Arsenal return to action Saturday at home to Swansea. Swansea have picked up just a point from their last 5 league matches. Consecutive league defeats to Southampton, Manchester City and Liverpool have left the Swans outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone and led to the sacking of Francesco Guidolin as manager. He has been replaced by the American Bob Bradley who becomes the first American to manage a Premier League side.
After his firing as manager of the US national team in 2011, Bradley moved to Egypt where he narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2014 World Cup despite contending with the year-long cancellation of domestic league football that resulted from a deadly stadium riot in Port Said in 2012 and the ongoing revolution in the country. From there he moved to the small Norwegian club Stabaek then on to Le Havre in November 2015 in the French second division. At Le Havre he nearly earned the club promotion to Ligue 1 with a miraculous effort in the final match of the 2015-2016 season. They went into the final game 3 points behind third place Metz in the race for the final promotion position and needing a 6 goal swing in goal differential. Metz were beaten 1-0 and Bradley’s Le Havre won 5-0 meaning the two sides finished level on points and goal difference. Metz would go through on goals scored.
I’ve not followed Bradley’s career at all closely since he was sacked from the USMNT position five years ago so I can’t offer any insight into his tactical approach in recent seasons. He used quite an attacking 4-4-2 at the 2010 World Cup with Jozy Altidore and either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley up front and Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in the wide midfield roles. I thought this was brave- we played quickly on the break and scored in every game- but also led to the US being overwhelmed in midfield and exposed defensively which was something I thought at the time suggested some tactical naivety. Now in the era of ponderous and frankly underwhelming displays under Jurgen Klinsmann I miss the excitement Bradley’s sides played with. Swansea have a tradition of playing positive football and Bradley isn’t a manager that’s going to turn them into West Brom. I’m sure better students of world football can offer up some insight into how he’s played in his more recent positions. Overall I think he’s a guy that conducts himself with real dignity and admire the risks he’s taken carving out a career for himself. I hope he does well… Starting next week.
A bit on Swansea’s tactics
I forgot to DVR Swansea’s last match against Liverpool and hadn’t seen a full match of theirs prior to that. The only full match I could find online was the 2-2 draw against Chelsea so, word of warning, my opinions of them are based solely on one full match, snippets of others and some statistics.
While they were outplayed by Chelsea for much of that contest and were slightly fortunate in that Leroy Fer blatantly fouled Gary Cahill before scoring Swansea’s second (a tackle cynical enough that I thought it could have earned him a second yellow had Andre Marriner spotted it), my overall assessment was that they’re too good of a side to be in a relegation scrap come the end of the season.
They played a midfield diamond that day that was really well balanced and reasonably talented. Jack Cork played at the base of midfield. He’s an unfussy, tidy player that keeps possession moving. Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yueng played the box-to-box roles. Both are athletic, energetic players capable of pressing defensively in midfield then bursting forward to join in the attack. Ki is a composed figure on the ball and confident passer- his 88% pass success rate is the highest on the team. Fer is an all-action, direct player and, crucially for the Swans, a player that can score from midfield. He already has 4 goals out of Swansea’s 6 total.
Gylfi Sigurdsson played at the tip of the diamond. Sigurdsson is a remarkably dynamic player, capable of creating a goal for himself or providing a final ball. He also possesses a unique work rate on both sides of the ball and commitment to performing the less glamorous aspects of the game. I think it’ll be important we keep him in deeper areas away from the striker (likely Fernando Llorente if he has recovered from a rib injury). The Icelandic international is dangerous on the edges of the penalty spot. If he can collect knock downs from Llorente, his curling efforts from 30 yards and in are excellent.
The Spanish international Llorente has endured a slow start to life in England having netted just once in six league appearances. However that goal did come in his last outing for the club so he’ll hope he’s gathering some momentum. Llorente is certainly a capable striker- he scored 18 goals in 2013-14 at Juventus and scored as many as 29 in a season at Athletic Bilbao- but at 31 he’s getting towards the end of his prime and hasn’t reached double digits in goals in the last two seasons.
Swansea pressed high to mixed effect against Chelsea. There were occasions when their defenders (they started with a back three and moved to a back four just before halftime) stayed too deep when the midfield pressed, leaving plenty of space between the lines for Chelsea to move into and easily play out of the press. However when the press was more orchestrated and compact that caused Chelsea some real problems. Fer’s goal came when he pressed Cahill high but even prior to that they had made Chelsea look really sloppy for portions of the game.
Swansea’s biggest weaknesses are in defense. They’ve kept just one clean sheet in all comps, against Burnley on the opening day of the season. Burnley have score the joint fewest goals this season along with Stoke. The football statistics website whoscored.com lists Swansea’s weaknesses as defending set pieces, avoiding fouling in dangerous areas, stopping opponents from creating chances, defending counter attacks and defending against through ball attacks (their other listed weakness is finishing scoring chances). That type of defensive liability is no recipe for success, particularly when you’re playing on the road.
The two center backs Federico Fernandez and Jordi Amat made a number of individual errors against Chelsea that seemed to largely be down to a lack of concentration. For Chelsea’s opener Fernandez twice failed to execute basic headed clearances away from the danger area and ended up clearing directly to Eden Hazard’s feet to tee up Diego Costa. Time and again Amat was too eager to dive into tackles through the back of opposition players and gave away silly free kicks in dangerous areas. He committed 5 fouls and was lucky not to pick up a second yellow. Costa was fouled an incredible 7 times.
It’ll be interesting to see if Bradley restores Neil Taylor to the side. The Welsh international has been a mainstay at the club but appeared just once this season under Guidolin and was subbed off before halftime, causing a touchline row with the manager. Guidolin had opted for the youngster Stephen Kingsley at left back.
How they’ll play
Seeing as Bradley is a bit of a mystery to me at this stage in his career I have no idea how he’ll set his side out. I do wonder however if he’ll opt for a midfield diamond after Southampton gave us some fairly serious trouble using that formation earlier this season. As I mentioned above, in Cork, Ki, Fer and Sigurdsson he’s got four midfielders well-suited to that shape. Against Southampton we defended in our normal blocks of four. With so many players taking up central areas in the diamond 4-4-2, our two center deeper center midfielders on the day, Cazorla and Coquelin, were often outnumbered in the middle of the pitch and Southampton were able to play through them.
I think the issue with that shape for Swansea however is that it forces the width to come from the fullbacks which leaves space for us to counter into the channels. They’ve had a difficult time stopping the counter. Alternatively he could go for more of a 4-2-3-1 and inject some pace in the channels with either Wayne Routledge or Modou Barrow.
It’s difficult to know what to expect from this one. Swansea have been something of a bogey-opponent for us in recent seasons. We’ve failed to beat them at the Emirates in their last three visits and they’ve collected all three points in the last two. They’ll be difficult to prepare for in their first game under a new boss with new ideas and the players should be eager to impress the new manager. Based on whoscored.com’s team rankings, Swansea’s predicted number of points is just above 7 based on their performances so far this season. They only have 4 points indicating performances have probably been a touch better than results suggest (I’ll have more on predicted points versus actual points for all 20 Premier League teams next week).
The home crowd sounded incredible the last time out against Chelsea. That match was of course a heated derby with a teatime kickoff. It’ll be interesting to see how loud he Emirates is with Arsenal against a struggling opponent at a traditional kick off time. I expect us to win, but then I always expect us to win at home to Swansea and we never seem to do so. Let’s change that tomorrow.