Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Difference A Leon Makes: Possession & Plan B

With our talisman having only started just six games all season, and having again been absent at WBA, what's keeping Leon out of the team?

For Swansea City fans, there are certain constants. We get repeatedly shafted by referees. Andy Carroll scores every time he sets foot on the field against us. And Leon Britton is our defensive midfielder.

This season though, we've seen the Swans have to make do without our diminutive playmaker. Leon has managed just six league starts, but when he has his influence has been telling. Speaking on last night's #STID phone in on Swansea Sound (link) I mentioned this because, frankly, the difference with and without Leon is obvious.

Prior to the game against QPR at Loftus Road, the Swans had averaged around 50% possession per match. Anyone familiar with the Swans (and stats) will know that's below our normal level. I've done numerous pieces in the past showing the difference with Leon in the lineup (link1, link2), but it isn't something we can downplay.

Just look at the figures. The opening game against Man Utd where we claimed a famous win? 39.4% possession. No Leon. Burnley home? 50.8%. No Leon. This trend continues. WBA (h) 50.4%, Chelsea (a) 45.3%, Southampton (h) 44.2%. Sunderland (a) 47%. Leicester (h) 47.1%. Everton (a) 32.3%. Arsenal (h) 47.1%. Man City (a) 42%. 

There are exceptions. Without Leon in the team we had 60.1% possession against Newcastle, 54.7% against Stoke and 61.4% against Palace. As you can see above though - Burnley, WBA, Sunderland, Leicester - these are all games we'd have traditionally bossed possession but we were unable to achieve that. Reason? No Leon.

Enter Leon Britton. QPR home? 58% possession - bearing in mind QPR have been strong at home that's no mean feat. West Ham away is a bit of an anomaly - we managed just 43.3% possession against an Andy Carroll-inspired West Ham, but in truth we were thoroughly mauled on that day. Spurs home saw Leon retain his place, and we managed 56.5% - probably our most impressive performance (in terms of retaining the ball, at least) of the season. 

That contrasts markedly with the next game, which was distinctly Leon-less. A 1-0 win at Hull saw us retain just 42.3% of the ball. Against Hull! Next up was Aston Villa at home which again saw a 1-0 win, but once again we only managed 44.4% of the ball. No Leon, no surprise.

Leon then made his next three starts of the season. Away at Liverpool - 54.7% possession, despite losing 4-1. Away at QPR - 58.8%. Lastly, West Ham home - 56.5%. There is an absolutely irrefutable trend which says Leon inspires a massive uplift in our possession statistics, and as this is a crucial part of how we play it's something which can't be ignored.

What this tells me is that as yet, we're still working on how to retain the ball without him. Since his last start we've played Chelsea (h) 49.6%, Saints (a) 38%, but there are signs of hope. In our last two games - Sunderland at home & WBA away - we've managed 59.8% and 58.9%. Ok, we may have only got a point from those games, but we unarguably could have played lots better in both and we still managed to retain the ball.

While the continuing absence of Leon is worrying I'm happy to accept that, for now, any Leon-based panic on my part is largely paranoia. First it was a knee injury, now it's a virus - I know I'm not alone in being worried but, as sad as it is, we can't afford to wait for Leon to retire before making a plan. We need to figure out how we're going to play when Leon is no longer an option, and if we can have multiple systems which allow us to retain possession then all the better.

To me, what these stats show is - suddenly - quite obvious. Monk has openly said his first priority was sorting the defence and, in general, that's fine now. For the first time this season, I get the sense we're looking to retain the ball much more than previously and what's more, we're looking capable of doing it without Leon.

There remains just one area to work on. Goals. It is a big one, but I get the sense it's already at the top of Monk's list.