Michael Laudrup. As a player, Laudrup was considered not just among the best of his generation, but among the best of all time. He was arguably the best passer of the ball the game has ever seen, which is why his appointment as the new Swansea boss makes so much sense.
Even Arsenal struggled to keep up with the Swans passing last year, but naysayers were quick to highlight Swansea's lack of incision in the final third. Whilst it is true that Swansea's easy-on-the-eye game occasionally lapsed into ponderous keep-ball last time out, this season ought to be different.
One of the first things Laudrup addressed in early interviews was that his Swans side would look to attack with greater pace and purpose. A proponent of a similar 4-2-3-1 system that former manager Brendan Rodgers used with the Swans, Laudrup will keep much of the same flavour with a system predicated on short passing.
However, we should also expect to see full backs Neil Taylor and Angel Rangel given more license to get forward down the flanks, which in turn will allow wingers Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer the opportunity to cut inside and supplement lone striker Danny Graham in the box. The result hoped for is a boost in goals scored, which was the teams one obvious short-coming last term.
This season will mark Laudrup's debut as a Premier League manager, and whilst many still consider the Premier League as the ultimate test for managers and players alike, recent years have seen the continental influence thrust to the forefront like never before. Swansea are among those leading the charge as one of the more tactically progressive teams in the domestic top flight, and Laudrup's pedigree in coaching Spanish football ought to stand the great Dane in good stead to make a positive impact in his inaugural season.
It was always going to be the case following a strong first season that the Swans players would come under close scrutiny from big clubs with deep pockets. It is ironic that so far, the only player to be sold (Joe Allen) was bought by the one man who was supposedly prohibited from poaching Swans players - former boss Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers exploited his knowledge of Allen's contract to activate a release clause, and for £15 million, chairman Huw Jenkins wasn't about to argue, not that he could have anyway given the nature of a release clause.
The other significant departures involved loan signings Gylfi Sigurdsson and Stephen Caulker heading back to Spurs in Caulker's case, and to Spurs via Hoffenheim and a few million quid in Sigurdsson's. All three of the departed players were first eleven starters under Rodgers last year, so the triple loss has understandably been seen as significant in the eyes of many.
However, to dwell on the loss is to do a disservice to the three like-for-like players Michael Laudrup has brought into the squad. Michu joins the team as last season's top scoring midfielder in La Liga, and should slot into the playmaker position vacated by Sigurdsson. Similarly, Jonathan de Guzman will replace Joe Allen in centre midfield and Chico will cover for Caulker's absence at the back.
These three new additions are all established professionals and should be more than up to the task. After all, Sigurdsson was only with the Swans for half of last season and so wasn't the entire reason for the side's success, whilst it is also easy to forget the impressive Caulker was still just a raw young player earning his spurs. Joe Allen, reared in the Swans system since he was nine years old, is perhaps a harder loss for Swans fans to take.
Nevertheless, to hear some gloom-mongerers talk, you'd swear the Swans had just lost Bobby Moore, Lothar Matthäus and Maradona. In reality, Laudrup's new additions ought to more than just paper the cracks, with most eyes cast on Michu and his impressive scoring record.
Likely First Eleven (as things stand at time of writing)
It's a safe bet that Laudrup will favour the same starting eleven as did Rodgers, with the afore-mentioned new signings filling the holes. Of course, this could change should Swansea be successful in their pursuit of Bolton's Mark Davies, who might create a rotation in the midfield, or Pablo Hernandez from Valenica, who will give Laudrup a selection dilemma on the wing.
Likely Out The Door
Garry Monk and Alan Tate
Laudrup has already gone on record to acknowledge the contribution both Swans stalwarts have made to the club over the years, whilst also suggesting that neither player would be picked for the first eleven or make the bench for most games. The exit sign is clearly lit, but will either man want to jump ship? Either player would get first team football in the Championship, whereas Tate might have the better shot of seeing limited Swans action due to his versatility, should he stick around.
Whatever the case, the dirty job of easing these contemporary club legends out the door has fallen to Laudrup, who will try to do so whilst picking up as little flack as possible from various devoted corners of the fanbase. In purely realistic terms, it is probably the right move for the club at this time.
Speaking of devoted corners of the fanbase, there are few players who command such support from the fans and are so regularly omitted from the team sheet as Stephen Dobbie. Ignominiously cast out by Brendan Rodgers last season after an understandably shaky performance in the Swans opener versus Man City, Dobbie subsequently struggled to get anywhere near the first team.
Rumours abound that he is headed for Blackpool, which seems the logical choice, as Ian Holloway remains Dobbie's most vocal supporter of all. Dobbie's limited pre-season appearances suggest Laudrup isn't likely to give the charismatic Scot any serious playing time this year either, and I'd be amazed if he was still with the Swans by the close of the transfer window.
Mark Gower and Andrea Orlandi
The influx of top level talent in midfield will not have come as welcome news to either Gower or Orlandi, who appear to be on the outside looking in. As it stands, both players might be allowed to remain with the team as cover, but are behind at least four other names in the pecking order.
In the case of Gower, it might just be time. The ageing dead ball specialist has always given a solid effort, but lacks pace and really can't be considered an improvement over first team starters, or Kemy Agustien, who appears ready to become the de-facto midfield backup man.
Orlandi is something else entirely, however. Restricted to less than a handful of appearances due to injury last year, the Spaniard has plenty of flair and positional versatility. He was very impressive in a late tilt versus Wolves last season, scoring a goal and running rampant up and down the left flank. I imagine working with Laudrup might bring out the best in Orlandi, and to that end I would like to see him stay, which he might yet do.
Of course, should one more midfielder join the ranks at the Liberty (Mark Davies, for example), it would certainly mean the end for at least one of these two, not least because Laudrup has gone on record to say he wants to work with a small 22 or 23 man squad to maximize the team's resources and training efficacy.
Luke Moore and Leroy Lita
The two incumbent backups to Danny Graham at striker are possibly two too many, especially given the recent addition of Israeli international Itay Shechter on a season long loan. It stands to reason that one of the two will likely be kept around for depth, and Luke Moore seems to be favoured. Fourth in the pecking order, Leroy Lita seems likely to depart.
Still Left To Come?
Laudrup's summer shopping might more more or less complete, but there are reportedly still plans for more. Although Jonathan de Guzman has become Joe Allen's replacement, he was bought before it was assumed Allen would be leaving, which means there is impetus to purchase another midfielder to offset the loss. The afore-mentioned Mark Davies or a player in a similar mould (probably from Europe) looks likely, though only at the right price.
Elsewhere, Laudrup is keen to add another winger. Bristol City's Albert Adomah was among the most frequently mentioned candidates, but now all the talk is of Valencia's Pablo Hernandez, who would be a significantly more prestigious singing, with all due respect to Adomah.
Hernandez' agent claims Laudrup has made a 'concrete offer', and Valenica need the money, so there is a good chance Hernandez will wear Swansea white this season, re-uniting with Laudrup, who coached the winger at Getafe. If it does come off, the transfer would be an impressive high profile statement of intent from the Swans, whilst if the somewhat far-fetched Sinclair to Man City rumours turn out to be true, then Laudrup will be looking for two wide men.
One area of which there has been precious little talk of fortification is defence, which remains thin on the ground. Youngsters Jazz Richards and Ben Davies appear to have won their respective rights to play understudy to Rangel and Taylor at full back, but beyond Garry Monk and Alan Tate, either or both of whom could be leaving, there isn't much cover at centre half.
Prospect Darnel Situ ought to see some action, but should either Williams or Chico suffer a long-term injury, there really are no adequate backups, only untested youngsters. With no talk of a new defensive signing, the situation has the potential to cause Swansea some real problems down the road, should injury strike. (late edit: Reports suggest the Swans have just signed former Arsenal centre back Kyle Bartley, who should shore up the depth chart nicely, and could be another Stephen Caulker.)
Ben Davies and Gwion Edwards impressed in pre-season, with Davies looking to have beaten out Fede Bessone as the second string left back behind Neil Taylor. Edwards, meanwhile, will look for a chance to shine on the wing, but this only seems likely in the event of injury or suspension.
Of course, one of the advantages of a small squad mooted by Laudrup is that it puts young players within sniffing distance of a start, should such circumstances befall the squad.
Jazz Richards, who featured in several games last season, will look to pick up where he left off, whilst Darnel Situ should see some action if he is expected to develop beyond reserve team duty.
If the first team seems thin in defence, there are plenty of young defenders vying for a place. Beyond Richards, Davies and Situ, Curtis Obeng and Daniel Alfei are chief among the remaining prospects.
The fixtures computer has been reasonably kind to Swansea, presenting the Swans with a fairly soft schedule in the early running, but compensating with a horrible final stretch. The Swans won't meet a big six team until a trip to the Etihad to play Man City on October 27th. By then, the Swans will have eight games under their belts and ought to have found their second season feet.
December looks to be tough, with trips to Arsenal, Tottenham and Man United at home. The table on New Year's day is usually fairly representative of the final standings, at least where the top and bottom is concerned. If the Swans can stay out of the relegation zone after that tough stretch in December, they'll feel a bit better about that difficult finish.
Three of the last four fixtures involve Big Six opposition (Chelsea and Man United away, Man City at home), which will make any potential relegation dogfight a very difficult business indeed, not least owing to the likelihood any or all of those sides will be fighting for the title at the other end and so won't be pulling their punches.
One thing working in the Swans favour is that the three games immediately prior to that tough stretch are winnable; Norwich and Wigan away, Southampton at home. The Swans could give themselves a valuable buffer, not to mention confidence, if they can win all three before hitting the harder ground.
A good start is essential. Last year, the Swans faced three Big Six teams inside the first six games, easily the hardest schedule of the three promoted sides, and picked up five very respectable points. This season, anything short of a point per game average over those first eight matches might spell the start of a long season.
QPR away, 18th Aug : The season opener. It's away from home, and it's against Swansea's bogey team. A win under such circumstances would give the fans reason to believe in Laudrup, not to mention giving Laudrup and his charges a healthy shot of self-belief right out of the starting gate.
West Ham at home, 25th Aug : The first home match has the potential to be a trap game; yes, West Ham rank as a newly promoted side, but last season's holiday in the Championship shouldn't disguise the Hammers' historic top flight credentials. The Swans will be looking to re-assert the Liberty stadium as a fortress, and their bid to do so begins here.
Man City away, 27th Oct : The Swans first big test (excepting David Moyes' Everton, who won my award for most convincing destruction of the Swans game plan last season). The Champions might well be looking to exact revenge for the Swans one-nil shock win towards the end of last season, but regardless of the Citizens motivation, Swansea will be able to see how they measure up to the big guns.
Liverpool at home, 24th Nov : Rodgers and Allen return to the Liberty stadium. The same fixture last season saw the Swans beat the Reds one-nil in a display which convinced the Liverpool ownership to ditch Dalglish in favour of the Northern Irishman. Will there be a warm welcome?
Fulham at home, 19th May : The final game of the season comes right after three Big Six engagements. Should the Swans find themselves embroiled in a last-day relegation battle, this could be the game that decides their fate. Hopefully, survival will have already been assured, but to safeguard against the impact of that tough run in, the Swans will look to be secure with four games remaining - a tougher task, but possible.
Individual Focus - Who Needs To Deliver
The new guys. Michu has big boots to fill after Sigurdsson's impressive loan stint, but 15 La Liga goals say he's up to the task. Danny Graham will be hoping he'll send a few chances his way, too. Jonathan de Guzman will need to soothe the heartbreak of Joe Allen's departure whilst Chico will be expected to compensate for the emergent Stephen Caulker. If any one of these players falter, detractors will be quick to make unfavourable comparisons to their predecessors.
Who Must Avoid Injury
Injuries anywhere are usually problematic for all but the deepest squad, and although the Swans would be loathe to lose the likes of Leon Britton or Ash Williams for any length of time, it is Michel Vorm in goal who Laudrup & Co will most want to stay in the pink. Gerhard Tremmel is a competent backup, but Vorm was a human highlight reel last season, almost single handedly earning the Swans precious points in close games with outstanding saves.
One To Watch For A Breakout Season
With a small squad expecting to fight hard for every point, rotation will likely be kept to a minimum as the leading lights are leaned on to produce.
Meanwhile, the cup competitions which usually provide opportunity to blood the youngsters will not be a priority for the Swans, and early exits from both wouldn't hurt the team's Premier League survival bid.
With all this in mind, it is Jazz Richards that will have the best chance to raise his game another level from the promise he showed last year, especially given his positional versatility. Among the starters, look for Neil Taylor to continue taking enormous strides.
Season Outlook - Why The Swans Can Stay Up
Swansea proved last year that their brand of Spanish-influenced possession football was tailor made for the top flight. The eleventh place finish was a real achievement. Whilst this year's Swans won't be expected to duplicate that unexpected success, they are not in as much danger of being 'found out' as many people think.
Although Laudrup practices a tactically similar style to Rodgers, there will be differences, and for this reason, it would be naive to imagine the rest of the Premier League will automatically know how to beat the Swans based on last year.
What's more, Laudrup has a greater wealth of football experience to draw on than did Rodgers; Rodgers struggled to come up with a plan B towards the end of last season, but Laudrup is sufficiently well travelled to have a few more strings to his bow, having coached in three different countries and at international level (as an assistant).
For this reason, the Swans should find themselves a tactically broader, more conversant side this year, although it might take a few weeks for Laudrup's ideas to gel. If the Swans can start strong and get the Liberty faithful behind the new régime, they ought to more than hold their own. Remember, to avoid relegation the Swans only need to be better than three other teams. That's more than achievable.
Why The Swans Might Struggle
Last season's strong finish, the high profile defection of Brendan Rodgers and the appointment of a football legend with no Premier League experience as his successor have conspired to heap pressure on the Swans.
There aren't many football fans that won't watch with interest to see how the Swans handle the transition, if Laudrup can handle the domestic top flight, and if the Swans' success last year was more down to the players or their manager (clue: the Swans were already playing their brand of football before Rodgers' arrival).
If the side respond well to the pressure, none of this will matter. Indeed, the Swans and Laudrup might see the pressure as a gauntlet thrown, and Laudrup's career story so far is mostly one of meeting challenges successfully.
However, if the side struggle to get off to a good start, more questions will be asked, and should the player's heads drop, there might not be enough individual star power to save the day. Swansea are, after all, very much a team, relying on trust and confidence in one another rather than single individual inspiration. Unity is vital.
It was a black day for Swansea when Brendan Rodgers left, but Michael Laudrup's appointment was an unexpected boon, and I have confidence in the Swans' new boss. As a player, he was always ahead of the game, and the short passing approach he has been the master of since the eighties is more in vogue than ever. Laudrup's signings, too, have been solid and inspired (not to mention inexpensive), and have, in my estimation, not merely compensated for departed players but actually improved the side.
Tactically, the Swans ought to be harder to play against as they will have developed more dimension to their play, and whilst the top third of the table is still a reach, the Swans ought to be able to avoid the drop zone. There are many weaker sides in the Premier League this season, each with bigger question marks hovering overhead than Laudrup's Swans, who only need to be better than any three others.
Allowing for one or two teething troubles with this being Laudrup's first season in charge, I would still expect the Swans to finish no lower than 14th. But, if things click sooner rather than later and the new, useful looking Europeans adjust quickly, this is a side that can go top ten.