This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
At the start of the season one would have looked at facing Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium days after an international break and winced at the prospect. While Tottenham’s squad is full of internationals that disappear every few months to rack up a few thousand air-miles and get injured, the Swans are relatively untroubled by such disruption and usually spend the fortnight between Premier League matches resting their players and doing tactical work.
Such freshness and preparation usually sees smaller sides punch above their weight at this time of year, and, who knows, it may yet do so on Saturday. However, Spurs should fancy their chances. This is a Swansea side showing every sign of effectively being in post-season mode.
Having won their first major trophy since the 1991 Welsh Cup, they have lost two of their three games and although they controlled possession in those defeats – losing 2-1 to West Brom and 2-0 to Arsenal – they registered an embarrassing total of two shots on target in 180 minutes.
If Swansea can be woken from their slumber, Saturday’s match promises to be one of the most intriguing of the season. The two teams make a lovely pairing for the neutral.
Both favour flexible, fluid 4-2-3-1 systems but within that framework they use radically different game plans: Swansea play a slow, horizontal game while Tottenham favour relatively fast, vertical football. As well as star names to grab the attention of the laziest Match of the Day-viewer, both have subtle players that appeal to the connoisseur; perhaps most importantly of all, both have tactically astute managers to whom a draw may as well be a defeat, ensuring attacking, positive displays.
As we all know, Swansea’s Plan A is predicated on retaining possession and as such they are necessarily strong in the middle of the pitch. In Ki Sung-Yueng (92.3%) and Leon Britton (91.1%), they have two of the Premier League’s most technical and intelligent passers in their first midfield band, and Jonathan de Guzmán fulfils a similar but more incisive role higher up the pitch.
Equally important to the metronomic passing machine are full-backs Ángel Rangel and Ben Davies, who regularly advance up the field and offer square options to their colleagues whenever possible. Only the absent centre-back Chico Flores plays more passes per game than Rangel, which says everything about his role in the side and also suggests that André Villas-Boas’ selection wide left will play a big role in deciding the result.
Of course, Swansea’s movement when in possession is excellent and they press splendidly as a unit. These qualities will almost certainly see them enjoy the majority of the ball. However, with an intelligent if somewhat negative tactical choice from AVB, this could prove to be to Tottenham’s advantage.
Either side of de Guzmán, we find former Valencia winger Pablo Hernández and either Wayne Routledge or Nathan Dyer. The three are all very good footballers, much in the same mould as their colleagues further back – confident on the ball and almost as effective without it – and their movements between centre-back and full-back will cause Tottenham problems.
However, they often receive passes in relatively isolated positions and either lose the ball or hesitate. This period of indecision may be the weakness that André Villas-Boas chooses to target to maximise Tottenham’s chances of victory.
Normally when a winger finds himself lacking in support, it leads to the ball being played back to the defence and then forward once more. If Tottenham can win the ball or force a mistake before Swansea’s wide men decide to recycle possession, the pace of Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale on the break, coupled with the accurate passing of Mousa Dembélé and, at some point, Lewis Holtby, should see Spurs carve out clear chances more easily than their opponents.
If Tottenham will find creating chances easier, it is probably true that Swansea will fancy their strikers to be more clinical when one does come along. Michu is obviously the forward André Villas-Boas will be planning to stop, and although he has only scored two league goals in 2013, it is still something easier said than done. The Spaniard’s superb reading of the game, intelligent movement and extremely composed finishing make him something of a wildcard.
Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson could have him under control for 89 minutes and still find that he has anticipated a small deflection a split second before them and slotted the ball under Hugo Lloris before the goalkeeper had time to move. From a defender’s point of view there is not a lot more that can be done than to deny Swansea and Michu any kind of space.
In terms of weaknesses, the aforementioned absence of Chico will see Garry Monk step into the defence. Never the paciest in his younger days, the Swans’ 34 year-old club captain may as well enter the Liberty Stadium pitch carrying a big red sign that says ‘RUN AT ME’.
Due to Monk’s obvious vulnerability, it is tempting to suggest that Spurs play without a striker and choose either Clint Dempsey or Gylfi Sigurðsson to better press Swansea into midfield errors. Once the ball is won, co-ordinated diagonal runs from Dempsey, Sigurðsson, Lennon and Bale should leave Swansea’s centre-back pairing simply overrun.
All things considered, a compact and counter-attacking Bundesliga-style 4-4-2 is probably AVB’s safest bet on Saturday. The selection of Bale in a central role could prove unpopular but with Rangel certain to be a key man and Monk an obvious target, it makes sense to free him from defensive duties to some extent and tell him to focus on attacking movement.
It also gives Tottenham the chance to get numbers behind the ball while simultaneously maintaining pressure on Swansea’s men in possession. This will be important not only in stopping Michu but in forcing Swansea to commit men forward and leave themselves open to Spurs’ obvious threat on the counter. If AVB selects this system then Swansea’s relative freshness and strength in possession should not matter: Tottenham will take the points.