21 March ~ Fulham's destruction of Wolves at Craven Cottage earlier this month was easily their most one-sided game of the season. That all changed on Saturday, when Swansea gave the hosts a footballing lesson. Swansea did not let the Fulham players settle for a second. They outfought, outwitted and outplayed the home team from start to finish. Although Manchester United scored two more goals in their 5-0 win in December, no team has won as comprehensively at the Cottage for some time. Not many visiting teams are clapped off the field at full-time in the Premier League, but Brendan Rodgers's team are an unusual bunch.
Swansea City have no right to be performing the way they are this season. Their team on Saturday cost a similar figure to what Fulham paid for the listless midfielder Bryan Ruiz, who was substituted to jeers in the 54th minute. Their most expensive player, Danny Graham, was signed from Watford for £3.5 million last summer. The Manchester City team they beat last weekend had £110m worth of players on their bench. Most of Swansea's players had no Premier League experience until August. And their manager has never played professional football, the token requirement for anyone who wants some credibility in the game.
Success in the Premier League usually comes with a price tag. It is no coincidence that Manchester United win the league most seasons. With the biggest ground, fanbase and revenue, they have a clear competitive advantage. The largesse of Jack Walker and Roman Abramovich has disrupted United's time at the top over the past 20 years, and now Sheikh Mansour is planning to do the same.
Even at the bottom, clubs try to buy their way out of trouble. When QPR were promoted ahead of Swansea last season they went about replacing their team with expensive Premier League players, such as Joey Barton, Anton Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Bobby Zamora. Swansea's success has nothing to do with a wealthy benefactor. The club's board decided against buying Peterborough defender Ryan Bennett for £4.5m in January as they thought the deal was too costly.
Swansea's success can be traced to the influence of Rodgers, a man whose tactics have exploited the weaknesses in richer opponents. Their performance at Fulham was a perfect example of how to build a game-plan and then execute it. Fulham lined up with five attackers – Andy Johnson and Pavel Pogrebnyak up front, supported by the offensive midfielders Moussa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and Ruiz. Mahamadou Diarra, who has only played a few games in the past year, was the only source of protection for the Fulham defence.
Despite their enviable array of attacking options, Fulham do not possess the most cultured backline. For all his defensive prowess, Brede Hangeland struggles to distribute the ball well. And Philippe Senderos does not exactly offer a composed and skillful alternative.
To stop Fulham emerging up the field, where their expensive and talented players could hurt Swansea, the visitors pressed the Fulham defence. They hunted the cumbersome Hangeland and Senderos, swarming around them and forcing them into mistakes.
Swansea's goals resulted from hurried, misplaced passes made by Fulham players struggling in tight defensive positions. Fulham's attackers were taken out of the game, as the home side couldn't get the ball out of their own half. The benefits of pressing high up the pitch are obvious. As Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola puts it: “You win the ball back when there are 30 metres to their goal, not 80.”
Vivek Ranadivé is another coach who has defied his sport's sensibilities to achieve success with teams that have less obvious talents. The basketball coach, who had no experience of playing the game, developed a high-pressing tactic and used it to great effect in his adopted sport. His story is told by Malcolm Gladwell in the article How David Beats Goliath.
Writing in the New Yorker, Gladwell set out to explain the success of underdogs. He arrived at the idea that teams can overcome a deficit of resources if they commit to an unpredictable approach that surprises and panics opponents. To use the language of Michael Lewis's book Moneyball, they must master the art of winning an unfair game.
Ranadivé's basketball teams, much like Rodgers's Swansea, committed wholeheartedly to an exhausting style of play. They focused on working as a unit to harry players in possession and make them feel uncomfortable in their own technique. Anyone who saw Senderos give the ball away and then fall over in the build-up to Swansea's third goal on Saturday will know the approach well.
Ranadivé, who grew up in Mumbai watching cricket and football, was puzzled when he first saw a game of basketball: "He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was 94 feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about 24 feet of that, conceding the other 70." Swansea conceded nothing on Saturday. They attacked relentlessly from the front, even testing the feet of Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Ranadivé recognised that allowing good teams time and space on the ball only made them look better. When Wolves visited Fulham a fortnight ago they let the home team pass the ball around at will. Fulham completed 22 passes on their way to scoring the fifth goal. Their midfield are capable of that type of move, but not if they are being hassled by a well-organised group of energetic players. And not if the ball is cut out before it goes over the halfway line. They had only 38 per cent of the possession against Swansea.
Gladwell argues that underdogs win far more than they should – but only when they adopt unconventional strategies. He quotes the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft, who analysed every war fought between strong and weak combatants in the past 200 years.
Arreguin-Toft discovered that "Davids" – armies with military and personal resources at least ten times less than their opponents – beat "Goliaths" 29 per cent of the time if they adopt the same tactics as their superiors. If they adopt an unusual and unpredictable strategy, their success rate goes up to 64 per cent.
Even in the Biblical story, David's harrying tactic of running out to meet Goliath shocked him. The bigger man froze and became an easier target. "David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up," writes Gladwell. "David pressed. That's what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths."
Rodgers's tactical insights might not conquer the giant clubs of Manchester. But, much like Billy Beane, the hero of Moneyball, who exploited his rivals' weaknesses to win baseball games, and Ranadivé, the basketball coach celebrated by Gladwell, Rodgers is making another case for the creative underdog. Paul Campbell