At the start of the season many pundits were tipping Swansea City to challenge for a European position, but with just four months of the campaign remaining the South Wales outfit find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle. Despite their struggles on the pitch, one man has continued to impress; captain Ashley Williams.
The centre back has been at the club since 2008, initially joining when the Swans were in the third tier of English football. Having performed well during a short loan spell, the move was made permanent and Williams and Swansea have gone from strength to strength since – firstly impressing in the Championship and then in the Premier League following another promotion.
A common trait among promoted clubs in recent years has been their collective struggles defensively with many players struggling to make the transition from the second tier to the first, with the increased quality of strikers they have to face. Williams has had no such issue, establishing himself as a proven Premier League centre back and reportedly attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool. He is the only surviving Swansea centre-back from the lower leagues with foreign imports such as Chico Flores and Federico Fernandez being brought in to replace previous stalwarts Garry Monk and Alan Tate.
It’s clear to see why Williams has built up such a good reputation during his four and half seasons in the Premier League. The Welshman has made 263 defensive actions (interceptions, blocked shots and clearances) so far this season, according to Squawka, more than any other player in the league. Only Sebastian Bassong has made more clearances, whilst nobody has blocked more shots, demonstrating the ‘never say die’ attitude that epitomises Williams’ game.
However, it’s not simply a case of Williams and Swansea having more defending to do this season due to their lacklustre performances. The former Stockport County man has been in the top five for the most defensive actions in each of the last four seasons. Last year, with Swansea finishing in their highest ever top flight position of 8th and playing free-flowing attacking football that was the envy of many teams in the league, Williams still made more defensive actions than anyone except Burnley’s Jason Shackell. He was in the top 3 of each of the individual categories and made over double the actions of nearly every other Swansea player. It shows that Williams is an extremely good reader of the game, continually getting himself in the right position to cut-out opposition attacks.
Of course, gone are the days when defenders were simply expected to defend and nothing else. They are now expected to be good footballers, helping to build attacks from the back. Having played in Swansea sides managed by Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, Williams is certainly capable with the ball at his feet. Swansea’s philosophy has been to play attractive passing football with centre-backs one of the key players in this, often receiving passes from their goalkeeper. Additionally, as seen from Everton and Liverpool in recent years, this style of play leads to the defence being extremely exposed. However, a Williams-inspired Swans defence kept 13 clean sheets last year as keeper Lukasz Fabianki only finished one behind Joe Hart in the Golden Glove race. This year, the team have conceded less goals than all of their closest relegation rivals and it is at the other end of the pitch where new manager Francesco Guidolin needs to concentrate most of his attentions.
Williams is an extremely passionate player, visibly displaying his emotions on numerous occasions. This behaviour commonly leads to rash decisions, giving away free-kicks and picking up yellow cards. However, the Swansea captain has conceded fewer fouls per game than the likes of Vincent Kompany, Chris Smalling, Ryan Shawcross and Laurent Koscielny this year, four of the highest rated centre-backs in the league. The Welshman also has a higher pass completion rate and plays more forward passes per game than his four fellow centre-backs too.
Being the captain of his team, Williams has become a focal point for the Swans and is clearly a natural leader. He is also captain of Wales and has proved his ability at the highest level in international football. Whilst Gareth Bale, ably assisted by Aaron Ramsey, received all of the plaudits for Wales’ stunning Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, the Dragons’ success was built on their defensive record. Marshalled by Williams, Wales conceded just four goals in their 10 qualifying fixtures, including two clean sheets against new world numbers ones, Belgium.
Naturally, there is still room for improvement for the 31 year old and he has made 2 defensive errors so far this season, more than the other four players mentioned above combined. The recent goal against Watford was his first in nearly 2 years, a poor return for a central defender who regularly goes up for set pieces.
However, in a time where top class defenders are few and far between, Williams has proved himself over a prolonged period of time in the Premier League. The Swansea man has become one of the most consistent and reliable defenders in the league so except a top club to make a move for the Welshman this summer whether Swansea remain in the Premier League or are relegated to the Championship.
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