Searching for Pablo’s Successor: John Swift

Welcome back to the next part of my series, ‘Searching for Pablo’s Successor’. If this is the first article you’ve read in the series I’d encourage you to read this introduction to see the premise of what I’m trying to do here.

I’ve also already released my first suggested option, Ivan Oblyakov of CSKA Moscow, who you can read about here.

If you’ve not got time for that though I’m working on the premise that if Leeds are promoted to the Premier League they may want to utilise Pablo in midfield for one more season, so now is the time to bring somebody in to learn from him and step up into his shoes to take the majority of the minutes in the future.

In this week’s offering, I’m looking a lot closer to home; at a player who anybody who watches the Championship will know:

John Swift

Date of birth: 23/06/1995 (24 years old)

Current club: Reading

Career History: Chelsea, Rotherham (loan), Swindon Town (loan), Brentford (loan), Reading

Estimated transfer value according to Transfermarkt: £3.6m

Estimated wages according to Football Manager 20: £25k p/w

Swift is on the edge of the boundary I’ve set regarding player age for this series but he’s been so impressive in the Championship this season that I had to look at him further.

Swift is a product of Chelsea’s academy. However, he only managed 1 minute of first-team football there before being sent on several loans, most significantly at Brentford. He was then bought by Reading in the summer preceding the 16/17 season. The midfielder has been a key member of their midfield ever since, being a standout performer this season, scoring five and making seven assists.

In the graphic above, a comparison from SmarterScout, we can see that Swift ranks highly in attacking output and pass towards goal: two of the metrics I identified as being important for any successor to Pablo in the introductory piece.

As I mentioned there, SmarterScout uses an algorithm which values every action a player makes by how it contributes towards their team’s expected goals for and against. In fact, Swift is actually given a higher value than Hernandez for the pass toward goal metric, which is impressive. However, the spider graphic which denotes player style doesn’t show many other similarities to Hernandez.

Personally, I believe this is mostly to do with team system differences and that Swift would look more similar to Hernandez if he were taking up his role in Bielsa’s Leeds as he has many of the technical attributes needed.

As you can see from these two heat maps, Swift takes up different positions on the field than Hernandez:

The first thing to notice here is the differences in the locations of the blocks. Hernandez favours the right channel in the opposition’s half where he plays the key role in Leeds’ build up, progressing the ball down the right-hand side and looking to create overloads before making a cross into the box or switching the play to the left-hand side where they’d find Jack Harrison in space. Meanwhile, Swift favours the centre of the pitch. Hernandez also appears in the penalty area far more often than Swift.

The colour mix of the blocks is also interesting. Hernandez features more blue/green, signifying primarily short passes, whilst Swift has more yellow/green which means he’s making more mid-range and long passes. My suspicion here is that this will be part of the role he’s been given and how he’s utilised to spread the ball wide to Reading’s pace on the wings.

Whilst Hernandez has operated as the playmaking, attacking 8 in Bielsa’s system, Swift has switched between being an attacking central midfielder at times and a deep-lying playmaker at others. As Leeds have Kalvin Phillips at the deepest midfielder, picking the ball up from deep and feeding the playmaker, he wouldn’t be required to do this role at Leeds.

Digging Deeper

In this series of articles, I will be assessing how each player I’m focussing on matches up to Hernandez in terms of his key performance metrics, as well as watching clips of them and at least one full match to check them through the eye test.

There are a few stats I’m focussed on primarily: the first of these is ball progression, which Hernandez absolutely excels at. In the introductory piece, I pointed out that Hernandez progresses the ball through passing more than any other midfielder in the Championship. However, he also plays more passes per 90 than any other midfielder in the league other than Harry Arter of Fulham. By very nature of him making a higher volume of passes, he’s more likely to have a high volume of progressive passes as well.

In order to cut through this noise, I’ve created a graph featuring passes per 90 on one axis with the percentage of total passes made which are progressive on the other axis.

On this graph, Hernandez is a clear outlier and almost warrants his own sector, such is the extent to which he stands out. For reference, the player in the bottom right corner of the graph who is the only player further along the x-axis than Hernandez is Arter. He makes marginally more passes than Hernandez but less than 12% of his passes are progressive, as opposed to Hernandez’s 21.18%. This means Arter is playing it safe much more often.

Swift isn’t quite as impressive as Hernandez, boasting a value of only 46.34 passes per 90 and 15.56% of those being progressive. However, he sits only 1% below the threshold to be included in the same sector of the graph. As I’ve mentioned earlier, his role in the tactical system he’s currently part of may be a factor here, so I’m happy to conclude that Swift’s position on this graph is an encouraging sign.

Another thing we know about Pablo Hernandez is that he is Leeds’ chief chance creator. In this series, we’ll be focussing on expected assists, or xA, which values the quality of the chances created. We will be using this instead of assists as using assists in isolation to measure a player creatively isn’t particularly fair, as it relies on the player on the end of the chance putting the ball in the net. Expected assists moves the focus to the chance itself.

In Hernandez’s case, he creates a whopping 0.31 xA per 90. This is the third-highest in the division. In the visuals below, we can see the top xA contributors for Leeds and Reading in 19/20. The darker the colour and larger the area of the rectangle, the bigger the number.

As you can see, Swift is the top creator for Reading as Hernandez is for Leeds. However, Swift doesn’t have anywhere near the level of creative support that Hernandez has, as Leeds have four other players with at least 0.16 xA per 90, whilst Reading have only Charlie Adam.

While Swift’s figure of 0.2 xA per 90 is less than Hernandez, I’d expect him to be putting up higher numbers playing for Leeds. They’re a team constantly on the attack, which Reading are not. In fact, Swift’s figure is all the more impressive when considered in the context that Reading only have the ball 47% of the time, compared to Leeds’ 62.7%.

Now we know that Swift is pretty similar to Hernandez in terms of statistical profile, it’s time for a very important check:

The Eye Test

In preparation for this piece, I watched a lot of clips of Swift, as well as two full matches. One vs Sheffield Wednesday, where he played in a deep-lying playmaker role in a double pivot and another away at Preston, where he was utilised in a more attacking role.

If he were to come to Leeds he wouldn’t be utilised in the deep role, as Leeds have Kalvin Phillips that has that position sewn up with Adam Forshaw a more than capable deputy to drop in there (assuming he’s fit!).

Having watched Swift play in a deep position I also feel he wouldn’t be suited to Leeds’ system in that role as he lacks the defensive nous and physical attributes that Leeds require there. It seemed clear to me that whilst Swift got a lot of the ball playing in a double pivot, it didn’t make sense to have him positioned so far away from the opposition goal, where his creative powers were wasted.

In the Preston game, he saw much less of the ball but was dangerous whenever he got it, scoring this excellent goal. He demonstrated excellent movement in the box and a composed finish.

While he did find it a bit difficult to get into the game at times, I saw that he was always moving to find space and offer himself as an option, which is key to any playmaker.

Hernandez sees the ball so often for Leeds because his teammates are always looking to find him, coupled with the fact that Hernandez is clever enough to find space to receive the ball in. In the example of the Preston match, Swift was often in space but a lot of the team’s play was going through Charlie Adam, who was operating as the deep-lying playmaker, who was subsequently spreading play to the wings.

In the example below, see how Swift pulled wide from a central position in order to receive the ball on the wing. He then used his strong one vs one dribbling ability to create a crossing opportunity. In the SmarterScout comparison of Swift and Hernandez that is featured earlier in the piece, notice the style rating ‘dribble’ which gives Swift a significantly higher rating than Hernandez. Whilst his game was still primarily about passing, I noticed that Swift carried the ball quite a bit more than Hernandez, who tends to move the ball on quickly with lots of short, sharp passes.

Another key attribute that I’m looking for in all the players I’m watching for this series is guile. Hernandez has been a master of guile for Leeds — whoever comes in as his successor needs to be an intelligent player capable of improvisation. Both these clips showed me that Swift fits the bill in this regard:

Here Swift does very well to protect the ball when it seems he’s taken a poor touch and that Ben Pearson will pick his pocket. Instead, he plays a smart one-two, before showing excellent technique to play a chipped pass between two defenders and create a very dangerous attacking position for his team.

In this example, Preston had been pushing hard to get a goal back, so when Reading won the ball back and found Swift in between the lines of Preston’s midfield, it was an optimum moment to try and get in behind the defence.

The pass Swift played was extremely difficult considering he had to play it the opposite way to which he was facing. However, it’s clear he’d spotted the run of Tyler Blackett before receiving the ball and knew exactly what he wanted to do. The execution was perfect as the ball went into space for Blackett to run onto, whilst not having too much pace for him not to catch up with it. Again, this was a dangerous position for Reading and took the pressure off them from having to do a lot of defending.

Swift would also offer a threat from dead balls, which is something Leeds have struggled with in recent seasons. Barry Douglas arrived at the beginning of the 18/19 season with a reputation as a specialist but he’s scored none and only picked up a few assists from free-kicks and corners. In fact, Hernandez himself is the last person to score a direct free-kick for Leeds back in 2017. Swift has scored three since then.

Is Swift Pablo’s successor?

This is, of course, the key question. I think Swift could be a good option for Leeds and perhaps one that might be available at a cheap price in the current situation.

Football finance is obviously in a unique situation at the moment and Reading spend 194% of their turnover in wages. With Swift being one of their top earners, it would be quite hard to resist any bids for him.

As I’ve mentioned already, Swift would be utilised differently at Leeds to how he has often played at Reading this season. But I think he’s got the attributes to fulfil the role as Pablo does. I’d like to see him get on the ball higher up the pitch more than I did when I watched him, although I would expect he would find that easier with Kalvin Phillips giving him the ball.

Now obviously, if Leeds are playing in the Premier League they won’t dominate the ball as much as they have in the Championship. But the FA Cup tie against Arsenal showed that Marcelo Bielsa wouldn’t be making any change in philosophy regardless of opposition. Leeds will still try to adopt a high pressing, high tempo, possession-based style and I think Swift would fit into that. He’d need to increase his defensive activity a lot playing for Bielsa, but I see no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do so.

All in all, Swift would be a great option for this role and, considering there were links in the press last summer saying that he was a player Victor Orta liked, his signing is not an unrealistic one.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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