In perhaps one of football’s worst kept secrets, a few weeks ago Russell Martin confirmed that he would be leaving Swansea City to take up with Southampton for the 23/24 season. Our Welsh football correspondent, Rhys Phillips, looks back on Martin’s tenure at Swansea and assesses the appointment of Michael Duff as his successor.
Leaving SA1 after two years, Martin has proved popular with the fans, garnering praise for his desire for “attractive possession-based football”. When effective, this style proved dividends: an 81 per cent possession spawning a 2-0 victory over rivals Cardiff City potentially the highlight. The Swans averaged an astounding 65 per cent possession last season across all competitions, and of the three teams that scored more, two were promoted automatically. However, Martin’s ‘play out at all costs’ style spawned some crazy defensive moments. At times, the Jacks’ back three looked about as resilient as a damp Kleenex, leading to a retched run following the January transfer window. Only four teams conceded more, three of which were relegated last year. Yet, the reversal in City’s fortune was clear to see from their finish just three points off the play-offs, in part due to their lighting form towards the back end of the season.
The long, drawn-out negotiations with Southampton surrounding Martin’s departure ensured that Swansea were well-placed to have sourced a replacement, coming in the form of Michael Duff. A fairly young manager at 45, Duff has proven himself in the EFL as capable of building teams adept at achieving promotion. Such was the case at Cheltenham Town: promoted in 2021 whilst the Northern Irishman took home the League 2 manager of the year award. The following year, Duff moved on to Barnsley, who – with a 55 per cent win rate – were mere moments away from a penalty shootout for promotion to the Championship this May. With these in mind, the appointment makes a lot of sense for Swansea.
In terms of playing style, Swansea have gathered a reputation of playing nice football whether that be under Graham Potter, Steve Cooper, Russell Martin, or even going back further. Duff will fit into this philosophy nicely. Last season, Barnsley were in good attacking shape despite lacking an out-and-out goal-scorer at times. It will be less of a case of ripping up what Martin has done, and more building on his base. Perhaps a clear indication of this continuation of style could be Duff’s recent signing of former Exeter City man, Josh Key: a key target of Martin’s in the January transfer window. There will be some deviations though, as indicated by another signing of Duff’s: winger, Josh Ginnelly, from Hearts. Having played under Duff previously at Burnley U23s, Ginnelly’s signing signals the intent of Duff to re-introduce wingers back into Swansea’s game, rerouting their long-time strategy of using a wing-back system, or diamond formation. The 26 year-old scored 13 goals and had 7 assists last season in 41 competitive games, and will no doubt assist in Swansea’s need for attacking potency should Joel Piroe leave this Summer. Both signings appear to be a good bit of business from Swansea, with both coming over on free transfers, and so are very low-risk moves. Expect more big signings to come though, potentially in the form of a striker despite Swansea losing out on the race to sign Ellis Simms.
So, how will Swansea fare this season? As touched on above, Swansea have a good squad with sprinkles of magic, but it isn’t exactly setting the world alight, nor is it filled with depth. However, there is a potential for Duff’s reputation to serve as a lure for players to come in on loan, replicating his success with this at Cheltenham and Barnsley. With similar playing styles and vision, there shouldn’t be too much disharmony within camp, and expect Duff to iron out a few of those defensive head-losses. That said, it will be tough for Swansea to break into that top six for the play-offs this season. Many are touting this to be the toughest Championship in years and it isn’t hard to see why. Don’t expect to see the three clubs relegated from the Championship fade away in the same way as Watford or Norwich did, they’ll be there or there abouts. In addition, you’d expect sides such as West Brom and Middlesbrough, who were hampered by awful runs at the start of the season under previous managers, to be right up there this year.
Swansea will likely see another mid-table finish again this season. However, if Michael Duff doesn’t continue his trend of leaving for a better opportunity elsewhere, we could see him build something special at the Swasea.com stadium.
Of course, this could be totally incorrect and I’ll leave you with a final statistic: Michael Duff has never been sacked in his career. Is there a first time for everything?