While Swansea were outside the Championship play-offs at the same point last season, they are second in the going into this game. How nice is it to be able to attack the second half in this much healthier position?
It’s brilliant and I think it’s not only testament to the work they did after the lockdown in the transfer window, but also to how well they’ve performed in the first half of the season. There’s been a clear improvement throughout the whole time Steve Cooper has been at the club and you can see they are a club who’ve slowly built, added bits here and there. The squad is certainly a lot more rounded than it was at the same point last season, even with the departures of the likes of Joe Rodon, Mike van der Hoorn, Bersant Celina. They lost a lot of players once again, which is the case when you drop out of the Premier League, and Swansea are in their third season in the Championship now.
They recruited excellently to fill those gaps and make sure there is depth in pretty much every position, so even when there have been a few injuries and they’ve had to rotate because of a busy schedule, they have still performed well. Players have just slotted in and it has lifted them from that edge of the play-offs bracket, where they were last season, to being serious contenders, not only for the top six but for a top two place now as well.
The defensive record this season has been second to none, seven clean sheets in the last nine games and just 13 goals conceded in 24 league games – 14 less than last term. What’s that improvement down to?
It’s interesting because, from set-plays, Swansea were the worst in the division under Graham Potter in their first year in the Championship and then that was something Cooper and his coaching staff recognised that needed to change. They were the best in that regard last season, in terms of defending set-pieces, so that has played an enormous part. With the squad rotation in defence, they were a little bit thin in 2018/19 and even at times last season as well, whereas now they are far more established.
Ryan Bennett (pictured above) is a very experienced player and when he plays, you know exactly what you are going to get from him – he’s been a phenomenal signing. Either side of him have, generally, been youngsters in Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi, who are among the best centre-backs in the league. Even when there have been issues with them, they’ve rotated to bring in Kyle Naughton and Joel Latibeaudiere so, all of a sudden, there’s an awful lot of depth in that those back three positions. Let’s not forget the wing-backs, either. As much as Jake Bidwell and Connor Roberts have done a lot of getting forward and putting crosses into the box, they still do their shift defensively, as do the midfield men. The defence is very strong, but it’s a real collective effort with defence now.
Ben Hamer, Conor Hourihane and Jordan Morris have joined from Huddersfield, Aston Villa and Seattle Sounders respectively this month. What have you made of their business and do you expect anymore?
They lost three on-loan players who were recalled by the parent clubs in Morgan Gibbs-White, Kasey Palmer and Victor Gyokeres, so they had to do some business this month to supplement the squad more than anything else. Second-choice goalkeeper Steven Benda then suffered an ankle injury that will keep him out for several months as well, so that instantly became a big issue. There was quite a lot to solve and they’ve done a lot of that already, which is hugely encouraging. They brought in Hamer on a permanent deal so he’ll be the No 2 for the rest of the season behind Freddie Woodman and then, in terms of the outfield players, they’ve brought in Hourihane on loan for the rest of the season, which I personally think is a superb piece of business as he’s operated above this level and has done brilliantly at this level as well. He made his debut against Nottingham Forest at the weekend and he was only on the pitch for an hour but showed his class from set-pieces.
Morris is a bit of an unknown quantity on these shores, but he arrives with a great goalscoring record in the MLS and with the American national team, too. He’s got blistering pace, can cover a range of positions in the final third and I think he’s there to supplement the attack when Ayew and Lowe aren’t firing or need a bit of a rest. I think there’s still potential for a few more deals to be done; maybe one more incoming and a couple of fringe players heading out on loan towards the end of the window.
It took some time for Jamal Lowe to get among the goals since his move from Wigan, but he’s a man in form right now, with seven goals in his last seven league games. What have you made of his development?
It’s credit to not only him but to the coaching staff for sticking by him and giving him the confidence as well because there were certain games earlier on in the season where he’d only scored two goals and had missed a few really good chances, which he admitted himself in an interview at the end of last year. Norwich away was a prime example where they could’ve got something out of the game but they ended up losing because he missed a really good chance.
But they stuck by him and knew he had the ability and he’s really shown that since that game at Cardiff where he scored two goals, one of which was a poacher’s finish - which was great for him as an inverted winger – and the second was just a sublime individual goal, where he beat a couple of men and finished from the edge of the box. To do that against the rivals was great for the fans but it’s also evident that it has given him an enormous lift. It’s not just the goals, though; his work-rate is phenomenal, as is his link-up play in the final third. Confidence is flowing through him and he’s probably one of the form players in the league right now.
How is Steve Cooper likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?
It should be the same as it has been all season, which is a 3-5-2. A rough line-up would be: Woodman, Cabango, Bennett, Guehi, Roberts, Bidwell, Grimes, Hourihane, Fulton, Lowe, Ayew.
A goal from Andre Ayew earned a point for the Swans in a 1-1 draw west London in November – a result you correctly predicted. What’s your score prediction this time around?
For once, I think certain factors have gone in Swansea’s favour, with Brentford having played Leicester a day later. I know they made a lot of changes but it’s not ideal for them having to travel, on top of having played Luton last week, when Swansea had a game called off against Blackburn. I think this could give Swansea a bit of an edge and I’m going to back them, so I’ll go for a 2-1 home win.
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