Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City earned numerous plaudits for their style of play in 2011/12, and the manager has subsequently been rewarded with his first big football management role. But what exactly was it about his management of a smaller team like Swansea that convinced John W Henry and co. that the Ulsterman was the right man for the enormous job at Anfield? I have taken a look at the Swans’ statistics to try to find out.
The stand-out figures for Swansea came in their passing numbers; from the top five European leagues, only Barcelona (with 88.5% pass accuracy), Bayern Munich (86.3%) and the English champions Manchester City (85.9%) had a better pass success rate last season than Swansea City (85.7%) did.
At the same time though, the Swans were guilty of retaining the ball a little too much in their own half; they had the lowest percentage of their actions (22%) in the attacking third of any Premier League side this season, and they made more passes per shot attempted (62) than any side too (Fulham were next with 45). That said, as a newly promoted team, their primary aim in most games would be to avoid defeat, so retaining the ball was an eminently sensible strategy – but more on that later.
On an individual basis, the Swans had four of the top ten players in the Premier League for number of passes attempted, and four of the top eight for passes completed. Ashley Williams, a defender who was playing in League Two as recently as four years ago, attempted and completed more passes than any other player in the self-proclaimed greatest league on Earth. Quite an achievement.
Equally unheralded players like Angel Rangel, Joe Allen, and Leon Britton (who completed an astonishing 93.5% of his passes, more than any player in the division) also feature in the passing top tens. Similarly, Michel Vorm attempted and completed more passes than any other goalkeeper in the top flight, so it’s clear that Rodgers likes his team to own the ball during a game; he has famously said that ”if you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79% chance of winning the game”.
Swansea did their best to test Rodgers’ theory by dominating possession in 31 of their 38 league matches; although they didn’t win 79% of the matches when they had more of the ball, they did at least earn 1.35 points-per-game, as opposed to just 0.71 when they had below half of the possession.
Whilst Liverpool’s aims last August would have been far higher than Swansea’s, the Reds only finished five points ahead of their rivals from South Wales. The fact that the Swans had 5.2 shots per game fewer than Liverpool (with 1.6 fewer shots on target per game), but scored only three fewer goals will have contributed greatly to this. As Liverpool created 128 more chances (including an extra 20 clear-cut opportunities) than Swansea, Liverpool should really have scored a lot more goals than them.
Swansea also recorded two more clean sheets than the Reds despite conceding an extra 4.5 shots per game, and Vorm saved 74% of the shots he faced, compared to the 69% that were saved by Pepe Reina. Essentially, the Swans were far more efficient at both ends of the pitch than the Reds, and finished virtually level with them with a far cheaper squad as a result.
But aside from the key goal scoring and conceding figures, how else did the two sides compare in 2011/12? Whilst Liverpool had a lot of positive statistics last season, comparing the two teams’ stats shows how Swansea often had a greater level of control in their games.
For instance, on only three occasions did an error by a Swansea player lead to them conceding a goal (meaning that only 5.9% of the goals they conceded were self-inflicted), whereas Liverpool gave away nine goals (22.5% of their total) through their own mistakes.
After Swansea were beaten by Manchester United in November, Rodgers took the blame himself even though Angel Rangel made an error that led to the goal. “I ask the players to play that way. He could have had his touch and smashed the ball up the pitch, (but) we look to pass our way out of trouble” Rodgers said, in a hugely admirable defence of both his player and his own tactical outlook.
Whilst the headline possession statistic was that the Jacks averaged 57.6% of the ball (compared to the Reds’ 55%), the third highest figure in the division, looking in-depth emphasises the difference between the teams further; despite having 1,966 more touches of the ball than Liverpool, Swansea gave the ball away 617 fewer times, which illustrates perfectly how much more patient and controlled than the Reds they were.
My assumption is that FSG have looked at the figures and are hoping that Rodgers can bring his team’s apparent ability to control the ball for large periods of games and combine that with the unquestionable creativity that Liverpool already possess in abundance.
I also wonder if the PR-savvy Fenway Sports Group cast admiring glances at Swansea’s disciplinary record too. The Welsh side conceded less fouls than any other team in the division, and also won the joint-second most fouls too. Whilst Swansea had the best disciplinary record in the 2011/12 Premier League, Liverpool had four players booked for diving (the most in the top flight), and had five players sent off (the joint-second most in the division, and the joint-worst performance by a Reds side in the Premier League era). Not only did the Swans captivate the Premier League with their fine passing and control, they also played the game in the right spirit.
I think it’s this attitude that has set them apart from the majority of other newly promoted sides; it’s common for teams with less ability than their illustrious Premier League rivals to try to kick their way to safety, as evidenced for example by Newcastle’s 2010/11 campaign: 582 fouls to Swansea’s 432, and 92 yellow cards to the Jacks’ 41.
I have compared further numbers for the other 11 promoted sides from the last four seasons to see how the Swans have performed. It’s important to remember that they went up as play-off winners, and that seven of the other 11 teams studied here got more points than Swansea mustered in their promotion year. Clearly they would not have been favourites to be the best performing side.
Yet in many ways, they were; their tally of 47 points in their first season in the Premier League was the joint-second best (behind only a Birmingham City side who were yo-yoing back to the top flight after just one season in the Championship), and 6.5 points more than the average for the other 11 sides. Whilst their tally of 44 goals scored merely matched the average, their record of 14 clean sheets was the highest tally posted by any of these sides, and over double the average of 6.8.
Looking deeper into the statistics reveals just how much more control of their matches Swansea had compared to their contemporaries. For instance, the Swans made 1,048 clearances (which are defined by Opta as “a defensive action where a player kicks the ball away from his own goal with no intended recipient of the ball”; a hoof in other words) last season, whilst the other 11 teams averaged 1,433. As the individual player statistics above demonstrated, Rodgers clearly likes his defenders to play from the back whenever possible.
Whilst it will not surprise you to hear that Swansea attempted and completed more passes (and at a higher accuracy) than the other promoted sides overall, it’s also true of all three areas of the pitch (own half, opposition half, and final third) when broken down further too. Indeed, the Swans completed more passes in their own half than six of their promoted rivals completed on the whole pitch, and touched the ball over 5,000 times more on average than their contemporaries, all of which provides further evidence of their patient approach.
As I mentioned previously, errors by Swansea players only lead to three goals conceded, yet the other newly promoted sides averaged nine each. I don’t think the Swans necessarily had better defenders, they simply played with a confidence borne out of the 100% backing that Rodgers gave them to play football the right way, and their impressive statistics reflected this.
There are many ways to play football (as Mihail Vladimirov explained in this excellent article) and particularly for smaller clubs; many (including a former Liverpool manager) would have you believe that defending deeply and hitting the ball long and swiftly to your forwards is the best way to avoid defeat.
Yet Brendan Rodgers took the brave decision to have his team play from the back, rather than “just f***ing launching it”, and his team were rewarded with comfortable Premier League safety, and plaudits for their brand of football.
His bravery has in turn been rewarded with a shot at restoring England’s most successful football club to the upper echelons of the league. Swansea’s stats, allied to Liverpool’s higher quality players, suggest he has a very good chance of succeeding indeed.