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Swans defensive display suggests superior coaching

When I was a kid, Swansea were in the lower divisions (mostly 3 and 4 in old money). It was customary for fans of small town teams to also have a favourite “first division” side, because it would give you someone you could watch on television. One of my best friends supported Spurs, and he showed his appreciation of both clubs by drawing a square out of the teams nicknames – since they are both five letters long and start and end with S, you can go SPURS across top and bottom and SWANS up and down the sides. We both thought it was very clever, and since I had a lack of genuine interest in supporting anyone other than Swansea, this seemed a good enough reason to superficially adopt Spurs as my “first division” team, too.

Any pretence of affection I might have had for Spurs wore off a long time ago, not least because they’ve been Swansea’s most stubborn bogey side in the Premier League. Last Saturday’s triumph was to earn an away draw, only a third tie in 11 matches, the rest defeats. It seems weird to celebrate a 0-0 like a win, but such are games against Spurs. Swansea were fantastic defensively, Mauricio Pochettino visibly bristling when asked after the game to acknowledge the Welsh clubs effort. Yes, Harry Kane hit the crossbar and Tottenham were denied all of four borderline penalty claims, but that’s just nitpicking.

Federico Fernandez was awesome in defence, seemingly occupying all three berths simultaneously as Paul Clement reverted to the 3-5-2 to great effect. For a new system, it’s surprising how quickly Swansea have adjusted — to the point that they now look decidedly less cohesive with the four-man systems they’ve been practicing for years. Mike van der Hoorn meanwhile continues to show the importance of coaching and how any player can thrive given the right support and the right place in the right system.

Football’s revolution has run the gamut of playing positions – target men and poachers have given way to all-round forwards, midfielders asked to choose between “defensive” or “attacking” prefixes with few retaining the old box-to-box designation, wingers and full-backs have merged into one, while centre-backs and goalkeepers no longer have to be all that good at defending or goalkeeping so long as they can pass a bit. The next revolution will be in the backroom.

When Everton paid Swansea £45m for Gylfi Sigurdsson, they weren’t only buying a set-piece specialist… but they mostly were. How many coaches of Nigel Gibbs calibre would £45m buy you? Sigurdsson’s focus in dead ball situations is second to none, but that’s just a matter of concentration and practice. Any Premier League player — even the goalkeepers — should be able to pass a still ball accurately over 30 yards under zero pressure. Practice — and coaching — makes perfect (though we’re still waiting for Siggy’s heir apparent to emerge. Tom Carroll? Sam Clucas? Renato Sanches? Roque Mesa?).  You’d assume that all top flight clubs would have every base covered, but even National teams on the biggest stage neglect to practice the basics sometimes.

What’s all this got to do with the Spurs game? Not much, except to note that Swansea have something good going on behind the scenes. Van der Hoorn and Kyle Bartley — who looked similarly useful before his recent injury — were considered deadweight before the season by pretty much the entire fanbase. Now they are holding their own alongside future England captain Alfie Mawson and Fernandez, who is playing arguably the best football of his career at the moment, having looked absolutely awful as recently as the Bob Bradley era.

The new system works amazingly well. Swansea’s Goals Against Average of 0.4 per game with that shape is incredible. The only obstruction to it’s continued use is squad depth — with Bartley injured, Swansea only actually have three senior centre-backs. When van der Hoorn tired on Saturday, Clement replaced him with winger Wayne Routledge in a move that looked more like a high-risk Steam achievement grab than an inspired tactical switch. Former Swansea legend Chico Flores meanwhile remains a free agent, and is therefore available to be signed and registered. Why this hasn’t happened yet is bewildering — the beloved haphazard Spaniard can even play right back in a pinch and so would address two problem areas at once.

It would be remiss not to mention Swansea’s attacking woes amid all this praise for their defensive solidarity. The 3-5-2 is still generating more shots and chances per game than the diamond (except in the deliberately defense-focused Spurs performance), but goals are still the most important part of the game. Perhaps the visit of traumatised Watford on Saturday will provide the right platform to see if Swansea can find as much attacking verve as they have defensive stature. It would be better yet if Clement could make that discovery within the same system, as consistency of shape can only help produce consistency of performance, and the 3-5-2 is the tactically superior formation — a five man defence without the ball, a five man midfield with it, and two strikers either way. As ever, success will depend on picking the right combination of players for the occasion — and on the basis of Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup triumph over Reading, starting Roque Mesa might not be a bad idea.