Swansea 3-1 Stoke: Swansea full-backs pivotal
Swansea clinically dispatched Stoke to put themselves four points off the European places.
Michael Laudrup shuffled his pack from last week’s away draw with Everton. Itay Shechter made a rare start as Michu dropped back into midfield, and Angel Rangel likewise moved back to right-back as Dwight Tiendalli came out of the team. Pablo Hernandez moved back to his favoured right-wing position from the centre, Garry Monk came in for Chico Flores at the back, and Nathan Dyer was replaced by Wayne Routledge on the left of midfield. Finally, Jonathan De Guzman replaced Kemy Augustien to line up alongside Ki Seung-Yueng in the double pivot.
Tony Pulis, on the other hand, maintained faith in the majority of the team who were destroyed by a mixture of Chelsea and Jonathan Walters in their last Prem game. There were only two changes, with Andy Wilkinson being replaced by Dean Whitehead at left-back and Peter Crouch replacing Kenwyne Jones as the lone striker.
Both sides defend well, negate opposition’s attack
Much like the Chelsea-Southampton and Wigan-Sunderland games, the deciding factor of this game was width. However, this game differed from those in the sense that only one team was attempting to try and control the flanks. Swansea, despite their commitment to playing the kind of short-passing football that often necessitates the midfield to play relatively close together, constantly attempt to get their full-backs forward to offer width and make the pitch as wide as possible. Full-backs Angel Rangel and Ben Davies (who is currently standing in for the injured Neil Taylor) are both comfortable on the ball and energetic, allowing them to offer at both ends of the pitch and Swansea to wide the opposition defence to play through.
Stoke, by comparison, were boxey and negative in their positioning today. By attempting to flood the midfield and stifle Swansea’s passers in midfield, Pulis’ side were attempting a tactic that has worked well in the past against technically accomplished, passing teams similar to Swansea such as Arsenal. The tactic itself is simple: put plenty of bodies in midfield, surrender the flanks, play narrow and force opposition wingers and full-backs to go outside and then rely on the aerial prowess of Stoke’s players to win the ball if they try and cross. In that sense, it worked perfectly, as their defenders won 10 out of 12 aerial duels. The first half went pretty much exactly to plan in a defensive sense, with Swansea too narrow and struggling to find a way through the massed ranks of Stoke defenders. On the other hand, Swansea also defended cleverly. With the Stoke lineup lacking any serious pace, Swansea played even higher up than they normally do, forcing Peter Crouch away from goal. Given that the away side’s main route of attack was the long ball to Crouch, this severely restricted their attacking capabilities. Crouch himself did a sterling job, winning 15 out of 17 aerial duels attempted, but Stoke were attacking even less threateningly than Swansea and pretty much contained within their own half.
Swansea width in second half
With a goalless first half and Swansea struggling to find a way through Stoke’s gritty and aggressive defence, Laudrup told his full-backs to push higher up the pitch in the second half. With no direct opponents due to the opposition wingers’ narrowness and plenty of space to run into, Rangel and Davies were given license to attack more freely. It paid dividends almost immediately: Routledge’s clever movement drew Stoke defenders towards him before Ki released Davies down the left. The young left-back beat two players and rifled home his first goal for the club. It was no more than Swansea deserved, but it also vindicated Laudrup’s decision to push his full-backs forward.
Now, Laudrup’s opposite number Tony Pulis was faced with a dilemma. The sort of attritional, spoiling football Stoke were playing was fine if you were attempting to close down the opposition and prevent them from scoring, but it sacrifices attacking play in order to keep compact and defend well. Pulis was no doubt pondering the problem when Swansea struck again. Adam threw himself into a needless challenge just outside the area – another problem with the hard-tackling style Stoke were playing is the unnecessary fouls they conceded – and De Guzman curled home a gorgeous freekick to double the advantage.
Pulis uses bench, Laudrup reacts
That goal forced Pulis’ hand, and in the 63rd minute Crouch and Adam were hauled off for a classic ‘Big man, fast man’ combination in Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome. This was a good move, not only because it simply increased the amount of people Stoke had up front by one in their chase for a goal, but also because Jerome provided the kind of threat in behind the Swansea defence that was lacking in the first half. This pushed Swansea deeper and gave Stoke more room and time, and the away team became to come into the game. Now, when they hit the ball long, Jones and Jerome were within shooting distance of goal with teammates to support them. Jerome missed an absolute sitter following a cross by Etherington, showing how much more of a threat Stoke contain when they get some width.
Laudrup reacted well. Firstly, he replaced Routledge with Roland Lamah, a like for like replacement, but then Michu came off and Leon Britton came on, moving into De Guzman’s position as the Dutchman played slightly higher up. It was a clever move, shoring up Swansea’s defence and giving them a true midfield three (as opposed to when Michu plays, as he’s more of a second striker than a proper midfielder) to retain the ball better. Lastly, he put on Danny Graham for Shechter to provide some physicality and hold-up ability high up the pitch. The move paid off as a long ball to Graham on the counter was well controlled and flicked through to De Guzman to run onto and coolly lift over Asmir Begovic. The game was then more or less over: Owen came on as a late sub and netted a nicely-taken header, but it was only ever a consolation.
Swansea out-played Stoke and Laudrup out-thought Pulis. Stoke’s tactics were fine in a defensive sense, and they fought Swansea to a standstill in the first half, but once Laudrup got his full-backs to exploit Stoke’s narrowness and they went a goal down there was no way to react. There was no counterattacking presence due to Swansea’s high line and Stoke’s lack of pace, and when De Guzman scored the second goal Pulis had to react. He did, but Laudrup countered magnificently, and Swansea swept home with ease.