Swans need to swap crosses and slow play for speed and short passes
Remember that song? Pass and move (it’s the Liverpool groove)? How about Pass and stand far away (it’s the Swansea way)? In fairness, Swansea’s team movement showed improvement in Saturday’s annoying 1-0 defeat to West Ham, but not for the whole match, and not in a way which helped create any real chances. There were more passing options in the middle third as players actually moved for each other and tried to find space, and somewhat better interplay between the midfielders and full backs, with Renato Sanches in particular always showing for the ball, even if he was as inconsistent with it as ever. But as usual any promising exchanges broke down in the final third, with Swansea managing just six shots all game, and only one on target.
It’s not necessarily the system. This time Clement switched back to the diamond, but the result was the same — no goals for Swansea, no win for Swansea. Rather, it’s the attacking strategy. In every formation Paul Clement has used this season, the attacking approach has been the same — heavily predicated on crossing, despite this side having almost no players who are actually good in the air.
Tammy Abraham is 6’4″ tall, but so what? That doesn’t mean he’s automatically good in the air. Last season, only 2 of his 23 league goals for Bristol City were scored with headers. He is a penalty box poacher, lively and alert to loose balls and rebounds, as demonstrated by his goal against Watford last week, where he was first to react when Heurelho Gomes spilled Wilfried Bony’s shot. Bony himself is fairly useful in the air, but it is not his strongest suit. He is a pinch taller than 6 foot. He also mostly scores with his feet, and his excellent knack for finding space in the penalty box for low cut-backs is being wasted with high crosses.
That’s to say nothing about the quality of cross. None of Swansea’s players are adept crossers of the ball. Martin Olsson and Tom Carroll linked up well down the left flank last season, but have struggled to replicate their success. Kyle Naughton and Renato Sanches are just as culpable of over or under hitting crosses as anyone else on the side. There is little consistency of delivery from anywhere, so no wonder the strikers are struggling — perhaps only one ball in three even gets within swinging distance of the frontmen, and that’s being generous.
Jordan Ayew remains a defensive forward par excellence, but his primary creative contribution in the final third is being sabotaged by Swansea’s frankly awful set-piece delivery. Ayew played a huge and largely unheralded part in last season’s memorable relegation escape in which Swansea won four and drew one of their remaining five fixtures, playing a part in six of the eight goals the Swans scored. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente got the lion’s share of the love for their season-saving set-piece partnership, but it was more often than not Ayew winning those free kicks and corners. The Ghanaian is still up to his usual tricks, the league’s fifth most fouled played, but Swansea have roundly failed to capitalise on the set-piece situations he creates. The team doesn’t have a single set-piece goal this season.
Carroll has emerged as the designated dead ball “specialist”, but perhaps needs to spend more time earning that title. Were I in Paul Clement’s position, I would make additional set-piece practice a contractual obligation for my specialists — it is not enough to for any old player who fancies it to have a go. Sigurdsson used to put in the time, and it showed. However, that only tells half the story.
In Carroll’s defence, not every delivery is bad. Half the time, the midfielder does beat the first man and doesn’t over or under hit the ball too badly, yet Swansea still come up short. Why? Sigurdsson never had this problem. That’s because Sigurdsson had Llorente to aim for, and not enough is made of the Spaniard’s talent for reading the flight of an aerial ball, finding space, using his body to control that space, and then generating enough power and direction with his head to score. Sigurdsson was a Swansea legend, but it’s not like he had laser-like precision with his deliveries. It was often enough for him to simply put the ball into the mass of players; Llorente would take care of the rest.
The current Swans squad simply does not have an aerial threat of nearly the capability of Llorente. He’s arguably one of the best headers in the world. So every time a free kick is floated into the box, every time a high cross is swung in from open play, Swansea are not playing to the strengths of their otherwise talented strikers, and end up with underwhelming figures like six shots and only one on target (a wonderful long-range strike from Bony, taken no doubt out of frustration and still the closest Swansea came to scoring all game).
Clement seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that this years iteration of the Swans can play the same game as last year’s. They can’t. If he insists on finding inspiration in Sigurdsson’s past contributions, he would do well to look further back than last season, to Bony’s first stint in a Swansea shirt, where his chemistry with the Icelandic playmaker was second to none. Back then, it was all one-twos, heel-toe magic, and telepathic short passing through the middle. That approach might actually be worth trying to replicate, as it uses all Bony’s strengths, and suits the skill set of many current players — Ayew, Abraham, Sanches, Carroll and Leroy Fer all potentially have the ability to replicate Sigurdsson’s open-play contribution of that time.
Right now, something has to change. Swansea cannot continue to play high balls to the ghost of Llorente, and this squad of talented players is fast losing confidence being asked to play a style of attack that simply doesn’t suit them.