Thursday, 11 April 2013

Swansea City and the Next Great Leap Forward

 Thus far this season, Swansea City have enjoyed success that, just a decade earlier, would have seemed unthinkable to their long suffering fans. Indeed, when much celebrated manager Brendan Rogers engineered a high profile move to Liverpool- though not before chairman Huw Jenkins ensured the club had been richly compensated- it was widely speculated that the Welsh side would struggle to emulate their previous season’s finish in 11th place.

The consequences of last summer’s turmoil could not have been more different. In came one of European football’s true greats in the shape of Michael Laudrup to oversee first team matters, and with him came a series of intelligently scouted purchases from La Liga, including swashbuckling attacking midfielder Michu and fan-favourite centre-half, Chico Flores. These changes, coupled with a quicker counter-attacking style, have brought the club into the top half of the Premier League, and seized the League Cup from their English counterparts for the first time in the competition’s history. 
 However, since their Wembley triumph, the quality of their performances has dipped. And the player’s body language betrays the toll the season’s exertions have taken upon them. Certainly, it seems, Laudrup’s side have suffered as a consequence of being unable to secure additional signings in the January transfer window- particularly a much needed centre-forward. The management team at Swansea are aware of their deficiencies, however, and long-serving coach Alan Curtis has conceded that they will be looking to bring in up to six players over the summer, particularly with the demands of the Europa League looming large.

But what players are available which fit the model of a Swansea city recruit? Who would be suitable for the celebrated Barca-esque style of Laudrup’s men, and yet improve upon the players already on the club’s books?

It is probably sensible to begin in the areas in which Swansea are likely to- or probably should- shed personnel. Firstly, it seems reasonably likely that defender Ashley Williams will move on. Williams has been with the Swans since Roberto Martinez managed the team, and has had an outstanding season, but at 28 years of age, has probably only one chance to make the sort of money that only the so-called “big clubs” can afford. The Guardian newspaper has linked the Swansea captain with both Arsenal- whose centre half problems are well documented- and Liverpool, who made enquiries about the defender in January.
 Swansea’s business model is largely built around selling players as they reach their peak, so it is likely that a move away from the club for Williams will be used to finance the bulk of the club’s summer purchases. The likely figure quoted for the transfer in the Guardian was £8m but, in truth, this is unrealistic. Williams is one of the side’s rocks, and the player himself is not keen to leave, so chairman Huw Jenkins will seek a figure far closer to £12 million, and will not settle for less than ten. It is likely, therefore, that the team will require a new centre-half.
 Kyle Bartley, signed from Arsenal last summer, is a useful prospect, as is former French youth captain Darnel Situ, but Laudrup is likely to want a more experienced defender to partner Chico Flores in his first choice XI, with club captain Gary Monk edged towards a more ambassadorial and coaching role with his one- and almost certainly final- year contract extension. The man most likely is Sevilla’s Alberto Botia. Botia served an apprenticeship at Barcelona, and despite having only been at his present club for around 12 months, may be available for a bargain price due to Sevilla’s fluctuating financial circumstances. A fee of around £4 million pounds has been mooted and, as a player who has garnered almost universally positive reviews in La Liga for two seasons, would represent outstanding value for money at the age of only 24.
 In midfield, things are a little more complicated. Though not without blips, Ki Sung-Yueng has performed well since his transfer from Celtic, and his outstanding technical ability has given many Swans fans sufficient optimism to suggest he may- in the fullness of time- prove himself to be one of the club’s true greats. However, where Swansea City have struggled this season, it has largely been the consequence of a lack of athleticism and aggression in the centre of the park- especially when chasing possession.

Mainstay Leon Britton has signed a contract extension at the club, but performances this season suggest that the contract’s three year length may be partially borne out of sentiment. The team have been urged to move the ball more quickly under Laudrup, and the diminutive midfielder has struggled to fulfil this remit without squandering possession in a manner that would have been unthinkable under Brendan Rogers. Opposition sides have also targeted Britton for his lack of physical strength, and his influence has dwindled greatly as a result of these factors.

Swansea, then, require a quicker, more aggressive, more powerful midfield presence. At times, Dutch midfielder Kemy Augustien has looked the man most likely, but his ongoing fitness issues mean he may well be moved on in the summer and, certainly, he could not be relied upon to feature in the majority of games. Likewise, his fellow Dutch native Jonathan De Guzman- on loan from Villarreal- has won positive reviews in some quarters, and has reasonable technique. But, in truth, the loanee has often looked ponderous in possession, and his frequently poor decision making, coupled with the fact he can often go missing in games, makes him a poor prospect for a permanent transfer.
 The man whom Laudrup seems to think will best address these problems is Jose Canas of Real Betis. Although of little more than average height, the midfielder possesses wiry strength, presses relentlessly, and has just a hint of the nastiness that the all too effette defensive midfield candidates already at the club are missing. Canas’s contract expires at the end of this season; he has refused to sign another, and it is largely accepted behind closed doors that terms have already been agreed with the young Spaniard to join Laudrup’s squad in South Wales. And, on a free transfer, it could be that the holding player proves himself to be as much a fan’s favourite as Flores or Michu have this season.

Unexpectedly, Swansea City have had problems with their wing play this season. Although Wayne Routledge’s consistency is vastly improved, the manner of his performances has suggested a long term future in the centre of the park rather than in either wide position. Hernandez- the club’s record signing- has demonstrated outstanding ability, but has been wildly erratic at times with, often, the most simple of passes going astray without any pressure having been placed upon him. He will need to offer greater stability to justify his transfer fee in the coming season. Roland Lamah- on a long term loan for around 18 months- has shown some impressive flashes, but has started only one game, leaving fans wondering if their Danish manager is in any way convinced by his abilities.
The greatest fall from grace in the Swansea side has come in the shape of the performances of Nathan Dyer. Ending last season with many Swans fans believing he warranted a place in the England squad, the winger has been little short of abysmal this term. His first touch has deserted him so cruelly that groans have begun to echo around the Liberty Stadium whenever the ball ventures near him. Both his crossing and shooting are decidedly below the standard expected of even a mediocre Premier League footballer and, if acting without restraint, Laudrup will surely be looking to sell him at the season's close. 
 Dyer’s sale would necessitate at least one more purchase in the wide attacking roles, and an outstanding candidate  could be Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Bakary Sako. Before his season was ended by injury, Sako had been the one shining light in a season which has been characterised by almost unabated disappointment for the midlanders. Wolves remain in relegation trouble, but even if they were to survive, the electric winger would surely have his head turned by Premier League football and Premier League money. Sako’s ability to play in several forward positions, relative youth, and technical ability, would all make him an excellent potential purchase for the Welsh side. 

Finally, and most importantly, of course, there is the issue of Swansea City’s lack of firepower. The Swans have been hugely reliant on the goals of Michu. For around a million pounds, the Spanish midfielder has been a revelation and will likely end the season with 20 goals to his name. However, the team’s lack of an orthodox centre-forward has seen him pushed up front where he has often cut a frustrated figure when unable to be more involved in the cut and thrust of the game. 
 Last year’s top scorer, Danny Graham, was offloaded to Sunderland in January following a series of rumoured off-field issues, but was never adequately replaced. What the team most require is a centre forward with physical power and the technical ability to fit in with the Swans’ famous passing style. In fact, it would be a surprise if Laudrup did not bring in two new strikers, with the on-loan Leroy Lita likely to move away permanently. The man most often linked is Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas. However, at 5ft 9in, he will not provide the aerial threat the squad lacks from crossing positions, will likely cost a record fee, and his strike rate at the top level is little more than adequate. Manchester City's John Guidetti has also been linked and, though gifted, has yet to prove he is over an illness which might have ended his career.
A better investment would be a striker who moved to the UK as recently as this year. Leonardo Ulloa is an Argentine forward who spent most of his career in the Spanish league where he achieved a strike rate of almost a goal every other game, before moving to Gus Poyet’s Brighton for a suspected fee of around £2 million. Ulloa has taken to the English game like a duck to water, scoring freely and impressing the home fans. However, should Brighton’s promotion push fail, they may be persuaded to double their money for a player who looks as though he may be an ideal foil for the fleet footed forwards who would operate behind him on the Welsh coast. Brighton and Swansea have had a good business relationship in recent seasons, with a number of players moving between the two, and it may be the case that one or more of the current Swansea squad could be offered in part exchange.
Swansea City currently lie in ninth place and it is a mark of their progression that- in the context of their form over the season- they may feel they could have done even better with the appropriate reinforcements. And, though they will have a fraction of the budget of many of their rivals, the ability of the club to scout players who will fit in with their philosophy at reduced prices has been fundamental to their rise to the Premier League.  If the team are able to further exploit the connections and reputation of Michael Laudrup in securing the right names in the summer, the potential rewards could eclipse even this season’s historic exploits.

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