An in-depth analysis of Steve Cooper’s smashing start at Swansea

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 27 August 2019, 09:40

When we last discussed Swansea City back in June, we thought Steve Cooper’s appointment could be perfect timing for the club.

Elsewhere though, the Swans were not expected to do well: understandable, given that they had lost a great manager in Graham Potter, their top goalscorer in Oli McBurnie and their most exciting talent in Daniel James.

Swansea are defying their doubters so far and – as joint-leaders of the Championship on points with 13 taken from the 15 available – have given themselves an excellent opportunity to not just improve on last season, but force their way into the thick of the promotion mix.

We look at their super start to the season...

Potter laid the groundwork

Should Swansea go on to be successful this season, then Graham Potter should take almost as much credit as his successor, because he laid the foundations.

In the latter stages of Swansea’s seven-year stay in the Premier League, they arguably lost touch with the core principles that had been so key to their rise from the basement tier to European football.

Under Garry Monk, Bob Bradley, Francesco Guidolin and Carlos Carvalhal to varying extents, Swansea turned into a rigid, one-dimensional side that caused the odd upset, but were largely reliant on moments of individual magic – once Gylfi Sigurdsson left in 2017, everything went downhill.

Potter changed that by building one of the most spatially aware teams in the Championship, despite so many senior players having been sold the summer he arrived.

Rather than grumble about the low-cost decisions made at boardroom level, Potter embraced the opportunity to develop young players like Connor Roberts, Joe Rodon and Matt Grimes – all of whom continue to thrive after he left.

Rather than use players in fixed positions, Potter promoted a flexible 4-2-3-1 without a recognized centre-forward.

He encouraged his players to sometimes move away from their ‘orthodox’ position and simply look to find space, with teammates then covering accordingly to maintain the structure – it worked very well.

Borja for McBurnie

Steve Cooper’s 4-2-3-1 bears many similarities to the setup Potter implemented, with perhaps the main difference being up top.

Borja Bastón had struggled to make his mark at Swansea after joining for a hefty £15.5 million in 2016 – he spent much of 2017-18 and 2018-19 out on loan at Málaga and Alaves respectively – but Cooper brought the Spaniard in from the cold.

Borja has a similar presence to McBurnie but, rather than drop between lines, tends to drift into the left channel, creating space for the likes of Bersant Celina and Yan Dhanda to link up.

A new day has come for Celina

When James left for Manchester United this summer, there were fears that Swansea would lose the individual quality he provided.

James’ exit though has merely cleared the stage for other players to show their own quality.

We have known for a long time that Celina is tremendously talented, but now he seems to be adding consistency to his game, as well as knowing how to fit into the system – which was at times problematic when he played wide left last season.

Celina has shown the ability to either produce a direct run in behind or curtail his run and offer himself short depending on what the team needs, alongside his excellent technical ability.

Yan Dhanda, meanwhile, linked play between the lines superbly in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Birmingham.

Although Dhanda has struggled to get into the Swansea team since joining last summer, he has neat feet and a creative brain which could make the Liverpool academy graduate a real asset.

The midfield balance

Cooper wants one midfielder – currently Grimes, who has dictated play superbly so far this season – staying deep to ensure control in the central areas, sometimes dropping between centre-backs Mike Van Der Hoorn and Joe Rodon in the early stages of the build-up play.

Grimes’ midfield partner, Jay Fulton, is given a bit more freedom to press and link play higher up, but only in accordance with the movement of the attacking midfielders.

For example, Fulton made a brave decoy run to the near-post from Connor Roberts’ cross (see no. 6 above) in the lead-up to the opener - but only because he knew Dhanda and Celina were dropping off and thus were able to reclaim his place and guard against a potential counter-attack.

Full-backs affect the final third

When Swansea are in the first two-thirds of the pitch, full-backs Roberts and Jake Bidwell are cautious; they hold onto their defensive position and play the ball short whenever it comes their way.

When Swansea reach the final third, though, either Roberts or Bidwell will make a bold run to within at least 18-yards of the byline; they offer an out-ball and look to cross.

If play becomes congested on the right, Bidwell will make that run into space on the left, then Roberts does the equivalent on the right, maintaining the attacking equilibrium.

Swansea look one of the best-coached teams in the Championship; Potter initiated that trend, but Cooper deserves credit for continuing his fine work.

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Laurent Banide
Laurent Banide
(Oldham Athletic)
19th September
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