After a full list of midweek fixtures, the EFL Championship was back this weekend in full swing once again. One of the favourites for promotion Swansea hosted Birmingham City at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday. The Welsh team managed by Steve Cooper have been flying so far this season having collected 10 out of 12 possible points after the first four games. Their opponents Birmingham came to this game after a victory in midweek against Barnsley that saw Pep Clotet’s side sitting in mid-table with seven points prior to this game.
The Swans dominated ball possession from the first to the last kick of the game. However, for the first hour, Birmingham managed to frustrate the home side that lacked penetration and was unable to find a cutting edge. Clotet had prepared a very defensive game plan that saw his team defending pretty much all the time with very rare occasions in the counterattack. The turning point in the game came in the 63rd minute when a substitute Kyle Naughton broke the deadlock. It followed with another two goals in the next 12 minutes that saw Swansea sealing a comfortable victory and joining Leeds United at the top of the table.
This tactical analysis will take a closer look at both teams’ game strategies and explain the key aspects behind it.
Cooper decided to make only a single change for this game following a mid-week victory against Queens Park Rangers. George Byers was replaced by Yan Dhanda who accompanied Bersant Celina and André Ayew in an attacking line just behind the lone striker Borja Bastón. The midfield duo also remained the same with Jay Fulton and Matt Grimes both keeping their place. The whole backline was also unchanged that saw Connor Roberts, Mike van der Hoorn, Joe Rodon and Jake Bidwell protecting ‘The Swans’ goalkeeper Freddy Woodman.
Cooper’s opponent Clotet was even more reserved and did not make a single change in the lineup. Lee Camp started in goal with Wes Harding, Harlee Dean, Marc Roberts, Kristian Pedersen and Steve Seddon forming a solid backline of five. David Davis, Ivan Sunjic and Fran Villalba were the three central midfielders with Álvaro Giménez and Lukas Jutkiewicz the striker duo.
Birmingham’s defensive plan
From the first minutes, it became obvious what kind of game plan Birmingham had prepared. Clotet wanted his team to be very compact and defend in numbers. In order to achieve that, their manager opted for a 5-3-2 formation without the ball. Three central defenders and two wingbacks formed a solid back five while two defensive-minded midfielders and an attacking midfielder formed a midfield unit of three. These eight players had a task to prevent Swansea from playing through the middle and were always behind the ball when out of possession.
When the ball was located closer to the middle of the pitch, both units followed zonal marking principles and did not try to press the opponent. The only ones who did apply some sort of pressure were the two strikers left higher up the pitch. Usually, they were the only ones in front of the ball and not behind it when the team defended. In the two pictures below, you can find the graphical representation of their 5-3-2 formation.
Swansea City played with a 4-2-3-1 formation which comprised of five midfield players (including wingers) that gave the Wales side an instant numerical advantage when progressing with the ball in the middle of the park. As can be seen in the image below, the Blues’ midfield trio is positioned quite narrow. However, Swansea were still able to progress through the lines fairly easily because of the sheer number of bodies in midfield.
As we can see in the illustration below, a left-winger Dhanda is situated higher up to create a passing angle for Grimes. Birmingham’s midfielder Davis saw that and adjusted his body position to create a cover shadow and block the passing lane. However, in between the lines, there was a central attacking midfielder Celina who could receive a straight pass from his teammate through the gap. It happened because Swansea’s 4-2-3-1 formation consisted of true wingers who can drop deeper into midfield. In contrast, the Blues’ 5-3-2 off the ball formation had no wide midfielders, only wingbacks who stayed back in this case.
The picture slightly changed when the home team had the ball on one of the flanks. In this scenario, the potential ball receivers were pressed by opposition players who jumped out of their defensive line to press between the lines at times. In the example below, we can see such a situation. The ball started on the right flank and was passed into the feet of Ayew. The away team’s left wingback Seddon anticipated and stepped out to press the Ghanaian international. Seddon’s teammate, left-sided centre-back Pedersen, anticipated as well and stepped out to pressurise the striker Bastón. This type of tight defending left Swansea frustrated quite often during the first 45 minutes.
Swansea’s offensive frustration
There could not be a more one-sided display in terms of ball possession than what showed Swansea in the first half on Sunday. The Swans had 77% of ball possession in the first 45 minutes indicating their complete domination. However, it did not result in loads of chances created with Cooper’s side having only seven attempts at goal despite all the domination on the ball.
As it has been outlined already, Birmingham had a solid backline of five in this game. Since the home side played with only a single striker up top, they had to work around and find the best way how to break the solid wall of their opponents. Their idea was to overload one of the flanks, thus, dragging out some of the defenders out of their positions and then quickly switch the play to the opposite side.
In the image below, we can see Ayew, Fulton and Bastón situated close to the touchline with Roberts bringing the ball from the back. Being a lone striker upfront, Bastón pulled out a centre-back Roberts with himself, whereas Ayew stayed on the touchline and dragged out a left wingback Seddon higher up. Sunjic followed Suton’s deep run, thus, the team had five players congested near the touchline. It means that the opposite side was underloaded due to an overload on this side.
Unfortunately for Swansea, they were unable to switch the play quickly enough to take advantage of a given situation.
Swansea’s tactical plan can be seen in the following example as well. Here again, the ball is with Roberts who is marked by Seddon. Roberts plays the ball into the feet of Ayew who pulls out the visitor’s left-sided centre-back Pedersen with him. Consequently, it creates space for Bastón who makes a curving run in behind Pedersen, thus, hoping to drag out another opposition’s defender Dean.
Indeed, Bastón did drag Dean out of his position that created space (white circle) but Roberts decided not to play a chipped ball over the top to the Spaniard.
Swansea seemed to be quite stubborn in the first half regarding their offensive tactics. They repeated the same move over and over again and sometimes rejecting the obvious passing options.
In the example below, we can see one more situation where The Swans try to congest the area and drag opponents out of their original positions. Fulton makes a deep run, thus, drags the defensive midfielder Sunjic with himself. Pedersen is also aware of Swansea midfielder’s movement, whereas Dean is tightly marking Bastón. Swansea’s left-winger Dhanda is now on the right marked by Villalba. A central midfielder Davis is situated far on the opposite side. Consequently, Ayew moved into the centre in order to exploit The Blues’ lack of midfield presence. Nevertheless, Roberts did not play a pass to Ayew for whatever reason.
Slightly adjusted tactics lead to a different result for Swansea
After frustrating first 45 minutes, Swansea City came out in the second half with slightly altered offensive tactics. During the half-time, Kyle Naughton was brought onto the pitch in a place of Bidwell at a left-back position. Naughton is a right-footed left-back and this tactical manoeuvre proved to be a masterful one later on.
Another tactical adjustment occurred in relation to the attacking sides of the pitch. In the first half, Swansea attacked more down the right, whereas in the second half most of The Swans build-up took place down the left. The first noticeable thing is that the home team seemed to invite the opposition’s players to press them, thus, stretching them out. This time it was Celina who played wider and dropped deeper at the same time.
In the image below, we can see Birmingham City positioned in a higher block with Davis marking Naughton and right wingback Harding stepping out to follow Celina.
It resulted in Birmingham City’s players’ confusion regarding who should mark who that opened up space in behind for Celina to exploit.
Celina used his pace and bombed down the left-wing with Roberts and Harding both left chasing him. The opponents’ defence was stretched out and there was more space to run into.
The general principle remained the same – to overload one area by dragging out the opponents in order to free up space elsewhere. Swansea used this concept pretty well in the first half but their passing was too slow that allowed Birmingham to regroup on time. In the second half, the team from Wales managed to speed up their passing plays and thus were able to exploit created space better.
Here, we can see again how Swansea congested the left side of the pitch. This time Celina and Dhanda played a quick one-two with the former swiftly running into space that opened up when more players were oriented on the side.
Now, Swansea had more space around the box to run into. The visitors failed to clear the cross with Naughton collecting the rebound and unleashing a right-footed striker to give the home side the lead.
The second goal scored by Swansea was a combination of counter-press, Birmingham’s flawed midfield unit and Celina’s positional adjustment. This time The Swans attacked down the right side with more players being oriented there. As a result, three out of four Birmingham’s midfielders (Gardner came on for Gimenez) were positioned where the ball was previously. It left a massive space in the centre in front of the backline.
Van der Hoorn anticipated a pass to Vallalba and stole the ball from the Birmingham’s attacker. This is where a structural flaw regarding the visitors’ midfield unit made them pay. The open space was exploited easily with Celina cutting inside from the left and scoring a cracking second goal with his weaker left foot.
Birmingham’s structural issues and poor offensive play
The structural issues of Birmingham’s set-up has been outlined already when Clotet’s team had to defend. However, it became even more obvious when they had the ball. The term ‘when they had the ball’ should be used cautiously though. The Blues enjoyed only 26% of possession in the entire match.
In the illustration below, we can see an example of Birmingham’s build-up play. At times, Swansea defended in a 4-3-3 formation, thus, the away team opted to use four players when trying to play out from the back. As can be seen below, a back three consisting of Dean, Roberts and Pedersen plus the most defensive-minded central midfielder Sunjic started most of his team’s attacks from the back.
The image below perfectly displays Swansea’s 4-3-3 off the ball formation. It makes perfect sense that their opponents wanted to create numerical superiority in their first line of build-up. However, it created issues higher up the pitch. Since Birmingham only had three midfield players, they were not enough to cover enough ground and provide enough passing options. What is more, one of those midfielders (Sunjic), dropped deeper to facilitate the first build-up phase.
Swansea’s midfield line of three forced the away team’s midfielders wide in order to avoid numerical inferiority. Additionally, in a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation the only wide players are the wingbacks. In order to provide them support one of the outside central midfielders has to shift to the side. Consequently, the middle of the park was left completely empty with nobody available to receive a pass from the first build-up line.
At most times, such a ball circulation within the first line of build-up did not result in anything purposeful. One of the centre-backs would usually launch a long ball forward hoping for one of the strikers to win the aerial battle.
Most of the long balls resulted in the following scene. Gimenez and Jutkiewicz were surrounded by five players trying to win the first and the second ball. No support from the teammates around them due to the aforementioned structural flaws in formation.
In some occasions, the home team defended in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It meant that Birmingham’s three central defenders had more freedom to build-up from the back against a single opposition’s player. However, both midfielders Davis and Sunjic were completely eliminated from the build-up process due to the numerical inferiority against Swansea’s second line of press containing three players.
All of this can be seen in the image below. When facing such a situation, the easiest option is to play the ball wide to one of the wingbacks. Surprisingly, Pedersen decided not to play the ball to Seddon (bottom of the picture) who was closer to him but instead switch the side. Pedersen’s pass found Dean who spotted a right wingback Harding down the right side.
However, Birmingham’s switch of play was too ponderous and Swansea were able to quickly close them down and block any potential passing options. Below, Davis decided to play a lobbed ball over the top to Jutkiewicz. Unfortunately, the pathway to the Polish striker was blocked that resulted in another hopeless long ball from the visitors.
Even if the ball had reached the Polish striker more frequently, he would have hardly made any use of it as there was pretty much no teammates around him to support. It was no wonder why Birmingham finished the game with zero shots on target.
In the average players’ positions map below, we can see a trend that had developed throughout the game. Swansea (orange) had seven players whose average playing positions in the game were in the opposition’s half, including both full-backs. In contrast, Birmingham had only two players in the opposition’s half. Both of them were strikers and even their average positions were very deep. It denotes Birmingham’s incredibly defensive approach for this game.
Solid defending from the visitors and a lack of penetration from the hosts saw the game goalless at half-time. Nonetheless, as this analysis explained, the little tactical adjustments during the brake worked out in Swansea’s favour who achieved a well-deserved victory. Cooper’s influence on this Swansea side has been evident so far. The Wales team has got their identity back, playing attractive, possession-based football. On the other hand, Birmingham look like a team that is a long way off from fighting for the promotion spot.
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