Football today is largely driven by narrative, the emergence within society of social media as led to people from all over the world being able to join in discussions around the game with opinion being gauged and narrative set. That is in part why it is so easy to become an overnight sensation in today’s game. That was highlighted at the beginning of this season when the Ecuadorian winger Jefferson Montero shone so brightly for Swansea in consecutive matches against Chelsea and Newcastle United. The performances of Montero in these games echoes back to a previous generation of footballers before the introduction of inverted wingers and the reintroduction of inside forwards as Montero’s performance on the left wing left experienced Chelsea full back Branislav Ivanovic with twisted blood and led to Dutch international full back Daryl Janmaat being sent off for two rash challenges in the early stages of the match. Jefferson Montero is a stereotypically old fashioned South American winger with great pace and the capacity to beat a man going inside or outside, he is not however an overnight sensation.
Whilst it is true that Swansea signed Montero directly from Morelia in the Mexican Liga MX that does not mean that this is the Ecuadorians first exposure to football in Europe. In 2009 Montero moved to Villarreal of Spain, a club that is well renowned for spotting young talent in South America. There was little doubt in Spain that Montero was a player of real promise but he never quite managed to add consistency to his skilful attacking play and after loan spells at both Levante and Real Betis he chose to move back to a more familiar style of football and joined Morelia of Mexico. Why then has Montero suddenly developed a sense of consistency that has been missing from his career to date? The answer lies at least in part with the tactical system that Montero now finds himself in at Swansea under coach Gary Monk. Last season Monk held true to the tactical framework that had been used by his predecessors Michael Laudrup and Brendan Rodgers with two wide players holding high positions and stretching the field horizontally as well as vertically. This year however after a productive summer of recruitment the framework has altered slightly in a way that has created more freedom and opportunity for Montero on the left hand side.
Using the half space
One of the keys to the summer recruitment for Swansea was the signing of Andre Ayew on a free transfer from French club Marseille. The Ghanian international brings a lot of experience to the club but he also possesses a high level of tactical intelligence which has allowed Monk and his staff to experiment with different structures and combinations throughout the side. One of the first shifts has seen Ayew playing primarily on the right but with more freedom to come off of the line and play in the half space between the centre and the right hand side.
In this image you can see Ayew circled in red and currently situated in the half space that I have marked on the image, in taking up the more central position Ayew has emptied the entire right flank and the Swansea right back has advanced in to an attacking player. In this example Swansea have six players staggered across the right side of the pitch overloading the opposition defence and forcing them to narrow their position. This gives Swansea both a series of strong connections through which to move the ball on the right side and an advantage on the far side of the pitch where Montero and the Swansea left back will both be isolated against an one or two defensive players at most.
Here once again Ayew has moved from his apparent starting position on the right flank and taking up a position in the half space. Once again the structure of the Swansea attack means that there are five Swansea players involved in the initial build up but once again Montero is left in a wide and high position ready for the play to be switched to the left side.
Here you can see Shelvey in possession of the ball on the right hand side of the pitch and once again Montero is isolated against the defensive player on the left flank. With the range of passing that Shelvey has the long switch is always an option and Swansea use that concept very well.
This practice of overloading one side of the pitch and isolating attacking players on the other side is a tactical concept that has become popular in European football over the last few months with Bayern Munich in particular using Douglas Costa in the Montero role and creating opportunities for him to get the ball in one on one situations with the opposition defender. Being part of this trend further reinforces Gary Monk’s position as one of the more tactically progressive young coaches in European football.
Whilst it helps that Swansea have been able to implement a system to make the most of group dynamics created by the new signings at the club it is still important that players have the necessary skill to beat a defender in a one on one situation and make the most of the opportunities being presented. Montero excels in this with his pace and willingness to attack space behind defensive players.
Here you can see an image captured when Montero takes possession of the ball in an advanced position on the left flank and you can see that the Newcastle defenders are fully aware of the danger he poses as three men are closing him down. A player like Montero though always has options and although the most common option that he will choose is to attack the fullback down the wide channel to get to the touchline he also has the capacity to attack the space to the inside of the deepest defender or to cut square to create an opportunity for a strike at goal. This capacity to do the unexpected makes him very hard to defend and means that when he is isolated on the left side he is even more dangerous to opponents.
Swansea are by no means Bayern Munich or Barcelona when it comes to pressing the ball high up the field but they are very capable of utilising situational pressing when the need arises. When the opposition have weak possession or when the defensive players are weak on the ball then they will press the ball. When they do press in this situation Montero is one of the key players as his speed means that he can close the man on the ball down very quickly. He is also very adept at using his positioning and his body to prevent the defensive player from being able to play the easy pass out of the defence.
It is clear that so far this season Swansea have been utilising a slightly different structure to their play with the key reason for that shift being the signing of Andre Ayew and his tactical flexibility but at the same time the individual qualities of players like Jefferson Montero play a large role in the positive start to the season that we have seen so far. If they can continue to build on this interesting framework and play to the strengths of players like Montero then there is no reason that they cannot challenge for a European place.