Modern football is changing rapidly and the tactical aspect is growing to be important for every team that wants to reach success and dominate their league. It is also being affected by the philosophies from two individuals who have strong personalities among the greatest coaches in history: Jürgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing and Pep Guardiola’s Possession game.
Their mindsets influence many teams with their tactics, make pressing tactics, and possessing the ball as the most basic things for many football teams, not only teams in the Premier League. It also changes the importance of midfielder’s tasks: in possessing the ball, you need a player to links your defence and the frontline up; when dealing with a team which uses a high pressing line, it requires a player who clearly understands his mission to no longer being pressed, and can also deliver the ball with both accuracy and speed. This is why the mission of the deep-lying playmaker so important in modern games.
As we spoke previously in the piece about Steve Cooper and his philosophy in Swansea City, this key role in the Welshman’s tactics is filled by a player who stands in the middle with those above traits: Matt Grimes. The 2019/20 season witnessed Grimes proving his teacher right after naming him as the Swans’ captain at the age of 24. In this tactical analysis, we introduce you to an in-depth analysis of Grimes’ importance in the Welsh team’s tactics this season and also the reason why the place of the number 8 is irreplaceable.
The data which is used in this piece is collected after the match Millwall 1-1 Swansea on the 30th June 2020.
The graphic below shows the operating areas of Grimes in this season for Swansea. With the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Grimes usually shows up in his own half with the duty of defending and distributing the ball, especially to the flanks for his colleagues like Bersant Celina, Jake Bidwell, or Wayne Routledge to control, create numerical superiority, and dominate this area.
With the forte of playing on the left-hand side, it is understandable by observing his heatmap on the opponent’s half that he is only dark on the left – this is because he tends to stay deep and cover the vacancy which Bidwell usually leaves behind. Besides, the heatmap indicates that the English youngster does not move to the 18-yard box to do his defending duty very often, he only operates on its edge and waits for deploying a counter-attack.
Supporting the possession
Swansea loves attacking the flanks with the abilities to combine, keep the ball under control, and the diversity in approaching the opposition. Grimes and his defending colleagues often stay far from their competitors’ goal, but it doesn’t lower the captain’s importance in the offensive phase.
Cooper’s philosophy demands his full-backs to push high up the field, constantly drill the other team’s flanks and force them to stay deep. Thus, there are potential dangers of them suffering a counter-attack if their players lost the ball in their wings, and the full-back is not able to get back in time. As we mentioned earlier, this is to ensure the space that Bidwell leaves behind is secured, and the net of Freddie Woodman is kept safe from any potential danger, even when the ball is very far from it. The data points out that after 41 played matches in the Championship, 180 of over 412 of Grimes’ recoveries took place on the opponent’s half – which means a half of his all recoveries, and is one of the reasons for why the Swans’ captain is the most reliable guardian on the field.
By doing so, Grimes not only protects this area but also provides his teammates with a back-up passing option when a triangle is not enough to keep the ball within their possession. His decent passing technique combined with good reflexes help the 25-year-old midfielder to not lose much time to pass the ball to players in the higher position after they were forced to pass the ball back to Grimes.
The English youngster was successful in 655 forward passes from a total of 893, and this supports the Welsh team in progressing the ball fluidly without wasting any seconds. Grimes’ technique with his feet is the most important thing in his team’s transitional phase which we will show later.
A possession game requires the team to build it up from the back and to make sure that the ball is under their control before being delivered up the field. They usually have a midfielder dropping deep between the two centre-backs, create another passing option, and progress the ball. It’s the famous “Lavolpiana” or the “+1 rule” that Guardiola uses for his Manchester City.
When combining at the flanks of the field, Swansea tends to drag the opponent’s defensive line and lure their players out so their defending structure will be disorganised. After doing that, they can give the ball back to Grimes, and then he can demonstrate a switch play to the opposite wing – which is mostly empty because of the competitors focusing on the other one.
Footwork and its contribution to the transition
It’s not an exaggeration in saying that modern games rely on transition. Now we know the reason for many coaches to find a player with a good vision, quick decision-making, the ability to handle the ball in a narrow space, and passing technique which can all “serve” the ball to the other teammates with accurate long-range passes to shorten the time of transition. Steve Cooper, therefore, is not an exception and fortunately for him, he has his captain.
First, we come to the positioning of Grimes when Swansea are undertaking their work of defending. The English player doesn’t engage much in the 18-yard box as we introduced previously, because that is not his duty. If he drops too low and finds himself busy with marking opposite players, then he also gets stuck deep and cannot progress the ball after his team regaining the possession. Waiting on the edge of the box gives him enough space to initiate a counter-attack, either by a long pass or by getting away with speed.
Nevertheless, the number 8 rarely has as much space as we can see above. A team with a tight shape or a high pressing line like Liverpool doesn’t give their opponent a wide ground to play, they squeeze it. So how can a defensive midfielder deploy a counter-attack or a transition in a situation like that? Again, we look to the ball progression map above and let’s see the way Grimes turns long-range kicks – especially long passes, into his sharpest weapon.
If those above instances are not enough, there are also his statistics. The numbers don’t lie: the English skipper attempted 50.5 passes per 90 minutes with an accuracy of 85%: 20.19 of them went forward and 10.27 were directed to the final third. They reach an accuracy of 72.7% and 73.3% respectively. His passes to the final third usually eliminate the opponent’s midfielders, quickly deliver the ball to the attacking players without wasting any seconds as we speak above. Combining those with the fact that Grimes usually plays deep down the halfway line, the above index completely impresses us and it’s very suitable for the role of deep-lying playmaker that Cooper needs.
Defending and weaknesses
The formation 4-2-3-1 that Cooper utilises for Swansea is a system that has solidity in the central area with the two layers of defence. Fulton and Grimes both have decent defensive skills so that the Swans are not so worried about opponents facing them in the centre of the pitch. By winning 230 defensive duels out of 366, possessing 202 interceptions (4.92 per 90), and the ability to read the game all help Grimes a lot in defending Woodman’s goal net.
But when it comes to facing pacey wingers, the story goes different. Grimes is not a player with high speed, due to playing in the middle; so it’s understandable if we observe some wingers can dribble past him easily.
The last weakness that we can see is that Grimes’ height restriction. The height of 1.78m with a small body can support him in turning and dribbling, but they do not help him in aerial duels and opponents can exploit this to dominant the middle by utilising long balls. Grimes only duelled 99 times on air, and with that modest figure, the successful percentage of 46.5 does not prove many things.
In this scout report, we brought you an analysis of the importance of Matt Grimes in Cooper’s philosophy – we can say that he is an unsung player but also the most important player in the Welsh team. Despite being defeated at the play-off semi-final, Grimes and his colleagues in Swansea deserve our applause for what he did in the last season.
From this analysis, we can see that ending at the rank of 6th on the Championship table after the first year wearing the armband is an encouraging result for Grimes; the promotion ticket after the next season is not an illusory dream – and maybe the failure this year is just the first step for him to become a better player in the future.