Friday, September 29, 2023

Tactical Musings: Possible Changes Guidolin Can Make To Turn Around Swansea’s Season

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Max Hicks
Swansea correspondent for The 4th Official. Also writes freelance for ESPN.

Francesco Guidolin’s Swansea have struggled this season, but you can’t say the Italian hasn’t been trying. The last time Swansea endured such a poor run (now winless in five) Garry Monk was in charge, fielding largely the same squad and using the same tactics every match, as though somehow the results would improve on their own.

Far from happy to remain as inert as Monk in a time of crisis, Guidolin is perhaps guilty of too much change. Dropping out-of-form players is one positive step Monk was reluctant to take, but Swansea have used three different starting formations in six games this season. There’s no doubt the squad would perform better if they were allowed to concentrate on one primary shape, and although that kind of tactical consistency can make a team predictable, it might help Swansea rediscover their confidence.

A modified 4-2-3-1: signs of life

Last Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester City was far more credible than the result suggests. Swansea reverted to the 4-2-3-1 they have long favoured, although Guidolin did drop out-and-out wingers, Mo Barrow and Jefferson Montero, favouring Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Routledge in the wide positions for their better defensive contribution.

While Swansea put in their best performance of the season using the 4-2-3-1, another recent match suggests the side could perform even better with a slight tweak. Swansea had started the recent dismal 1-0 defeat to Southampton in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond variation, and spent most of the game looking uncomfortable and unlikely to score. Chasing the game, Guidolin made changes to accommodate substitutions, first switching to 4-2-3-1 and then finally a classic 4-4-2 with two strikers.

llorente swansea

In the 4-4-2, Swansea finally looked dangerous, and there is a good reason why. The majority of Swansea’s formations utilise a five-man midfield. Even when the side has lined up in a nominal 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond, there is typically only one recognised striker and a flat back four. The shapes are all variations on a theme, and the theme is a possession game which is rapidly losing popularity as teams rediscover the value of fast breaks and high defensive pressure.

For a team struggling to score, playing a single striker is senseless, especially for a side with goal-shy wingers who won’t contribute on the scoresheet very often. It is possible to play a second striker and retain a five-man midfield by playing three at the back, but while Guidolin tried 3-5-2 in the 2-2 draw against Chelsea, the fact he switched back to 4-2-3-1 before half-time showed that his squad are not yet comfortable with that shape.

Besides, most of Swansea’s goal scoring problems come from playing those five in midfield. With so many players in the middle of the park, there is always a safe option for a pass, usually backwards. When players are short of confidence, they will take the safest option, and playing that way only gives the opponent time to set-up defensively.

The easiest defence to score against is one caught out of position and being made to run backwards. Swansea see very few of these opportunities because their build-up play, predicated on caution, is too slow. It is hard to remember the last time Swansea enjoyed an outnumbering situation in attack. By allowing the opposition defence time to settle, Swansea are forcing their players to make perfect passes through traffic, or to cross to a heavily marked lone striker. Teams like Manchester City and Arsenal have the individual quality to play the slow possession game, but Swansea don’t. The team needs to play to its strengths – two well-regarded strikers and two agile wingers.

Swansea City's Italian head coach Francesco Guidolin gestures from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Swansea City and Manchester City at The Liberty Stadium in Swansea, south Wales on September 24, 2016. / AFP / Adrian DENNIS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  /         (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Leicester have struggled this season, but the basic tactics with which they won the Premier League last year aren’t hard to understand. Their two-man central midfield unit allowed N’Golo Kanté to provide box-to-box energy while Danny Drinkwater sprayed long-range passes to the two forwards. It was a simple and effective set-up.

In Swansea, Leroy Fer could play the Kanté role, with Sigurdsson as Drinkwater. The Icelander plays and excels in a similar role for his country. A duo of Cork or Britton with Sigurdsson would offer better defensive protection, or Fer with Cork for extra physicality. On the flanks, Barrow and Montero would offer pace and keep the opposing full-backs in their own half, while Llorente and Borja together offer a twin aerial threat as well as a classic combination of dynamism (Borja) and strength (Llorente).

Most importantly, by removing an unnecessary ‘safe’ passing option, Swansea’s midfield would have to take more risks, and play the ball forwards more often and more quickly. With two strikers to aim for and two lightning fast wingers, goals would surely follow. With Guidolin fighting to keep his job, now might be a good time for the manager and his players to take those kind of risks.

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