As Stoke and Swansea City face a summer of soul-searching following their relegation from the Premier League, the likes of Burnley and Bournemouth should be watching with caution.
Some clubs will never be relegated, and a number of clubs will always be well prepared to get promoted again if they do, like West Ham and Newcastle.
That leaves a certain selection of clubs that are either struggling to keep their head above water, or have a certain identity that keeps them comfortably in the league.
That is the case with Sean Dyche’s Burnley now, who conceded less than 40 goals this season, and only for a 5-0 loss to Arsenal in a relative dead rubber at the end of the season, would have had the 4th best defence in the league.
While Burnley have proved to be tough to beat with Dyche’s low block tactical set-up, Bournemouth have proven to be more attractive to watch under Eddie Howe, and are notable for their high pressing game. Bournemouth followed up last year’s 9th place with a solid 12th place this season, which included famous wins over Arsenal and Chelsea.
There was a time when Stoke and Swansea were the two teams in the Premier League mid-table that you knew would be tough to beat, like Burnley and Bournemouth, for very different reasons.
The cold, wet windy Tuesday night in Stoke phrase has become a meme, but there was an element of truth to it. Nobody wanted to play Stoke in the Britannia Stadium. An unusually windy part of England, with a hostile crowd, Stoke battered teams with long-ball, physical football, but under Tony Pulis, it ensured that they stayed comfortably in the league, never finishing below 14th.
Rory Delap’s extremely long throws when they first came into the league may have been a bit of a gimmick, but it added to the vibe of a truly unique, if ugly side.
While Mark Hughes achieved some of their best finishes by playing nicer football, there were signs that their defensive hardness was fading. From conceding 42 goals in Pulis’ final season, they conceded over 50 goals for three consecutive seasons. This season, they conceded a dreadful 68 goals. It is always going to be a struggle to stay up when you concede close to 2 goals per game.
Swansea City arrived in the Premier League a few seasons after Stoke, but they were a breath of fresh air in the league, and offered something unique. Inspired by the success of Guardiola’s Barcelona and Spain internationally, Swansea under Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup, and Roberto Martinez had a clear possession-based philosophy.
In midfield, Leon Britton-Joe Allen partnership were a poor man’s Xavi-Iniesta in the Premier League. Ball-playing centre-back Ashley Williams played the most passes in the league in 11/12, with Leon Britton 6th, and Joe Allen 10th. Both played more passes than David Silva.
Never before had a promoted side looked so comfortable on the ball. High possession stats and the best teams in the league are almost always linked. The top 6 in the possession table in 17/18 are unsurprisingly the top 6 teams in the league.
In their first season in the league in 11/12, Swansea were 6th in possession, more than Chelsea, as they finished 11th under Rodgers. Swansea had the 2nd most passes in the league, after Manchester City, that season.
They had the 3rd most passes the following season under Laudrup, back to 2nd most in 13/14. Brendan Rodgers set the philosophy in motion with his love for possession, and always talked up his style in interviews, sometimes in a cringey way:
“I’ve always worked along with the statistic that if you can dominate the game with the ball you have a 79% chance of winning the game.”
With Rodgers, it was another quote that revealed more about Swansea’s game plan:
“When you’ve got the ball 65-70% of the time, it’s a football death for the other team.”
At the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 World Cup, Spain conceded just three goals in 13 games, in one of the more underrated defensive feats of the modern game. Yet, it always felt like you could get at Ramos and Piqué in defence if you ran at them. The problem was, you never had the ball to be able to run at them, because Spain kept 70% of the possession.
In that way, Swansea under Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, had a clear gameplan that ensured that their defence was never really exposed.
The sacking of Michael Laudrup in 2014, who had just won Swansea’s only major trophy, the 2013 League Cup, led to the gradual erosion of their identity.
By 14/15, they had dropped down to 9th in possession stats, although Monk’s teams could still keep the ball well. Monk was a Swansea City legend as a player. He lined up for them from League Two to the Premier League. Monk only had one full season as manager, and they finished a Premier League-high 8th place.
Monk was harshly sacked in December 2015 for dropping to 15th place in the table. What Swansea would have given to have finished there this season.
Swansea have had four managers since Monk, with none of them staying more than 9 months in the job. With the sale of Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton in the summer of 2017, Swansea lost their key playmaker, who had helped keep them up in the previous season. He was not replaced.
In 12/13, Michael Laudrups’s Swansea played an average of 555.61 passes per game at an accuracy of 85% (more passes than Van Gaal’s United in 15/16). This season, they averaged 487.78 passes per match at an 83% pass accuracy.
In 17/18, Swansea were involved in seven of the 63 games where a team had more than 70% possession in the Premier League, four of them under Carvalhal. Manchester City set a Premier League record when they registered 82.95% possession against Swansea at home, as they won 5-0.
It goes without saying that is difficult to achieve much with 17% possession. Even with Guardiola’s City side being one of the great possession teams, a Laudrup/Rodgers team would never have dropped below 35% possession.
Cavalhal’s side had Jordan Ayew sent off after 11 minutes against Huddersfield. But that hardly excuses the paltry 19.8% possession that they had against the Terriers, who were not setting the league alight at that point.
Swansea’s evolution to bog standard Premier League struggler was complete. Without backing from the board, it is unsurprising that Swansea’s seven-year stint in the Premier League came to an end.
Leon Britton, who was there from the very start, knows better than most.
“Over the last two or three years, we’ve deviated from what got us to the Premier League,” he told The Independent. “Being in the Premier League, you just do everything you can to stay in the league, and the football kind of went away.”
“We need to make sure that when we do come up, we’ve got that clear idea of what we want to do. The last two or three years have been tough, just trying to keep our heads above water.”
“Before that, we always had stability, an idea, a philosophy of the way we played, which served us very well. I would rather, personally, have two, three, four years to get that philosophy and idea back. I think the fans would like to see that back.”
Britton retires from football knowing the Swansea Way, better than most. If the Welsh club are going to make a dent in the Premier League again, they best heed his advice.