Are Swansea succeeding where Stoke failed?
Stability is often what the majority of clubs in the top flight aim for before a season begins; very few think that they can’t compete for trophies, hoping for a decent cup run at best, knowing that getting sucked into a relegation battle is a realistic possibility.
However, while this may see quite a number of clubs dampen not only their expectations but ambitions, Swansea this term under new boss Michael Laudrup appear to be adding a new dimension to their play, something which Stoke have seriously struggled with since winning promotion to the top flight back in 2008.
Ever since crashing the top flight party, Tony Pulis has spent upwards of £70m on transfers, with over 30 new players coming into the club during those five summers. During that initial four-year same period, only Manchester City and Chelsea had a higher net spend figure than Stoke City since their promotion and they’ve made just £8.6million from selling players in five years – a truly shocking amount which shows their missteps in the transfer market.
To his credit, Pulis has clearly attempted to bring in players of a better quality, with the likes of Peter Crouch, Jonathan Woodgate and Jermaine Pennant coming into the Britannia during that time, but they’ve had to adapt to a seemingly ingrained style of play rather than the other way around – and what at first may have looked like ambition has given way to desperation and cynicism.
There’s only so far you can go with a long-ball style in the top flight, a glass ceiling as it were, and finishes of 12th (45 points), 11th (47 points), 13th (46 points) and 14th (45 points) clearly point to a club in danger of stagnation. Has Pulis taken them as far as he can?
While the style of football that the club persists with means that they will never win over everyone, it appears on the face of things that they may not be able to crack the top ten, particularly now that the budget has been tightened at the club. Of course, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t play with a style that suits them and enables them to get results, they are well within their rights to do so.
Having recorded just a 62 per cent pass completion record in their opening two games so far this season, plus the fact that they scored just 36 times last term, failing to find the back of the net in 13 separate fixtures, struggling all term to create anything from open play, they no longer look as if they think they can look up the table these days. Unless Pulis begins to compromise his principles, they will continue to not only standstill, but live in danger of going backwards and they’ve not really delivered on the significant investment in the side so far.
By that very same token, though, Swansea last term, with a far more aesthetically-pleasing style of play under Brendan Rodgers, only managed to score 44 times all term, failing to score in 15 games altogether across the entire league campaign. For all of their pretty possession, they lacked a cutting edge at times and any sort of penetration, yet instead of criticism, they were lauded by all and sundry from refusing to play long-ball football to survive, and they finished two points and three league places ahead of the more established Stoke in their first full season in the Premier League.
It seems that just so long as you play attractive football, that any critique is somewhat muted; it has been for Roberto Martinez at Wigan for quite some time. As Pulis would probably try to explain, there’s nothing noble in losing pretty and Stoke are certainly effective at what they do, but the question should be, after four seasons, now five in the league, should they be trying to do more?
Swansea took a risk in appointing legendary player Michael Laudrup this summer to replace Brendan Rodgers, who left the club to take over at Liverpool. It seemed a shrewd appointment by chairman Huw Jenkins, that he was able to attract such a big name, but it was entirely in keeping with the recent traditions at the club of passing football, going back to Paulo Sousa and Roberto Martinez before Rodgers.
Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that despite doing a great job at Getafe, that Laudrup had failed in his previous two posts at Mallorca and Spartak Moscow, so there was an element of the appointment being something of a gamble for the club at a pivotal point in their history, as they attempted to retain their status as a top flight club this coming campaign.
As often happens when promoted clubs do well, not only did the manager move on but the side lost key midfielder Joe Allen, the metronome at the heart of their midfield to Liverpool also for a £15m fee, with the inevitable vultures at bigger clubs attempting to pick off what they want, with Scott Sinclair close to moving to Manchester City too, to replace Adam Johnson.
However, this has allowed Laudrup a budget to slowly but surely mould the club in his own image and the signings of Michu, Chico, Jonathan De Guzman, Pablo Hernandez and Ki Sung-Yeung mean that the club have a far more well-rounded squad than last term and they appear more prepared for the new season ahead as they bid to battle that most-dreaded of demons, second-season syndrome.
There’s also been a noticeable change in the club’s playing style and a shift away from what the side did so well under Rodgers. Keeping possession is of course at the heart of everything that they are trying to achieve, with Laudrup’s image as a player ensuring as such, but there’s been a willingness to get the ball forward earlier than before and they look a much more penetrative, direct outfit this term.
In their opening game of the season, they completely destroyed an expensively-assembled QPR side 5-0 – it took them well into October to score five league goals last season and whereas last term, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge were told to hug the line and keep their shape, this term they can be found drifting inside and getting inside the full-back in an attempt to influence play – it’s a subtle but deliberate change and they’ve unquestionably evolved as a side.
The ever-changing demands of the Premier League dictate that in order to compete, that change is needed and this comes not only in terms of fresh faces and new managers on occasion, but a willingness to adapt your style of play to ensure that you don’t become predictable, a trap which Stoke have certainly fallen into in recent times.
Stoke appear to be somewhat trapped within their own image as a long-ball side, entrenched in their own style, incapable of playing anything else; so far Swansea have shown this season that to maintain the initiative and keep an upwards trajectory, that sometimes change is not only good, but required and Tony Pulis could learn a thing or two as he bids to improve upon last season.
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