American soccer fans enjoyed a historic day on last Sunday as Bob Bradley became the first American soccer coach to manage a team in the English Premier League. Bradley took over a struggling Swansea City from Francisco Guidolin just 7 games into the new season. After taking only 4 points from 21 in the opening fixtures the Swans find themselves in danger of relegation. Bradley’s appointment has drawn the ire of many Swansea supporters who question his ability to coach at this level. According to early reports there may be some skeptics within his own dressing room as well. With less than two weeks in charge of his new club Bradley’s introduction to the Premier League was never likely to be welcoming. However, an opening match away to a surging Arsenal seemed particularly cruel.
At this stage of his tenure there’s little insight to be gained from the opening match, but Bradley’s plan against Arsenal was clear. Despite kicking off in a 4-3-3 Swansea dropped into Bradley’s characteristic 4-4-2 when not in possession right from the start with Wayne Routledge dropping into the midfield. Bradley’s teams with both the US and Egypt were known for dogged 4-4-2 defending, and seeking opportunities to counter attack. Its little surprise that this was Bradley’s plan for his first match at Swansea as well. Swansea’s defensive block set up with the back 4 around 25 yards from goal. Perhaps a little more advanced than they should have given the quality of Arsenal’s attacking players. As expected Arsenal enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the first half. From the opening whistle it was clear that Arsenal intended to exploit their qualitative advantage over Swansea’s left side players Routledge and Neil Taylor. Swansea struggled to deal with the overloads created by Ozil, Bellerin, and Sanchez in wide areas. Swansea’s only recourse to relieve Arsenal’s relentless pressure was to attempt long direct passes into their forwards which Arsenal’s center backs had little trouble intercepting. Swansea’s inability to escape pressure allowed Arsenal to commit players forward into the attack aggravating Swansea’s struggles. At times throughout the first half Arsenal was able to get 5 and even 6 players into Swansea’s back 4.
Hector Bellerin’s Movement
Arsenal’s fullbacks were the key to their attacking moves against Swansea, and Hector Bellerin was particularly effective. The Spanish international’s pace and attacking ability forced Swansea’s left wing Wayne Routlege (SP) to drop back and provide additional cover taking away a crucial outlet option to relieve pressure. It wasn’t just Bellerin’s speed that caused Swansea so much difficulty, but also the unpredictable positions he took up. On multiple occasions he would stay on the touch line even with Swansea’s back for, and on others he’d occupy the half space between the Center back and left back. Bellerin’s runs along with Ozil’s and Sanchez’s movements opened gaps in the Swansea defense that Theo Walcott was able to take advantage of for both of his first half goals
Second Half Developments.
The opening 20 minutes of the second half looked largely the same as the first 45 minutes of the match. However, Swansea did adjust their counter attack slightly by attempting to outlet down the right side through Modou Barrow. Barrow’s technical ability cause some problems for Arsenal and allowed Swansea to finally escape the pressure. After a reckless challenge on Barrow from Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka Arsenal was reduced to ten men giving Swansea an opportunity to get forward, and try to steal and equalizer. Swansea’s new found success going forward resulted in a fairly stretched second half with both teams going end to end. Both teams struggled with their transition to defense which lead to multiple chances on either goal. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Barrow and Leroy Fer all missed clear chances to equalize for Swansea in the second half , and if not for the linesman’s flag Arsenal’s brutally quick counter attack could have led to multiple goals of their own.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from Bob Bradley’s first match in the world’s most popular league it’s that margins for error are razor thin. If passes go even slightly astray, or runs are a fraction late the best teams in the league will make you pay. Fortunately for Bob Bradley his performance in the Premier League this season is not likely to be judged by his results against the most elite teams in the league. Bradley will be judged, more appropriately, on his success against teams that make up the bottom half of the table. If Bradley is able to keep his dressing room bought in and keep Swansea in the Premier League for next year his first season should be deemed a success. A 3-2 loss away to Arsenal is an encouraging start.