A case for 4-4-2?

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Paul Clement has had an extra week to figure out why his Swansea team are struggling ahead of Saturday’s home fixture against newly promoted Huddersfield Town. Swansea rightly have no place losing this fixture, and even a draw would be underwhelming, regardless of current form. The team spent money in the summer and ostensibly spent well, bringing in quality players in key positions. Yes, the deals were made late, but isn’t seven league games and nine weeks enough of an adjustment period?

Enough impotence already. Swansea aren’t even mediocre at the moment — mediocre would be an improvement. The team has taken the fewest shots of any Premier League side this season (6.7 per-game against a league average of 12.8), and has the fourth-worst xG For (4.9) and second-worst xG Against (12) versus a league average of 9.2 either way.

Something has to change, and with decent players to choose from it is the system which has come under most scrutiny. A large proportion of the fanbase seems to hate the three-man defence, which regular readers will know I actually like (and still do), but the truth is Swansea have looked every bit as bad with a flat back four anyway. Here’s some stats on both systems (warning: this doesn’t make very pleasant reading):

4 Man Defence
3 Man Defence
Key Passes p/g
Shots For p/g
Goals For p/g
Key Ps Ag p/g
Shots Ag p/g
Goals Ag /g
Goal Diff
Points p/g

Swansea do actually play better with a three-man formation, and not just defensively. The side makes marginally more chances and takes marginally more shots in that shape, and has a far better scoring rate, although Swansea have been such a weak attacking force this season the two goals they scored against Crystal Palace are probably carrying more weight than they should. Either way, even 0.68 goals-per-game is terrible, especially considering it is not much better than half the league average (1.2).

However, the same figure on the defensive side is excellent, and the Swans points-per-game with a three-man D is actually fairly healthy — 1.36 over a full seven games would give Swansea 9 (rounded down), good for a mid-table position at this point. In spite of all this pro-3-5-2 rhetoric, I’m actually going to suggest that perhaps Swansea could turn the clock right back and plum for good old 4-4-2 on Saturday. David Wagner probably wouldn’t be expecting it for a start.

Width has been lacking, and it is hard to generate width without either using brave wing-backs in a 3-5-2, classic wingers in a 4-2-3-1, or wide midfield players in a 4-4-2. Swansea’s wing-backs seem to err on the side of caution far too much in the 3-5-2 to really make that system work both ways the way it should, while 4-2-3-1 has only a single striker — which doesn’t help a team short on firepower — and can isolate its wingers in the defensive transition.

So, 4-4-2 then. It doesn’t have to be as stiff as tradition suggests, and Swansea could easily pull off something like this:

Tom Carroll was a decent crosser of the ball from open play last season, and enjoyed a strong partnership with Martin Olsson. It makes sense to encourage the two of them to combine again, and Carroll’s high work-rate means he won’t shy away from backtracking on the flank. On the other side, Jordan Ayew could establish a similar link-up with Kyle Naughton, and generally works even harder than Carroll does. Luciano Narsingh can be introduced on either flank for more attacking flair, and the likes of Wayne Routledge (right or left), Nathan Dyer (right) and Sam Clucas (left) can also have understudy roles to play.

Roque Mesa needs to get his foothold as a starter in this team. He’s already a fan-favourite and would fit perfectly as a not-quite box-to-box number 4, while Renato Sanches gets to play his favoured number 8 role. Leroy Fer and Leon Britton are capable alternative options. Up front, Swansea have two good strikers, so it makes sense to play them both, and the back four is the back four.

Here’s where things can get interesting though: without the ball — or even with it if the opposition has a soft centre — Swansea can easily shift to a diamond, with Mesa at the base, Ayew at the top, and Carroll tucking in on the left of Sanches, effectively jamming the middle of the park. Or if Narsingh is on the field, Swansea could flex into a 4-2-3-1 with Wilfried Bony flashing his underrated touch, gift for link-up play, and long-shot ability from the hole. Perhaps some mid-game flexibility along these lines could break Swansea out of their predictable, toothless fug and kick-start their season?

There’s almost no chance Clement will try yet another shape inside of eight games, but this exercise demonstrates how flexible Swansea’s squad is this season. It’s difficult to call which shape Clement will favour for Huddersfield, but whatever he chooses, it had better produce goals and a win; a fourth consecutive home defeat and to a newly promoted team will be hard to explain and even harder to stomach.

(Thanks to whoscored.com and Objective Football for the stats)