Well, wasn’t that fun/depressing/boring (delete as appropriate)? Yes, I’ve started writing this piece before the conclusion of transfer deadline day.
The passing of the transfer window circus has brought much debate. And that’s likely to rage on for a little while yet, as supporters argue about whether the squad is stronger of weaker than it was at the start of January. From here on though, all of the drama in Plymouth Argyle’s season should occur on the field of play. That starts with a visit to Swansea City this weekend.
With a heavily expectant fanbase, Swansea have had a relatively poor season. They currently find themselves in 17th place in the Championship table, behind Argyle on goal difference, and are already on their second permanent manager of the campaign. Having dispatched of Michael Duff, Luke Williams joined Swansea from Notts County on exactly the same day Ian Foster was appointed to the Argyle hotseat.
Williams’ footballing beliefs appear to be an ideal match for Swansea’s ideal style of play. But it’s been a baptism of fire for Williams in South Wales, with the club winning just once since his arrival. Even that was a 2-0 win over Morecambe in the FA Cup. That run has included some tricky fixtures though, so could the Swans prove a strong match for Argyle this weekend?
Style of play
Williams has done his best to make this preview as difficult for me as possible by tinkering with his formation. In his three league games so far he’s played a 4-2-3-1 against Birmingham City, a 4-3-2-1 against Southampton, and a 4-4-2 in midweek against Leicester City. Against Bournemouth in the cup, he even experimented with three at the back.
Despite the chopping and changing, there are some constants we can look towards when predicting Swansea’s starting 11. Captain Matt Grimes and goalkeeper Carl Rushworth have played every minute this season, and it’s highly likely we’ll see Jerry Yates start up front, particularly with Jamal Lowe missing out through injury. Lowe is Swansea’s joint-top scorer this season, and will be a big miss this weekend.
Elsewhere, Jamie Paterson and Liam Cullen have started every league game for Williams in advanced roles, the former being a creative threat with more key passes and big chances created than anyone else in the side. They could also choose to give a full debut to new signing Ronald, apparently too good for both the Brazilian league and a surname.
And when the defensive shape isn’t tinkered with it’s largely settled. Chelsea loanee Bashir Humphreys and Nathan Wood form a young partnership at centre back, with Josh Tymon generally playing on the left and Harry Darling generally filling in at right back since Williams’ arrival. Darling is however an injury doubt after going off prematurely against Leicester.
Whatever formation they go with, they tend to be comfortable on the ball. Granted, they aren’t as possession-hungry as some of the top sides in the division, but their average possession of 53% is enough to rank them within the top 10. And their long pass success of 37% is the fourth-worst in the division, perhaps offering an indication as to why they like to go short regularly. Considering Argyle’s style away from home under Foster, they’ll be happy to let Swansea keep the ball.
Central midfielder Grimes is fundamental to the approach. He has completed 2113 passes this season, dwarfing the total of Ben Cabango who has the second-highest number in Swansea’s side with 1079 completed passes. Grimes’ figure is also bettered by only three players across the entire division.
Grimes is even more impressive when you consider that 36 of those have been key passes. Indeed, of the top 10 for passes completed in the Championship, none have completed more key passes than Grimes. His passing isn’t just constant, it’s also menacing for defences. If you stop Grimes getting on the ball, you’ll go a long way to nullifying Swansea’s threat. It’s much easier said than done.
At its best, Swansea’s approach can be fluid and effective. Lowe may be a big miss, but they’ll be confident of surviving without his talents. Swansea have actually had 17 different players score a goal for them this season, a joint-highest total in the Championship along with Rotherham United.
There are ways they can come unstuck. If Grimes is tightly marked, or simply having an off day, I’ve not seen enough in Swansea’s numbers to suggest they can evolve their style. Only Rotherham have completed fewer dribbles this season, suggesting they won’t trouble defences by running at them. And they don’t look able to revert to sitting off and hitting teams on the break. With just five, Swansea have had the fewest shots from counter attacks of any side in the league.
That’s slightly startling. Given how standoffish Swansea are without the ball, you’d feel they’re in an ideal position to break when they do win it. They haven’t completed a large number of tackles this season, but they’ve rarely been dribbled past either. If we use that to calculate tackle success, Swansea’s figure of 68% has them within the Championship’s top half. That they don’t take advantage of that by regularly breaking at pace is a missed opportunity.
The defensive side of Swansea’s style strikes me as they way Argyle wanted to set up this season under Steven Schumacher, without the emphasis on speed in transition. It didn’t work particularly well for the Greens, and Swansea’s record is certainly mixed.
When assessing Swansea’s strengths, I’ve spotted a couple that seem strikingly similar to some of Argyle’s own strong points.
Take shooting as an example. Ok, Swansea differ from Argyle in the fact they don’t shoot on sight. But the shots they do take are dangerous. Argyle may lead the Championship with their 39% shot accuracy (proportion of shots that are on target), but Swansea actually edge the Greens out in terms of shot conversion (proportion of shots that are goals), with their 12% figure the third-highest in the league.
Put simply, you don’t want to be giving them too many shooting opportunities. Of their 29 league games this season, Swansea have only failed to score in four. Their shot conversion has doubtlessly contributed to those impressive numbers.
Again, much like at Argyle, goalkeeping has been a strong point at Swansea this season. Whilst injury has meant the Pilgrims have had to switch between Conor Hazard and Michael Cooper across the campaign, Swansea have spent the entire year with Brighton loanee Rushworth between the sticks.
After a slow start, Rushworth has been mightily impressive. Post-shot xG data suggests he’s prevented 5.02 goals this season, the best record of any ‘keeper in the league. And yes, the fact he’s played every game has helped Rushworth build up that figure, but it’s backed up by the fact that his prevented rate (the number of goals he conceded for every one the average keeper would concede) of 1.11 is enough to beat Cooper (1.08) and Hazard (1.01). For now.
In the interests of balance, I should point out that none of Argyle’s goalkeepers have made an Opta-defined mistake leading to a goal this season (the own goal in Cardiff was recorded as Matt Butcher’s error). Rushworth, meanwhile, has made three. That’s a league-high figure for any player, goalkeeper or outfielder. It includes this one playing out from the back against Leicester just a few days ago.
Errors are clearly a possibility, but they don’t define Rushworth as a ‘keeper. He’s an exemplary shot stopper, and both of Argyle’s options are right up there too. Sharp shooting will be needed at both ends to break through this weekend.
Now, I’ve mentioned a couple of strengths that Argyle and Swansea share. But there are a couple to touch upon that differentiate the sides.
One is crossing. Argyle haven’t attempted many crosses this season, and the ones they have tried have been generally substandard. That hasn’t necessarily hurt the Greens in attack; it’s simply meant the wingers are creating chances for themselves instead of others. Swansea though go the other way. In fact, their cross success rate of 28% is the second-best figure in the league, with only Leicester completing their crosses at a better rate.
That perhaps explains why Williams opted to line up with two strikers against the Foxes, with the extra body in the box providing yet another outlet for Swansea’s crosses. Argyle will have to be alert to crosses if he opts to do so again. Or even if he doesn’t.
I’ll also touch on a familiar foe in set pieces. They haven’t been Argyle’s strong point at all, at least in an attacking sense. Swansea meanwhile have scored nine set piece goals this season, the joint-third highest number in the league. Ok, they don’t have as good a record as South Wales rivals Cardiff City and their frankly obscene 15 set piece goals this season, but it’s a good figure in its own right. Darling appears to be the principal threat, with three goals this season from set pieces alone.
But it’s in defending set pieces where the Swans really come into their own. They’ve conceded just twice all season from set piece situations this season, comfortably the best figure in the Championship. Indeed, set pieces have accounted for just 5% of the goals Swansea have conceded this year, a figure in a different stratosphere to any other Championship side.
I should mention that Swansea’s xG against from set pieces is 8.58, so they’re seriously overperforming at the moment. Perhaps they will concede more from set piece situations in the second half of the season to balance out their numbers, but does anyone honestly expect Argyle to be the team that reverses the trend?
Given everything I’ve said, it may seem surprising that Swansea find themselves below Argyle in the league. Why could that be? Well, get your old jokes about terrible dog walkers ready: Swansea just cannot hold on to a lead. They’ve dropped 23 points from winning positions this season, a league high. Had they been even average at holding onto their leads this season, they’d probably be knocking on the door of the play-off places.
I’d look towards the defence as an obvious reason why their record when leading is so dreadful. Swansea’s defence has been much maligned since Williams arrived, with his side conceding an eye-watering 11 goals in their last three in all competitions. In truth, the defence has struggled all season. Their total xG against is 49.05, the second-highest figure in the league, suggesting there have always been holes in the back line.
I just wonder if inexperience has contributed to those struggles. Earlier on I mentioned that Humphries and Wood form a young partnership at the back. To expand slightly on that, they are 20 and 21 respectively. It’s not certain that a young defence will be a poor defence, but there’s certainly a correlation. Think back to 2020/21 when Argyle had an incredibly young defence and conceded 80 league goals.
They also suffer from what I’d describe as clumsy defending. With five, they’ve conceded more penalties than any team in the Championship aside from Sheffield Wednesday. Darling is one of only two players, along with Blackburn Rovers’ Hayden Carter, to have conceded more than one penalty this season. I wouldn’t mind if Argyle spent an extra half-hour on the training ground practising spot kicks this week. Just in case.
With all of that in mind, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Williams takes a risk on Cabango’s fitness. I’d argue he’s probably been the Swans’ best defender this season, but he hasn’t started since picking up an ankle injury early last month. He did make his comeback from the bench against Leicester though, and this may seem a natural time for him to regain a starting berth.
When looking at the team as a whole, I’ll point to aerial duels as an obvious weakness. Much has been made of Argyle’s business this window, with speculation that the signings of Ashley Phillips and Darko Gyabi in particular have been made to combat the Greens’ deficiencies in the air. Swansea are even worse position. Their aerial duel success rate of 46% is the second-lowest figure in the league, and makes them just one of three Championship sides with a worse success rate than Argyle. The Greens may be dominated in the air at times, but shouldn’t have to worry about it this weekend.
It’s perhaps an indication of how Swansea’s style of play is enforced. Remember earlier when I mentioned that Swansea rarely played a long ball because their success rate was so inadequate? There’s every chance that their deficiencies in the air also contribute to the style of play being so rigid.
The fact they rarely dribble is another example. Again, I earlier mentioned that Swansea had attempted the second-lowest number of dribbles in the league. That may well be because when they do attempt to run with the ball, they can’t – their 44% dribble success is the lowest figure in the league. To set a team like that up to run with the ball regularly would be careless at best.
That Swansea’s style is enforced (or at least, could be enforced) by these particular deficiencies is an issue. I actually think Williams’ style will suit them in the long run; playing to your strengths and nullifying your weaknesses is how all good teams should be run. But as recent results have told us, they’re not there yet.
Swansea and Argyle don’t have the same style of play. As much as there are differentials though, the sides do share similar strengths and weaknesses. Both shoot well and have good goalkeepers in their ranks, whilst neither is particularly strong defensively or in the air. Could that mean both sides cancel each other out? Perhaps, but not in the traditional sense of a boring stalemate.
I’d be astonished if both teams don’t score. The respective attacks are just too strong, and defences just too shaky, for me to predict a clean sheet for either side. And whilst Argyle’s elusive away win may feel closer than ever, something is telling me it just won’t be happening here. I reckon Swansea will score first, Argyle will come back to lead, and it’ll eventually end 2-2.