x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Swansea pass marks are envy of the Premier League

While it is normally a criticism to brand a team one-dimensional, the Welsh are the exception, writes Richard Jolly.

Think of the Premier League's most prominent Spaniards, past and present, and Andrea Orlandi's name does not spring to mind. Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta and Gerard Pique, yes. But Orlandi?

His comparative anonymity is understandable. The 27-year-old midfielder is a player who has only begun one top-flight game. Yet he has a significance, and not merely because a CV that includes both Swansea City and Barcelona pairs the Premier League's most elegant upstarts with a major influence on a Spanish-style passing game.

Orlandi's solitary start came at Aston Villa on January 2. He slotted in seamlessly in the Welsh club's maiden away win in the division. But that is what Swansea's players, their midfielders in particular, do: they combine effortlessly, switching the ball from one to another with well-rehearsed understanding and precision.

Sunday's victory over Arsenal was notable for two statistics: the 3-2 score line and the numbers of passes completed. Swansea had managed over 100 more than the division's acknowledged pass masters.

In the holding role, Leon Britton saw more of the ball than any other player. In a way, the metronomic midfielder's standards slipped - his completion rate, unusually, dropped below 90 per cent - but in another he provided the basis for a famous victory. Britton and Joe Allen, his kindred spirit, have turned the five-yard ball into an art form, playing their way out of tight areas time and again.

This is how Swansea intimidate with their confidence on the ball, a novel approach that many of their supposed superiors are yet to combat. It is not so much an approach as a philosophy.

"For us, it's something we inherently believe in, throughout the club," Brendan Rodgers, the manager, said.

The emphasis on the collective is why fringe players like Orlandi can come in and contribute.

It is also why Rodgers reluctantly decided against signing a more garlanded Spaniard last summer. Marcos Senna, arguably the finest player in Euro 2008, would have suited Swansea's game plan.

Rodgers concluded that Senna's earnings could have had a destabilising effect on a close-knit, but comparatively poorly-paid, dressing room.

Instead Britton has slotted in at the base of the midfield, a purveyor of perpetual passing. Earlier in the season, the criticism was that it lacked purpose: while Swansea knocked the ball around in their own half, Danny Graham was stranded alone in attack.

Now that has been rendered inaccurate. Graham's winner against Arsenal took his tally to nine goals in 15 games, a sign Swansea have added incision to possession.

In any case, keeping the ball has a secondary benefit. Apart from when occasional errors are committed - one permitting Javier Hernandez to make Manchester United the only visitors to prosper at the Liberty Stadium - it doubles up as a method of defensive excellence. If opponents don't have the ball, they can't score.

Swansea have conceded as many goals as Chelsea and Newcastle United and six fewer than Arsenal. This is where comparisons with Blackpool, last season's endearing underdogs, are utterly inaccurate. There was always an element of risk to the Seasiders' game whereas Swansea have eschewed anarchy.

But the similarities lie in their lowly roots. All 10 of Swansea's outfield starters against Arsenal played in the Championship last season. It was a triumph not just for the club, but for the lesser leagues: Graham, the division's top scorer for Watford, has made the transition to the higher stage admirably.

So, too, have Swansea. That they look increasingly at home has been reflected in Chelsea's decision to loan Josh McEachran to the Welsh club.

The teenager will add to the contingent of passing midfielders but, while it is normally a criticism to brand a team one-dimensional, Swansea are the exception. They pass and pass, retaining the ball just as they are set to retain their Premier League status.

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Victor Anichebe's equaliser for Everton at Aston Villa ensured that the debuting Robbie Keane was overshadowed by another replacement. It also continued a remarkable record.

While the 23 year old has struck twice as a substitute this season, Everton have reached the middle of January without a single striker scoring in a league game he has started. Even as Darron Gibson, a rare buy for a cash-strapped club, made his first start, it highlighted the need for a forward. If, somehow, David Moyes can afford one.

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Occasionally a footballer does something that is entirely out of keeping with the rest of his career. Blackburn Rovers' win over Fulham provided one such instance.

Not Yakubu's red card, rare as that was, but the scooped pass with which Steven Nzonzi set up Mauro Formica for Rovers' third goal. A giant of a holding midfield player, Nzonzi was known more for his heading than his deft chips, but it was a wonderful one-off.

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For Newcastle United, the next month is all about finding ways to compensate for the absence of two talismen who are at the African Cup of Nations. For Leon Best, deputising for Demba Ba, to score a winner against Queens Park Rangers was a fine start. For Danny Guthrie, standing in for Cheik Tiote, to manage a man-of-the-match display in the midfield really bodes well for a tough time in their season.

sports@thenational.ae

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