United looks to end Swansea hoodoo
Forgive Manchester United supporters for not relishing the prospect of a first trip to Swansea in almost two decades.
Memories of away days in South Wales aren’t particularly fond. The old Vetch Field was a daunting place for many teams, but none more so than their own. Left derelict and overgrown for years, it was recently demolished. Manchester United never won there in eight visits and now never will do. It was a place where their reputation counted for little.
Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United team is looking to end a jinx in Swansea. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
On January 30, 1982, they arrived as league leaders. Ron Atkinson might have thought he had a realistic chance of ending what was then a 15-year wait at Manchester United for a First Division title. But by full-time that hope was already beginning to fade. Goals from Alan Curtis and Robbie James inspired one of Swansea’s four famous scalps that season. John Toshack’s team were quite the surprise package, beating Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham by the exact same scoreline at the Vetch in a fairytale campaign that concluded in a sixth place finish.
Even if he is mindful of the past Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t a man to be intimidated by historical precedent.
After knocking the Liver bird off its perch with the conquest of Manchester United’s 19th league championship, scaring a Swan off the River Tawe, with all due respect, will be of relatively minor significance though a win is advisable if they are to keep in touch with Manchester City.
Still, he will be aware that their hosts on Saturday evening are yet to be beaten at the Liberty Stadium following their promotion and have won three on the bounce at home with impressive performances against West Brom, Stoke and Bolton.
Standing across from Ferguson in the Swansea dugout will be Brendan Rodgers. As a boy he had come across from Northern Ireland for a number of trials at Manchester United. He was winger, a year older than Ryan Giggs and it was at the The Cliff that he first encountered Ferguson.
“He had only been there a year or so at that time,” Rodgers recalled. “But even then I remember being impressed by the interest in the young players he had. You’d see him there every day, watching the youth team as well as the first team. He saw the bigger picture and it stuck with me.”
Rodgers’s admiration for Ferguson increased two years ago when he unexpectedly received a letter from the Manchester United manager after losing his job at Reading. “It just wished me all the best,” he revealed. “When you are low, a thing like that, especially from a man like him, makes all the difference.”
With that in mind, is it any wonder that Rodgers decided to take some time out from preparing for the game during the international break to drive to his local wine merchant in the Uplands and get Ferguson a bottle of red to add to his collection?
“I said I wanted something that represented Wales as much as Swansea and we came up with an Argentinian red,” Rodgers told the South Wales Evening Post. “This wine was made in a part of Patagonia where 25 per cent of the 50,000 residents speak Welsh, so that’s the one I’ve got for Sir Alex.”
Added curiosity comes in the name of the vineyard where it is produced. It’s called the ‘End of the World’. One imagines that were Manchester United to lose on Saturday, Rodgers’s well-meaning present would unintentionally leave a bitter taste in Ferguson’s mouth.
All the same, Swansea can’t afford to be too respectful of their opponents. That might prove difficult for some members of the team, in particular their talented youngster Joe Allen who cites Paul Scholes as one of his idols.
“I’m a Manchester United fan and I grew up watching them every week,” he said. “It will be a fantastic occasion.”
Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers shakes the hand of Ashley Williams after the goalless draw at Liverpool. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
With the Liberty Stadium sold out in advance, and hotels and restaurants fully booked, Rodgers and defender Ashley Williams likened the atmosphere around the club to that when a “circus” is coming to town. Swansea would do well to remember that this is their ring and they are the masters of it.
No one has enjoyed more possession at home than they have in the Premier League this season. Swansea have averaged 61.4 per cent. They haven’t always used it as well as they should – failing to score in each of their first two games at the Liberty Stadium – but a record of four clean sheets and only one goal conceded in front of their own fans shows that if the other team doesn’t have the ball then they can’t put it in the net either.
“The modern game is very much based on the midfield area and how you can control that zone,” Rodgers explained. “There are very few teams doing it with a standard 4-4-2 formation, especially at international level. You can see how our players handle the ball. You have to be able to play with the ball and our players can do that.”
His words are borne out by the stats: Of all Swansea passes made this season 4,829 have found their target– that’s 390 more than Manchester United have recorded.
Mark Gower (right) tracks the run of Liverpool forward Luis Suarez. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Helping set that high standard are Leon Britton and Mark Gower, the midfield tandem of Swansea’s 4-2-3-1 system. After the 3-1 win against Bolton on October 29, Opta published some startling performance analytics behind their partnership.
Britton had completed all 67 of his passes, the most by a player with 100% accuracy in the last six Premier League seasons, while Gower continued his average of creating 3.8 chances per match, more than anyone else in Europe’s top five divisions, including Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Talk of a Swanselona legitimizes Rodgers’s philosophy. He has stayed true to the style brought to the club by his predecessors Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa but added something extra.
“Defensively they are more solid than Blackpool [were last season],” former Manchester United full-back Denis Irwin told the BBC. “The goalkeeper Michel Vorm has been a real find for them and I think with the couple of signings that Rodgers has made as well, they can score goals.
Striker Danny Graham, bought from Watford in the summer, has found the net in each of Swansea’s last four games before the laudable 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield. Rodgers’s players earned a standing ovation from the Kop for the manner in which they acquitted themselves. Liverpool centre-back Daniel Agger was surprised by how good they were on the ball and acknowledged that Swansea had left his side running around like “headless chickens” with the speed and precision of their passing.
“This wasn’t a game where we were hanging on for long spells and had to be incredibly defensive,” Rodgers said. “We had good possession for long periods and created chances and – with a little bit more good fortune – we might have put those chances away… Psychologically it’s significant for us. I like my teams to be technical and tactically organised, and understand their jobs, but psychologically that was really important.”
That result kept Swansea 10th in the Premier League. Rodgers believes it has been an “excellent start”.
Normally one would expect Manchester United to win a game like Saturday’s but this is South Wales, and Vetch Field lies only a couple of miles down the road. Its spirit lives on. Surely 1982 couldn’t happen again? Could it? We’ll find out soon enough.