Strikers. They are what win you games. Ordinary ones cost ten million quid nowadays, good ones a great deal more than that.
Rarely has the point been made with more force than yesterday. After an hour of largely forgettable football, the score line rooted in concrete at 0-0, and Mr Silva decides to relieve Abel Hernàndez of the responsibility to lead the line on his own, and throws on Omar Niasse to keep the Uruguayan company. Just a quarter of an hour later and they have combined not once, but twice, and the points are won.
Strikers! They hunt in pairs. This game will live short in the memory, but the win is precious and the goals, both of them, prove we have got enough firepower to survive in this League, even if ‘free-scoring’ is a term that will never be applied to this squad.
I suspect Mr Silva would have started with three centre-backs if he had enough fit ones. Forced to retain an orthodox back four, he chose to make two adjustments. Elmo and Niasse paid the price for their atrociously supine displays at Leicester last week, though (I peer sternly over my glasses in the direction of Mr Marković) they were not alone in vulnerability to the axe after that calamity, and so we carded a team with changes at right back and at centre forward:
Elabdellaloui Rannochia Maguire Robertson
Marković Huddlestone N’Diaye Grosicki
Just the one up front, but with Sam Clucas allotted a roving role between midfield and Abel flying solo up front. Clucas was immediately mobile, haring up and down, from side to side and generally looking the most relevant player on the pitch.
Ah, Clucas, the colossus of the Lincolnshire Wolds. He earned plenty of attention last weekend for posting the record of scoring in each of English football’s top five Divisions, and his merit fully deserves recognition. I’ll freely confess I saw him as a squad Championship player at best – not quick enough, not strong enough and not confident enough in possession to be more than that. Wrong. So very wrong. He has been an absolute revelation this season, a proper Premier League player in all respects, and his touch on the ball and ease in finding a pass is almost Italian in its effortless simplicity. Credit Mike Phelan for loading responsibility on Clucas from the very first game of the season, at home to Leicester when he played superbly as the holding midfield player, and credit too to Mr Silva for understanding that in Clucas he has a special talent, even if it’s not yet clear what his best position really is.
It’s doubtful too whether any set-up with only one real frontman is going to trouble defences as secure as are to be found in the Premier League, but it would take an hour, and the arrival of Niasse, to emphasise that point.
Another player I had sized up as ‘Championship at best’ is Harry Maguire. Earnest, strong, intelligent enough and a great attitude, but just not quick enough to play at the highest level. Or so I thought. Wrong, wrong again. Harry Maguire is being talked about as a potential England player: I hope it happens, both because his rise will show potential recruits the value of an association with Hull City and because his sturdy defending blended with thrilling forward maraudability has been a true highlight of the season. The lad has really improved this campaign. But last weekend and this his passing has been woeful. Harry can bring the ball forward and he is a decent passer of the ball, but Harry, don’t over-complicate, don’t be over-ambitious in distribution. You’re more Jim Holton than Jim Baxter, so keep it simple.
The game is locked into a pattern of equality. On 8 Swansea open us up, but the Jak saves well. On 25 Abel wins a free-kick invitingly perched on the edge of the box, but Clucas blats it into the defensive wall. Fernando Llorente, the large and mobile Basque forward, is Swansea-s main threat, and both our centre backs need to be alert to his occasional menace. But it is a pretty scrappy game of football. Swansea are happy to retreat ten men behind the ball when we have possession, leaving only Llorente in an advanced position, and space is stifled. Mr Silva is off the bench and animated, visibly urging our players to inject greater pace into the game, but it isn’t easy against well-drilled opposition, and Hernàndez is largely without service. That almost changes on 39 as a cross by Grosicki flies tastily towards his forehead, but Fabianski intervenes to flick it clear.
Half time beckons, dourly scoreless, and our only successes lie in the departure through injury of, first, the splendidly named Àngel Rangel and then, just before the break and more damaging to the visitors, the totemic Llorente.
More of the same, initially.
Flashes of possibility, but mostly suffocation of footballing wit. On 47 the ball drops loose to Huddlestone on the edge of the box, but he shoots tamely straight at Fabianski. Then, on 52, the Jak throws an unconvincingly weak hand at a low cross, leading to a stramash in the penalty area and a fortunate escape as the hapless Routledge smears a good chance wildly high over the crossbar. Then the Jak saves more confidently, stretching to push away a free-kick delivered by the impressive Icelandic midfielder Sigurdsson.
The Swansea shape is good and solid, ten bodies conscientiously behind the ball, and we are not going to break them down without changes.
And so Mr Silva removes N’Diaye, who’s been better than last week but still well short of the vibrantly positive impression he created immediately on his arrival at the club, and brings on Niasse to play up front with Hernàndez.
And so we win.
Yes, that simple. More or less.
The first goal arrives on 69, a deft touch by Abel which releases Niasse in behind the Swansea back line and he shows excellent composure in striding onto the ball and smacking a confident shot past Fabianski’s left hand and just inside the post.
A flash of quality, the combined force of pairing up forwards, and now Swansea need to chase the game.
Elmo is brought on for Marković, at a moment when I was howling for the dogged industry of David Meyler, but shortly afterwards it’s 2-0 anyway. Another smart combination, and further firmer proof of the need to play with two up front if we are going to cause teams defensive problems at this level. Elmo, much happier further forward than in the right-back role which, in a flat back four, he just can’t perform, dinks a delightful chip into the box, Abel makes a right nuisance of himself, distracting the defence without himself getting more than the faintest toe end on the ball’s trajectory, and Niasse, running in behind him, gleefully thunders the ball into the back of the net from close range.
We do now get sight of Meyler. He replaces Hernàndez, who makes great play of his disenchantment at being taken off, though I presume his slow sulky gait as he left the pitch was more a means to waste a bit of time than any real show of dissent. Swansea don’t look at all likely to cause us any alarm now, but, just as the board has indicated 4 added minutes at the end of the 90, a free kick is punted into our box, where Mawson, wholly unmarked (he was Niasse’s man, I suppose), is allowed to guide a simple header into the corner of the net.
Nerves abound, but we see it out, if not with comfort then at least without any desperate moments of danger.
It was pretty hard to plot a route to survival without victory in this fixture. So, job done, important job done. And, largely humdrum game though it was, we did deserve to win it. News of Bournemouth’s victory over West Ham was unwelcome, and we remain one of the three sides most likely to go down. But right now two are more likely to go down than we are, and we’ll probably stay up if we win most of our home games. Under Mr Silva so far we are winning most of our home games.
Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)