Monday, 16 January 2012

Playing without fear

Swansea City’s 3-2 win over Arsenal yesterday was a remarkable achievement, and the players and management have rightly received lots of praise in today’s press. The main analysis has revolved around the fact that Swansea managed to have more possession than Arsenal. A year ago, Arsene Wenger could not have envisaged a newly promoted side having 55% possession against his team, who he has worked so hard to make the Premier League passing kings. Yesterday, not only did Swansea have more possession, but they looked more comfortable on the ball and pressed Arsenal into making errors all afternoon.

Brendan Rodgers took over as Manager of Swansea City in July 2010. In his first season he achieved promotion through the play-offs, and now his side sit 10th in the Premier League. His football philosophy was taken on board by the Swansea fans, who Rodgers regards as “knowledgeable and understanding” and the club has not looked back. No matter the opposition, and regardless of whether they are winning or losing, Swansea continue to pass, press and commit numbers forward. This requires courage, and Rodgers has given his players the belief that they can retain possession and continue to play. Brendan Rodgers said last season that “The model of my coaching life has been based around Barcelona, I have spent time in Spain watching them and they are my big influence.” This kind of progressive thinking is delivering results for the club, and proves that Barcelona’s model can be adopted lower down the football order. Brendan Rodgers has players who are comfortable on the ball, and who trust their teammates with delivering or receiving passes.

Barcelona also faced a newly promoted team yesterday, and like Arsenal, they too came up against a side who had more on their mind than simply parking the bus. Pep Guardiola’s team had played 9 home games this season in La Liga, scoring 39 goals and conceding none. Real Betis won the Segunda Division last season with a +41 goal difference, and in January 2011, they beat Barcelona 3-1 in the Copa del Rey although they still went out 6-3 on aggregate.

Last night Betis travelled to the Camp Nou with the full intention of attacking Barcelona. They started brilliantly and created numerous chances early on. Somehow, despite this great start, Barcelona managed to score two quick goals and Betis found themselves 2-0 down after just 12 minutes. At this point, most other visiting teams usually just give up, and do their best to keep the score down, but not Real Betis. Two goals either side of half time got Betis back level, and the Barcelona team were left stunned. Pep Guardiola was irate on the sideline, and although Barcelona eventually went on to win 4-2, they felt threatened for the first time this season in the league at home.

Real Betis, Swansea City and Norwich City have all come up to their top divisions this season, and all three teams are applying themselves so positively that it is hard not to want them to do well. For so long smaller teams have sacrificed any sense of club identity in order to progress up the ladder, but with managers like Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert creating exciting teams and challenging the status quo, football’s top divisions can only benefit.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Tottenham make their game in hand count

Winning a game in hand always seems more precious than a normal win. In this case, Tottenham won a game in hand that they have had since the first day of the season. Spurs put in a solid performance, and after remaining unbeaten over Christmas and New Year they are now level on points with Manchester United and 3 points off the top of the table.

Everton failed to have a single shot on target on Wednesday, and Spurs’ defence looks tougher than ever after keeping their 8th clean sheet of the season. This was despite not having either Ledley King or William Gallas. Michael Dawson came back into the side after a long period out injured and partnered excellently with Younes Kaboul. Jake Livermore was also covering in midfield, where both Scott Parker and Sandro were missing. Tottenham’s squad depth is often overlooked, but with players like Defoe, Pienaar, Pavlyuchenko and Huddlestone in reserve, Spurs have a lot of cover all over the pitch.

Tottenham are now 8 points above Chelsea, 9 points ahead of Arsenal and 11 points clear of Liverpool. Such a strong league position is relatively unknown for Spurs, but it would take a catastrophically bad second half to the season for Spurs not to collect a Champions League place now. Challenging for the title should be Tottenham’s aim now, and falling short of that would be no disgrace. The top of the Premier League has been rather stale for a long time, and you would have had a hard time convincing people five years ago that in 2012 Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur would be battling for the Premier League title. Now that doesn’t seem so implausible.