Everything you need to know about Middlesbrough's upcoming opponents Swansea City.
Neil Warnock may have eased the pressure on his side reaching the playoffs after dubbing the remainder of the season an ‘audition’ for those wishing to stake their claim to be part of next season’s plans but he is a winner and will expect his side to perform against one of the most formidable oppositions in the league. The Sheffield-born manager’s signature on a 1 year extension eases questions about his future at the club and this stability is a great basis to build on for next season and that preparation will start against 4th placed Swansea City.
Meanwhile Swansea City currently sit in a prime position to stake a claim for automatic promotion. The Swans are sat in 4th position behind Watford, Brentford and Norwich, but they have two games in hand that could be used to springboard the Welsh side into the automatic promotion places and so they can gain promotion without results from other games to go their way.
Swansea’s Season So Far:
The chase for the title has cooled in recent weeks as Norwich opened up a 10 point gap between themselves and second placed Brentford and while it is by no means a certainty that the Canaries will win the league, it puts them in a position where they are clear favourites for lifting the trophy, as even if Swansea win their games in hand, the Canaries would still have a 5 points advantage over their closest rivals. On the other hand, the race for the second automatic promotion spot is heating up as just a point separates Brentford, Watford and Swansea.
So far this season Swansea has earned 62 points at an average of 1.9 points per game, which is the second best points per game ratio in the league. The side has the second fewest defeats in the league and the same amount of wins as their automatic promotion chasing counterparts which put them in a great position to get the much needed points to push them into 2nd place.
It comes as little surprise that Swansea have only been beaten a handful of times as they have conceded just 23 goals so far this season which is the best defensive record in the league. While only Manchester City have a better defensive record in all the professional English divisions showing how impressive their record currently is. It is this defensive success that has provided the basis for Swansea’s claims for promotion.
Alternatively, they are one of the lowest scoring sides in the promotion chasing pack having scored just one more goal than Middlesbrough, and so the side may be impressive defensively but they sometimes lack a cutting edge.
Form: W L W L W
The ‘anyone can beat anyone’ nature of the Championship means that very few teams have managed to go a whole season without entering a dip in form and Swansea is currently going through one such dip.
Three wins and two loses in the last 5 games indicate a lack of consistency from a side in recent times, particularly considering the side had lost just four games coming into this run of matches. Each of the losses prior to this run came and went with impressive form on either side showing that this is the first period of unsteady results for Swansea. This will be a concern for Swansea fans as the talented but thin squad may be tiring from the compact season and their extended cup run.
There is a growing pattern in the sides inconsistency as they appear to bounce back from defeats before falling to defeat against their next opposition: A win against Nottingham Forest was followed by a defeat to Huddersfield Town, and then a win at Coventry City, before falling to defeat to Bristol City before finally getting all three points at Stoke. Swansea will be hoping for success against Middlesbrough in order to break this duct while the Teessiders will be hoping that this is a good omen for the clash.
A more in-depth look at these recent fixtures indicate further cause for concern for Steve Cooper as the sides defensive solidity has been undermined in their most recent defeats. A comprehensive 4-1 defeat to a lowly and out of form Huddersfield Town side, saw Woodman concede to goals from Holmes, Campbell and O’Brien. The four goals that the side shipped when visiting the John-Smith’s Stadium equals 17% of all the goals the side has conceded so far this season. Meanwhile, the clash with Bristol City saw the side concede 3 times to a side that had also been on a sticky run of form before facing Middlesbrough and yet Wells, Palmer and Semenyo managed to find a way past the usually formidable Swansea defence. The three goals conceded when hosting local rivals Bristol City equated to 13% of the oppositions haul against Swansea. Ultimately, over the last 5 games, Swansea City has conceded 8 goals which is over 1/3rd of the goals scored against the Swans. It appears that the defence may be struggling to replicate its typical form at the moment presenting a good opportunity for Middlesbrough.
On the other hand, Swansea City have scored 1.2 goals per game over the last 5 matches which is equal to the seasons average showing that the attack has remained consistent. Even so, the attack has followed a goalscoring pattern in recent weeks as the Swans have scored one goal in four of their last five games with the latest, against Stoke City, seeing the side find the net twice. If the side is set to follow their recent form than it is highly likely that Swansea will find the net at least once against Middlesbrough but serious questions will be asked of Swansea if the Teessiders manage to score two goals.
Top Goalscorer: André Ayew (11)
Most Assists: Jake Bidwell (7)
Most Yellow Cards: Jay Fulton, Ryan Bennett (7)
Most Yellow Cards: Kyle Naughton (1)
One To Watch: André Ayew
While Swansea’s defensive unit deserves the ultimate praise for their record so far this season, it is one of the forwards that has been highlighted for individual attention. Andre Ayew may have entered his 30’s but he is still considerably dangerous and he is capable of performing at a higher level in the footballing pyramid. Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock recently praised the player calling him a ‘good player’ before going on to praise his attitude and welcoming him ‘to come up here’. This praise for the Ghanaian International emphasises the ability he has at his disposal.
While his youth career started in Germany for 1860 Münich, his first professional appearance came with French giants Olympic Marseille. He spent 9 years at the Olympians making 209 appearances, easing him into the professional game. He garnered a lot of interest during this period as he put in some impressive performances alongside his younger brother Jordan Ayew. He was directly involved in a goal every two games during his time in France and so Swansea City swooped on the free agent at the end of the 2014/2015 season.
His first stint at Swansea was short lived as he played at the Liberty Stadium for just a single season impressing with 12 goals and 5 assists in 34 Premier League appearances, earning him a £21.69m move to West Ham United giving the Swans a healthy profit despite his short stay at the club.
Ayew spent two seasons in London and he continued to be relatively consistent averaging 0.5 goal involvements per 90 in the league, or an assist/goal every two games. Unfortunately he failed to become a permanent fixture in the West Ham side as the player averaged 54 minutes per appearance.
Swansea were fearing for their Premier League survival when the 2018 January transfer window opened and their attention returned to André Ayew as the man to score the goals to keep them in the top division in English football. The deal was completed on transfer deadline day with Ayew moving back to the Liberty Stadium for £20.52m, still leaving them with a profit from the process. Swansea would originally wry their decision to bring the player back to Wales as he failed to score a single goal in 12 appearances as the side was relegated.
Despite the clubs relegation, André Ayew was still highly regarded and his market value had not greatly deflated but that would change with during a loan spell in Turkey. Fenerbahçe, saw an opportunity to bring the player to Istanbul where he was directly involved in a goal every 4 games, a rate far lower than what would have been expected from a Premier League standard player in the Turkish division. When he returned back to Swansea, where he has remained since, he had scored 5 goals and assisted 2 in 38 appearances.
Ayew has made 79 appearances since he returned to Swansea, scoring 29 goals and setting up 9 more for teammates. This means that his return to Wales has coincided with a return to his typical 0.5 goal involvements per game, showing that he has continued to find motivation to perform at his best in Championship matches.
How Does He Play?
While previously an attacking midfielder, Ayew played as part of a striking partnership for the majority of this season with great success so far as the 91 capped Ghanaian International is Swansea’s top goalscorer with 11 goals. At 5ft 9 he is not a typical target man but he is a threat in the air with a number of his Swansea career goals coming from headers. The way he manages to beat taller defenders to incoming crosses is an indication of the key component to his success, his mentality and understanding the game. He recognises that he is unlikely to directly beat defenders in the air and so he uses runs across the defender or he drops off into space in order to get the better of them.
This ability to find space in the box is what makes him so dangerous as he evades the detection of defenders in and around the penalty spot. He prefers not to shoot from outside the box and will instead encourage build up play with a solid and sometimes impressive passing repertoire or he will run at the defence if he feels that it is particularly vulnerable. The most impressive thing about Ayew, however, is his ability to do the phenomenal and Middlesbrough defenders will have to make note of this when facing him on Saturday.
Middlesbrough can stop him though and having an extra defender will go a long way to subdue the 31 year old. The wingbacks are Swansea’s primary drive going forwards and having an extra defender, to either pressure the wingback or sweep up crosses will go a long way to limiting Ayew’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, ensuring that a defender tightly marks the Ghanaian will help to prevent him from finding the space that he is so effective in.
Hot Prospect: Ben Cabango
Swansea’s defensive record this season is even more impressive when considering two of the players that have made it possible, Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi, are just 20 year old and have made just 95 professional appearances between them as such either of these players could have been named as Swansea’s hottest prospect. Ben Cabango pips his teammate to the plaudits as he came through the Swansea youth academy and so he is their own product rather than from a Premier League youth system.
The defensive record speaks for itself, but Cabango’s individual statistics emphasises how impressive his season has been so far. He has won the ball back 2.9 times per game (tackles and interceptions) which is a respectable return as Matt Grimes and Jay Fulton are typically key in breaking up attacking moves while Cabango holds the line and deals with any threats in the box which he certainly succeeds at with his 4.6 clearances per game.
Steve Cooper encourages his side to play out from the back and so it is key that his defenders are capable passers and Cabango, who averages 41.6 pass attempts per 90 with a 73.7% accuracy, is certainly that.
He has contributed to the teams efforts going forward too as he has found the net 4 times so far this season from an average of 0.6 shots per game, indicating that he is a player that needs to be picked up on set pieces.
Swansea City has fostered a number of impressive young centre backs in recent years with one such player, Joe Rodon, making a summer move to Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile Cooper continues to foster the modern ideas of a ball playing centre back in Marc Guehi and Ben Cabango and both of these players could go on to play for similarly highly rated clubs or better.
Manager: Steve Cooper
A lot is said about a managers playing experience supplementing their coaching careers with those that experienced the top of the game frequently considered as professionals with the aptitude to make a good manager and there are some examples of this success as Pep Gaurdiola and Zinedine Zindane both had extensive careers at the top of the game before they became coaches. However some excellent coaches also buck this trend as Marcelo Bielsa’s career extended over just 5 years before he moved into coaching while Mauricio Sarri came into coaching from a career in finance. Steve Cooper has the potential to join this category of manager.
His limited playing career between 1998 and 2003 saw him play for a few low league sides before he signed a deal to coach Wrexham youth academy and after impressing he moved into Liverpool’s talent producing system. Yet a lot is made of his time in the England International Youth sides as he spent 5 years working for the FA (England U-16’s 2014-2015 and England U-17’s 2015-2019) as it was his successes at this level and the style of play that he deployed that garnered interest from Swansea City. Since arriving in 2019 a number of young players have joined Swansea on loan, to gain the benefit of coaching under Cooper having tasted it during the International breaks in his previous role.
It isn’t hard to recognise Cooper’s footballing identity as he prefers to play a possession based system with defenders that are comfortable on the ball, he is happy with possession moving wide in the final third and instead emphasises that the central midfielders must break up play to protect the backline.