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Swansea prove there are no more excuses

by Michael Huguenin on Mar 26, 2012

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Sometimes statistics don’t tell the entire story but they definitely did in the English Premier League match between Fulham and Swansea.

Swansea completed 613 passes to Fulham’s 344.

Swansea had 62 percent possession to Fulham’s 38 percent.

And all at Fulham’s home ground.

Swansea was only promoted to the EPL at the start of this season but has already shown they play football at a level unmatched by most other sides in England’s top division.

It is basically unheard of for newly promoted sides to dominate possession to such a degree away from home but the amazing thing with the stats from Saturday are that they weren't a surprise from Brendan Rodgers’ side.

The 39-year-old from Northern Ireland has been in charge at Swansea since July 2010 and has continued the Welsh team's evolution into a brilliant example of passing football.

Swansea has played high-possession passing football all season, no matter which club has been the opposition.

Two weeks ago Rodgers’ team dominated Manchester City when Roberto Mancini’s side came to Wales.

Swansea won 1-0.

The Swans beat Fulham 3-0 last weekend and the first two goals featured Swansea’s strong belief in passing the ball.

With nine minutes to go in the first half, Swansea opened the scoring.

The visitors moved the ball to Wayne Routledge on the right wing, dragging Fulham’s defence across. The pint-sized winger didn’t dwell on the ball for too long, whipping a cross to the back post where Scott Sinclair was unmarked. But, on a tight angle, Sinclair decided to pass rather than shoot, dinking the ball back the way it had come to Gylfi Sigurdsson, who stooped low to head the ball into the net.

In the 66th minute it was 2-0. Sigurdsson drove through the middle as the home side backed off. The young Icelander passed the ball to Routledge on the right hand side of the box. But while most EPL players would have shot, Routledge returned the ball first time, knowing Fulham’s defenders were focused on him, and Sigurdsson slotted the ball past Mark Schwarzer.

Joe Allen scored Swansea’s third 11 minutes later, cutting in from the left to slot his shot inside the far post.

The most impressive thing about Rodgers’ achievement with Swansea is that he has done it on a threadbare budget.

Managers and clubs around the world regularly argue they cannot afford to play flowing attractive football. The contention is that you need the best players in the world to focus on passing and attacking. Or in other words, it’s easy for Barcelona to play tiki-taka because they have Xavi, Messi and Iniesta. Poorer clubs need to be more direct or defensive to succeed or even just survive.

But the Swans have debunked that line of reasoning.

Every club should take inspiration from Swansea. There are no more excuses for ugly football. Rodgers is said to have assembled a squad for just £7 million. This is small change compared with the budgets of Manchester City, Chelsea or even Sunderland. And yet I’d prefer to watch Rodgers’ side than any of the others.

Plus it’s not like his players have always played this way. Rodgers has proven you can teach an old footballer new tricks. Many of Swansea's squad are journeymen footballers, having wandered around smaller clubs in the rough-and-tumble lower leagues of England.

Routledge, for example, is at his eighth senior club having come up through the ranks at Crystal Palace. But watching him play for Swansea he looks like he almost could have learnt to play at Barcelona’s La Masia academy. Rodgers’ central midfield pairing of Allen and Leon Britton are both in their first seasons in the EPL and are achieving passing efficiency statistics that rival any midfielder in Europe.

The reason that Swansea are playing this way is that Rodgers (and Roberto Martinez before him) has encouraged them to do so and allowed them to develop in a short-passing system. Rodgers evidently believes this is the best way to play football and has not deviated from his faith when results have gone against him.

Australia’s A-League has had its own example the past season or so with Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.

Unfortunately for other clubs keen to replicate Swansea and Brisbane’s ‘Budget Barcelona’ approach, it is hard to find coaches that can guarantee this style of football.

The obvious solution would be to find a manager that already plays this way but the problem is that previous results are not always a clear indicator of future performance.

Prior to Rodgers and Postecoglou’s current success, there was little sign they were so committed to a passing football philosophy or that they could make it work prior to their current jobs.

Rodgers had been relatively unspectacular in his stints with Watford and Reading. In particular, he only achieved a win percentage of 26.09 during his time with Reading in 2009.

Postecoglou had won two NSL titles as the boss of South Melbourne but then tarnished his reputation with seven unspectacular years with Australia’s national youth teams before a brief stint with a lower-league Greek club. However as soon as he took over at the Roar, Postecoglou was unswerving in his principles in how the game should be played.

Managers can also move the other way. Current Hertha Berlin boss Otto Rehhagel had a reputation for up-tempo attacking football while in charge of Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. Rehhagel's Bremen side won the Bundesliga in 1988 and 1993, while he sensationally led newly-promoted Kaiserslautern to the title in 1998 on the back of an energetic attacking style.

But Rehhagel is renowned for his stint as the manager of the Greek national team at Euro 2004. Greece won the tournament playing a very pragmatic style of football, focused on defence and scoring from set-pieces.

Sydney FC, Melbourne Heart and Melbourne Victory are all in the market for a new manager next season, while rumours abound that Graham Arnold won’t be at Central Coast Mariners. Hopefully the success of Swansea and Brisbane will inspire the leaders of those A-League clubs to try and bring in a coach who will play similarly attractive football.

But don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s as simple as bringing in a manager of a certain nationality or someone with a history of playing attractive football. Rini Coolen and Vitislav Lavicka both contributed generally uninspiring football during their respective periods in the A-League and yet come from countries that have a history of passing football. Recruitment is an inexact science, particularly when looking for a manager.

One way or the other, however, Rodgers and Postecoglou have proved attacking possession-based football can be done no matter the budget. There are no more excuses. Hopefully their example will inspire more managers to believe in flowing football and more clubs to back positive managers.

If they do, fans around the world will reap the benefits with more entertaining football on offer.