Saturday’s dramatic game at the Den gave us the best evidence yet of the sort of team that Graham Potter is looking to build here at Swansea City as despite playing with 10 men for 85-minutes-plus, his side fought on with true togetherness and team unity away at Milwall – a side that hasn’t lost at home since last November.
And Graham Potter – we heard many things about his reputation back in the Summer prior to his arrival about his tactical nous and flexibility, and we saw plenty of that as the young manager was forced into making a number of personnel and tactical changes following the red card and a couple of injuries. Despite those setbacks, he saw his team come back from going a goal down with half an hour to play to turn it around in a 9-minute spell where super-sub Montero assisted goals to deliver a memorable 2-1 win.
It was clear to see that every single player is on board with what Potter is trying to do. It’s a far cry from recent seasons, to say the least. Players who just get on with the job, despite being played way out of position. They simply get on with the job. Oli McBurnie had to do a shift at left midfield, Matt Grimes moved from midfield to left back, Kyle Naughton also moved into midfield and there were plenty of rotations in midfield between Celina and Dan James in particular.
After the game, Celina really summed it up well:
“We didn’t expect to be a man down after just a few minutes, but in football you have to react quickly to this type of thing,”
“What was important is that we didn’t cave in and concede soon after. A first goal can be followed by a second and third and the game is over and confidence is crushed.
“But we stuck together – players, staff and fans – and that was something that really stood out for me on Saturday. Everyone had to play their part and that’s what happened.
“It was a game where the players had to give everything they had and be brave.
“We all played in a number of positions in order to stop Millwall from breaking us down, and we did it very well. It was very intelligent of the manager to identify the positions we needed to be in.
“The fans, too, were absolutely amazing. All I could hear was our supporters signing away behind the goal.
“When we celebrated at the end, it was a feeling I can’t put into words. Seeing our fans so happy after the final whistle was incredible. They had got behind us all game and gave us extra energy after losing Courtney and when we had conceded.”
Millwall’s attacking tactic – the long diagonal
Despite their one-man advantage, Millwall’s main attacking threat was to hit long diagonals for Morison to nod on. He won 15 aerial challenges during the game, but for the most part, the Swans managed the space on the edge of the penalty area well.
Below shows a typical example with both Leroy Fer and Matt Grimes occupying the space where you’d expect the ball to drop after a knock-down.
The only real opportunity that came from a long diagonal pass was when Millwall caught us out and hit long after we lost possession upfield.
Below shows Morison about to win the header and our midfielders back-tracking. Connor Roberts is also out of possession having pushed forward in attack. He’s stuck between tracking two players, keeping an eye on their number 22 as well as Wallace who’s about to run through on to the ball as their number 9 drags van der Hoorn wide.
Fortunately for us, Wallace gets the shot all wrong and miss-kicks a shot wide of the target.
How Swansea Kept Millwall Covered Early On
Potter’s first priority after Baker-Richardson’s early red card was adjusting his team’s defensive shape and ensuring it remained solid, well-balanced and structured.
He had to sacrifice his one remaining striker Oli McBurnie, shifting him to the left side of the midfield to cover that side in front of Olsson. Leroy Fer and Matt Grimes remained in the centre. Dan James and Bersant Celina operated as a pressing duo in some situations – usually when Millwall had possession in the area around the halfway line.
When Millwall moved further forward, Dan James sat deeper on the right, with Celina now moving to the centre and acting as a false nine. He was now our main outball and it made sense with his creativity. He showed the ability to carry the ball forward and play balls into wide positions. James’ pace was useful on the counter.
The Swans also ensured they defended in two close lines of four to limit the space in between the lines.
Despite the one-man advantage, Swansea usually matched them in wide areas.
Swansea’s counter attacks and Millwall’s lack of pressing
Despite having an extra man, Millwall’s shape out of possession was poor at times. They didn’t apply any pressure on Swansea’s backline and they made it far too easy for them to play the ball out from the back.
You can see below the space available with van der Hoorn in possession as either full back can easily receive the ball.
Below, Millwall lack proper structure and shape as the Swans can counter. In attack, McBurnie moves away from his defensive left-sided position to get involved centrally. Here, he plays the ball through for James down the right. Due to Millwall’s lacklustre shape, the young winger can run right in on goal but his final shot on goal is poor and miss-hit.
Below is another example showing Joe Rodon playing a ball through to get Olsson in behind his fullback. The centre-back was patient in possession, waiting for a better passing option to come available rather than simply recycling the ball backwards or sideways. This is great to see and contrasts greatly with what we’ve had to watch for the last few seasons.
Here’s another example of a counter-attacking opportunity. Swansea have acres of space here as Leroy Fer bursts forward with James and Celina in support.
Swansea Lose Their Shape And Solidity After Fer’s Injury
After Fer’s injury and early substitution after 35 minutes, the Swans lost their solid shape and you can see below the hole that he’s left behind in the shaded area. As Millwall continue with their long diagonals, more space opens up for the knockdowns as there’s nobody joining Matt Grimes in midfield.
Graham Potter switched things up again – he had too. Rather than bringing on Tom Carroll – a like for like and obvious switch, he instead opted to bring on Kyle Naughton and adopt a similar system to the one he adopted against Leeds. Roberts moved further forward as Naughton started out at right back behind him.
Below, Dan James has moved to the middle now with Celina shifting out to the right. Grimes remains in the heart of midfield for now. With Naughton at right back, Connor Roberts has a more versatile job, offering attacking width but also being prepared to move more inside to add extra cover.
Below shows a typical example but in this case, the roles between Roberts and Naughton are reversed. Roberts is the wide defender, and Naughton is more central and tracking number 22 in midfield. Again, despite having a player less, the Swans have Millwall covered man for man. There’s a clear understanding of what’s required and who goes where if another player moves out of their position.
We’ve seen before in previous games how players have rotated positions. If a player has moved out of their position, another player slots in in their place to ensure the desired shape and structure isn’t lost.
The tactics board below shows Swansea and Millwall’s typical shape by the end of the first half after Potter made his sub. There were rotations as we mentioned so sometimes we did see Celina and James swapped as well as Naughton and Roberts.
Part 2 to follow later this week.