Monday, 10 February 2014

Garry Monk shows why midfield width is king at Swansea City

Comprehensive win over Cardiff shows new Swansea boss Monk understands what is needed in SA1

There was a time not so long ago when Swansea fans went into every game confident in their team's ability to boss the centre of the park. Ever since Roberto Martinez came in and transformed the club's playing style we've had a succession of managers who use midfield dominance to control matches, but of late it's been painfully obvious that we simply weren't building anything constructive through the middle and teams had figured out how to nullify the threat posed by Michael Laudrup's Swansea City. I've ruminated often when it was I thought we last properly controlled a midfield, and before Saturday's win over Cardiff I'd have to say it was probably Newcastle at home almost a year ago. Worrying? Not any more.

What has been excruciatingly frustrating to most Swansea fans is that the changes to the style which were necessary were just so bleeding obvious. We've built our success on our ability to retain the ball, and key to this is having two central midfielders who work as a unit in front of the back four. Ok, one can wander forward occasionally but for a possession system to work properly your midfielders have to rely on each other and play their way out of trouble. 

In the past Mark Gower sat alongside Leon before Joey Allen broke into the team and made that spot his own, but since Joey's departure (and Laudrup's arrival) we've steadily gone away from a midfield with two deep midfielders, instead operating with one holding midfielder, one attacking midfielder and the third seemingly floating between the two. It might sound like I'm splitting hairs here but the difference is massive - especially when on occasion Leon hasn't been selected. Without the tika-taka protection offered by a midfield duo our defence has become more exposed, but the answer was staring us right in the face. Play Leon with a midfielder who has been explicitly told to hang around the Swansea number seven, and the rest will sort itself out!

De Guzman vs West Ham
De Guzman vs Cardiff
A good example of the immediate difference made by Garry Monk can be seen in Jonathan De Guzman's heatmap (heatmaps from the Daily Mail Matchzone). In Laudrup's last game in charge against West Ham, De Guzman had his usual wandery free role in the centre of the park and guess what? We lost. You can clearly see though that against Cardiff the Dutchman had been told to stick deeper and operate alongside Leon, and the difference was massive. Instantly, we'd returned to the football we hadn't seen since Brendan Rodgers. And not before time. 

Aside from the use of two holding midfielders, there was only really two other things Monk had to change in order to restore order in SA1. Well, three if you include geeing his team up but I suspect that was a foregone conclusion, so back to tactics for now. Under Laudrup. our wingers had become inside forwards and given the area they were running into often contained our centre forward, attacking midfielder, one of our central midfielders as well as possibly the "winger" on the other side it's no wonder they found the going tough - and that's before you factor in all the defenders marking the aforementioned players, or the fact that they only had to defend the central 60% of the pitch because we weren't using the touchlines effectively that far up the field.

So, what did Monk do? Easy - tell the wingers to play like wingers and get them hugging the touchline. Not only does this mean the opposition defence has to split itself wider from the outset, in doing so it creates space in the centre of the field - space we've long craved and put to good use against Cardiff. Look at the first Swans goal - Pablo had space in the centre as our wingers had stretched Cardiff, and that allowed the Spaniard to play a delicious ball inside the Cardiff full-back with Routledge careering around him on the outside. There is absolutely no way Routledge would have been in that position had Laudrup still been in charge, and it goes further than that. Our second goal? A cross from the wing from Routledge. The third? A free kick from out wide after Dyer had found space on the right flank. Width is key.

Ok, it's possible that given our recent style of play the impact these changes had has been exaggerated slightly given Cardiff may have been expecting us to set up differently, but if Monk continues in this vein we will be just fine. More than fine, in fact. The other noticeable difference in Saturday's performance when compared with any recent showing under Laudrup was how high we pressed the opposition. Cardiff didn't have time to play their way out and if I'm honest there were several occasions when I thought to myself "this is like watching Brendan Rodgers' Swansea team". 

To label Monk's success as such would however be a disservice. There were changes needed to how we were playing, and in my opinion Garry Monk got every single one of them spot on. He clearly knew what needed doing, and now he's got the opportunity to go and do it. If we play like we did against Cardiff at Stoke on Wednesday night, I'm very confident of a result, and I'm very, very interested to see how Garry Monk does for the remainder of the season. I've been saying for a while that perhaps what the Swans need is a head coach instead of a manager, given the unique way the club is set up and how heavily involved Huw is in the footballing side of things, and perhaps we've just stumbled upon the winning lottery ticket.

With Garry Monk in charge "for the foreseeable future", and on the evidence of Saturday's heroic win, I'm now more confident in the Swans' ability to produce results than I have been in about a year. Long live Garry Monk.