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Ugly Ducklings No More

cialis serif;”>In the wake of their 3-2 win against Arsenal, Amy Eustace examines the philosophy that has helped Swansea become this year’s Premiership darlings.

Each year, without fail, the Premier League finds its new favourite son. The underdog quality has the league hooked; a quaint, lovable bravery – or is it naivety? – that seems to be engrained in at least one team every year. Think Blackpool last season, spurred on by the press conference escapades of one Ian Holloway, or Bolton when Owen Coyle had stumbled onto some untapped potential. A giant-killing there, a character-building draw here, and in time the lucky club becomes media darling for the foreseeable future. That is, at least until it falls back to the Championship with an audible thud, or worse, sacrifices its adorable ethos in favour of Premiership sustainability.

They don’t always reveal themselves early on, but it only takes one match, and while Norwich continue to admirably keep their heads above water at a more than respectable ninth, Swansea – two points behind Norwich in tenth – have taken a massive leap in the race for the neutrals’ hearts. The decisive blow (for now, at least) was their gloriously entertaining 3-2 home win against Arsenal.

Despite a disastrous start to this year’s campaign, Arsenal have roared back into fifth, and have boosted their strike options by bringing back a familiar face in veteran Gunner, Thierry Henry. While the Frenchman sparked hope of a fairytale return with his FA Cup goal against Leeds, he was powerless to prevent Wales’ best from raining on Arsenal’s parade. Scott Sinclair’s penalty and Nathan Dyer’s chip erased Van Persie’s opener. Theo Walcott got an equaliser, but any relief for the visitors was short-lived. Danny Graham secured all three points for the home side less than a minute later.

Once, Arsenal were looked upon as England’s answer to Barcelona (minus the trophies), but at the Liberty Stadium they were passed into submission on a difficult playing surface. It’s becoming a trend for the Welsh team, who are unbeaten in their last five on home turf, and whose continued presence in the Premier League looks all but certain, without having given an inch on their confident, possession based philosophy. Against Arsenal, they just edged it with 80% pass completion to the visitors’ 79%, but they attempted 527 passes to Arsenal’s 428, and had 55% possession.

Trying to out-pass Arsenal is (supposedly) positively suicidal, and far too many teams play the pantomime villain by trying to stifle Arsenal with a more aggressive approach. But at home Swansea were brave enough to adhere to the values set down by now Wigan boss, Roberto Martinez. Comparisons to Barcelona, while exaggerated, have some depth when you’re reminded how the Catalan took Swansea from League One strugglers to Championship material upon a foundation of retaining the ball, and the ideology has survived two managerial changes. In fact, their pass completion rate against the London side was down from their usual 85%. It’s why they have the world at their feet, trying to understand how a little club from South Wales could possibly elicit parallels with Barcelona.

Their performances in this Premier League campaign have made everyone take notice of the talent in his squad. Englishmen Sinclair, Graham and Dyer might just be on Fabio Capello’s Euro 2012 radar. This month, midfielder Leon Britton was declared the world’s best passer to that point in the season, even beating Xavi, with 93.3% pass completion (Xavi could only manage 93%) and Britton’s midfield partner, Joe Allen, also features in the top ten. Goalkeeper Michel Vorm has become a Fantasy Football stalwart with 9 clean sheets and two saved penalties. They’ve secured Gylfi Sigurdsson and Josh McEachran on loan, and look confident in consolidating their place in the table.

Whatever the rest of the season holds for the Swans, they have proved that the passing game isn’t just for the big boys (Tony Pulis, take note), and that you can fight fire with fire, and win. Here’s hoping more sides in the Championship and beyond take note of Swansea’s blueprint for success.

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