Mourinho, Rodgers and Koeman have all impressed this season – but we're forgetting someone else
Just 12 months after winning their first major trophy, Swansea were in trouble. An abysmal run from December to February had seen them win only once in 10 Premier League games, culminating in a lifeless 2-0 loss at West Ham. In truth, however, the malaise had been much longer – in the 35 league games following their 5-0 League Cup final demolition of Bradford, the Swans had claimed maximum points just eight times.
With Michael Laudrup severely underperforming amid a string of off-field issues – the final straw giving his players two days off after that abominable display in east London – chairman Huw Jenkins duly relieved him of his duties in acrimonious circumstances. The Dane left the Swans in a deceptively respectable 12th place, although the Swans were a mere two points above the relegation zone.
Garry Monk, the club captain, was placed in charge on a temporary basis to ensure Premier League safety – but it was a huge gamble on Swansea’s part to hire a largely inexperienced manager at such a crucial time. What followed next was remarkable, as Monk led Swansea to a 12th-place finish, nine points above relegation. The Englishman was rewarded with a three-year contract.
Point to prove
It's easy for critics to dismiss Monk’s 14-game work as a perfect storm gathering to favour the rookie manager, but faced with a much larger sample space to prove doubters wrong this season, the 36-year old has done exactly that in quietly brilliant fashion.
“This season was about me trying to prove those doubters [wrong],” Monk said in March. “When you achieve things, it helps reaffirm to yourself that you are doing the right thing.”
He has led Swansea to the 40-point mark faster than Brendan Rodgers and Laudrup. With eight games to go, the south Wales outfit sit comfortably in eighth place with 43 points, just five points away from bettering their record total (47) achieved under Rodgers in 2011/12 – a squad Monk himself was part of.
If there were any lingering doubts that he was a flash in the pan, his achievements this season should affirm that he is the real deal. Monk could well finish this season as the highest-placed English manager, ahead of seasoned campaigners Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce.
In the latter stages of Laudrup’s reign, chairman Jenkins outlined how unhappy he was with the defeatist mentality that had seeped in among players and members of the coaching staff.
“We have to make sure that whoever comes in to manage, coach and play for us in the future, they can’t be talking about different levels of leagues within a league. To me that is complete failure,” Jenkins said in a November 2013 interview with The Observer. “I find that the hardest thing to take, that we have actually got staff and players who struggle at this point in time to see where we can compete.”
Having played for the club for the best part of a decade, mostly as captain, Monk is an embodiment of its values. Upon taking over, he went about ridding the team of Laudrup’s laissez-fare approach. His first game in charge was a convincing 3-0 win over Welsh rivals Cardiff, and since then the Swans haven’t looked back.
On the opening day of the season, Swansea travelled to Old Trafford in what was supposed to be Louis van Gaal’s coronation as Manchester United manager. But rather than presenting themselves as polite visitors, Monk’s team read the script and then fed it to the shredder by beating their more illustrious hosts 2-1.
They followed that up with impressive wins over Burnley and West Brom, a feat which saw Monk win the Premier League's Manager of the Month award for August.
Under previous regimes, Swansea played a brand of patient, possession-based football. But while Monk hasn’t entirely discarded this style, there has been an addition of an effective directness to their game. It is perhaps understandable given Monk’s roots as a no-nonsense, agricultural centre-back in his playing days.
Swansea have averaged 50% possession this season, indicating a team willing to let the opponent have the ball while they rely on fast-paced counter-attacking football.
“We’ll always fight for possession and pass the ball, but you can’t be predictable,” said Monk, referencing February’s impressive 1-0 away win at Southampton.
“I’m not changing Swansea – I wouldn’t – I’m adding to it. I know exactly what the club stands for, where we’ve been and what we’ve come from. I’ve been a big part of that – involved.”
In that game, the Swans had only 37% of the ball, scoring with their only shot on target – a superb late Jonjo Shelvey strike from 25 yards. It was a ruthlessly effective performance.
Swansea’s other impressive wins also include brilliant come-from-behind victories against Arsenal and Manchester United in November and February respectively. Against the Gunners, Swansea were reliant on fast breaks via the devastating pace of Jefferson Montero.
Calum Chambers had possibly the worst afternoon of his nascent career, with Montero beating him for pace time and again. It was comical or pitiful, depending on your club affiliations.
With Arsenal tiring, Monk threw on the largely unknown Gambian Modou Barrow for his Premier League debut. Full of running and trickery, he drew a foul from Kieran Gibbs from which Gylfi Sigurdsson curled home a brilliant free-kick for the equaliser. Three minutes later, it was Montero who delivered the cross for Bafetimbi Gomis’ winner. The ultimate smash-and-grab victory achieved with 48% possession.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Monk’s tenure as Swansea boss is the club’s astuteness in the transfer window. Arguably Swansea’s best players this season, Lukasz Fabianski and Sigurdsson, arrived in the summer and have quickly become important members of the team. Ridiculed for the most part of his time at Arsenal, Fabianski has established himself as Swansea’s first-choice goalkeeper, stringing together excellent displays on a regular basis in south Wales.
Sigurdsson arrived from Tottenham in a £10 million swap deal that took left-back Ben Davies in the opposite direction.
Considering Neil Taylor has been a consistent performer for the club, taking that fee off Spurs in addition to Sigurdsson's arrival was a masterstroke. Ki Sung-yueng was welcomed back from a season-long loan at Sunderland, and by the end of December had started in every Premier League fixture.
Monk immediately recognised the South Korea international's ability to dictate the tempo of play in midfield, and the player was rewarded with a three-year deal in August.
With Ki away on international duty in January's Asian Cup, Monk acted fast and brought in Jack Cork from Southampton. Cork, a neat, tidy passer of the ball, presents Monk with more midfield options.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for Monk, though – Wilfried Bony’s £28m departure to Manchester City left them with a huge gap to fill up front. Gomis and Nelson Oliviera have both auditioned for the role in recent weeks, but neither have proven as prolific as the Ivorian hitman.
Properly replacing Bony with proven quality is the biggest issue Swansea will have to address summer. Life after Bony began with a chastening 5-0 home loss to Chelsea, but Monk has regrouped his side since then, with the goalscoring burden now spread across the team.
With his bespoke suit and stylishly parted hair, Monk has the demeanour of an ambitious Wall Street investment banker rather than a Premier League manager, but the Swansea boss is right at home marauding the touchline and leading his men to success.
Europe beckons and, as things stand, the only way for Swansea – and him – is up.