Steven Benda's catastrophic error proved the crucial moment of Russell Martin's first competitive game in charge as Swansea City slid to a frustrating opening day defeat against Blackburn Rovers...
Martin’s Swans side practiced what their new manager preaches by constantly looking to keep possession of the ball and pass out from the back, even in risky situations. Alas they’re going to have to practice it a helluva lot more if they want to avoid the dreadful errors that gifted Blackburn two goals and all three points here at Ewood Park.
Poor defending allowed Sam Gallagher to open the scoring for the home side and a tough comeback mission was made twice as difficult as Benda’s panicked challenge after being robbed led to Brereton Diaz’s successful penalty conversion immediately after the interval.
Jamie Paterson bagged a debut goal to halve the arrears but it was the home side that created a host of untaken chances to kill off the game as the Swans pressed for an equaliser.
Both sides came into the game with intense speculation swirling around their most important assets, but whilst Rovers mothballed their top striker Adam Armstrong ahead of his anticipated move to Southampton, the Swans fielded their captain Matt Grimes as interest from the likes of Fulham and Watford remains merely theoretical.
And it’s just as well that Grimes was available as despite the midweek arrival of Paterson, the midfield area is looking particularly thin with fellow new signing Liam Walsh already victim to the injury curse that has blighted his career up to now and Jay Fulton sitting out a suspension for his Wembley red in the Play Off Final back in May.
Martin was hit with further absentees as reserve keeper Ben Hamer tested positive for Covid and summer striker signing Joel Piroe was left out of the squad apparently for disciplinary reasons.
It left Martin with a paper thin squad and a sub’s bench mostly made up of youngsters and the only positive (other than Hamer’s) is that the defeat may well focus minds and lead to some much needed reinforcements arriving very much sooner than later.
The home side were straight out of the traps, eager to exploit any uncertainty in the Swans ranks, and early pressing meant Steve Benda was called into action within the first five minutes, turning aside Tyrhys Dolan’s effort for a corner that came to nothing.
Swansea continued to implement their new manager’s gameplay right from the off, stroking the ball around and looking to cherish the football, but again Blackburn pointed out that it can be a costly philosophy as Buckley robbed the ball back and fed Brereton Diaz but Benda was able to watch the 25 yarder fly wide.
If the examples so far had been the negatives to Martin’s high risk style, the away fans were about to be treated to the glorious positives of what can be achieved as the Swans carved their first chance of the game. And what a glorious chance it was!
It was Ben Cabango striding into the Blackburn half with the ball at his feet and his eyes seeking out a teammate to offload to; those eyes picked out Liam Cullen, Cabango delivering a perfectly weighted 40 yard straight pass, bisecting the home players and sending Cullen through on goal.
The young front man took the shot instantly but Kaminski in the Rovers goal had already closed the distance and saved with his feet round about the penalty spot.
It was a good piece of goalkeeping but in truth Cullen should have put a chance that gilt edged away.
Sam Gallagher on the other hand, did not miss when his chance came along, the Rovers forward making light of Armstrong’s absence as he put the home side in front just after the half hour mark.
It came after the Swans had endured a spell of pressure and had begun to truly dominate possession; unfortunately the away side were still prone to giving the ball away cheaply and when John Buckley again stole the ball and played in Brereton Diaz the Swans fans had their hands in front of their eyes again. Those that didn’t would have seen Benda brilliantly denying Brereton Diaz only for Gallagher to calmly slot home the loose ball.
Martin will certainly question how Brereton Diaz was allowed to easily stride in-between centre backs for the initial effort, and there’ll be a dressing room inquest into why Gallagher was allowed the freedom of Ewood Park to pounce on the rebound totally unopposed.
The goal seemed to badly shake the Swans collective confidence and they had to hang in there as Blackburn created chances to double their advantage, Benda doing his best to keep Rovers at bay with a couple of saves, one of which from Buckley was less than convincing, the keeper just managing to shovel the ball around the post after it bounced just in front of him.
Another sign of the pressure being exerted on the away defence came in the form of a yellow card for Latibeaudiere who was never going to get away with a cynical check on Gallagher having been let off on two previous occasions just before.
Despite the pressure the Swans held out without conceding anything further before the interval, and even though frequent sloppy play had presented the opposition with chances, Martin would have seen enough from his side to feel confident they could get back into the game in the second period.
I’m sure that Martin would have made that very point during the half time cup of Earl Grey and his players would have run out for the second half filled with belief…
…only for that belief to be shattered within 120 seconds of the restart as Benda brought down Dolan for a penalty.
Again it was a perfect illustration of what can – and will – go wrong playing the The Martin Way; Kyle Naughton took an age to decide he would pass back to Benda but it was the keeper’s heavy touch to the side that allowed Dolan to nip in and steal the ball. Having made one gaff already, the keeper then compounded it by throwing out his left foot and hacking down his opponent.
Benda nearly redeemed himself, guessing the right way but Brereton Diaz’s penalty had the pace to take it past the keeper’s despairing fingertips.
To their credit the Swans players reacted positively to falling further behind and only pulled a goal back from an unlikely source, Kyle Naughton’s close range effort from Korey Smith’s pass kept out by Kaminski.
The away side were not to be denied however and again Korey Smith was the architect, picking out Paterson on the edge of the box and the debutant’s calm finish left a flat footed Kaminski floundering.
Game on again!!
Well it was for everyone but Korey Smith who limped off to be replaced by Yan Dhanda.
The Swans continued to horde the ball and probe for openings and the best of these fell to Cullen but once again the front man was foiled by Kaminski as bis left footed strike from outside the area was turned aside by the Rovers keeper at full stretch.
With the game balanced on a knife edge, the enthusiastic Ewood crowd urged their side on, revelling in theft they were in front on the scoreboard and back in the stands after Covid.
The Rovers plays duly responded, picking off passes and creating opportunities by forcing their opponents to make mistakes.
Benda had to tip Rothwell’s free kick over and then watch Lenihan get his head to the resulting corner, the ball fortunately flying well over. And then it was Dolan stealing the ball again only this time Benda was able to stop him legally and fairly by smothering the shot.
With time almost up Rovers somehow managed to squander two glorious chances to kill the game off.
Yet another pass was picked off and Butterworth need the counter attacking charge, but despite having a 2 v 1 overlap he decided to ignore Davenport and go for glory and Benda was able to make yet another save.
When Butterworth did pass a couple of minutes later he could only look on in disbelief as Rothwell’s dink over Benda drifted wide and Brereton Diaz somehow contrived ti hit the post as he followed the ball in.
That final piece of action pretty much summed things up as Blackburn racked up 20 shots at goal despite having a comparatively meagre amount of possession but just couldn’t find the sort of killer instinct that Adam Armstrong gave them last season.
For Swansea city’s players, it was a a harsh lesson that a higher percentage of possession means nothing if you don’t make the most of it going forward and you keep committing schoolboy errors at the back.
Let’s hope the lesson is quickly learned…
Seems strange giving the Star Man award to the player conceding the crucial penalty in comical circumstances but that blooper aside, Benda was brilliant. Was mostly reliable with his feet and made several top saves to keep his side in contention.
What a difference a manager makes – after so long watching Steve Cooper’s dour, ultra cautious gameplay, Martin’s high risk strategy was a breath of fresh air. Result aside of course! Keystone Cops defending will always make for an entertaining game but there’s a point knocked off for the lack of quality.
Deep in the heart of Milton Keynes there’ll be a handful of people – the entire MK Dons fan base – shouting “told you so” as the high risk strategy that Martin insists on adopting blew up in our faces first time out. It all looked very pretty but there was a lack of cutting edge up top allied to ever increasing panic at the back.
But whilst defeat is always disappointing, this has to be taken with a healthy dose of context and mitigating circumstances such as the following need to be taken into account:-
* The manager had just five days with his new players – barely long enough for him to learn how to spell Latibeaudiere never mind teach the lad the finer points of playing out from the back
* Some key players were missing. Ryan Manning would have had a shot at that left wing back spot had he not been ruled out through Covid whilst Blackburn’s ability to punch right through the middle of the field seemingly at will would have been stamped out if Jay Fulton had been on the field instead of serving a suspension
* It’s the opening game of the season and mistakes will happen whilst players get themselves back to match fitness
* The side that started Saturday’s game will look completely different by the time the transfer window closes with Martin closing on at least two new signings in the highly rated Ethan Laird and Ipswich playmaker Flynn Downes, and probably a couple more on top
Losing the game hurts and makes me miserable (well, even more miserable given my default setting is “miserable old goat”) but a great majority, me included, wanted a radical change to Cooper’s turgid style and that simply can’t be done overnight with a flick of a switch.
The frustrating thing is that Blackburn didn’t beat us, we beat ourselves! Both goals were giveaways gift wrapped with a blue and white bow but that’s going to happen with unwanted regularity whilst Martin’s squad evolves, adapts and improves.
At least this defeat perfectly illustrates the challenge that lays ahead – both for the manager and players and us as fans.