Great Dane aids rise of the Swans

by Stefan Kelly

Do you remember the last time Swansea appointed an ex-Barca and Real Madrid player as manager? No, neither can I.

At this point in the season, as Swansea City sit comfortably in mid table of the Premier League, there can be few doubters of the thought that this Swansea team is nothing but Michael Laudrup’s. Although continuing Rodgers’ hugely entertaining ethos and emphasis on recycling possession in the middle of the park, the Dane’s stamp has become too large to be able to recognize the history lying beneath. His shrewd transfer dealings evolved Rodgers’ impressive yet at times uninspiring Swansea to a more modern, direct eleven, far more consistent and at times purely devastating.

Leaving the summer transfer window behind him, no doubt with a shrewd smirk on his face, Laudrup had added no less than 5 players who’d prove to be valuable assets for any Premier League squad. Chico Flores, Ki Sung-Yeung, Pablo Hernandez, Jonathan De Guzman and of course Michu have become the faces of Swansea’s Laudrup era, each adding a small yet hugely important piece of class to their respective areas of the pitch. Chico Flores, in his intelligent positioning and distribution, added to his aerial ability, have made him the ideal partner to Ashley Williams, whose brave tackles and clearances may be making the highlights on Match of the Day, but even he would probably concede it is his partner mainly responsible for Swansea’s defensive stability.

Box-to-box midfield conductor Ki was intriguing at first, but Laudrup’s soon-to-be reputation to hand pick talent proved itself to the Liberty’s crowds without much hesitation from the Korean signed from Celtic, whose passion and impeccable attitude are, rather unfairly, characteristics not associated with players from the world’s wider regions.

De Guzman, a playmaker and occasional deep lying midfielder, has been in a class of his own at times home and away for the Swans. His suave runs into space before releasing an onrushing striker or relinquishing Swansea’s wider threats have been rather unheralded, but bar one or two slight dips in form, De Guzman has seemed to have been able to reignite the promise of his earlier days, once more delivering him to the plinth of top class players in England right now.

Patronisingly scribed down as a pace-based threat often during his first 6 months in Wales, Pablo Hernandez composed play in possession makes him capable of both finishing off a move, often running into space left by a dropping Michu, or creating chances for his team mates, with a ridiculous crossing ability matched with the intelligence to come inside to slide a ball in behind.

And yes, the man who could probably have won games single-handedly in the absence of the previous quartet, Miguel Perez Cuesta. Or the name now infamous to most Premier League ‘keepers: Michu. Versatile in his attacking talents, following instructions to either lead the line or support a main striker perfectly at all times, Michu has raised more eyebrows than Mario Balotelli’s on-going hairstyle drama. With a disguised amount of pace and power, the probably soon-to-be Spanish international is a nuisance rivalled only by the PFA player of the year in my eyes, even bettering the imperious Dutchman in the one-on-one department where he has been flawless. Complimenting those around him constantly, while being the driving force behind a large percentage of Swansea’s point total, Michu completed Laudrup’s summer masterpiece, and has laid the groundwork for what may be one of the most exciting periods in the history of the league, without doubt the history of the club, at least.

With the ability to assess a squad in such short notice and improving upon it in such an adroit fashion, all the while turning a profit thanks to the highly notable sales of Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair, Swansea’s most exotic ever managerial appointment had begun to reap the results of his nimbleness in a non-stop onslaught of a transfer market. Of course, his tactical dependence was yet to be proven on such a stage, but the wait was not long-lasting.

Victories in the first half of the season were not difficult to come by, but with dominant displays over teams Rodgers may have been less ambitious against came with an extreme amount of plaudits for the Dane and his seemingly complete team. As Steve Clarke’s West Brom grew in admirers every week, they faced their first true test away at Swansea, where they were very suddenly decimated by the presences of Hernandez and Wayne Routledge, who had become twice the player he had ever seemed to be possibly down to Laudrup’s influence.

Then, you can also look at Laudrup’s first trip to the Emirates as Swansea manager, famed for only its final two minutes, when Michu struck twice in quick succession, but the 90 minutes as a whole gave a much better perspective on Swansea’s quick progression under Laudrup. There were early warning signs for Arsenal as the visitors began playing with a confidence borne from manager Michael Laudrup’s instruction to express themselves without the constraints of pressure. The short, precise, intrinsic passing of Swansea’s deeper possessors of Ki, De Guzman and the little distributor Leon Britton, whose passing stats of last season brought to light what an impressive team had been promoted to the Premier League, thoroughly out played the internationally established trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla as a superb City display forced Arsenal into falling into their worst league start under Wenger.

But it has to be last weekend where the tactical nous of Laudrup came to the fore, becoming the first Premier League manager since the 1st of September to prevent David Moyes’ Everton from scoring. In a surprisingly thrilling 0-0 draw at Goodison Park, Swansea set up from the outset to prevent Everton’s dangerous left side, disrupting the affinity of Baines and Pienaar with the application of essentially two right backs, with Angel Rangel pushing into the midfield, as Dwight Tiendalli, a previously unmentioned acquisition of Laudrup’s, filled in behind. Without ever seeming to be completely backs to the wall, Swansea saw off an incredible amount of pressure. Dropping both possible deep lying playmakers, Britton and De Guzman, a position which had seemed to hold great importance to Laudrup was taken out of the picture, playing a double pivot of the industrious pair of Ki and Agustien. He may have been rather fortunate with injuries thus far, but if Laudrup doesn’t have a complete squad of varied talents and roles, I’m not sure who has. Leaving this game with his own personal plaudits, almost matching those given two the imperious partnership of Chico and Williams at the back, it may be unsurprising that Laudrup would probably still believe his winning formula has yet to be created.

With a back five often being the simplest part of assembling a side’s ideal eleven, due to their being less tactics and roles involved, of course all of Laudrup’s thoughts currently lie within his midfield and forward lines. Just how essential are deep-lying playmakers? Does he need a sole number ten? Who are his definitive two best wide men? And the question a lot of these are directly related to, how can he get the best out of Michu? Constantly adapting his team to its opponents each week, the answers to these questions vary greatly, and that may be an issue.

Working most basically in a 4-2-3-1 formation, in the bank of two Laudrup usually opts for using one industrious box to box player, either Ki or Agustien, and one distributor capable of surging forward, Britton or De Guzman, when playing what Laudrup considers to be opposition of a higher level, most notably in very impressive league draws with United and Chelsea. With this, Swansea become a balanced side, a model employed by a lot of modern teams, but this is not to say he hasn’t experimented when playing weaker opposition.

The most intriguing and telling result of Swansea’s season, however, is never one that springs to mind. For me, it was their 2-2 home draw to a severely out of form. Desiring to totally dominate Lambert’s unconfident side, Laudrup truly went for it in his line-up, playing De Guzman and Britton together in this bank of two, supplying Routledge and the returning Pablo Hernandez out wide, while Michu played just off of Danny Graham very effectively. And for the first 44 minutes, Swansea were superb. Coming out of the traps better than any side had all season, Swansea probably should’ve scored 4 or 5 within the first half an hour. Unfortunately, only Routledge had managed to beat Brad Guzan, but this was not without constant excitement through the magnificent performances of De Guzman, Hernandez and Michu especially. You can imagine it was rather disheartening then to go on to draw 2-2 with the team, who were at that point, the league’s worst side. A lack of midfield steel may have cost Laudrup dearly, even if it did bolster the style of play every fan of football wants to see.

So with another half a season to go, with Swansea three quarters of the way to Laudrup’s goal of 40 points, I suppose the real questions will fall into individual selection. The resurgence of Danny Graham, the consistency of all three of Dyer, Routledge and Pablo out wide and the pure class of De Guzman and Michu is leaving Laudrup with a headache unrecognised by the media and TV pundits, which I’m sure lightens his load somewhat. Following the successes of both Spain and Barcelona, it would make sense for Laudrup to test how a False 9 could work in his system, which he did rather effectively with Nathan Dyer playing ahead of Michu and Pablo Hernandez for a period against Everton, which understandably crafted a few chances for the onrushing Spaniards.

Other than this, there is a big question as to what may be most effective between the options of De Guzman behind Michu, Routledge behind Michu, or even Michu behind Graham with De Guzman deeper, which remains in my opinion the optimal formula to getting the best from the sides top scorer.

After all of this though, it’s hard to analyse one event from Swansea’s rather unrecognised successes this season without handing any acknowledgement to the wise Danish hands the side has been placed under control of. Swansea fans will hope rumours of Laudrup’s possible succession of Mourinho at Real Madrid are far-fetched, but let’s face it, after his first half a year in South Wales, you can see why they may not be.

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