Swansea's little masters look right at home against big guns
The FA Cup might have moved on for
another week, but thoughts of giant killing are still floating around Swansea. Then again, they always are.
'When we played Manchester City in
our first game of the season, I was taking three strides for every one
Yaya Toure took,' said Leon Britton. 'Not easy to keep up with – the guy
To Britton, most opponents seem that way.
Good things in small packages: Swansea regularly field several players well under 6ft, like Nathan Dyer (left, 5ft 5in) and Leon Britton (5ft 6in… or so he says!)
Indeed, the midfielder, 5ft 6in according to Swansea's website but possibly an inch shorter by his own admission, is reckoned by some to be the shortest player in the Barclays Premier League.
'Nathan Dyer (Swansea's right winger) thinks that, but he's actually shorter than me,' Britton said.
'He's tried making me go back-to-back with him and all that, but one of the League's official books has him listed at 5ft 5in and me at 5ft 6in. That's good enough for me.'
Both Dyer and Britton are among the six 5ft-somethings that regularly stand in front of their 6ft goalkeeper, Michel Vorm.
Metaphorically and literally, Swansea will be looking up on Sunday when Arsenal come to the Liberty Stadium.
Brendan Rodgers' magnificent miniatures enjoy more modest dreams than their guests.
Little big men: Neil Taylor (left, 5ft 9in) and Joe Allen (right, 5ft 6in)
For Swansea, top-flight survival is the objective.
For Arsenal, finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1996 is unthinkable.
And yet two such disparate clubs have so much in common.
For years Arsenal have set the standard for elegance in the Premier League.
These days, though, another team have tippy-tapped their way into the purists' affections and the numbers support what people in Swansea have said for years.
So far this season they have averaged 526 passes a game.
In that regard, Opta's statistics show that a team assembled for about 10million are bettered only by Arsenal (537) and Manchester City (554).
Going deeper, three players from Arsenal and four from Swansea rank in the Premier League's top 20 for both passes attempted and completed.
Of those, Britton has been the most accurate passer of the ball in the division, with 93 per cent of his deliveries – mostly over small distances – finding their target.
Pass masters: Wayne Routledge (left) will be joined by Josh McEachran (right)
On Sunday, therefore, is an intriguing case of student taking on the pass master.
'I am very excited about this one,' Rodgers said. 'It will be a wonderful football game. For the last 15 years Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League so we understand the task ahead.
'Arsene Wenger is one of the very few world-class managers. I think when he came here there was a lot of great work going on, but when he arrived there was a real change in terms of coaching and culture.
'He is a man for whom I have a big admiration, both for his belief and his football philosophy.'
Understandably, Rodgers is happy with comparisons to Arsenal – less so with 'lazy' pre-season parallels with Blackpool – but while their styles are similar Wenger's tactics are notably different.
Swansea's play is derived from Rodgers' philosophy that holding possession is the best way to both control the game and stop opponents from scoring.
Style points: Arsene Wenger (left) and Brendan Rodgers (right)
To that end, they tend to spend large amounts of time playing the ball between defence and midfield, sucking in the opposition before springing the ball out to wingers Scott Sinclair and Dyer for an attack.
Arsenal, by comparison, are more aggressive wi th their possession.
Britton said: 'Given the way we play – so much of our game is about possession and technique – it's not really a disadvantage having small guys in the side. Maybe it's an advantage. We won't win a lot of balls in the air but we have a low centre of gravity. Of course there are loads of great footballers in this division who are 6ft 5in or whatever, but a lot of the shorter guys are good technically because of the low centre of gravity.'
Swansea's approach calls for courage – it is easier to lob the ball forward than pass your way out of trouble – and Rodgers believes mental strength will be the 'big difference' between this match and the 1-0 defeat Swansea suffered after a close game in north London in September.
His point is illustrated by memories of the 1-0 defeat by Manchester United in November, when Rodgers went into the dressing room at half-time and ordered his players to 'stop thinking about which shirt you want to swap'.
No fewer than seven of his regular starters played in League One or lower so a degree of deference was to be expected, but the 1-1 comeback draw against Tottenham on New Year's Eve represented something of a watershed, a moment when Rodgers' collection of rejects started to believe their brand of football can work against top teams.
'Games like that are when your philosophy is judged,' Rodgers said.
'You are 1-0 down against the team that everyone is talking about as potential champions.
'We then near enough passed Tottenham to a standstill in the second half.
'There is no doubt that the philosophy is challenged when you play big sides but the Tottenham result reinforced our belief that even the best players in the world can struggle to cope with our game.'
Sunday will be a further test of that for little Swansea.
P.S. And there's another little pass master off to Swansea. Chelsea midfielder Josh McEachran arrives on loan on Monday.
The 18-year-old talent (right) has been frustrated by a lack of chances in the first team at Stamford Bridge and on Friday tweeted: 'I've finally found out about my loan! Off to Swansea on Monday!!'
At 5ft 10in he will fit in perfectly at the Liberty Stadium, too.