After the “Golden Generation” and their failure in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, for the first time in many years, English football fans have a chance to dream about the bright future for their National team. Alongside players who earned their reputation like Raheem Sterling or Trent Alexander-Arnold, The Three Lions also have high potential players with chances to become top-class players; their next-generation: Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Those five players were all recognized by the same coach: Steve Cooper.
Cooper partly proved his value after maturing Sterling and Alexander-Arnold when he was working as an academy coach at Liverpool, or claiming the runner-up title at the 2017 UEFA European U-17 Championship. He kept managing the English youngsters after leading them to win the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup and then ended his mission in 2019. Cooper joined Swansea City right in that summer and now, he is experiencing his first season in the Championship with the Welsh team. With them currently out of the top 10 in the table, clearly the fans cannot feel satisfied, but their performances give us the signal that they are ready to improve in the future. In this tactical analysis, we bring you an in-depth analysis of Steve Cooper’s tactics at Swansea this season.
Swansea of Steve Cooper got accustomed to the 4-2-3-1 formation in the Championship and they rarely deviate from that. The recognition of Cooper’s philosophy is that they usually focus on rotating the ball to the flanks before passing it to the central area or carrying it deeper, trying to create a cut-back, a high cross, or a grounded cross. Swansea’s players are very flexible in off-ball movements, trying to disorganise their opposite team’s structure, make them unconsciously open the gap behind them, or to widen the distance between them and let attacking players exploit that space. After receiving the ball in the final third, these attacking players can decide to pass or shoot. Similar to coaches who use the same formation, the man who won the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup tries to avoid his lone striker from getting isolated by directing him to move wide because isolation is the deathly weakness of the 4-2-3-1.
Processing the ball
There are many kinds of methods which Swansea can use to approach the opponent’s goal with the starting point being in the flanks. But before thinking about carrying the ball deeper to the final third, they must ensure they have the numerical advantage first or at least keep the numbers of both teams equal. This serves the purpose of keeping Swansea’s possession in the wings. However, outnumbering is not only important when attacking, but it also protects the space left behind by the full-back by opting one defensive midfielder to secure that space and avoid a counter-attack that can happen anytime they lose the ball.
The Swans’ progress starts with their centre-backs and sometimes even the goalie. When one of their centre-back gets the ball in their own third, other defenders instantly move broader, one of Cooper’s full-backs runs higher than the other and joins the attack. In that case, Swansea have at least three players with the offensive task: one full-back, one winger/side attacking midfielder, and the central attacking midfielder.
Another way of playing with three defenders is allowing one of Swansea’s pivots to drop deeper and become the third cenre-back. This player is usually Matt Grimes and he takes the responsibility to distribute the ball to other colleagues, specifically in the wings.
We can see that the Welsh team faces low-block defensive lines, this circumstance gives Cooper’s defenders the permission to dribble the ball vertically over the midfield line and put pressure on their competitors.
Flanks attacking modalities
When Swansea are done with rotating the ball to the sides of the field and forming attacking triangles, the next requirement for them is to choose the way to carry the ball and seek scoring chance from that. As we spoke earlier, constantly playing and interchanging in the flanks makes the opposite side disorganised and sooner or later the gap will appear for attacking players to exploit. The prime example being the match between Swansea and Hull City in which the Black Swans had the highest expected goal (xG) rating since the winter transfer window – 2.56.
In the first case, four white shirt players were engaging in the right flank due to Swansea’s offensive direction. The visitors could not outnumber Hull’s players, but by sending four men to fight against the contestants made Hull’s defensive line stretched and loose. After attracting enough attention in the right flank, the ball was given back to Grimes in the centre, and then the captain quickly delivered it to Jake Bidwell who was rushing in the opposite wing. The gap which appeared in front of Bidwell was the result of luring players of Hull City out of their original positions.
In the 1-1 equaliser, three of The Black Swans encountered two men from The Tigers. Without any intention, the orange shirt team’s right full-back extended the distance between him and his centre-back – who was forced to stay in the box when his teammate went to stop Bidwell. Conor Gallagher immediately ran to exploit the gap: he received the ball from his teammate, calmly dribbled pass another Hull defender, and handed the ball over to Routledge.
The number 15’s final work is very easy, and he kicked the ball ino an empty net. This is a typical goal from the team that plays under Steve Cooper’s management: open the gap, exploit it, and cross the ball, wait for a teammate to finish quickly and easily.
Finally, opening space does not mean that you have to drag the opposition defenders. In Swansea’s case, the space can be opened by narrowing the defensive line and the gap will appear. In the below instance, it looks like five visitor team’s players went against five home team’s players in an equal situation. But we can see that Hull’s centre-back had to stay in the box and their left full-back was keeping his eyes on Routledge. In the meantime, there was a player that blocked Bersant Celina and the rest were trying to block his passing lane to Gallagher.
Thus the circumstance forced five men from Hull to mark four men from Swansea and Jake Bidwell was running freely. Although the 27-year-old full-back was not successful in crossing the ball, the combination shows us the efficiency of Cooper’s diversity in wide attacks.
The key role in Cooper’s tactics
Playing out from the back, like Cooper usually demands, means his defensive players have to have the ability to deploy passes from their own half. Besides, utilising long balls contains a potential danger of losing the ball if the receiver doesn’t control it successfully; therefore, to avoid throwing away possession, the Welshman is forced to have midfielders who are always ready to handle the second balls, continue processing it to others, or simply deliver it back to the centre-backs. Men who take responsibility for this are none other than the two defensive midfielders.
Nevertheless, their influence doesn’t stop there. Matt Grimes is the one who often joins with his fellow teammates in the backline and participates in developing the play by becoming the third centre-back. Swansea’s captain is the perfect piece for Cooper in undertaking the ball distribution to the wings as the Englishman can provide his team good passes to anywhere up the field. Also, Grimes’ presence eases his teammates’ worries about their defensive duty when they are in the opposition’s half.
The 4-2-3-1 formation has a massive defensive advantage in the central area because of putting two midfielders right in front of the four-man defence with the task to stop their counterparts from playing in that area. Even if the opponents go through them, the centre-backs behind them are ready to stop whoever steps into their territory. It is very hard to play fluently in the central zone when you are facing any team that sets up a 4-2-3-1 formation, not only Swansea.
Weaknesses in Swansea’s system
The backline is the place that generates The Black Swans’ attacks but it is also Cooper’s team’s feeble point. The Welsh team’s defenders, particularly the two centre-backs, often find it hard to control the wide gap between them and their goalkeeper. This is the easiest point for other teams to exploit against Swansea. A pass that pours the ball into that space in front of Freddie Woodman will put Woodman’s goal in danger.
There is one more problem which is the typical issue of a 4-2-3-1 formation that not only Swansea get stuck at. Swansea have a solid centre with two layers of defence, but when it comes to the ability to guard the flanks, it’s a different story. Firstly, the defensive midfielders cannot always cover the space that their full-back teammate leaves behind. Secondly, the full-back must deal with his challenger alone and his challenger usually is more proactive than him and also has a higher chance to dribble past him. If a pivot comes to help his full-back, he will open a big hole in his position.
Finally, if a player in a higher position, like a winger or a striker goes deeper to help, it will take a lot of time for them to return to their position, and then they will lose the element of surprise in transition. One way or another, the Swans’ opponents always find opportunities to find and use the space.
In the offensive aspect, Swansea often struggle to fight a low defensive line. With many players in their own half, Swansea’s opposite players can maintain their distance with others without worrying about someone luring them out. It squeezes Cooper’s players’ playing ground and gives them no chance of onslaught deep in the final third.
In this tactical analysis, we brought you an in-depth analysis of Steve Cooper’s tactics at Swansea and the way he coached the Welsh team in his first season in the Championship. The 11th position in the table tells us that the Welshman has many things to do to push his team forward but from their performances and the talented players he has in his hand like Marc Guéhi, Conor Gallagher, Rhian Brewster or Bersant Celina, we can expect them to do outstanding things in the future and maybe, a promotion to the Premier League after the next two season could be on the possible.