Our next opponents, 2nd placed Swansea City, were defeated 1-0 at home to Nottingham Forest last weekend. In this piece, I will analyse that match, including how Swansea set up, their style of play, what they did well and what they did not so well.
First of all then, here’s how Steve Cooper’s Swansea lined-up against Nottingham Forest:
Swansea set-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation last Saturday. Top scorer Borja Baston was the lone striker, Routledge, Celina and Ayew acted as a narrow three behind him and the fullbacks Roberts and Bidwell provided the width.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Steve Cooper go with this formation again because Swansea have started all 9 matches in this shape so far this season, and I doubt Cooper will change his ways against City on Saturday after just one defeat. Swansea shouldn’t have any excuses about team cohesion either – incredibly, 9 of their players have started all seven league matches so far this season.
Despite struggling in this match, Cooper has already got Swansea playing a certain way which is designed to play attractive football and to try to create lots of chances. When they’re playing out from the back for example, defensive midfielder Matt Grimes drops deep to create a back three with the two CBs which gives the two fullbacks license to push high and wide. Also, the makeshift back three helps Swansea retain possession and sustain pressure a lot more easily than a back two would because of the extra passing option in defence. This is one of the reasons why Swansea have completed the third most passes in the league this season.
Because the two fullbacks, Bidwell and Roberts, can now go forward due to the protection the makeshift back three have given them, the two wide attacking midfielders (Routledge and Ayew) are able to come inside and play in the pockets between defence and midfield without Swansea losing their width. These attacking midfielders, along with the no. 10 Bersant Celina, did look potentially threatening in this match, even if few big chances came from it.
There were a few instances where they picked up good positions in front of the Forest defence and were found with a good, vertical pass from one of the defenders which allowed them to turn and try to slip a ball through to Baston or one of the other attacking midfielders. Although these attacks didn’t amount to anything, they were warning signs of what to expect on Saturday and, with their quality, they can punish any team in this division. I’m hoping Adam Nagy starts for this reason – the Hungarian reads the game better than most in City’s team and we may need him to block these passing lanes to the 3 AMs.
There was a lot of interchange of positions between the three AMs as they looked to get into threatening positions to cause Forest problems. Ayew sometimes found himself through the middle, Celina to his left and Routledge on the right hand side. In the first half especially, they were extremely fluid in order to try and be as unpredictable as possible for the opposition. This is well-highlighted in Swansea’s average position map where the three AMs’ (numbers 15, 22 & 10) average positions are all in central areas due to playing everywhere across the attacking line throughout the game.
Another strength of the fluid front three is that they can create space for the marauding full backs. There was a great example of this in the first half which is shown in the picture below this paragraph. In this attack, Routledge has picked up a narrow position just off the left-hand-side and, because the Forest right-back is aware of Matt Grimes’ threat on the ball as well as the fact he can pick a vertical pass in a tight area, he gets sucked in and decides to get tight on Routledge. This creates space down the left flank for Bidwell to break into and, because Ameobi is ball-watching instead of following the left-back, Grimes is able to play a through-ball for him to run onto which allows him to deliver a cross into the box for Baston and Ayew (I’ve noticed the Ghanaian gets into the box as often as possible when the ball is on the opposite flank). The cross didn’t come to anything in this attack, but it will plenty of times in the future if Bidwell’s statistics last season are anything to go by. The left-back had the second best crossing accuracy of all Championship fullbacks in the last campaign.
Another thing worth noting is that their CBs, Van der Hoorn and Rodon, are more than capable of finding the roaming AMs with a midfield-splitting vertical pass – Van der Hoorn in particular is statistically one of the best ball-playing defenders in the league. 44.9% of the Dutchman’s passes go forward (for context, only 34% of Alfie Mawson’s do too) and he’s also made the 4th most passes into the final third out of all Championship CBs so far.
As well as being one of their strengths, playing out from the back all the time could also be a weakness of Swansea’s. For example, Van der Hoorn was dispossessed on the half-way line by Samba Sow early on in the first half which led to a half chance for Nottingham Forest. It could’ve been more too, had Grabban not strayed offside. Swansea were guilty of ‘overplaying’ in the second half as well – Celina’s back-pass was cut out by Grabban, and his shot forced Freddie Woodman into a good save. This goes to show that, if you press Swansea, you will likely get chances to win the ball high up the pitch and, with livewire Andi Weimann probably starting upfront, Lee Johnson may well look to do this.
Speaking of Freddie Woodman, he was forced to make another good save in the first half too, this time from an Ameobi shot. Swansea’s xGA per 90 is currently at 1.4, however they’ve only conceded 0.7 per 90. A big reason for this is the form of the young keeper. Even though Swansea’s xGA is one of the highest in the league (which means you could suggest they’re not the best defensively), Woodman has made the 4th most saves per goal conceded in the division, with 3.6 saves. Of course, the team’s xGA doesn’t tell the whole story here – a lot of the chances they’ve conceded could well have been efforts off target and therefore not saved by Woodman – but it does suggest that they could’ve been a lot worse off without the shot-stopper.
Despite Swansea’s promising style of play, they failed to create any big chances against Forest (as I said earlier), and they only mustered 1 shot on target. Perhaps this was because they tried to play too intricately in tight spaces in front of the defence, which made it harder for them to fashion out opportunities. Forest played 2 DMs, Watson and Sow, which did help stifle most attacks coming through the middle and Sow in particular had a great game, making the most interceptions and tackles in the match.
This led to Swansea having to regularly play the ball out wide to the fullbacks since they didn’t get much joy in the central areas, even though their 3 AMs did look promising and are definitely still the key players to watch out for on Saturday. This can be backed up in Swansea’s other league games this season too – the Welsh side have scored the third most goals in the league so far, making this win even more impressive for Nottingham Forest.
Forest’s winner came 5 minutes from time, from a Swansea corner. The set-piece was cleared to the half-way line where Swansea got caught out again – this time Grabban steals the ball from Matt Grimes. The striker is then far too quick and strong for the midfielder to catch, and he eventually squares it for Semedo to tap in easily. This was the third occasion in the match where Forest created a chance from pinching the ball back from Swansea in a dangerous area.
- In the build-up, Matt Grimes drops deep and becomes a “third CB” which allows the two fullbacks to push high and wide.
- This then allows the 2 wide attacking midfielders to sit narrower and interchange positions which in turn creates space for the fullbacks.
- The 3 AMs like to play in pockets in front of the defence. It’ll be up to City’s defensive midfielder/s to plug these gaps and stifle their threat.
- Swansea’s CBs are very good at playing out from the back (especially Van der Hoorn).
- However they, as well as the rest of the team, are prone to losing the ball in dangerous situations. Forest created three chances from winning the ball back high up the pitch.
- Freddie Woodman is a talented goalkeeper in great form.
- Even though Swansea failed to create any big chances against Nottingham Forest, the signs were still there and they are still the third highest goalscorers in the league.