As Swansea prepare to take on Bradford in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley, much will depend on the rock at the heart of their defence. Adam Bate looks at the statistics that show Ashley Williams has been one of the key defensive performers in European football this season.
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 22/02/13 10:52am
It must be a familiar team-talk for Bradford City boss Phil Parkinson by now. Those pampered Premier League prima donnas, you can get at them. Pablo Hernandez is used to nights in the Champions League not the tenacious tackling of Stephen Darby. And Jonathan de Guzman won't have come up against the likes of Gary Jones while sunning himself in Mallorca, right?
But any attempt to cast Swansea City as the latest bunch of Premier League stars just waiting to become the victims of an upset is scuppered by the identity of their centre-back. Ashley Williams, like the club he plays for, was not born to the Premier League.
The 28-year-old defender was released by West Brom as a youngster before working his way back up with Hednesford Town. Recalling life with the Pitmen, Williams told The Telegraph last season: "We trained on Tuesday and Thursday nights and played Saturday. I did a few jobs - working in a bowling alley, a theme park, worked as a waiter - just to get some money. The Premier League and even League football seemed so far away."
A move to Stockport County followed and Williams made his first appearance for the Swans in 2008 with the club still in League One. On Sunday, just five years on, and only 10 years since Swansea were rock bottom of the Football League, both player and club have the chance to claim their first major trophy.
Of course, it will be the exotic forward talents at Swansea that will get the attention at Wembley. With Swansea sitting eighth in the Premier League, the focus will be on their much-lauded passing game and the heroics of Bargain Michu. At least, that seems to be his forename. But that success has been built on an impressive defensive structure. Prior to Sunday's thrashing at Liverpool, a game for which Williams was rested, the Swans had the joint-third best defensive record in the Premier League, conceding fewer goals than runaway leaders Manchester United.
It is worth noting that Swansea are without Chico Flores against Bradford and that will be a concern. The Spaniard's proactive style has impressed at the Liberty Stadium. He ranks highly for tackles, clearances and interceptions. But the key to Swansea's success at the back is the fact that this approach perfectly complements the strengths of his centre-back partner.
|Most Blocks - Major European Leagues 2012/13|
Williams is a more reactive figure. Sweeping up behind Chico and providing that last line for his team, his stats show the important role he plays. No player in any of the major European leagues can come close to Williams for the number of shots he has blocked this season. His physicality will be required up against Jim Hanson, the Bantams forward who bullied the defences of Arsenal and Aston Villa to such great effect.
But the Wales captain is no brute. Aside from the occasional lapse, his use of the ball is positive. And crucially, he gives Swansea another option to their patient build-up play. Williams is prepared to look for the longer pass and this is an element of his game seemingly encouraged under Michael Laudrup. Only Phil Jagielka of Everton has played more accurate long balls from defence in the Premier League so far in the current campaign.
|Accurate Long Balls (Defenders) - PL 2012/13|
|Vincent Kompany||Man City||101|
|Rio Ferdinand||Man Utd||100|
These statistics have not been lost on some of the Premier League's biggest clubs. Reports in January suggested Williams has impressed both Liverpool and Arsenal - and not just with his attempts to 'kill' Robin van Persie in December. But the fact that Williams' reputation continues to grow will come as no surprise to his former boss and current Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. Last season Rodgers told the South Wales Evening Post: "Ashley Williams has been absolutely incredible - he is one of the top performers at this level."
He added: "For me, Ash is one of the top four centre-halves in the country. Vincent Kompany is a top performer at Manchester City and John Terry is still a top performer, but there are not many better than Ashley Williams. He has really stepped up this season and shown that he can play at the top level."
Whether or not Rodgers plans to further endear himself to Swansea supporters by prising another star away from the Welsh club remains to be seen. After all, the player signed a new three-year deal at the Liberty Stadium as recently as October. But with interest from the five-time European Cup winners and his current club strong favourites for silverware on Sunday as well as European football next season, these are exciting times for Williams.
So rather than focus on unnerving their Premier League opponents, perhaps the best bet for Bradford boss Parkinson is to point to the presence of Ashley Williams in the Swansea line-up in order to inspire his team. It is possible to work your way up to the top.