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Swansea season preview: More quality signings means things can only get better

Top Five: Liverpool transfer targets instead of Mkhitaryan

Paying the ‘English premium’ is never a good idea, but clubs keep making the same mistake

How Swansea’s success and evolution in the transfer market has made them so successful

Swansea’s exceptional use of the transfer market makes them the Premier League’s very own ‘Moneyball’ success story.

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Over recent years Swansea have had an almost absurdly high success rate with new signings but just as important are the big profits they have made from selling their players on. We know about the succession of managers, Martinez, Sousa, Rodgers and Laudrup who have subscribed to the ‘Swansealona’ policy of possession maintenance and quick dynamic players set up in a 433. But because this system has been a constant for the best part of 7 years it means the scouts know exactly what they are looking for and they have been able to plug players in to the system without slowing the progress. Not only does it mean that they can sign players for less because they have a very specific role to play, but it also means they can sell them for big fees.

I’ll start by looking at how the team which played the playoff final in 2011 victory against Reading was assembled and how this has evolved in to the current team, all the while with huge profits coming in and the transfer policy showing subtle evolution rather than revolution.

Below is the starting XI for that game with a side note on how they were acquired.

GK – Dorus de Vries: singed as a free agent in 2007 by Roberto Martinez
RB – Angel Rangel: signed for an undisclosed fee from Real Zaragoza in 2007 by Martinez
CB – Ashley Williams: signed for £400,000 from Stockport in 2008 by Martinez
CB – Garry Monk: signed for free in 2004 by Kenny Jackett
LB – Alan Tate: signed for an undisclosed fee from Manchester United in 2004 by Jackett
CM – Leon Britton: signed for free from West Ham in 2003
CM – Joe Allen: youth product
CM – Steven Dobbie: signed as a free agent in 2009 by Paulo Sousa
RW – Nathan Dyer: signed for £400,000 from Southampton in 2009 by Martinez
LW – Scott Sinclair: signed for £1,000,000 from Chelsea in 2010 by Rodgers
ST – Fabio Borini: signed on loan from Chelsea in 2011 by Rodgers

There are two things that stand out about this team; it was assembled for under £2m and that only Sinclair and Borini were signed by Brendan Rodgers. It shows the importance of the system which had been set up by Martinez as this team had been pretty much playing together for the best part of two years with the defence having been settled in for longer still. The other interesting thing is that only Williams & Dobbie were signed away from another side’s first team. It takes good scouting to find so many bargains that aren’t visible by starring week in and week out elsewhere. Sinclair and Dyer were well regarded prospects who had lost their way but were brought to Swansea to play as the wide forwards and settled in to a system which suited their talents perfectly.

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With this tactical template looking well suited to Premier League football, the scouting and recruitment department knew they were looking for certain types of players for the Premier League. Going in to their shortened off-season, Swansea needed to replace the departed de Vries and Borini and also prioritised adding some athleticism to their defence and a goal getting midfielder.

The key signing, and I would argue the best signing of the 2011/12 season across the entire premier league, was goalkeeper Michel Vorm. Vorm was the ideal fit for Rodgers’ system as he operated almost as a sweeper with his superior ball skills and his ability to make breath taking saves was pivotal in a defence set up to allow for a ‘bend but don’t break’ mentality. The defensive set up implicitly expected that shots would come in from range as it was designed to flow across the box to prevent through balls and crosses, thus the need for athletic defenders. This meant Vorm made 143 saves and saved 2 penalties in his debut season. Just as impressive is the fact that Swansea scooped him up from Dutch mid table dwellers FC Utrecht for a meagre £1.7m which would have been a steal if he was even just a serviceable keeper but was an incredible signing given he established himself as arguably the top keeper outside of the top 6. Surely offers would need to be north of £10m to even get in to a conversation about selling him now.

Coming off a 24 goal season for Watford in the Championship, Danny Graham offered strength and endeavour as a like for like replacement for Borini. As the central striker, the role required him to be the leader of Rodgers’ high pressing defensive scheme with the single striker in this system pressing the opposition central defenders in to making a mistake on the ball and surrendering possession. Graham was a perfect fit for this and with Watford’s financial troubles came at a bargain price of £3.5million. Graham chipped in with 12 goals and set the tone with his energy and work rate that typifies Swansea’s style. Not many in the media saw Graham succeeding in the top flight and not many saw Wayne Routledge doing so either. A career journeyman Routledge was picked up for less than £2m and joined the rotation in the wide attacking spot with Nathan Dyer. He saw significant playing time and posed an attacking menace whilst showing increased tactical and defensive awareness. Another rough diamond polished up after a cheap acquisition. He has taken his game up a notch this year to add consistency to the menace which he has always had.

The final two pieces of the puzzle were the loans of Steven Caulker and the January capture of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Caulker brought height, strength and pace as a perfect complement to Ashley Williams in central defence. Despite being unproven at Premier League level he was recruited with full confidence that he could thrive and thrive he did. Playing in 10 of the 14 clean sheets they kept, his importance is evident. A capable footballer too, he slotted in seamlessly. The loan capture of Sigurdsson owed much to Rodgers’ experience with him at Reading. A goal scoring midfielder was sorely needed in January as the attack started to run in to trouble and the Icelander duly scored 7 and assisted 5 in his few months in the league. No money was spent on either but they got a full season from Caulker who is now pushing for a first team place at Spurs and has been in the England squad whilst Sigurdsson completed a £9m move to Spurs this summer.

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In the first season in the league, the transfer policy was, Vorm aside, a continuation of that which had seen them progress through the lower league; identifying players that they could give first team football too at a higher level. It gave the new boys a chance to prove themselves and this gave them an environment to flourish in and now all are showing the benefits of that. The exception was Vorm in that he was a signing of a player from overseas that was an unknown, a bargain found because he hadn’t shown up on any other club’s radar. This type of move was the next step in the clubs transfer market development and blossomed in 2012.

If inserting talent to an already established, stable and successful system in order to secure survival was impressive then if anything Swansea’s 2012 was even more impressive. Say to Swansea fans in June 2012 that they will lose their manager, Joe Allen, Scott Sinclair, Sigurdsson & Caulker and be better for it they wouldn’t believe you. But this is the reality because of the club’s commitment to its footballing philosophy and another summer of unmatched transfer success. As with the season before, each departure was replaced with a like for like player at a cheaper price. New manager Michael Laudrup brought expertise of La Liga with him and embraced the 433 possession based game that had been developed over the previous 7 years. His knowledge of the oversea market coupled with the success they had tasted with the Vorm transfer saw the club target this market inefficiency with majestic success.

The clear headline act in 2012’s crop of signings is of course Michu. Signed for an unseemly £2m from Rayo Vallecano he was the top scoring midfielder in La Liga in 2011/12 with 15 goals and it seems amazing in hindsight that not only were Swansea able to get him so cheaply but that they did so without any competition. A big hole in the team was left by the departing Sigurdsson in the role as the goal getting midfielder in the system. Unable to compete with the financial package on offer at Spurs, Swansea saved £7m on the swap and have unquestionably gotten themselves a massive upgrade. Michu is a thoroughly modern forward, able to play as the central striker in a front 3 or the advanced man in a midfield trio, flexibility that Sigurdsson has not proven. His signing meant that not only had they signed a replacement for Sigurdsson but they also had a big physical hard working presence who would be able to operate as the lone striker. As a result of this Swansea could also add quality in the midfield. His sale value is already estimated in the £20-30m range which would represent a monumental profit should he ever be sold.

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The next key signing was Jonathan de Guzman on loan from Villareal. The sale of Joe Allen for £15m to Liverpool created a big gap in the ‘Xavi’ role in the Swansea midfield. Allen set the tempo and was always available to receive the ball, attributes which de Guzman shares. In his youth at Feyenoord de Guzman was considered to be an elite prospect . For various reasons he lost his way at Mallorca and Villareal but Laudrup knew what he could add to his team. De Guzman also brings superior set piece skills which have been evidenced with some spectacular goals. The £15m that Swansea got for Allen was arguably the best sale of the summer. With Liverpool essentially bidding against themselves Swansea did amazingly to get as much as they did. One of the criticisms, however harsh, of Allen is that he is a ‘system player’ but Rodgers knew what he was getting for his money. Laudrup knew that he could replace Allen with an at least similar if not slightly better player for no money. De Guzman operates at a slightly quicker and more direct tempo but he ideally needed a physical presence next to him.

Some of the £15m was then put towards the purchase of Sung-Yeung Ki from Celtic. An athletic and technically supreme midfielder, Ki provides a perfect counter balance to de Guzman. Adding a bit more physicality to the midfield than Britton and Allen, Ki has helped Swansea to impose themselves both technically and now physically too on to other teams. Good examples of this were the home win against a physical Stoke midfield that included Steven N’Zonzi and then the technical control they exhibited at the Emirates against Arsenal and in the Semi-final victory over Chelsea. The ability of Michu to play upfront has also allowed Laurdup to play Britton as an extra deep lying technically proficient player in to his midfield three meaning even greater possession retention. Swansea’s adroitness in the transfer market has afforded them this flexibility.

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With Sinclair leaving to Manchester City at a £7m profit for Swansea, one of the most important roles in the team was suddenly a weakness. The capture of Pablo Hernandez was less of a secret gem being found and more impressive for how it showed that Swansea have progressed in such a short space of time. On their promotion from the Championship just a year earlier, the idea that Swansea could attract a current starter from a club with Valencia’s pedigree was fanciful. Their attractive and stylish brand of football caught the eye across Europe though and with the prestige attached to Laudrup’s name as an added attraction Swansea were able to secure his signature. Hernandez is a superior player to Sinclair but Swansea made a profit of £2m on the swap from one to the other; excellent business. The final whole to fill was that of Caulker in the central defence and this was achieved with the £2m signing of Chico Flores who has brought the pace, strength and technical capability required to fill the gap.

Swansea made a profit of around £10m in the transfer market in 2012, but that is just the start of things. Taking their recent first choice team, they would make a big profit on every single member of their team and that cannot be said for any other side in the Premier League. For example;

GK; Vorm bought for £1.4m, re-sale £10-15m
RB: Rangel undisclosed, roughly £50,000, re-sale £5m
CB: Williams bought for £400,000, re-sale £6-8m
CB: Flores bought for £2m, re-sale £6-8m
LB: Davies youth product, re-sale £4-5m
CM: Ki bought for £5, re-sale £8m
CM: Britton bought for free, re-sale £4-5m
CM: De Guzman on loan, sale value £5-6m
RW: Routledge bought for £1.9m, re-sale £4-5m
ST: Michu bought for £2m, re-sale £20-30m
LW: Hernandez bought for £6m, re-sale £8-10m

In May 2011 Swansea won the Championship play-off final and were not expected to survive their first campaign in the Premier League. However, because of their unmatched efficiency and success in the transfer market matched with a commitment to a style and system for which they know what they require for each role they now sit 9th in the Premier League and have lifted the Capital One Cup. The greatest compliment that they can be paid is that they are already not even considered as a relegation candidate and are the most cutting edge and ground breaking users of the transfer market. The Swansea model is one which other sides would be well advised to look at, they are the Premier League’s ‘Moneyball’ side.

Who would be most valuable in an IPL style auction of Premier League players? Part One: Top 40

Cricket’s Premier club competition, the Indian Premier League used a player auction to assign the available players to each team. Each side has the same budget so the true test of player recruitment is how to prioritise what you spend most of your money on. Do you go for a few stars and some decent others or look to balance it all out?

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to imagine a scenario where the Premier League assigned players in an auction to see who would be most valuable. I am working on the basis that each player is then contracted to their club for a significant time period. It isn’t as simple as a list of the Top 40 players in the league however.

When compiling this list I considered what would make for the best investments. This took in to account the player’s quality primarily, added to age, injury history, and position importance. An injury prone 32 year old Left back is not as valuable as a 21 year old striker for example. There is intrinsically less value in older players as you may only have them for a couple of years where you could have a young player for a decade. For this reason, the likes of Lampard, Ferdinand and Terry have missed the cut. I’ve taken all players registered to Premier League clubs.

Starting from the 40th ranked player I will work up to the number one over three parts and explain why each player is ranked where he is.

40 – Ashley Cole Still the best left back in the league but at 32 he would be a short term, albeit high quality, investment.
39 – Andy Carroll It might be a surprise to see Carroll ranked in the top 40 but at just 24 and with plenty of physical gifts he would be a desirable asset in this format.
38 – Steven Gerrard Gerrard just about gets on because he is 33. However, his all around game is still of the highest quality and would give a couple of good years.

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37 – Daniel Sturridge Sturridge is a frustrating player but he has a knack of making things happen and getting amongst the goals. Attacking threat is hard to find and he would be sought after.
36 – Ashley Young Young showed at Watford and Villa that he can be relied upon to be a consistent and threatening presence in a wide forward position. He still has potential to unlock at 27.
35 – Cesar Azpilicueta The young right back has seized the right back spot at Chelsea and looks bound for plenty of future improvement. Pace, energy and enthusiasm mark him out as a valuable option.
34 – Oscar Oscar has shown that he can operate anywhere in midfield for Chelsea this season. A young player of immense technical talent, if he can add consistency and goals to his flair he could become world class.
33 – Joe Hart Hart is one of the top goalies in the league and is still only 25. He is one of 4 goalkeepers in the top 40 as keepers are in much shorter supply than outfield players and getting a good one is critical.

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32 – David de Gea De Gea has started to mature at United this year and has flashed his elite reflexes and shot stopping. He is ranked marginally above Hart as he is 4 years younger with more potential to be tapped.
31 – Sandro This might look high for Sandro but it’s with good reason. Look at what has happened to Spurs since his injury. They’ve lost the resilience that was key in the early season. He’s still only 24 and improving rapidly as a deep lying playmaker and destroyer.
30 – Phillipe Coutinho You are paying for potential and all around attacking threat with Coutinho who has flown in to action at Liverpool. He possesses fabulous technical skill with plenty of room for improvement.
29 – Yaya Toure If this seems low for Yaya there is good reason. He is closing in on 30 now and for a player who bases his game on his athleticism that is a potentially turning point age. Still, he’s an elite player who would give several years of good service.
28 – Michu Michu offers the tactical flexibility to play as a number 9 or number 10 and has shown himself to be a lethal and devastating finisher. He’s only 27 so can get plenty better.
27 – Shinji Kagawa Kagawa has had a slow start at Old Trafford due to injury but is one of the most creative players in the league. If this list was next year I would bet he would be near the top 10.

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26 – Rafael Rafael has improved in leaps and bounds this season with regular first team football. Full back wouldn’t be a high price position by and large but Rafael offers genuine attacking threat, capable of scoring 5 goals or so a year from right back. He’s also only 22.
25 – Hugo Lloris Lloris has started to show the talents that once made him the best keeper prosepct in the world. He’s only 26 so is about to hit the peak years for a goalkeeper. In this format he would be a no brainer investment.
24 – Marouane Fellaini Fellaini is a physical force of nature, capable of dominating any defence. The only reason he isn’t further up is that his best use hasn’t yet been defined.

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23 – Fernando Torres I know what you’re thinking. But even despite his struggles he’s still closing in on 20 goals this season and has the potential to be his old self. Maybe. Worth a flyer in this format.
22 – Carlos Tevez In terms of talent Tevez should be higher but this would be a risky investment and that is reflected in his ranking outside the top 20. He can score and make goals and works as hard as anyone.
21 – Pablo Zabaleta Zabaleta is the best right back in the world and in this format his leadership would be a highly valuable commodity. At 28 he is enjoyed the best form of his career and would a true plug and play option in this auction.


You may also like:

Who would be most valuable in an IPL style auction of Premier League players? Part Three: The Top 10

Who would be most valuable in an IPL style auction of Premier League players? Part Two: Top 20

Top Five Premier League Signings of the Season

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