Opposition Report: Swansea City
Winless Middlesbrough takes fellow strugglers Swansea City at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough returns to the Riverside Stadium after securing just one point from a potential six away from home. Boro's far from stellar start to the season has left the club stock bottom of the league (except for a Coventry side that has been unable to feature more than twice due to issues with their home ground). However, despite the side's failings, there are points of optimism to take from the early fixtures. Middlesbrough has been one of the top sides for creating chances, with them sitting second in the league on xG. Meanwhile, going the other way, Middlesbrough has only conceded 4.6 xG, indicating that fixing the prominent defensive mistakes should put the club in good stead. This week's recruitment of Matt Clarke should go some way to repairing the leaky defence, while Rodrigo Muniz should add a physical presence up front that has been lacking since Chuba Akpom's injury.
Swansea also had a stuttering start to the season, winning just one of their first five fixtures, planting them in 20th. In recent press conferences, Russell Martin has been forced to field questions regarding the South Wales side's poor results, claiming that five games in is too early to judge his team. Alongside Middlesbrough, Martin's Swansea has yet to keep a clean sheet, which is indicative of Jack's failures this season despite recruiting defenders this summer to the solve the issue. If they can find some solid defensive form, they could challenge at the top of the division.
Both Russell Martin and Chris Wilder want their teams to play possession-based styles of football and so today's game could prove to be an enjoyable affair. However, the question is, who will come out on top when these two struggling teams face each other?
Swansea City is again in step with Middlesbrough, having seen one of their top midfield performers leave for greener pastures. Former Swansea schemer Flynn Downes will face former Boro starlet Marcus Tavernier in the Premier League this season, with both players finding a home in the top division. A severe loss to Swansea City, the club dipped into the transfer market to look for a replacement, ultimately settling on the return of Joe Allen as an adequate replacement. However, at 32 years old, this is a shift in the age profile of the midfield, selling the heir-apparent for Matt Grimes and replacing him with a player five years his senior.
Several other players have also departed alongside Downes, including Yan Dhanda, who failed to convince at the Liberty Stadium, Korey Smith, whose influence in the side increasingly wained as time went on, and ageing goalkeeper Ben Hamer, who has joined promotion favourites, Watford. Meanwhile, talented prospects Morgan Whittaker and Kyle Joseph have been tasked with impressing on temporary moves away from South Wales.
The club has also seen some arrivals this summer. Harry Darling, who impressed at MK Dons, has stepped up a level to play alongside former Boro hot prospect Nathan Wood. Russell Martin hopes that these two centre-back recruits will be able to slot into the system and simultaneously solve the club's defensive woes that have carried on from last season. An experiment that has yet to bare the fruit the Scotsman would have hoped. Meanwhile, Matthew Sorinola has returned to the UK on a temporary move from SG Union, a technical wideman with a burst of pace; he could prove to be an impressive recruit should he settle into the Championship.
Flynn Downes to West Ham (£9.59m)
Harry Darling from MK Dons (£2.07m)
Korey Smith to Derby County (free)
Joe Allen from Stoke City (free)
Yan Dhanda to Ross County (free)
Nathan Wood from Middlesbrough (undisclosed)
Ben Hamer to Watford (free)
Matthew Sorinola from SG Union (loan)
Morgan Whittaker to Plymouth Argyle (loan)
Jordan Garrick to Lincoln City (loan)
Kyle Joseph to Oxford United (loan)
Josh Gould (released)
The club's struggles on the pitch have been mirrored by the complaints about Swansea's lack of business in the summer window, with many Swansea pundits calling for the owners to put their money where their mouth is and invest in the squad or sell up.
These calls to improve the team only intensified when Russell Martin spoke on the owners Jason Levien and Steven Kaplan's plans for the club to develop talent. The American consortium led by the pair is clearly in the football business for financial gain, and they have opted to squeeze profits out of the transfer market over the risk of investing heavily in the hopes that promotion will lead to substantial profits either when selling players once more or agreeing to a sale for the club.
This isn't the first time these concerns have been levied at the American ownership. Steve Cooper also held similar frustrations before deciding that Jason Levien and Steven Kaplan's business model was hampering his chances of meeting his aspirations of coaching in the Premier League. It remains to be seen if Levien and Kaplan will dig into their pockets with just over a week of the window to go. If they do not satisfy Russell Martin's call for improvements to the squad, Swansea City could lose another talented head coach over their refusal to gamble on promotion.
The Swansea skipper personifies the patient and slow possession-based identity of Swansea City. The 27-year-old has been a near constant in Swansea's side, often lining up alongside a fellow technical passer at the base of the midfield. Yet, most of the teams' moves will be funnelled through the English man. His movement into space in front of the opposition's defensive block allows him to constantly open up new angles to feed the ball, instigating different attacks depending on where the openings appear. His constant involvement when the side is in possession is highlighted by his incredible 88.2 passes per 90. At the same time, his phenomenal 91.5% success rate shows how capable a pair of hands he is in maintaining possession and keeping the side ticking. As such, it is on Grimes and other impressive passers in the side that Russell Martin has built his patient play upon ensuring that possession will not be turned over before they can fashion an opportunity.
Grimes will often drop short to call for the easy pass, and he will often look for an equally simple pass in possession; as such, his subtle creativity can be lost in the simpleness of his play. However, most of Swansea's opportunities start at Grimes' feet. Grimes is also integral to maintaining the side's slow tempo bringing the game to a walking pace when they get dragged into the more intense game often favoured by the opposition. He will flip this occasionally, quickening his distribution, mainly if an opening presents itself or they are chasing the game.
While he specialises and excels in only one, albeit essential, facet of the midfield game, he does support other features of a successful midfield. Grimes can be combative when they need to break up play with his slide tackles, often proving to be more successful than not. However, he is limited in the final third, preferring not to maraud further than the midfield third. All the same, he is relatively strong from dead-ball situations. He will often line up in front of a wide freekick to deliver a taunting ball into the box, or he will whip in a cross from a corner. Due to this, Middlesbrough will have to be sharp defending freekicks and corners despite having overall aerial superiority.
It is not a coincidence that Swansea's poor early form coincides with a Joel Piroe barren run in front of goal. The Netherlands forward is integral to the side's cutting edge, producing a remarkable 22 goals in his first season in the Championship. If he could recapture last season's form, it could go a long way to converting Swansea's poor early form.
Joel Piroe has a poacher's nous in the box, helping him fashion opportunities and tap in vital rebounds for the Swans. But it would be reductive of his overall game to call him a poacher. Piroe plays an essential role in the side's build-up leading into the final third, frequently setting up fellow attacker Obafemi or continuing the side's progression into dangerous areas. He is also a good presser, especially when closing down the angles and forcing the goalkeeper into speculative passes into the wide areas, where Swansea frequently win the ball. However, his more impressive ability comes when he fashions an opportunity to shoot. Joel Piroe is one of the best, cleanest strikers of the ball. Regardless of the technique demanded of him, his shots always look threatening, and no matter the situation, he consistently appears more likely to score than the opposition does to stop him.
Piroe impressed pundits far and wide with his performances last season. However, he has struggled to get into the groove this year, failing to hit the back of the net in any of his first five games of the season. However, it has not been for want of trying. Piroe has averaged 3.8 shots per 90, two shots per game over the side's next most frequent shot taker Joe Allen. So it is clear that Piroe's movement is good enough to get him into goalscoring opportunities. At the same time, only 1.4 shots of Piroe's shots have troubled the goalkeeper. At first glance, this appears to be a remarkably low shot on target rate, but at 38%, he has called upon the goalkeeper to make a save at the average rate of most strikers. His statistics outside his conversion rate at this early point in the season indicate that he is doing everything he needs to do to find his feet again in the Championship. It may be a matter of patience for Piroe, Martin and Swansea on this front, but he should break the duct sooner rather than later.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-2 Swansea City
When discussing Boro's loss to Reading in his pre-match press conference, Chris Wilder complained about Middlesbrough's sluggish tempo, partly blaming it for the side's defeat to the Royals. This was a response to a reporter's question about whether Middlesbrough's tactics had been 'found out' by the opponents owing to the team's early season struggles. However, it is telling. Middlesbrough must maintain a fast tempo to win most of their games this season.
Conversely, Swansea would have felt at home with that slow tempo with Russell Martin encouraging his side to play a slower game. Why is this important? Middlesbrough vs Swansea will be won as much in the tempo of the game as in the abilities of the two sides. Swansea prefers a settled and slow game state to fashion opportunities, while Middlesbrough favour a faster, more chaotic game state to produce gaps in the opposition. Whichever side can create their favoured game style will have a greater chance of success than their opponent.
Nonetheless, neither side has managed to keep a clean sheet this season, so gluttony of goals could be on offer this afternoon. This could be a fascinating watch.