s own Cameron Carter-Vickers. Matt Grimes hit 90% and played probably the most expansive football of any of the other passers in this comparison (although he was playing further forward), with 72 passes, 50 of them forwards, and 2 of them key. He was dispossessed once all game. This from a player derided by Leeds supporters for his inability to perform at this level in the recent past. So what’s more important? Good players, or a good coach?
What Graham Potter is achieving in Swansea is something close to the perfection of team football. He’s taken a group of kids and unfashionable veterans and made them believe, in themselves, in each other, and in his wonderful, fluid, amorphous football. They’re still a work-in-progress of course, but watching Potter’s Swans in action, it seems like no single player could or should demand sufficient space on the stage to become an individual star. All the parts of this machine move together. And on Saturday, those parts were mostly backup players.
To clamour for one name signing or another, to suggest this team should be buying established star power because that’s what football tradition says teams should do, is to fail to grasp what’s happening here. You can’t laud Potter for working magic with the squad he’s been given and then suggest all he needs are three or four big signings the board would never sanction anyway. That’s like thanking Jesus for the loaves and fishes and then complaining to everyone about how much better the miracle would have been if only he’d served it with some tomato and herb salsa or a squirt of lemon juice.
A lot of people would take a 0-1 defeat away to Stoke as par for the course, even with a full strength side. The fact Potter’s Swans managed the same result (and were defeated only by an offside goal) with an injury-struck team of second stringers and season debutants should tell you something: that good teams are bred and not bought. It isn’t so much a case of “imagine how good Ryan Woods / Anyone Else would be under Potter”, as one of “look how good Joe Rodon / Oli McBurnie / Connor Roberts / etc actually are under Potter”.
At this point, I don’t even want Swansea to buy any big name players in January. I want Potter to succeed with this team of players who aren’t even household names in their own households. The chemistry this group is developing is providing the most exciting football anyone in Swansea has seen for years. Would you rather watch George Byers and Dan James play one-twos around far more experienced defenders, or follow Stoke’s example and watch a team consistently deliver less than the sum of its predominantly Premier-League parts?
However you interpret the intentions behind Swansea’s decision to rip everything up and start again, the result has so far provided fascination and fun, and the future promises a good measure more of both — even without Ryan Woods.
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