Swansea City: Can the Swans ruffle a few feathers and launch a promotion push under Michael Duff?
After five years of oh-so-nearlies, three managers and a team rebuild, Swansea City will once again enter the frantic battle for promotion to the riches of the English Premier League.
With two play-off disappointments and a rollercoaster of a season last year which saw the club miss out on a top-six placing by just three points. It is time to take a look at the ups and downs of the last campaign and assess whether under new head-coach Michael Duff the foundations of a promotion challenge can be laid.
A season of ups and downs
After starting the season positively before the World Cup break in Championship action, things were looking promising for Swansea City under Russell Martin. A third South Wales derby win on the trot against Cardiff City was a particular highlight taking the club to a season-high of fourth place in the table after 16 games, three points behind early leaders Blackburn Rovers and Burnley.
As the break came closer, however, the Swans stuttered with it becoming clear reinforcements would be needed in the January window to compete with their rivals. Things didn’t come to fruition though with several deals falling through, whilst on the pitch the team managed just three wins and 16 points in 21 games to leave Martin under pressure looking more towards the bottom of the table rather than the top.
Despite a remarkable season which saw a record 15 managerial sackings from the Championship, the Swans board stuck with Martin through the teams tough period and his players responded with fight as the clubs on pitch fortunes changed.
Back-to-back victories over rivals Bristol City and an unprecedented second derby double in as many years over the Bluebirds provided the basis for a superb nine-game unbeaten run to finish the season. It would not be enough however for Martin’s side who would run out of games and finish three points short in a credible 10th position in the table. This heralded the departure of player of the season Ryan Manning and later Martin who both moved to pastures new at Southampton over the summer.
Start of the Duff Era
After spending weeks at deadlock over Martin’s release compensation, Swansea’s American owners had plenty of time to seek the new man to lead the club. 45-year-old Barnsley manager Michael Duff was sounded out as the Swans board’s unanimous choice having impressively led the Tykes to the League One play-off final last season on a shoestring budget and Cheltenham Town to promotion from League Two in 2020.
The Northern Irishman is also no stranger to the fight of the Football League having played in the top eight divisions of the English pyramid, experiencing three separate promotions to the Premier League with Burnley.
Duff has spoken of his desire to keep to the Swansea attractive brand of football but wants to add an aggressive steel to the Swans performance with and without the ball using a high pressing game.
Who is new at the Swansea.com Stadium?
The Swans mid-season collapse occurred as games came thick and fast exposing a lack of squad depth. Much emphasis was placed on Dutchman Joel Piroe delivering in front of goal with a lack of support at the top end of the pitch leaving the Welsh side short in their mid-season slump.
Learning the lessons of the previous campaign the £2.5 million signing of hard-working Blackpool target man Jerry Yates was sanctioned to both add additional firepower to the scoresheet and to provide Piroe with a much-needed foil in attack. The 26-year-old was brought to South Wales after topping the goalscoring charts for the Tangerines with 15 goals despite his side falling to relegation to League One.
At times in the last campaign, one thing Swansea lacked was pace in their offense. Former Aston Villa trainee Josh Ginnelly comes with this in abundance and will bring something different to the Swans approach play after joining on a free transfer from Hearts.
The 26-year-old winger has been somewhat of a journeyman in his career to date with several loan spells across multiple clubs in the Football League. Regular football at the Jam Tarts, where 13 goals were scored in 41 appearances last season, had put Ginnelly back on the radar for many second-tier clubs this summer on expiry of his contract at Tynecastle Park but it would be the Swans who would clinch the deal.
With the Swans short at the back in the wide areas after summer departures, Duff moved quickly to bring the athletic 23-year-old Josh Key to the Swansea.com Stadium from Exeter City for a minimal fee.
Comfortable on either side of defense as a wing-back, Key joins after spending eight seasons with the Grecians. Known for his hard-working dependable qualities, Key has rarely missed a game racking up 129 appearances for the League One outfit before his move to South Wales.
Towering 22-year-old Troyes centre forward Mykola Kukharevych is the latest player to sign for the Swans having undergone a medical at the club’s training base at Fairwood on Monday.
The Ukrainian under-21 international’s 6ft 4 stature will bring height to the Swans lineup, adding a presence at either end of the pitch. Having played the early part of his career in France, the Ukrainian enjoyed a successful spell in Scotland at Hibernian where he scored five goals in 15 games supporting Hibs leading goal scorer and new Millwall frontman Kevin Nisbit.
England Under-21 international goalkeeper Carl Rushworth is somewhat of a coup for the Swans having signed on a season-long loan from Brighton & Hove Albion.
Having been part of the Three Lions triumphant European Championship squad, 22-year-old Halifax-born Rushworth will provide competition between the sticks for Andy Fisher and long-term injured number one Steven Benda.
Who’s left for pastures new?
Swansea’s player of the season Ryan Manning will leave a huge hole in the way the Swans play this season after following Martin to Southampton on a free transfer.
Statistically, ten assists and five goals last season show the 27-year-old Irish left wing-back’s impact in the Championship. Equally adaptable in attack and defense, the only surprise about the former Queens Park Rangers player’s departure is that it was not to a higher level.
Another defender to leave on the expiry of their contract was former Manchester City youth player Joel Latibeaudiere departed for play-off finalists Coventry City. Having played 71 games in three seasons for the Swans, Latibeaudiere was a dependable and versatile member of the Swans backline in the Martin era.
Although Michael Obafemi spent the second part of the season on loan at the Clarets, the freeing up of the wage of the 23-year-old former Southampton forward for £4 million pounds has provided the Swans with extra room to maneuver in the transfer market. Once a fans favourite for his brace against Cardiff in the club’s 4-0 win and first double over their rivals, Obafemi’s two-and-a-half-year spell in South Wales will be fondly remembered.
What did we learn for pre-season?
Pre-season can often be misleading in terms of judging on-pitch personnel and the results that come with it as managers look to gain fitness and tweak tactics for the new season.
This has been no different for Duff’s side as the Northern Irishman has looked to put his stamp on proceedings with the main focus on adapting and learning. Convincing wins against Swindon and Reading will have boosted confidence, whilst less than perfect showings in the defeats at Oxford and against Bristol Rovers at the Swansea.com Stadium have shown there is still work to be done before the big kick-off against Birmingham City on Saturday afternoon.
Four goals for Championship hot shot Joel Piroe including a double in the 4-0 with against the Royals last weekend has highlighted that the Dutchman is in red hot form coming into start of the campaign and will be once again one to watch.
What’s realistic for the Swans in 2023/24?
Duff revealed in his first press conference that he believes he could improve on the Swans tenth-placed finish achieved last season and mount a serious play-off push. To achieve that the new Swans boss will be looking to get off the ground quickly. Midlanders Birmingham, West Bromwich Albion and last season’s play-off finalists Coventry City will not be easy but will be looked at as winnable early fixtures before a tricky September sees them host fierce rivals Bristol and Cardiff City.
As always in the Championship it is likely to be a rollercoaster with consistency and mental strength being the key to success. There is no question that the Swans will go into this season as underdogs with the big budgets of relegated Leeds United, Leicester City and Southampton justified favorites for promotion alongside the two form sides of the second part of the season Middlesbrough and Coventry City.
The Swans will be looking for more from the ‘Welsh Pirlo’ Joe Allen to roll back the years in midfield and stay fit to provide crucial experience and leadership to guide their young talented side.
Crucially a telling factor will be if the likes of Piroe and Jerry Yates can click and finish the chances created by the midfield wizardry of Matt Grimes, whilst as of yet the creative boots left by Ryan Manning’s departure have still not been filled.
If this can be achieved there is no reason to doubt the Swans being around the play-off picture come May once again.