Can Swansea City maintain their promotion push?
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Swansea City’s blistering start to the season has shocked and delighted in equal measure.
An air of hesitation hovered over the club entering the campaign, yet those clouds of doubt have since parted, with entertaining football shining through.
Steve Cooper has fashioned a team in line with the fans, players and board's expectations. Namely, an expansive and exciting style.
Cooper, who received his pro licence 13 years ago, told the Guardian he had watched every Swansea game since Christmas last year. Clearly, then, the Welshman has an eye for detail and a studious approach to the game.
Graham Potter, with stretched resources, did well to retain the Swans' Championship status last season. The Englishman's commitment to attacking football and blooding youngsters earned him a move to Premier League Brighton in May. Should Cooper continue in the same vein, Swansea may soon have clubs knocking on their door once more.
It was certainly a risk. Cooper had never managed a senior team before. True, he had success with England U17s, winning the World Cup in addition to working as Liverpool academy manager, but youth-coaching doesn’t always translate well into the senior game.
Cooper is dealing with a host of young talent brilliantly. The Swans are looking mature on the pitch. While they don’t yet ooze confidence or walk with that certain arrogance winning breeds, they're a side which know what to do, believing it's possible to execute their manager's demands.
Telling, ex-Manchester City youngster Bersant Celina explained Cooper’s mind-set to BBC Sport: "He believes we can win every game and puts that into everybody's head''.
Swansea line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They have a strong core of players who've been there for a while. Indeed, Joe Rodon and Connor Roberts have been schooled in the Swans’ style from a young age. Both are now Wales internationals. Mike van der Hoorn and Jake Bidwell make up the back-four. Bidwell, brought in from Queen Park Rangers this summer, looks an astute signing. As does loaning Freddie Woodman from Newcastle United.
Protecting the backline, Matt Grimes and Jay Fulton dovetail nicely. Grimes, signed from Exeter City in 2015, has excelled since breaking into the team under Potter. Boasting an impressive 86% passing accuracy – no small feat in the hustle and bustle of the Championship – he is a calming presence who instigates Swansea's forward play. Fulton, while still technically sound, leads the side in tackles-made, averaging three per game.
Celina is showing signs of turning his promise into product, chipping in with two goals so far this season. The Kosovo international is accompanied by either Nathan Dyer, Aldo Kalulu, or Andre Ayew. The Swans' front three, as with most modern forward lines, will interchange and roam. Their width is provided mostly by full-backs.
Spearheading Swansea’s vibrant midfield is £15 million-man Borja Baston. The Spaniard has endured a torrid time since moving to Wales in August 2016. He made only four Premier League appearances before being sent on loan to Malaga then Deportivo Alaves.
Under Cooper, however, Baston's become the clinical goal scorer the Swans initially thought he'd be. He leads the league in that regard, netting five so far. His clever positioning in the box shows a poacher's instinct. Only Lee Trundle, who scored six goals in his first five matches in 2003/04, betters the midfielder's tally at this stage in a Swansea shirt.
Rivals Cardiff City are never far from the agenda when discussing Swansea. The Bluebirds have suffered a poor start to the season and seem out of ideas already. The Swans are delighting in that. Even more so owing to their own invention.
One comparison serves Swansea well. At this point in Cardiff's 2017/18 promotion-winning campaign, they, too, led the pack. The Swans have conceded the fewest goals in the league up to now. As had the Bluebirds.
Yet history serves as a cautionary tale. Ipswich were second by matchday five of that season. The Tractor Boys now ply their trade in League One. Last campaign, eventual winners Norwich City were 18th at this stage and Sheffield United 7th. Third? Bolton Wanderers. Good starts don’t always mean promotion.
While Swansea dispatched Cambridge United 6-0 in the EFL Cup on Wednesday night, squad depth is perhaps their biggest worry. The physically demanding nature of England’s second-tier will inevitably mean injuries. Cooper will likely have to dip into academy products to fill in throughout the season. Whether or not they’re up to the job remains unknown.
Though Cooper has orchestrated a promising start, question marks persist over whether he can grind out results when the going gets tough. Promotion candidates often drift away during the busy Christmas schedule.
The litmus test is the Swans' trip to Elland Road today. Both teams top the table with 13 points. Each side play slick football. Leeds are the prime heavyweight, Cooper's men the impish wildcard.
It should prove an intriguing spectacle. If Swansea are able to return to Wales with a point, then they can really begin thinking about Premier League promotion.