Swansea travelled to automatic promotion hopefuls, Nottingham Forest, in what turned out to be a complete demolition of the Welsh side. The narrative surrounding the match was the battle between Forest boss, Steve Cooper, and his Swansea counterpart, Russell Martin. Earlier this season, Cooper was controversially replaced by Martin as Swansea manager, but Cooper’s Forest now sit 3rd in the table, while Swansea are in 15th.
Cooper was well aware of Swansea’s unwavering possession-based style of play under Martin, and his plan to sit off Swansea, allowing them to keep the ball unopposed before hitting them on the counter, worked perfectly. Vertical threats like Brennan Johnson and Sam Surridge wreaked havoc on a flimsy and fluid Swansea back-three. Despite Forest’s dominance, Swansea never strayed from their principles and Forest kept exploiting their weaknesses. The match ended 5-1 to Forest, but on another day the scoreline could’ve been a lot worse.
- A1 – Very good, could play higher
- A2 – Strong potential to play higher
- B1 – Good, strong player at level
- B2 – Potential to be strong player at level
- C – Average for the level, re-watch
- D – Below average in this match
- Nationality: English
- Age: 23
- Date of birth: 20/01/1999
- Current club: Swansea City
- Career: Ipswich Town, Luton Town (L), Swansea City
- Position: Center Midfielder
- Secondary position: Defensive Midfielder
- Preferred foot: Right
Flynn Downes lined up alongside club captain, Matt Grimes, as a central midfield pair in front of Swansea’s back-three. From the start of the match, Russell Martin’s philosophy was clear to see; attracting Forest’s press to play through it with quick, short passes, utilizing manufactured triangles and numerical advantages through fluid rotations. Principally, possession at all costs.
Downes is a vital component of Martin’s playing ideology, his pass-heavy, press-resistant midfielder profile is synonymous with Swansea’s game model. For context, he ranks first among all Championship players with a 92.5% pass completion rate; he also ranks 6th for completed passes per 90 with 66.4.
This match was visible evidence of those metrics, and distinctly showcased the advantages and disadvantages of Swansea’s approach. Downes only misplaced three of his 74 passes, while Swansea managed 70% of the possession. Much of Downes’ influence in this match came during Swansea’s sustained periods of possession.
Alongside Grimes, Downes was extremely active in rotating positions and making himself available for a potential pass at the right moments. Despite his central midfield role, he could find himself at any of the central positions with a deliberate intention to facilitate the creation of possessional triangles.
Downes’ 360-degree awareness was impressive; he is a constant scanner and his awareness was not only limited to nearby opponents. His pitch awareness meant he recognized useful pockets of space to move into, to either receive the ball himself or force a Forest player to mark him, thus freeing up space for his teammates.
His off-ball movement and third man runs were intelligent and very effective. When he was in his natural central midfield position, Forest’s midfielders, Garner and Yates, were tasked with individually man-marking him. In reaction to this, Downes moved into positions that tested Forest’s defensive organization. He occasionally dropped into deeper areas where his marker wouldn’t follow him. He also moved higher up the pitch, in between Forest’s backline and midfield, forcing his marker to follow him or screen the space in front. This created more space for Swansea to keep the ball.
On almost every occasion, Downes had his next pass planned before receiving the ball. His awareness dictated the nature of his first touch; usually, he killed the ball dead on his first touch, allowing for an immediate pass. When he had more time on the ball, the second or third touch was used to encourage pressure from a Forest player, before playing the pass.
Forest picked their moments to press Swansea, especially when their players received the ball with their back to goal. Downes become the target of this collective press due to his position, but he was well prepared to deal with this sudden pressure.
Downes received many vertical passes but didn’t receive them with his back to goal. He orientated his body so that he could receive the ball on the half-turn, which allows him to efficiently protect the ball once he’s physically engaged by an opponent.
In this clip, he actually doesn’t receive the ball correctly but uses his body to protect the ball really well. He places his body in between Garner and the ball, meaning the Forest player can’t get near it without fouling him. Downes does this whilst simultaneously dribbling forward and progressing play.
Downes’ ball-carrying was a constant theme throughout the match, but the data here is unsurprising considering Downes’ volume of passes and the amount of time Forest gave Swansea in possession.
Forest’s threat on the counter-attack is what ultimately decided the game. Their margin of victory is a testament to just how good Forest was, but also Swansea’s inability to control these transitional scenarios.
Swansea’s fluidity in possession worked against them in transition moments. To maintain constant possession, Downes and Grimes both drift from their position in front of the back-three and are then poorly positioned to defend the counter-attack.
Before Forest’s third goal, Grimes and Downes are caught on the same side of the pitch, and once the ball breaks to Garner, Downes can’t recover quickly enough. Swansea’s center-backs are completely isolated against Forest’s wide forwards without any protection in front of them. In desperation, Downes makes a sliding challenge when he probably should’ve cynically fouled him or attempted to match his run.
In settled defensive play, Downes dropped very deep, close to the back-three. This seemed to be a coached mechanism to possibly protect the center-backs and not allow Forest players to find space between the lines.
Around the 60th minute, Downes was moved to right center-back, in an attempt to chase the game and bring on more attacking-minded players. His role in possession remained relatively the same, but he did struggle with the defensive part of the game from that position.
At times, he looked unsure deciding when to step out of defense to engage an opponent or control the space behind him. On Forest’s fourth goal, he misread a long pass over the top and was beaten to the ball by one of Forest’s strikers.
Defensively, it’s obvious he’s uncomfortable in that role, but his ability in possession and versatility are valuable to Russell Martin.
He looked like a symptom of a Swansea side that lacked belief and were completely outplayed by Forest on the day. Downes, along with the rest of his teammates, seemed to accept defeat after Forest scored their fourth goal; there wasn’t any desire to speed up the tempo and the ball was only kept for the sake of possession.
Downes has recently been linked to Leeds United in the Premier League, but has publicly shown a desire to stay at the Welsh club for at least another season.
Regardless of a potential move, he looks like a Premier League player in the making. It might only be a matter of time before he makes the jump to the next level. Despite his links to Leeds, he would be an ideal fit for a possession-based side that wants to methodically break down their opponents through the use of positional play. Flynn Downes would excel in a team or league that emphasizes control and structured play, rather than a fast-paced, transitional brand of football.