When Brendan Rodgers left Swansea City this summer for Liverpool, fans of the Welsh side could have been forgiven for thinking that their sides wonderland could be set to turn into a nightmare. After all, the manager whose vision, hard-work and talent had moulded a side of largely unheralded players into perhaps the Premier League’s most aesthetically pleasing side was going to be quite the act to follow.
After an 11th place finish, an accomplishment lauded by many as a statement of their managers quality, Huw Jenkins had the unenviable task of hiring a replacement who could (not only) keep the ‘Swansea way’ going – that of possession, both to attack and as a defensive measure, to cherish the ball and to be loathe to give it away - but also to improve upon it. In doing so he turned to one of the greatest footballers Europe has seen in the past 25 years, a playmaker who bewitched spectators to the extent that he remains reverred at both the Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou, officially heralded as the greatest Danish player of all time, Michael Laudrup.
This in itself is something of a risk, Laudrup’s managerial career having proven to be something of a mixed bag. A four-year stint at Brondby brought success, with a Superliga title and two Danish Cups, whilst during his ten months at unfashionable Spanish club Getafe, he took them to the final of the Copa del Rey, where they were beaten by Valencia, and the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup, where they would lose in extra-time to perennial European powerhouses Bayern Munich. A disappointing seven months followed at Spartak Moscow, by whom he was unceremoniously sacked following a 3-0 defeat to rivals Dinamo in the Russian Cup, before he spent 12 months at Mallorca, keeping them afloat and retaining their Primera Division status, in spite of a dire financial situation and the loss of a number of key personnel, only resigning in protest at the dismissal of his assistant Erik Larsen.
It was during Laudrup’s spell at San Moix that he began working with the player whose signature has given supporters renewed cause for optimism at the Liberty Stadium, a sign that perhaps the good times are set to continue, and that the Welsh club are set to build on the groundwork laid down by Rodgers and his playing staff during the 2011/12 season: Jonathan de Guzman.
Born in Ontario, Canada, de Guzman joined moved to Dutch giants Feyenoord to join their academy as a prodigiously talented 12-year-old and made his debut for the Rotterdammers three days after his 18th birthday in September 2005 – having not been able to play for the first team before he turned 18 – and quickly became a first-team regular.
His debut season ended with de Guzman having played 29 Eredivisie matches, scoring four goals, and the signing of a long-term contract, keeping him at De Kuip until 2010.
The 2006-07 season would prove a learning curve for the youngster, whose reputation continued to flourish, despite Feyenoord failing to qualify for European competition for the first time in 16 seasons. “It was really a disappointing season. I didn’t make progress as a football player, but I did grow mentally because of all the problems we had. It was a very tough season for me personally.”
The following year would prove to be the greatest of de Guzman’s career. The arrival at Feyenoord of Bert van Marwijk (who has of course since led Netherlands to the final of the 2010 World Cup), and the return of experienced national team players Roy Makaay and Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively, took away the weight of expectation that had been placed on his youthful shoulders during the previous campaign. Initially the garden wasn’t all rosy, de Guzman clashing with the new manager over plans for him to no longer be playing in the centre of midfield, but rather in an advanced position on the right-wing in van Marwijk’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system. However, having come to terms with his new role, mixing impressive acceleration, a knack of arriving in the penalty area at the right time, and no shortage of technique, de Guzman helped himself to 11 goals in 39 matches in all competitions, firmly adhering himself to De Trots van Zuid, whilst also going on to make his Dutch under-21 debut as well as taking his place in the under-23 squad for the Beijing Olympics.
Transfer speculation followed him to and from China and de Guzman, then 20, believed that he was on his way to the Premier League, having agreed personal terms with Manchester City. However, the Citizens, mere weeks before the arrival of Sheikh Mansour and his many millions, couldn’t agree a fee with Feyenoord. “I was really sure I was going to leave Rotterdam. It didn’t happen because of Feyenoord. I already said yes and I thought it was a nice transfer fee. But the clubs couldn’t come to an agreement and not much later City bought another player, Shaun Wright-Phillips.”
The next season began in turbulent fashion, de Guzman sent off in Feyenoord’s opening match of the season, before serious injury troubles – including torn cartlidges in both knees – saw him feature just 18 times over the next two years, before the expiration of his contract in the summer of 2010.
It was from there that de Guzman, previously one of Holland’s most wanted, found his career at a crossroads, and was enticed to the island of Mallorca by the prospect of playing for Laudrup, despite Mallorca’s financial problems and the loss of senior players, such as key striker Aritz Aduriz and playmaker Borja Valero. Nevertheless, having seemingly put his injury woes behind him, de Guzman became a mainstay of Laudrup’s adventurous side, who spent much of the season on the top-half of the La Liga table (before curiously finishing 17th on the final day, albeit just five points behind 8th placed Espanyol).
Having impressed throughout the campaign in his favoured central midfield role, de Guzman left the islanders one game into the following season, a deadline day bid of €8.5m from Champions League qualifiers Villarreal having been too much to turn down. However, unbeknownst to de Guzman, he was walking into a side which, having been a picture of good housekeeping and consistency since their promotion to the top-flight 14 years earlier, was about to fold like a Blackjack player holding seven-deuce.
With the sides best player Santi Cazorla having been sold, and star striker Giuseppe Rossi out for the season injured, Villarreal underwent a disastrous campaign, encompassing three managers, which would eventually lead to El Submarino Amarillo being relegated to the Segunda Division after a final day defeat at El Madrigal by Atletico Madrid. De Guzman finished the season having made 20 league appearances for the club, without scoring, and having failed to command a regular place under either Jose Francisco Molina or Miguel Angel Lotina.
Which brings us to the players arrival at Swansea, on a season-long loan. Still only 24 years-old, de Guzman has effectively re-wound two years, looking to Laudrup as the man to reignite his career for the second time, as it threatens to stall once more. It’s a move that immediately catches the eye, for its fallibility as much as its potential to prove a bargain, as the Swans look to assert themselves in the top-flight for a second season.
“Once the opportunity came along to join Swansea and Michael Laudrup it was a done deal. I didn’t have to think twice about it,” said de Guzman. Unquestionably talented, with both the technical and physical skills to prove himself an asset to the Swans in the Premier League, Swansea supporters will be hoping that their new manager can once again unlock the best of the enigma that Jonathan de Guzman has proven to be during his seven-year career.