Last Sunday's game was never going to be easy under the circumstances. Both team's players showed a lot of class and character in agreeing to go ahead with the game, and you might even argue that nil-nil was probably the kindest result; factors such as league tables and points suddenly rendered totally meaningless. The fans did their bit, too. Characteristically unable to keep quiet, the Swans faithful handled the minute's silence in their own way - with continuous applause and chants of "there's only one Gary Speed". The poignancy that the first Premier League game following the news should be in Wales did not go unnoticed, and everyone concerned handled the situation with a degree of dignity befitting the remembrance of one of Wales' finest.
On to the game, then, and as might be expected, the ambience was solemn yet wired with an undercurrent of the emotion felt by fans and players alike. Several of the players from both teams had been close to Speed. They were raw, everything laid open, the first of many yellow cards issued after just minutes of play. The tone was set for the rest of the game.
Aston Villa's game plan seemed to boil down to getting the ball to speedster Gabby Agbonlahor on the wing, and kicking lumps out of the Swans the entire rest of the time. Again and again, Swansea's passing movement was broken down under the outstretched boot of a Villain. So many of the Villa players picked up bookings or stern words from the ref, you might be forgiven for thinking they had some sort of agreement before the game; that they would take it in turns to kick the Swans players until they picked up a yellow, and then someone else would take over. Unfortunately, Neil Swarbrick seemed to have left his red card at home; Richard Dunne, booked early on, put in a Van Bommel-esque display of continuous blatant fouling and more than deserved a second yellow for persistence if nothing else. Alas, it was not to be.
Villa's fouling inevitably took a physical toll; Danny Graham had to be subbed off after being clattered from behind by Dunne, a sizeable tear in Graham's sock testimony to the recklessness of the challenge; which came from behind and involved Dunne's studs and Graham's Achilles. This was textbook fouling, and I'm loathe to suggest it, but several of the Villa player's fouls looked suspiciously coached. I've played football myself, and although only ever at Sunday League level, even I know you do not need to rake your studs down someone's heels to win the ball back. And it wasn't just Dunne.
Stephen Warnock executed a similar type of "tackle" on Nathan Dyer; this time, a full studs-up slide into the ankle from behind, with Dyer left writhing in pain for several moments. The ref apparently didn't see this one, the Swans not even winning a free kick when a yellow card, maybe even a straight red, would have been a reasonable expectation. Despite Villa's continued and surprisingly succesful attempts to disrupt the Swans game plan in this fashion, Swansea did get one or two chances. Two, in fact, and both fell to Leroy Lita, ironically Graham's replacement.
The first saw Lita deftly outmanoeuvre James Collins following a delightful through ball from Mark Gower only to pull his shot the wrong side of the far post. The second saw Shay Given make an outstanding save on Lita from the corner of the six yard box. If Graham is injured for any length of time, Lita looks more than ready to take over.
Possibly the worst news for Swansea following the game is that right back Angel Rangel is likely to miss four weeks following an injury picked up whilst playing the ball. Although it is not possible to blame Villa for that one, the blow might hit Swansea hard. I have complained on this page before how the team lacks adequate cover for Rangel. Perhaps it is easy to take for granted the consistency of the Spaniard, but with defensive band-aid Alan Tate also out with injury, the Swans suddenly face a mini-crisis.
Rangels' importance to the team effort cannot be understated. Not just an excellent defender, despite having a reputation for being all-attack (Rangel boasts quality stats in tackles, clearances, tackling effectiveness, blocking and passing), it is likely the Swans forward play will also suffer. Dyer relies on Rangel to play crafty one-twos down the right flank; their partnership is a cornerstone of the Swans attack. Without it, the Swans risk losing a little edge up front, which is bad news for a team that could do with a whole lot more edge, not less.
During the Villa game, Jazz Richards came on in relief of Rangel. Richards was originally a midfield player but has been coached to cover full back. On the evidence of a nervous display versus Villa, I'd say he needs more time to develop. I like to see youngsters given a chance to shine, and towards the end Richards started looking more at home, but Rangel's boots are big and Richards doesn't have quite enough to fill them yet (though it won't be long - he has quality, he's just raw). And this presents a problem for the Swans, as Richards is arguably the best cover option remaining to the team.
Here's a thought; Nathan Dyer as a wing back. Think Roberto Carlos. It might sound ridiculous at first, but Dyer is actually the team's best and most frequent tackler. He has more than enough pace, and his work ethic puts most players to shame. Routledge could replace Dyer on the wing up front. It's food for thought if nothing else.
Going back to the game, Michel Vorm made two great reaction saves to post yet another clean sheet, and kept the Swans in the game after Agbonlahor realised he'd have the best part of an hour to terrorise the youngster down the flank. The story of the match however was that Aston Villa, a solid Premier League side, had to resort to cheap bully-boy tactics to get a point out of the Swans. It's safe to say Swansea have turned a few heads already. If they were afforded the same protection some of the other teams receive, they might not even need that extra edge up front.
Positives : Clean sheet. More possession than a police auction. Lita looking dangerous.
Negatives : Rangel injured. Graham injured. No goals. Less official protection than JFK.