When Swansea City were the Barcelona of South Wales

Oli Trussler Jones July 9, 2020
When Swansea City were the Barcelona of South Wales
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If you were asked for similarities between the cities of Barcelona and Swansea, the only meaningful link would be both being by the sea.

However, there is one other thing that linked the cities – their football club’s philosophy. At Swansea and Barcelona, players take the ball one touch and pass the ball. While both clubs have strayed away from this belief in recent years, how did Swansea and Barcelona end up playing the same way?

Tiki-taka mentality in League One

Barcelona produced the backbone for Spain’s Tiki-Taka generation. Under Pep Guardiola, the club dominated on the club stage and the Spanish national team were the envy of the world. They both played the same system which relied on sensational passing football.

Players like Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Pique were the core of the legendary tiki-taka sides. The system was an offshoot of the Johan Cruyff Total Football style of play and relied on technically gifted footballers, many of whom were schooled in La Masia. This was obviously going to be achievable at a club of Barcelona’s stature but, how did Swansea City; who were in League One at the time, start playing like this?

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Exit Jackett, enter Martinez

It all began at Swansea when current Portsmouth manager Kenny Jackett resigned from his post in 2007. The club interviewed a variety of candidates but decided to take a risk by giving the job to former player Roberto Martinez.

Martinez had been an excellent servant for the Swans and many at the club always felt he was management material. An average player, Martinez spent most of his career in the lower echelons of the English professional game. Despite this, he was a fantastic manager from the day he first stepped into the dugout with Swansea. The club relied on possession to beat their opponents in a league where physical play usually prevailed. There wasn’t even a huge revolution of personnel at the club with players such as Garry Monk, Leon Britton and Alan Tate forming the core of the team all the way from League Two to the Premier League.

It goes without saying that players like Tate and Monk were no Puyol and Piqué at the back together, but they looked at home whatever level they played the ‘Swansea Way.’ Martinez installed the foundations for the Swansea Way but it would be someone else who would take the club to the next level. Martinez got the club promoted to the Championship but left to take up the vacant managerial post at another former club Wigan Athletic who were a Premier League side at the time. After leaving Swansea, he led Wigan to a famous FA Cup win in 2013 and is now the manager of the ‘golden generation’ with Belgium’s national team where he led them to third in the 2018 World Cup. 

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One step backwards, many forwards

After Martinez’s departure, Swansea took a huge backward step in the Swansea Way by appointing Paulo Sousa who played pragmatic football to say the least. The football was boring, defensive and a far cry from the passing, fluid philosophy Martínez looked to install at the club.

Sousa has still gone on to have a successful managerial career with Fiorentina being the pick of his clubs. Now, he is manager of Bordeaux in Ligue 1. It would be Sousa’s successor Brendan Rodgers who would truly take the Swansea Way to heights no-one could ever have expected.

Rodgers was a risky appointment for the Swans. He had failed at both Reading and Watford, and many questioned whether he could be the man to reinstall an identity some believed had been lost. He did, and Swansea were promoted in his first season at the club after a historic 4-2 play-off final victory at Wembley over Rodgers’ former club Reading. The meteoric rise had been completed. They had gone from a side threatened with relegation to the non-league game to a Premier League side in just seven years, down in no small part to the ‘Swansea Way.’

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Swansea City reach the Promised Land

In the Premier League, Swansea stuck to their principles. While many sides attempt to play good football in the Championship before distancing themselves from these values in the big league, Swansea stuck to their beliefs. They set up to win football matches and keep the ball on the floor. Of course, this did end up with some humbling results such as the 4-0 opening day defeat to Man City but there were still famous wins such as the one over the Sky Blues at the Liberty in the reverse fixture.

Many critics called the Swans naive for trying to play this way in the Premier League and one bookmaker even offered better odds for Elvis being found alive than Swansea staying up. But, the Swans did stay up and many fans turned up to the Liberty dressed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll for the final game of the season against Liverpool. 

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Swansea City and the Spanish Revolution

At the end of the 11/12 season, Rodgers would leave for Swansea’s opponents on Elvis Day; Liverpool. The club appointed Michael Laudrup and he led the club to their first ever piece of major silverware, lifting the Capital One Cup in 2013. They also finished ninth in his first season while still playing a possession based style of football. It was under Laudrup that the legendary ‘Spanish Revolution’ really took force at the Liberty. Players like Jose Canas, Jordi Amat and Alejandro Pozuelo all arrived from Spain under Laudrup but it was another man who really became the poster boy for the Spanish revolution. Michu remains arguably the biggest cult hero in Premier League history, scoring 18 goals in the league in his only productive season. 

The Capital One Cup victory had completed the impossible. Swansea City had gone from the verge of the National League to European Football in less than 10 years. When James Thomas scored a hat-trick at the Vetch Field to keep Swansea in the professional leagues no fan could ever have imagined they would have been welcoming Napoli and Valencia to the Liberty less than a decade later. 

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