2 weeks into the season and certainly one of the names catching the eye so far is Swansea’s Jefferson Montero. In 2 Premier League games the Ecuador winger has ripped apart two experienced international right-backs in Branislav Ivanovic and Daryl Janmaat. More discussion time on highlights shows and more space in newspaper columns are being devoted to him accordingly. It’s easy to see why – England loves a player able to power past opponents and roast defenders 1-v-1 several times per game. In fan speak he’s something like “a good old-fashioned winger.” If he can play a bit too, he’s usually a perfect fit for the Premier League.
This is unfortunately where a lot of people get drawn into the hype around a player. They will expect more of the same and watch more keenly, now knowing who he is. This means the surprise element is lost and disappointment ensues when he isn’t tying his fullback in knots several times a match. With expectations already nudged into unrealistic territory, more exaggerated on both sides of the spectrum comments fly around. And that’s more or less the cycle of discussion when a player’s name becomes known.
Anyway, the point is that teams will now be more aware than ever of Montero’s capabilities – of course they knew who he was last season too, but the havoc he’s already caused this season will be enough to work more on stopping him. Teams due to play Swansea soon will be studying videos of Montero’s last 2 games, and trying to perfect a system during the week which manages to nullify his threat, and in turn that of the team.
From what I’ve seen in Swansea’s opening 2 games, they’ve managed to use the ball well enough to isolate Montero against his fullback and give him enough space to play in. This is where he’s dangerous – if the fullback stays touch-tight he leaves a big gap in behind which Montero will run into. If he drops off and keeps compact, the winger has enough space to reach top speed and drop his shoulder while running at him. It’s a nightmare for a defender to be left against someone with that pace and power, because no matter which option you take, you’re going to get beat unless you get some help. Montero is quicker and stronger than most players in the league – when he’s 1-v-1 with a defender, he’ll win in a flat race most times if he pushes the ball past him into space.
The job of the other coaching teams now is to either stop Swansea manufacturing these situations, or stop giving Montero this space to play in. There are plenty of players who aren’t afforded the luxury every week of being isolated against a man whom they enjoy physical superiority over. Because of this they have a brilliant game one week and are anonymous the next, and get the ‘inconsistent’ tag.
For example, in order to stop this, a team might set up so that the nearest centre-back to the isolated fullback is never more than 5 yards away from him, so when the ball goes wide he immediately backs up his fullback. If the winger beats his man, he’ll often be close enough to get in a covering block. But the risk here is leaving too much space between the two centre-backs which a player can run into, so the team needs to work on filling that gap too. Alternatively one of the midfielders can drop a couple of yards closer to his defenders to make that quick pass out wide less dangerous. When Montero gets the ball he might have to check back inside and pass. Even better, he might not get it at all as the pass out to him won’t be the best option, and he’ll end up on the halfway line, back to goal, in order to pick up the ball.
It sounds easy to stop in theory, but there are too many variables in practice for it to be that straightforward. Otherwise everyone would be a football manager. At some point this season, however, a manager and his team will get it right, and it will work. Montero will have a quiet game, which may trigger a period of low-key performances as other managers will capitalise. Suggestions that “he can’t do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke” may also follow.
If he does manage to keep up his level of performance for the majority of the season, Montero will rightly continue to be one of the names most talked about. After a solid enough first season, he and everyone will be confident enough that he builds on that. I hope he does, because it’s quite predictable to see where this is heading otherwise.