On paper at least, this game looked to be between two evenly-matched teams with slightly similar styles of play: both sides were on 39 points prior to the game, and both try to build from the back and play possession football.
Swansea were of course one of the stories of the season, gaining plenty of fans following their insistence on sticking to their passing principles that manager Brendan Rodgers has so successfully instilled within them, and also gaining memorable results such as their wins against top teams Arsenal and Manchester City. Martin Jol’s Fulham have been quietly on the rise as well; key player Clint Dempsey having his best season in English football to date, notching up 12 goals and 4 assists in 28 Premier League games.
Going into the match, Swansea lined up as they had throughout the season, with the expected personnel in their regular positions, in their usual 4-2-3-1. Central defender and club captain Gary Monk was the one of 2 exceptions, filling in for Ashley Williams after the latter had succumbed to a virus. Wayne Routledge also came into the side as he replaced the suspended Nathan Dyer on the right-wing.
On the other hand, Jol made some interesting changes to his starting XI: Mahamadou Diarra took captain Danny Murphy’s position in central midfield, and Bryan Ruiz was chosen over Damien Duff. Fulham lined up in a supposed 4-4-2 formation, but the key feature of their shape was the use of inverted wingers: Dempsey, a natural right-footer was played on the left-wing while the left-footed Ruiz was on the right-wing. Inverted wingers typically look to cut into the centre of the field with their stronger foot, and Dempsey and Ruiz were no different.
Jol’s decision to drop Murphy, the pivotal orchestrator of Fulham’s play, was unexplained both before and after the match, and on hindsight looked to be the wrong one. At 35 years of age, it could be that Murphy needed a rest, but nonetheless, his absence seemed to create ripples of unwanted uncertainty throughout the Fulham side. Jol’s team looked nervy and insecure during the whole duration of the game, often losing the ball in very dangerous positions.
These poor passing decisions proved extremely costly, as they directly resulted in Swansea’s opening goal (when Fulham striker Pogrebnyak carelessly gave away the ball just moments after his team had won it back), as well as Swansea’s last goal (when Senderos, under no pressure at the edge of his own penalty box, passed the ball straight to Swansea winger Scott Sinclair). Having always looked to Murphy to receive and recycle the ball, Fulham looked unsure and slightly disjointed without their usual link between defence and attack.
Diarra’s inclusion in the starting line-up seemed to stem from Jol’s fear that Swansea, a team with one of the highest average possession counts of the league, were going to pass his side to death – Diarra would theoretically help break up attacks and win the ball back, something that Murphy wouldn’t be inclined to do. While Diarra made a respectable 4 interceptions this game (compared to Murphy’s average of 1.5 interceptions per game), he made 0 tackles (again, compared to Murphy’s average of 2 tackles per game).
Quite simply, Diarra didn’t seem to do enough defensive work to justify his selection ahead of Murphy, who would have contributed a lot more going forward. The biggest mistake Diarra made led to Swansea’s second goal: when a loose ball from an aerial duel fell to Swansea’s advanced playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, the person Diarra was meant to track, Diarra was nowhere near him at all. This left Sigurdsson all the time in the world to pass the ball on, receive it back, and score a neat finish.
Fulham’s other big problem came from their use of inverted wingers – Dempsey and Ruiz – both of whom consistently looked to come infield. This resulted in an incredibly crowded midfield as Swansea retreated into an organised, deep and narrow 4-5-1 formation whenever they didn’t have possession.
As always, if a side’s wide midfielders aren’t providing width, then the fullbacks have to. In Fulham’s case, their left-back John Arne Riise constantly bombed forward, but he was often actually in the middle of the pitch as well (looking to get shots away with his hammer of a left foot), crowding that area of the field even more. Fulham’s right-back Stephen Kelly only advanced up the field occasionally, and only after Fulham had gone a goal down – by then Swansea were more than happy to sit back, hold possession and patiently wait for openings in Fulham’s defence.
Once again, Jol’s decision to start Ruiz ahead of Duff looks questionable. Duff is a proper winger, and despite being left-footed and deployed on the right, he’s more willing to hit the byline than Ruiz is. As such, Duff gives defenders a lot more to worry about, as compared to Ruiz who almost always looks to cut inside.
Duff’s willingness to go on the outside not only gives Fulham a more direct option than the intricate and sometimes over-elaborate efforts of Ruiz, Dembele and Pogrebnyak, it also injects Fulham with much needed width. When Duff came on for Ruiz in the 54th minute, he created half a chance by fizzing a low cross into a dangerous area from his right foot at the byline, something that Fulham hadn’t done at all before his introduction.
Striker Andy Johnson, to his credit, knew Dempsey and Ruiz were always looking to come infield, and so he tried to work the channels out wide on the right, but it wasn’t enough.
Fulham’s tendency to attack down the middle wasn’t a one-off event: 38% of their attacks come from the middle of the field, compared to 27% from the left and 35% from the right. (Again, that relatively high count on the right is probably due to Duff’s direct wing play.)
Fulham clearly require a plan B not from the bench, but also within the starting XI, when their attacks in the middle are ineffective. While Dembele is blessed with fantastic close control and dribbling ability, he cannot be expected to always have the key to unlocking tight defences, just like how Ruiz can’t always pull off his tricks and flicks.
Though all their three goals came from Fulham’s mistakes, Swansea were definitely the better team on the day. Despite Fulham’s many central midfield players, Swansea still managed to retain and recycle possession at their usual impressive standards, recording an overwhelming 62% possession.
8 of their 11 starting players registered a pass completion rate of over 85%. Leon Britton, Swansea’s very own English Xavi, achieved an outstanding 96% pass completion rate, bettering his average of 93.2%. His recycling of the ball allowed Joe Allen and Sigurdsson – the league’s best Januaray transfer – to buzz around and pry at the gaps left open by Fulham’s edgy defence.
Sigurdsson’s brace from this game took his tally to 5 goals and 2 assists in 9 appearances, illustrating what a fantastic piece of business it was by Rodgers to take his former player at Reading on loan from German club Hoffenheim.
Meanwhile, Swansea’s fullbacks Angel Rangel and Neil Taylor provided support out wide when necessary, and centre-backs Monk and Steven Caulker had little problems dealing with Fulham’s congested and very centralised attack. Routledge gave a solid appearance, providing the cross that led to Swansea’s first goal. Striker Danny Graham toiled selflessly upfront as always, and left-winger Scott Sinclair was a constant out-ball for his team, managing two assists as well.
On the whole, a good win for Swansea – Rodgers labelled it a ‘phenomenal performance’ – but a poor day for Fulham, where Jol virtually admitted he got his team selection wrong when he eventually put on both Murphy and Diarra but by then the game was already lost.