Story of a Match: Swansea (A)
I’ve got a thing against Swansea fans. It’s not entirely rational, I know, but I just want to beat them, and I think a lot of Norwich fans feel the same. I think there’s a sliver of irritation among some of us that a team below us in the table, and who finished behind us last year, and who we beat earlier in the season, is constantly heralded as this breathtaking force of positive play. Don’t get me wrong, I like the way they play football, and I want them to stay up. But it’s the smugness… it’s the way they chanted ‘boring boring Norwich’ when we cleared the ball a few times at Carra, it’s the Swanselona image. It’s the way they celebrated after beating us at the Liberty last season, as if they’d just won the league. It’s the way the many of their fans seem to have got caught up with a superiority complex with how they play football. Oh, and it’s the way they dished days worth of abuse and bile towards Holty on twitter. As satisfying wins go, this was up there. And it was one of the best performances of the season.
Everyone knows how Swansea are going to approach the game; they want to dominate the ball and pass you to death. The real decision an opposition manager has to make is whether you let them. Whether you sit back and let them have it, hoping to cut out any attacks they make, or whether you press high, make them uncomfortable, rush them and so on. Lambert went for the latter with full confidence in his players. Once again he picked a team full of good passers and high on technical ability, with Bennett coming in for Wes suggesting an attempt to play down the flanks once we did have the ball.
The picture above compares the two sides passing just up to Swansea’s opening goal. We actually had a couple more passes completed, while their percentage was higher. What is notable is the majority of theirs were in their own half. Passing between Caulker, Williams, McEachran, Britton and co. They didn’t really create anything and barely threatened the box. This was down to the gameplan that Lambert set out; pressing, being comfortable on the ball ourselves and not giving them enough time to get into a rhythm. You can tell already that he was aiming to get the ball wide, especially down the left where Angel Rangel tends to get forward a lot and leave space. The goal changed things though. It was wonderfully worked with Graham pulling wide into a channel, receiving a through-ball and firing home. He has really grown into it this season and is so tough to mark, as we have repeatedly found out this last two seasons.
Once this goal went in, the rest of the first half went in Swansea’s favour. Despite our early dominance, it was Swansea who had scored first and maybe unsettled the team or the confidence they had. After having over 100 passes in the first 10 minutes, they had just 66 in the remaining 25 and Swansea got more of a foothold in the game. We made another couple of chances but it was clear that Swansea were happy at this point. We had enough play to have maybe earned parity at half time, but Swansea were simply more clinical and it was hard to begrudge them leading.
At half time, though, Lambert made a bit of a tweak. His overall gameplan was still the same; play with tempo, press them high and dont give them time on the ball. However, he reshuffled his midfield and moved Bennett central from his position out on the right. Pilkington slotted in on the right, and Surman (who had been the more advanced of the midfield two) moved to the left. Bennett was pivotal in the centre, and key to two of the three goals we then went and scored.
It goes without saying that it’s easier to score when the defence makes it easier for you. What I’ve always said about Swansea is that they have defenders who are all excellent on the ball, but average when it comes to actually, y’know, defending. For Pilkington’s goal, the ball came to Surman from a bad Dyer touch. Rangel steps up to try and cut him out, leaving a massive gap behind him. Caulker, circled in the bottom picture, then steps out of defence to track Jackson, but the ball cuts them all by and it’s Bennett, running deep from midfield with no tracker, who ends up with it outside the box One pass has cut out several Swans players and left if 3 vs 2 in our favour.
For Holt’s goal you have another case of Swansea players stepping up and watching the ball rather than tracking the man. In the first picture you have 3 players surrounding Bennett and all are facing the ball; none decide to track Bennett. One pass later and Bennett is free with Jackson ahead of him and Holt wide right. With Taylor inexplicably high up the pitch, Holt has a free run at goal and is able to fire away before showing off his ripped torso. The goals were so simple and a case of Norwich using pace through the middle in the form of Bennett. With the Swansea midfielders ballwatching and their fullbacks so high up the pitch, Norwich were able to expose them with ease. This third goal didn’t even come from a break. The ball was headed into Surman’s path by Leon Barnett and it was just one pass which cut out players again.
It was the sign of a team that were prepared to take on Swansea with their own game, rather than trying to negate Swansea’s. It was Lambert saying that we’re good enough to play and score past Barcelona, so lets play it our way and not be afraid. The team was able to stick to the gameplan set out and it was this understanding of the holes in Swansea’s system that proved to be the difference.
While both flanks were repsonsible for goals, it was clear that Norwich targeted their attacks down the left. You can see clusters of tackles, on the left, and interceptions, on the right, that all came from us building up play down that area. Drury was able to get forward at times and supported by Surman, Pilkington and occasionally Holt they were able to put a lot of pressure down here. Holt, as it goes, had a terrific second half after not doing a huge amount first. He put in a good shift and was involved plenty, but he really stepped up his game in the second half and was outstanding. He frequently dropped deep in order to help the midfield and to retain possession, and showed good positional sense to get out wide when there was space.
Ultimately, there is only one stat that matters: the final score. I admire the Swansea way of playing but as people said of WBA and Blackpool, there is no virtue in a stylish relegation. I don’t think Swansea are going down but all of their focus is on a plan A with no backup. It was hilarious in the last 5 minutes to see them hoofing balls up to Lita, even using a long throw; tactics their fans rip into other teams for. But their players are drilled one way and when it doesn’t work, they have no flexibilty. You can dominate the passing stats and possession stats but when you dont translate this into goals, you won’t get anywhere.
This much is clear. Swansea had comfortable more completed passes than us. They had more of the ball.
And yet we had more passes in the final third than they did. 47% of our passes were in the final third. 30% of Swansea’s were. You’ve got to make your possession count, you’ve got to take your chances and you’ve got to be flexible. 3 wins out of our last 4 against Swansea makes me think Lambert has the knack of this flexibility thing more than Rodgers. And two of those goals came from defence splitting through balls. I couldn’t put it better than this man…
p.s. Elliot Ward was awesome.