What is Steve Cooper's philosophy?
I‘m not sure of the answer to this question, but I am clear on what his philosophy is not.
One thing we are definitely not is a build patiently through the thirds, possession-oriented team. The stats are unambiguous on this. Quite apart from the fact that we’re mid-table on the main metrics for a possession-oriented team, 12th in the Championship on possession (49.3%), and 11th on pass completion (73.4%), we’re only 18th in the table on play in the defensive third (27%). Although this isn’t necessarily at odds with having a possession-based philosophy, the teams that have the highest own third percentages include Brentford, Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Watford, and Norwich, who are all in the top 6 on overall possession, reflecting a more patient approach to build-up play adopted by these teams.
One other thing that we’re not, is a team that builds through the middle. What’s very obvious watching the Swans is backed up by the stats. We are last in the league when it comes to how much we play in the middle column of the pitch (20%) (Brentford, Norwich and Bournemouth in contrast have 27-30% play in the centre), but lead the way on play on the right side (43%). On the left side we are 10th (37%). Unsurprising, given Bidwell’s inferior ability to retain possession compared to Roberts’.
The one other thing that we’re not is a long ball team. We’re 21st on long balls (averaging 65 per game), with expected clubs topping that table (Preston, Wycombe, Barnsley, Cardiff, Birmingham, and Wednesday). This isn’t surprising, given the lack of a number 9 in the side. I wonder whether things would be different if we’d recruited Kieffer Moore. McCarthy has adopted the same 3-4-1-2 formation as us, but they are going direct up to Moore, with Murphy and Wilson available to play off the knock downs. It’s an approach that’s working well for them, but I doubt whether Cooper will be tempted to follow their example, given our squad composition.
What the stats point to is a Steve Cooper philosophy of getting the ball forward quickly, down the flanks, especially the right one. Any patient possession football we play occurs in the opposition third of the pitch. It’s obviously worked well, but what is the underlying thought process for being so reliant on building through the flanks? The adoption of a wing back system provides an obvious partial explanation, but I wonder if part of Cooper’s thinking is that losing possession out wide is far less risky than losing it in central areas? He often talks of showing the opposition into areas of the pitch where we want them to be, and I’m guessing by that he means out wide. The latest such comment came after the match at the weekend, where the crucial second Huddersfield goal came from a surging run from O’Brien through the middle. It’s very much unlike us to concede in that manner. So, it could be that part of the reason he doesn’t want us to build through the middle is because he’s afraid of what may happen when we lose possession in central areas. This would make sense given the complete absence of pace in the middle of the park in our squad (except Manning perhaps?), so that we're susceptible to counters through the middle, exposing our lack of recovery pace. This might also explain why Cooper hasn’t been tempted into tweaking our 3-4-1-2 into a 3-4-2-1, which should make it easier for us to build through the middle. I’d be interested to hear what others think is the reason why we build so little through the middle.
Going forwards I can’t see any evidence to suggest Cooper is going to change things fundamentally. If Cooper is going to tweak things it may be to involve Manning more, so that we can develop a more balanced approach to attacking down the flanks. If he doesn't then the opposition are going to target Roberts, as happened against Derby.