Swansea City struggle against Sheffield Wednesday’s high press
Sheffield Wednesday scored three goals in 31 first-half minutes to get a much-welcomed home win in the EFL Championship against a Swansea City side who have now lost their last three away games. In this tactical analysis, we’ll look in detail at how Steve Bruce’s side executed an excellent high press and game plan to nullify and frustrate Swansea during the 90 minutes.
Bruce remains unbeaten as Sheffield Wednesday manager, this being his second win at the club in five games since taking charge earlier this year. The victory takes the Owls up to 15th place in the table on 44 points level with three other teams, including Swansea City whose previously slim playoff hopes have now all but ended.
Sheffield Wednesday manager Steve Bruce adopted a standard 4-4-2 system with Lucas Joao and Steven Fletcher leading the line and the high press. Adam Reach on the right side of midfield proved to be particularly useful in the victory with two goals scored in 21 first-half minutes.
Swansea City boss Graham Potter made just one change from the side that beat Brentford 4-1 in the FA Cup 5th round last Sunday as Jay Fulton dropped to the bench in favour of Kyle Naughton. After returning in goal for the cup tie, Kristoffer Nordfeldt kept his place ahead of Erwin Mulder.
Wednesday’s effective press
Sheffield Wednesday’s high press and effective player positioning was key to their 3-1 win. By contrast, Swansea City looked rather one dimensional and lacking ideas in terms of how they could get through the press.
Like Leeds United, Wigan Athletic and Brentford before them, Sheffield Wednesday clearly did their homework and knew how to frustrate Swansea and prevent them from playing their preferred passing style out from the back. Swansea beat Brentford 4-1 in the FA Cup, but the Bees did limit them to just a single shot on goal in the first half by using an effective press.
Other sides have attempted a high press against Swansea this season but executed it poorly and got punished for it. Aston Villa at Villa Park in the FA Cup and Reading at their Madejski Stadium are two recent examples.
Like Brentford did in the first half last Sunday, Sheffield Wednesday adopted a well executed high press that caused Swansea all sorts of problems. The difference though was that Steve Bruce’s side took full advantage of attacking opportunities when they arrived. Three first-half goals gave them enough breathing space to allow them to drop deeper and relax their press for the final 20-25 minutes.
Both of Swansea’s full-backs were closely pressed whenever they received the ball. Sheffield Wednesday also had players well positioned to cover the passing lanes back into the defensive line.
It was the same on the opposite side too with left-back Declan John, a player who struggled throughout the half and was substituted at half-time. Below, he is quickly pressed and Sheffield Wednesday have him and holding midfielder Matt Grimes boxed in. They also have another player blocking a longer lateral option, so a pass back to the goalkeeper was the only safe option available in these positions.
The pass radars below show the position of passes played by the two Swansea City full-backs in the game. There are more passes for Roberts as he played the full game but they both highlight their direction of passes and how the majority of them had to be played back into the defensive line.
The bars represent the total number of passes attempted and their direction. The green represents successful passes. For each direction, the pass success rate percentages are labelled as well as the total number of passes attempted. As you can see, the success rate for Connor Roberts’ forward passes was poor (50%).
Matt Grimes, a player that likes to drop in between Swansea’s two centre-backs, receive the ball and look to progress it further forward, was blocked off regularly. In the example below, the Owls have three players in close proximity to him. One presses George Byers, who was more often the player dropping deeper in this game, another blocks the passing lane to Grimes and a third is just behind him ready to press.
The high press also forces the full-backs to drop deeper. Graham Potter has designed his side to play out from a back three in recent weeks with Grimes dropping in. The full-backs are encouraged to push up close to the halfway line and provide width.
Breaking through a high press is all about patience, good movement in an effort to create more space and executing the right forward passes into those spaces. Tempo is also important. Swansea City, however, showed no ability whatsoever in being able to do this.
They were stubborn though and weren’t prepared to give up on their manager’s blueprint of playing out from the back. Perseverance has paid off in the past for Swansea this season but it didn’t here at Hillsborough.
When they did manage to move the ball into the middle third and into the opposition’s half, Sheffield Wednesday were also well drilled to block off passes down the sides as well as through the middle.
Swansea’s star in the FA Cup last week, Dan James, couldn’t get into the game as the hosts made sure that they outnumbered their visitors in wide areas. Rather than looking to run in behind the last defender, James often dropped deep to receive the ball.
In previous games where sides like Birmingham have blocked off wide areas, Swansea were forced into playing lobbed passes for James to chase down the flanks and in behind. In general though, Swansea, like at Bristol City, lacked versatility and proved to be too predictable in possession.
Whether it was in wide areas or through the middle, Sheffield Wednesday often outnumbered the opposition with a solid box of four and we saw this throughout the game. Below is one example where George Byers has to recycle possession across rather than look to play the ball forward.
We don’t see the box of four in the example below quite as clearly as we do in the previous screenshots but that’s mainly because of the double press on Kyle Naughton who receives the ball, again, with his back to goal. Fletcher is well positioned to cover a pass back to ex-Ajax centre-back Mike van der Hoorn and we have another situation where Swansea City are stuck for passing options and are under pressure.
Sheffield Wednesday open the scoring
Situations like those shown above allowed the home side to win possession inside Swansea’s half and to create quick goalscoring chances. The opening goal, after just 11 minutes, was a perfect demonstration of just how much they struggled to cope with Sheffield Wednesday’s high press.
Below shows Bersant Celina receiving the ball deep inside his own half and surrounded by three opposition players. Firstly, you wonder why a player playing through the middle of a front three is so deep, and secondly why there’s not a single team-mate in the picture available to offer him a passing option.
Bersant Celina showed a lack of physical strength to hold up the ball and was easily dispossessed. The errors from Swansea City continue in the goal build-up as you can see below.
Against a high press, Swansea split their two centre backs very wide and either side of the penalty area. Cameron Carter-Vickers takes up his position on the left side of the pitch.
A run across the front of the penalty area from forward Joao attracts Carter-Vickers across despite Matt Grimes following his run. This leaves Adam Reach a huge amount of space to run through the inside channel. He’s fed the ball through from the centre and it’s a good finish from the right-sided midfielder to give his side the lead.
Sheffield Wednesday’s freedom down the right
Another issue for Swansea City during the game was the ease in which Sheffield Wednesday could play long balls over to Adam Reach over on the right wing. Below shows the time and space available to Reach to send in a cross. Sheffield Wednesday were cross-heavy in the game with six of 23 successful, compared to just two of seven for Swansea.
Below shows the space available for two Sheffield Wednesday players as a long ball is played over to that shaded area. Dan James has dropped back to cover Barry Bannan in the inside channel, but left-back Declan John still faces the task of managing two players on that side.
Wednesday add to their goal tally
Twenty-one minutes after his opening goal, Adam Reach netted another after a cross from the left was missed by Declan John. His failed clearance attempt saw Reach, unmarked inside the box, receive the ball and finish clinically past Kristoffer Nordfeldt.
The third and final goal from the visitors just two minutes before half-time was another soft goal to concede from Swansea’s point of view. After the Owls win the aerial cross at the far post, the ball is then half cleared by Kyle Naughton. It’s blocked, allowing the hosts a chance to get the ball back into the box as shown below.
The Swansea defence look to push out after the clearance is made but they don’t all do so quickly enough, leaving Fletcher unmarked in space and level with the last defender to score with a bicycle kick. It was an excellent finish from the striker, and 3-0 down at half-time there didn’t look like a way back into the game for Swansea at this point.
Potter shuffles his side around
After one of their worst halves of football of the season, Swansea City manager Graham Potter had to make some changes to try and get at least a foothold in the game. Left-back Declan John made a big error for the Owls’ second goal and after a poor first 45 minutes, his substitution at the restart was expected. Wayne Routledge was his replacement, which meant that Kyle Naughton moved back from midfield to left-back.
Bersant Celina moved deeper into midfield with Routledge playing through the middle and McBurnie staying wide in a front three. The changes made some marginal improvements but Sheffield Wednesday maintained their press in the early part of the second half.
As the above and below images show, Sheffield Wednesday continued to frustrate Swansea and limit their passing options from the back. Their press did drop back slightly and wasn’t quite in the faces of the Swansea players, but the hosts were well positioned and spaced out across the middle third.
Below, a pass to George Byers is blocked. Roberts on the right will be quickly pressed if he receives a pass and Steven Fletcher blocks a pass across to Matt Grimes.
Swansea’s lack of quality in the final third
Swansea City did get into better attacking positions in the second half, but far too often these moves broke down due to some loose passes.
Above sees Swansea City getting the ball into the box with Oli McBurnie. He can’t feed Dan James though, passing astray to an opposition player who can clear the danger.
Below is another example of an attacking move breaking down after a poor pass. Celina tries to feed McBurnie through the left side of the penalty area but his pass is intercepted.
Swansea score a consolation goal
Swansea City did manage to get on the scoresheet for their second-half efforts. Despite coming on at the start of the second half, Wayne Routledge created three chances for his side, more than any other Swansea player. He aimed a shot at goal which was deflected, allowing Oli McBurnie to net his 15th league goal of the season.
The goal came from down Swansea’s right as George Byers played right-back Connor Roberts in behind his opposite number. He then cut a pass back for Routledge to take a shot at goal leading to McBurnie’s header.
It was a well-earned and well-deserved victory for Steve Bruce’s Sheffield Wednesday against a Swansea City side that severely struggled against a high and intense press. Not only that, Swansea made some poor mistakes at the back that allowed the home side to do the damage in the first-half before seeing out the second half in professional fashion to guarantee the three points.
Manager Graham Potter will need to find ways for his side to overcome and adapt to these challenges. It wasn’t the first time that they’ve struggled against these sort of tactics this season. Three away defeats in a row, and this one in such fashion, most definitely ends their already slim hopes of finishing in the top six.
Meanwhile, Sheffield Wednesday got the perfect performance and result ahead of another two key home games coming up against Brentford and then the steel city derby on Monday 4 March.
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