Swansea show more than passing likeness to Barcelona
Victory over Arsenal won fresh converts to the quality and talent of Brendan Rodgers' team.
Respect. That was the buzzword in Swansea yesterday as this long-time footballing outpost acclimatised to suddenly becoming everybody's second-favourite team. Well, perhaps everyone but the Cardiff City hardliners.
Praise continued to flood west after Sunday's 3-2 defeat of Arsenal, which, with all its panache, was so much more than a mere upset on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, at the Liberty Stadium, the mood was one of relief that this cultured cat was finally out of the Prada.
"The winner was the audience," said Michel Vorm, their Dutch goalkeeper. "It was live on TV, a lot of people saw it and now everyone knows what Swansea City is about and what we can do. We always had the belief and this result will send out the message. We just wanted to say to the world that Swansea deserve to play in the Premier League. We will get the respect now."
In view of the table, all that respect does not tally with their 10th place. Swansea cannot even claim to be the most successful of the promoted clubs, as Norwich sit two points above them. Yet most of the statistics do back up the giddying perception, as well as the growing conviction that they warrant higher billing than this year's Blackpool.
Remarkably, throughout the top leagues in Europe, Swansea are sixth in the pass-accuracy charts, with only Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Chelsea ahead. Intriguingly, on Sunday they were below their average (85.2 per cent) with just 80.3 per cent of their passes complete. Don't tell Arsène Wenger; the poor dolt stormed away believing Swansea had been at their peak. With Leon Britton topping Xavi as the pass-accuracy master in Europe, commentators feel unashamed in evoking the name Barcelona to describe their style. And there was everyone thinking in south-west Wales that the only similarity linking Barcelona and Swansea was their status as glorious seaside cities.
If Brendan Rodgers' men have put Swansea back on the footballing map – in the rush to hail it as Swansea's greatest performance, many overlooked the fact that they beat Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal when finishing sixth in 1982 – then the benefits may also be reaped over the bridge. Fabio Capello was in attendance at the Liberty, the first time he has visited, and inevitably the focus fell on Swansea's front three, all scorers and all young Englishmen.
Rodgers did his best to talk up Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham. "Sometimes players who play for 'non-fashionable' clubs are questioned whether they are technically good enough for international level," he said. "But the technical side is what our game is based on and our players have shown they could perform [at international level] if asked."
So does Capello possess the nerve, or the vision, to call up any of that trio, or indeed Britton, a 29-year-old who simply does not waste a ball. The suspicion in Swansea is that Capello may give one of them a token squad selection but come Euro 2012 in the summer they will be overlooked. Another hunch is, however, that with Sinclair, Neil Taylor and Joe Allen fulfilling the 23-or-under Olympic criterion, Swansea could yet boast some big international representation this summer. "I'd encourage it," said Rodgers. "If it's good enough for Lionel Messi, it's good enough for our boys."
Everything is positive in Swansea, at the moment. The highly rated Chelsea teenager Josh McEachran arrived on loan yesterday, providing cover for the three-man midfield which is central to the Swans' style. "This lad is an incredible passer of the ball," said Rodgers, who seemed unflustered when quizzed about the rumours of the big boys coming to snatch his talent. Liverpool are the latest to be linked with a January move for Sinclair, while Taylor's name creeps up in most transfer columns.
Rodgers is as adamant his squad will remain intact as the chairman, Huw Jenkins, is that Rodgers is going nowhere. It is understood Rodgers will sign a new contract this week. In truth, he'd be a fool to leave at this juncture and if football now understands one thing it is that this immensely impressive 38-year-old is anything but a fool. The players report he is as persuasive as he is enlightened.
"The gaffer has told us over and over if we keep passing it and playing the way we are playing we will get results," said Sinclair. "He's drummed it into us and against Arsenal you saw we did it even when we went down." And, indeed, when they went up.
There is a genuine sense of enjoyment and pride at the Liberty. When asked if Arsenal were the team he most would like to watch in the Premier League, Rodgers replied: "No, I enjoy watching Swansea most. I think we're absolutely fantastic, some of the football we play. Statistically, we're up there with the top teams in Europe. But we're not trying to be anyone else. We're trying to improve what we are." What they are must be credited largely to Rodgers, but not entirely. The urbane philosophy was introduced by Roberto Martinez, nurtured by Paulo Sousa and then refined and updated by Rodgers in this staggering last 18 months. When it comes to awards this season, what must be taken into account is the improvement within this group; eight of this latest starting XI were in last season's Championship team. As Rodgers pointed out, so much for the widely held notion that British players are technically deficient by nature.
Swansea are proving it is possible for the newly promoted to go after survival in the elite with a rapier rather than a sledgehammer. With 26 points and an attractive run of fixtures, their Premier League status could be assured before even Rodgers' dreamed. Their first away win of the season, against Aston Villa a fortnight ago, should have given them the requisite confidence on the road, while one League defeat all season at the Liberty perfectly sums up their home comfort. It has all been based on Rodgers' attention to retention and the class in the pass.
"The players have not only retained that philosophy, but cemented that philosophy as we've picked up results with it," said Rodgers. "So we're really looking forward to the second half of the season. We have an ambition and a hunger, but understand the task. What we've shown is that we're a team improving all the time, capable of winning games. Whoever the opponent."
Swans' style: Stats
6 Home league goals conceded: joint-second fewest after Man City
85.2 Average percentage pass completion: the sixth-best in Europe
8.6 Average fouls committed per game: fewest in Europe
93% Leon Britton's pass completion rate: second only to Barcelona's Thiago
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