With their assured ascent to the top half of the Premier League, Swansea City have left football fans in awe. Leon Britton is the metronomic heartbeat of this thoroughly impressive side.
Xavi, Busquets, Arteta... Britton? Three years ago you'd have thrust your arm in the air and screamed “what an easy odd-one-out round this is!”. But this is no longer the case because, as unlikely as it would have seemed five years ago, Leon Britton is, statistically, the best passer in the world.
Swansea's long-time maestro tops the midfielder passing accuracy chart in the European leagues with Barcelona's Xavi and Busquets just below. In fact, Britton plays an astounding 93.3% accuracy kind of game! From a Swansea player? That, my friends, is mental.
Or is it?
You have to look where he's coming from. Swansea City FC hold the sixth best pass accuracy in Europe with 85.2%, which is just under Barcelona (leaders with 89.2%), Chelsea and Real Madrid, but above the like of Spurs, Arsenal and Roma. Now this is definitely a little mental considering we're talking about Swansea City – the new boys of the Premier League and the small city that until last year tended to live in the shadow of those up the road (known to you as Cardiff).
Britton, at 29 years old, has found his way as Swansea City's unlikely poster boy. And he deserves it.
It's not the cauldron stadium or the incredible fans that make people sit up and take notice of Swansea. It's the ability to out-pass a team like Arsenal that gets people watching. Swansea are the club making the headlines for slick, accurate, enjoyable football played where it should be: on the ground. But it hasn't always been this way.
Up until the reign of Roberto Martinez, Swansea were not known as a passing team per se – it was never route-one football, but nothing compared to what it is today. When Martinez stepped into a managerial roll he emphasised the passing aspects of the game. A few years and a promotion into the Championship later, he left for Wigan (a decision, I can only assume, he secretly regrets).
His replacement, Paulo Sousa, tightened things up defensively – very efficient at the back, yet a tad boring to watch at times. In 2011, Sousa left and in came a little Irishman who most knew nothing about: Brendan Rodgers. He instantly gained legendary status as he set about Barcelonasizing (yeah, I invent words) the team – maintaining the passing and tight defence of previous managers, but employing a more attacking mentality and ultimately achieving promotion.
These days Swansea use this pass and move philosophy consistently in their game. The heart of the team lies in midfield – an area packed with talent. Playing three in the centre with two wingers ensures triangle after triangle after triangle is made, keeping possession and frustrating the best players in the world, and entertaining fans and neutrals in the process. In the centre of this stands Leon Britton.
Where Scott Sinclair, with his speed, flair and eye for goal found the limelight in Swansea's promotion winning season, Britton, at 29 years old, has found his way as Swansea City's unlikely poster boy. And he deserves it.
The 5 ft 5 holding midfielder joined the Swans in 2003 after an initial loan spell from West Ham. Over the years, Britton moved with the team through the survival battle in the depths of League Two all the way to the Championship Play-off Final in 2011 and, where the team sit now, in the top ten of the Premier League. His accuracy is up there with the best in the world and he will certainly be on the radar for bigger clubs; those who can't get Xavi but fancy something similar.
Give it a few seasons and there's no reason the Jack Army won't be watching Champions League action in the Liberty Stadium!
But it's not just Britton with the impressive stats. Born just outside Swansea, local boy Joe Allen is up there ahead of Mikel Arteta with an impressive 90.3% pass accuracy rate, while I'm sure a number of other Swans are in the top fifty in Europe. We've seen them keep the ball game after game, out-possessing teams like Liverpool and Man City at times. However, cutting-edge in the final third is what has been lacking in Swansea's game. It's pointless keeping the ball if you can't do anything with it. This is changing thankfully and goals are being scored. Things are beginning to click. The historic win over Arsenal was the turning point many will feel.
Despite the statistical comparisons, the fact is: Swansea City are not as good as Barcelona. Stats may mean a lot, but Xavi is better than Britton in every other aspect, be it touch, vision or shooting abilities. We accept it. Barcelona have the best in the world – we, at Swansea, have Alan Tate with a broken leg.
We are not foolish in Swansea. We have high expectations, but we know the Barcelona comparisons are just that: comparisons. However, if things continue as they are, we'll see more talent come to the club, more goals, bigger stadium, more fans, year-after-year survival in the Premier League. Give it a few seasons and there's no reason the Jack Army won't be watching Champions League action in the Liberty Stadium!
“You're only here to watch the Swans” is a tongue in cheek chant, though if they continue playing the attractive, fast football we have become accustomed to this season, it's likely to be true.
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