Everyone loves Swansea City and the clichés abound. They have been a breath of fresh air and they remind you why you love football. They’ve stuck to their principles. Refreshing. If stats is your thing, there’s a love-in there too: Swansea average 56% possession at home; and 56% possession away from home. In beating Manchester City last week, they had the ball 67% of the time. They have a pass completion rate of 85% (bettered only by Chelsea and Manchester City). Central-midfielder Leon Britton has a pass completion rate of 93.2%*. That’s the best in the Premier League. It’s the best in Europe too.
So they’re a top team. Statistically and emotionally, collectively and individually, they’ve got it covered. Last week they received official acknowledgement from within the game too. Asked to name the league’s most impressive manager, 46% of bosses went for Swansea’s Brendan Rodgers (I assume Rogers didn’t vote for himself; although I’m not sure that he couldn’t: Steve Kean polled 6%). Britton (13%) was also the third most popular midfielder.
All of these should be taken with perspective – lies, damn lies and statistics etc. The latter in particular, in last year’s survey 80% of the gaffers had Blackpool down as the season’s most impressive team and they’re not in the Premier League anymore. Swansea, though, 3 points behind Liverpool in 8th place, have the look of a team that’s going to stick around. Their acknowledgement by the managerial academy lacks the sense of patronage that stuck to praise of Blackpool last year. Unlike Ian Holloway’s exciting but ultimately harmless tangerines, Rodgers’ outfit (like his actual outfits) are understatedly impressive. His players simply do their jobs, they trust each other and as a result don’t have to worry too much about their opposition – as the equivalency of the home and away possession stats indicate.
Whereas, then, Blackpool returned to the Championship with a few fewer players but a huge pile of cash, Swansea are likely to suffer a completely different set of problems, like having to compete at the same level with a depleted and then rebuilt squad.
While Rodgers has done an enjoyably unique line recently in ‘keep your hands off me please' pleas, it is not clear that his animosity to the two big jobs English football currently has available extends across the board: would he worry that Everton, or Tottenham Hotspur, or Arsenal would ruin his career? In any case, his players probably don’t even share their manager’s antipathy to Chelsea. Apart from Britton, their best performer of recent weeks has been the midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, and he’s only on loan from Hoffenheim.
Swansea’s probable problems are the likely consequence of the jealous looks their means and ends are attracting from around the league. It is common for a new manager, asked about the style of football he will install at his new club, to make positive noises about keeping the ball down, moving it around, entertaining (which is understandable: no new manager, apart from Gary Megson, is going to say ‘we’re going to keep the ball in the air, foul people a lot and generally be as boring as possible’). The boldest might even mention Barcelona. That’s the sort of thing new employers and patrons are likely to want to hear.
Swansea are the closest thing English Football has to Barcelona. In fact, they are probably the closest thing it could have. But Brendan Rodgers has never made the comparison. He hasn’t had to. He just lets his players get on with it (and actions, as my Granny used to say, speak louder than words).
This is going to be a problem for other sides. Rodgers’ successful creation of an aesthetically pleasing side of comfortably middle-class providence on a budget of (approximately) £7 million, exposes the relative inferiority of almost every other club in the league; most of whom have spent considerably more money on significantly inferior (both aesthetically and competitively) sides.
Brendan Rodgers knows this. It probably explains his adamant refusal to allow Chelsea or England to consider him. His success at Swansea depends on the continuation of a model put in place by Roberto Martinez but which he has fine-tuned since arriving from Reading in 2010. As a coach under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea (along with Andre Villas-Boas, who was opposition scout), Rodgers knows that the manager is simply the figurehead of a much wider operation. The players’ trust in one another, which yields the successful on-pitch performances, is a consequence of the off-pitch trust between Rodgers and his colleagues, which filters down.
Swansea are a successful unit, which means that their success cannot be transplanted piecemeal elsewhere. Hacking off a part of the unit, be it Rodgers, Britton, Michel Vorm or Scott Sinclair, and bolting it on to some other unit will not automatically result in similar success. Instead of pinching their pick of Swansea’s individual components, then, opposition clubs should look at the model which permits the unit to flourish. Rather than nicking the league’s most impressive manager (or employing a different manager to say that he’s going to copy him), chairmen need to adopt the model which allows Rodgers to be so damn impressive.
*Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com.