Pass masters

has nothing but unstinting praise for the remarkable job Brendan Rodgers has done at Swansea City. Sunday's victory over Arsenal was the latest highlight in a campaign that has exceeded all expectations at the Liberty Stadium and deserves huge recognition.

Image: Leon Britton can rightly be proud of a pass completion rate the exceeds Xavi's

Alex Dunn hails a Swansea City side that has been cultivated in the image of its manager Brendan Rodgers.

At the dawn of a new era in Swansea City's history Brendan Rodgers quipped that many believed 'there was a better chance of seeing an alien or Elvis' than his side retaining their top flight status; by the time Fabio Capello had left the building on Sunday he must have thought there's more chance of duetting with old snake hips himself than getting his England side to play in a similar manner. The Italian had found himself in Wales to cast his eye over Theo Walcott but like the rest of the nation will have been more impressed with Swansea's attacking triumvirate of Nathan Dyer, Scott Sinclair and Danny Graham. In normal sporting tales of David slaying Goliath column inches are filled with vernacular choices of the 'spirited' or 'lion-hearted' variety but to do so now would do a gross disservice to the day in which mini-Arsenal outfoxed and outplayed their capital counterparts. Nine years ago to the weekend Swansea were cast five points adrift of Exeter City at the foot of the Football League; Arsenal were sitting atop of the Premier League. In a season in which Carlos Tevez has improved his golf handicap at a cost of £200,000-a-week to Manchester City and Luiz Suarez has proven to be just a goatee short of David Brent, it is Swansea's story which has reaffirmed dwindling faith in sports' unique transcendent quality. It is, in short, a Hollywood story set in south west Wales. Although it is unlikely Oliver Stone will scout shooting locations in the city anytime soon, comparisons can be drawn with the recent underdog sports biopic Moneyball, adapted from Michael Lewis' acclaimed book and starring Brad Pitt. The story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team sees the side with the lowest wage bill in the league enjoy an excellent campaign largely thanks to their visionary manager Billy Beane. Using statistical and mathematical data to scout players underused and undervalued elsewhere, Beane builds a side very much more than the sum of its parts. More than that though it's a film about having a belief in an ideal and, more importantly, possessing both the courage and conviction to stick with it when others doubt its credence. When Swansea kicked off this season without a win in the opening month they received plenty of platitudes but they were universally of the hollow variety. Here was a side getting a condescending pat on the head. Had Roberto Mancini pinched Rodgers' cheek and ruffled his hair after Manchester City stuck four past the pretty on the eye but ugly at the back Swans on the opening weekend of the season, few would have raised an eyebrow. But then neither would they 20 games later had Rodgers done the same to Wenger. Arsenal's beleaguered Frenchman, whose exasperated touchline affections were present all afternoon, was gracious enough to accept Swansea 'played well' but nonetheless complained the game 'was decided by some strange turning points'. We can only presume he is referring to his decision to spend £8million on Per Mertesacker. At one point in the second half previous grand pass masters Arsenal had just 38.5 per cent of the possession. This was the computer beating Kasparov. The line between a visionary and a zealot is a thin one and at times back in August, when results were harder to come by, there was a sense Rodgers was one defeat away from standing outside Greggs in Swansea city centre with a sandwich board proclaiming 'To pick a pass is to pick God', drowning out the naysayers who claimed Swansea were the new Blackpool with a megaphone. With half of the season now elapsed it looks as though he was right, with even those long-since lapsed into a catatonic state of cynicism by the monied mantra of the top flight ready to accept the Premier League's Barcelona-lite are here for the long-haul. There is something of the Malcolm Gladwell about Rodgers; with the Northern Irishman's appointment in July 2010 the club's own Tipping Point. His borderline obsession with passing the ball accurately certainly seems to have started a "positive epidemic" throughout his playing staff. What was even more remarkable about Sunday's game was the fact Swansea's passing was slightly off compared to how they have performed in the rest of the season. A pass completion rate of 80.4 per cent was better than Arsenal's at 78.7 per cent but significantly below their seasonal average of 85.2. This was an out of sorts Swansea. Without wishing to go all Moneyball again, Swansea's stats for the whole campaign are remarkable. Throughout the length and breadth of Europe they have the sixth best pass accuracy, with only Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Chelsea being able to hold a candle to a side that at the weekend started with eight of the players that helped them to promotion from the Championship last season.
Team Passing Accuracy %
Barcelona 89.2
FC Bayern München 87.0
Manchester City 86.2
Real Madrid 85.8
Chelsea 85.5
Swansea City 85.2
Milan 85.1
Roma 84.9
Tottenham Hotspur 84.7
Arsenal 84.6
Only Michel Vorm, Steven Caulker and Graham were summer recruits. All three have proven to be resounding successes, demonstrating Rodgers can not only mould a player but pick one too. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Josh McEachran should be similarly astute acquisitions on loan until the end of the season. Upon promotion Swansea bought players that fitted into their system, QPR picked the biggest names available. There was only ever likely to be one winner. At the base of a midfield five that splinters into a 4-3-3 when in possession - a style that apes the formation made so in vogue by Barcelona - is Leon Britton. His metamorphosis from a decent but lightweight League One midfielder to the most accurate passer in the whole of Europe (Xavi who?) perhaps best mirrors how Rodgers' vision has been transplanted from his mind onto the field.
Player Team Passing Accuracy % Passes
Britton, Leon Swansea City 93.3 1127
Xavi Barcelona 93.0 1830
Terry, John Chelsea 91.6 1209
Busquets, Sergio Barcelona 91.3 1086
Thiago Silva Milan 91.1 1068
Lahm, Philipp FC Bayern München 91.0 1326
Allen, Joe Swansea City 90.3 1075
Arteta, Mikel Arsenal 90.3 1318
Yaya Touré Manchester City 90.0 1552
Parker, Scott Tottenham Hotspur 89.8 1035
       
Players with 1000+ passes only.      
Britton has been accused of being crab-like but it is his complete absence of a need for self-glorification that allows Swansea's electric wide men Sinclair and Dyer to flourish. Swansea's story may have been penned in Hollywood but their midfield leaves balls of the same variety to Adam, Lampard, Gerrard et al. Ergo lies a side devoid of an ego. If only England could say the same. It is Britton's short passing alongside Joe Allen and Kemy Augustien that frustrates and subsequently draws in the opposition to try and pinch possession. Once opponents are sucked in it is in these vacated channels behind that the Swans' front three have proven so adept at finding space within, especially at the Liberty Stadium. Patience is absolute to Swansea's game plan, with only 20.9 per cent of their passes having gone into the attacking third on Sunday. In this sense they benefit from a home crowd as convinced by Rodgers' methods as the players, with calls to drop the tippy-tappy tiki-taka formula in favour of getting the ball 'into the mixer' rarely heard, even when things aren't going according to plan. Key for Swansea will be to keep the vultures at bay, with January the traditional time in which the fat cats look to buy-back the standard equilibrium. Those sides with deep pockets and even lower league positions may look to syphon off a slice of Swansea's style for themselves but they'd do well to remember this is a side not about individuals but a rare team ethic. You can stick a Porsche engine in a Volvo all you like but it won't guarantee a smooth ride. The real star is in the dugout.

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