Arsenal's matchweek 8 scouting report: Swansea

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 He has been replaced by the American Bob Bradley who becomes the first American to manage a Premier League side.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.

Weak defense

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Tactical Analysis: Aston Villa 0-1 Swansea

After a difficult afternoon, Bafetimbi Gomis turned hero as he turned in a brilliant Jefferson Montero low ball across the face of goal in the 87th minute to give the visiting Swansea a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in an entertaining game.

Gary Monk went with the same diamond 4-4-2 formation he's used in recent weeks and that was so impressive in the first half of their slightly unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Liverpool on Monday. The only change he made to that side was bringing in Frederico Fernandez, who returned to the club after flying back to Argentina for personal reasons, for Jordi Amat in the center of defense.

Tim Sherwood opted for a flat 4-4-2 with Gabriel Agbonlahor partnering Christian Benteke up front and Tom Cleverley playing alongside Fabian Delph in midfield. Cleverley went off with an injury and was replaced with Carlos Sanchez in the 25th minute and Villa kept the same shape.

With the diamond 4-4-2 versus flat 4-4-2 the teams had clear numerical advantages in different areas of the pitch. Swansea enjoyed a 4 versus 2 advantage in the middle of midfield, giving them the impetus to control possession and overload Aston Villa through the center of the pitch. Aston Villa enjoyed a 2 v. 1 advantage in the channels, meaning they had opportunities to overload the Swansea fullbacks with overlapping runs and get balls into the box from wide areas. This game had three distinct tactical phases: in the first phase Swansea's advantage in midfield won out and they overran Villa in that zone, creating several good chances that they failed to conver; in the second phase Villa disrupted Swansea's rhythm and looked the more dangerous side attacking through the channels where they had the numerical advantage; in the third phase Monk switched to a 4-2-3-1, nullifying Villa's dangerous overlapping fullback runs and creating a threat through Jefferson Montero down the left.

Phase 1: Swansea use 4 v. 2 advantage in midfield to control possession

Just as they did in their defeat to Liverpool, Swansea controlled possession and had the better of play in the first half. Villa looked to press the two deepest lying Swansea center midfielders, Jack Cork and either Ki or Jonjo Shelvey and played a high line to to mitigate the space between the midfield and back four where Gylfi Siggurdsson was playing. However, with the 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle, Swansea were able to comfortably play through the press, get players on the ball in behind Delph and Cleverley then look for passes in behind Villa's extremely high defensive line. Within the opening 10 minutes Swansea were fractionally offside twice but it looked like only a matter of time before they'd exploit Villa's loose midfield and risky high line.

With Delph and Cleverley overloaded in midfield, Charlez N'Zogbia and Scott Sinclair were forced to tuck inside from their wide midfield positions to offer defensive help in central zones. This created loads of space down the channels for Swansea's overlapping fullbacks Neil Taylor and Kyle naughton to get forward. In the sixth minute Shelvey and Taylor played an excellent 1-2 down the left channel that resulted in Taylor getting to the byline and cutting back for Gomis 8 yards from goal. Gomis put his shot straight at Brad Guzan but the buildup from Swansea was excellent. Unfortunately for Monk, good build first half build up play but wasteful finishing has become a theme the last two games. Gomis looked to be struggling for confidence. While he uses his strength well in the build up and works hard, the fluid 4-4-2 system has created a number of chances for him that he hasn't taken well enough. It's difficult not to speculate whether the Liverpool result may have been different if Wilfried Bony were still at the club. Hopefully Gomis' winner will provide him with a boost of confidence. He's shown in France he has the ability to be a prolific striker. Under this diamond 4-4-2 he'll likely continue to get plenty of chances.

Phase 2: Villa dangerous down the flanks

As good as Swansea have been in the first halves of their last two fixtures, there's been a worrying trend both that they haven't converted that dominance into goals and that they haven't maintained the dominance into the second half. Out of the gates from the second half Villa looked the more energetic side. They disrupted the rhythm Swansea had in the first half, breaking up play in midfield better and limiting Swansea's space. Monk's side defended with a narrow midfield three of Cork, Shelvey and Ki. Sigurdsson dropped in just in front of them to pick up Villa's deepest center midfielder or an advancing center back while Routledge and Gomis stayed higher up the pitch. This meant Swansea were defending quite narrow in midfield and that there was no one to track the Villa fullbacks when they advanced forward. The Swansea fullbacks were therefore overloaded 2 v. 1 in the channels- they were occupied by both the Villa wingers and fullbacks. Villa began to take advantage of these 2 v. 1's in the channels by getting the fullbacks forward and having them overlap the wingers. They were able to get towards the byline and hit dangerous balls in from wide areas. This was a real threat given they had a dominate physical presence in Benteke to aim at in the box.

In the 57th left back Alan Hutton overlapped Sinclair down the left and played a driven cross into Benteke. He was able to use his strength to hold off a defender and knock the ball down for Agbonlahor. His effort was blocked well by Taylor but the move illustrated where Villa were their most dangerous.

Swansea go 4-2-3-1

After about a 20 minute spell of Villa creating good chances down the channels, Monk made a substitution in the 64th minute introducing Montero for Sigurdsson. Montero played wide on the left, Routledge moved to a right attacking midfield position, Shelvey moved forward into a #10 role and Swansea played a 4-2-3-1. They defended in banks, Montero and Routledge tracked the runs of the Villa fullbacks and mitigated the danger Sherwood's side had posed in the channels. The game became tighter, neither side really created any great chances. Montero posed the biggest threat for Swansea, his quickness on the ball caused problems for Leandro Bacuna, a center back playing out of position at right back.

Monk made a substitution that proved the deciding factor in the 85th minute, bringing on Nathan Dyer for Shelvey. Dyer played wide right and Routledge moved back inside to the #10 role. Two minutes after the change Routledge collected the ball in the middle of midfield and played a clever outside of the right foot pass to Montero in space down the left in behind Bacuna. Montero played an incredible first time pass with the outside of his right foot across the face of goal for Gomis to slide home after using great strength to hold off Ciaran Clark. Monk's personnel and tactical changes had paid off. The change in shape to 4-2-3-1 had stifled Villa as they were on the ascendency and the introduction of Montero on the left proved a game changer.

Conclusion

Tim Sherwood was accused at times of being tactically naive last season at Spurs. Those accusations were often leveled when Sherwood played an open 4-4-2 that left his side too open and outnumbered in midfield. His decision to play a flat 4-4-2 against a side he knew would likely play a midfield diamond seemed a strange one given how Sherwood chose to have the team defend. Rather than operating in deeper banks of four, they pressed with Cleverley and Delph in midfield and played a high line. This left gaps of space for Swansea to to easily move into and collect possession, where they could play dangerous passes in behind the Villa high line. That the score remained level at halftime was a product of Swansea's inability to finish- Villa were fortunate not be trailing.

They improved in the second half and were more compact defensively. However, Sherwood maintained the same shape and tactics throughout, whether his side were being outplayed or on the ascendency.

Monk on the other hand reacted to changes in how the contest was taking shape. When his side lost their first half dominance and were being dominated in the channels, he changed to a shape with wide midfielders to give his fullbacks defensive cover in the channels.

This was a fluid and enjoyable contest between two sides playing decent football. Monk will be slightly concerned his side's dominance of late hasn't been translated into enough goals, Sherwood will feel Villa missed a chance to get vital home points in their battle for safety but both managers can take positives from today's match.

Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 1-2 Swansea

Louis Van Gaal's reign in charge at Old Trafford got off to a poor start as Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by an organized Swansea side.

Van Gaal was without Michael Carrick, Luke Shaw, Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck through injury while Robin Van Persie was not yet fit. Van Gaal was therefore forced to field a bit of a makeshift side in the 3-4-1-2 formation he favored with Holland at the World Cup and with United in preseason. Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard were given their United debuts at left center back and right wing back respectively. Lingard however was forced off early with an injury and replaced by Adnan Januzaj. Javier Hernandez started alongside Wayne Rooney at forward with Juan Mata just behind in the #10 role. Ander Herrera and Darren Fletcher played deeper in midfield.

Gary Monk opted for a 4-2-3-1. Wilfried Bony was given the nod up front ahead of new signing Bafetimbi Gomis after his excellent second half of last season. Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-Yueng anchored the midfield. Wayne Routledge, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Nathan Dyer took up the attacking midfield positions. Angel Rangel, Jordi Amat, Ashley Williams and Niel Taylor made up the back four.

United attack down right

Swansea defended with Shelvey and Ki sitting deep in front of the back four. When United's back three had the ball, Swansea's ball side wide midfielder would step forward to apply pressure along with Sigurdsson and Bony while the opposite side wide midfielder tucked back into a narrow position alongside Ki and Shelvey to form a narrow bank of three. Swansea's fullbacks moved into very wide positions to pick up United's wing backs. This tactical feature should have provided a bigger advantage for United than it did. With Taylor moving all the way towards the touch line to pick up Januzaj, a large gap was left between Taylor and Williams in Swansea's defense. With United playing two center forwards, Williams and Amat both had direct opponents to mark and therefore Swansea didn't have a spare center back to pick up midfield runners. Any runs United midfielders made into that gap of space would have forced Williams to leave Rooney in order to pick up the runner (Figures 1 and 2). However, Herrera and Fletcher kept deeper positions and Mata didn't make those penetrating runs into the corner of the penalty area. United attacked continuously down the right, and Januzaj looked a genuine threat running past Taylor, but LVG's side couldn't take advantage of the space between Taylor and Williams that was there to be exploited.

Figure 1:  Januzaj receives ball on wing, Taylor moves wide to close him down. Both Swansea center backs have a marker, neither spare to track midfield runners. Mata and Herrera have space in gap between Williams and Taylor to make dangerous penetrating runs. Too often they fail to make those runs.

Figure 1: Januzaj receives ball on wing, Taylor moves wide to close him down. Both Swansea center backs have a marker, neither spare to track midfield runners. Mata and Herrera have space in gap between Williams and Taylor to make dangerous penetrating runs. Too often they fail to make those runs.

Figure 3:  If Herrera makes the run into the gap it forces Williams to slide over to close him down and leaves Rooney free in the box.

Figure 3: If Herrera makes the run into the gap it forces Williams to slide over to close him down and leaves Rooney free in the box.

Swansea opener

Manchester United man marked in the middle of midfield. Mata picked up one of the Swansea holding midfielders, Herrera stepped out to get tight to the other and Fletcher sat in the hole on Sigurdsson. United are without wide midfielders in their 3-5-2 shape and therefore Swansea's fullbacks didn't have a direct opponent in possession. For Swansea's opener Fletcher was pushed into a position wide on the left of United's defense to pressure Rangel on the ball. Rangel looped a ball in behind left wing back Ashley Young into Dyer. This forced Blackett to shift wide to the right channel to close down Dyer. With Fletcher high up the pitch after picking up Rangel, Sigurdsson was unmarked in the middle of the pitch. He was spotted by Dyer. Herrera and Mata did a poor job tracking the Swansea midfield runners- they were up near midfield when Ki burst forward, collected a pass from Sigurdsson and slotted home to give Swansea the lead.

United lack ball playing center back

One of the keys to playing three at the back is having one of those central defenders possess the vision to step out of the back and play forward passes into midfield. Smalling, Jones and Blackett did not show that vision. They were unable to channel passes into Fletcher and Herrera in midfield and simply passed sideways to one another at the back. United's top three passing combinations in the first half involved the three center backs. Their top seven pass combinations involved either passes between the three center backs, a center back and a wing back or de Gea and a center back. United need to sign a center back with more vision if they wish to continue playing three at the back. Ideally that player would be Mats Hummels who offers excellent composure on the ball and good passing vision.

United switch to 4-2-3-1

Van Gaal switched formations at halftime bringing on Nani to replace the woefully ineffective Hernandez. Nani played wide on the left, Young slipped back to left back, Jones slid over to a traditional right back role and Januzaj played a more advanced right midfield position. The change in shape prompted United's most dangerous attacking spell of the contest and resulted in more attacks through the middle of the pitch, as opposed to attacking mostly wide on the right in the first half. Although it seems counterintuitive, the main reason for the increased pressure through the middle was the change to playing with two wide players on each side of the pitch- a wide midfielder and fullback- rather than just one as they had with the 3-4-1-2 shape- the wing back. The reason being that with Jones and Young providing width from the full back position, Nani and Januzaj were able to tuck inside giving United more passing options in central areas. Now, rather than having only Juan Mata working the space between Swansea's defensive and midfield lines, they had Nani and Januzaj who could also move into those dangerous areas. With Nani and Januzaj tucking in at times, Swansea's fullbacks had to take up narrower positions closer to their center backs. This meant that when United did get the ball into wide areas there was more space. Januzaj continued to cause trouble when he tucked out into the channels and won the corner that ultimately resulted in Rooney's equalizer. The graphic below shows United's more varied and central attacking in the second half compared to their reliance on attacking the right channel in the first half.

Swansea go ahead

Bony was isolated up front for Swansea for much of the game but did well to hold the ball up and earn the foul that led to his side's winner. United were guilty of switching off immediately after the whistle was blown and Bony was alert enough to release Sigurdsson towards the left. He played the ball down the left channel for freshly introduced Jefferson Montero. Montero's lofted pass to the back post was mishit by Routledge but fell kindly for Sigurdsson to smash home.

Conclusion

The bulk of this post has focused on Manchester United's performance however Gary Monk and Swansea deserve plenty of credit for their excellent organization. United never really threatened from open play and the Swans' organization was particularly admirable after retaking the lead. It's a dream start for Monk after some questioned whether he was too inexperienced to be up for the task of managing in the Premier League. This was certainly a performance Swansea can build on.

Van Gaal will need to strengthen his squad. Injuries didn't help today but at present this isn't a side with enough depth or quality to contest for the title or even a top four position.