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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The Prem's new class

By Michael Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Of the three promoted teams, it's fair to argue that Swansea City and Norwich City have added the most to the Premier League.

Paul Lambert
Lambert's meticulous game-by-game tactics have helped Norwich City thrive in their first season back in the Premier League.

The first thing: geographic variety. Swansea are the first Welsh club to have reached the top flight in the Premier League era, while East Anglia is represented for the first time since 2004/05.

In recent years, the Premier League has become increasingly concentrated in four major regions -- London, the West Midlands, the North West and the North East. There are no south coast clubs (whereas we once had Southampton and Portsmouth), no Yorkshire clubs (previously Leeds United, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Bradford City, or Hull City), no East Midlands clubs (Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, or Derby County ) and no-one in the south outside of London (Reading, Swindon).

But Swansea are the most westerly club the Premier League has ever seen, and Norwich the most easterly. If you consider a map of Britain to be the pitch, it's like when Jose Mourinho used to start with a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation at Chelsea, before throwing on Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, switching to 4-3-3 and surprising the opposition with the sudden danger down the wings.

But more important than their location has been their impact on the pitch. Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert are two of the most promising young managers in Britain, though continental football has played a significant part in their coaching background.

Lambert started his coaching education over in Germany. He'd been Scotland captain under Berti Vogts, who arranged for Lambert to speak with Erich Rutermuller, the man in charge of the German FA's coaching course. Even while he was still contracted to Celtic and a regular on the bench, Lambert was away from the club four days a week studying in Germany.

Leon Britton
Swansea's Leon Britton: has completed 93.3% of his passes so far this season, surpassing even the great Xavi for accuracy.

He didn't quite speak the language fluently, despite a season with Borussia Dortmund in the mid 90s, but persevered and earned his badges. Never before has there been a German manager in the Premier League -- Lambert is the closest thing to it.

Rodgers, meanwhile, owes his footballing beliefs to the two countries that made the World Cup final in 2010. "My biggest influence has been Spanish and Dutch football, that Total Football idea," he told the Daily Mail. "The British type of football never suited me as a player. It was very much smash it up the pitch and play the percentages. The only percentage I was interested in was possession." He's learnt Spanish in the last couple of years, perhaps with a view to coaching there in future.

It's easy to see Rodgers' love of Spanish football in the way Swansea play. They insist on playing out from the back -- their defence is as comfortable in possession as any centre-back pairing in the country -- and the ball often spends an incredible amount of time there before being passed into midfield, where Leon Britton's pass completion ratio puts him in the top four most reliable passers in Europe. He's in fine company -- alongside Thiago Alcantara, Xavi Hernandez and Seydou Keita.

Norwich are completely different. That's not to say they play long balls like Stoke, though, for their approach is rather more sophisticated. They like to cross the ball, and with two strong strikers in Grant Holt and Steve Morison upfront, have scored more headed goals than any other club. It's an interesting statistic considering they most frequently line up with a diamond in midfield, often more likely to give a team domination in the middle at the expense of controlling the wings.

But Norwich's play is intelligent and fluid -- both players on the sides of the diamond can venture into wide positions, as can the full-backs. Even Wes Hoolahan, a clever central playmaker, spends a fair amount of time drifting laterally across the pitch.

There's another clear difference between the sides -- how they approach individual games. Swansea are committed to their footballing philosophy -- they broadly play the same style of football in every game, and keep the shape Rodgers believes allows both midfield domination and energy down the flanks. A subtle tilt of the midfield trio is often apparent, but otherwise there is a clear consistency, for Rodgers is concerned primarily about his own side. "If we have the ball, you can't score, no matter how big or strong you are. I've always worked off that."

Brendan Rodgers
Brendan Rodgers has Swansea City playing with confidence and a Spanish-style possession game that's helped them to wins over Arsenal and Aston Villa in 2012 alone.

Lambert is the complete opposite; although the diamond seems Norwich's natural shape, he has also played a 5-3-2, a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1. The Scot is a more pragmatic manager, looking at the opposition's shape and adjusting his side accordingly. After the draw against Chelsea at the weekend, Lambert indicated he had been entirely happy to allow Andre Villas-Boas' side the majority of the ball. "They had the majority of possession, which they're entirely entitled to," he said. Rodgers would never think that way.

Which is the better approach? Well, neither. But they result in completely different playing styles. Swansea have the fourth-highest pass completion rate in the league, Norwich's is the fourth-lowest. But if Rodgers' side has the Spanish style, Lambert's has the German efficiency when it comes to using the ball -- they've scored the seventh-most goals in the league, nine more than Swansea.

Swansea keep the ball but often aren't a consistent goal threat, whereas Norwich are about structure and quick transitions. In short, they embody the Spain vs. Germany clash that ended Euro 2008, defined World Cup 2010, and will probably be played out again in Kiev on July 1st.

It is the two strands of modern football philosophy, epitomised by two managers and teams with little top-flight experience before this campaign. Norwich are in 9th position, Swansea are 13th -- in the zone of the table no-one bothers to talk about. But the performances of these two this season has been remarkable, and fascinating on a tactical level too. That, rather than the title race, the battle for Champions League places or the relegation dogfight, has been the best thing about the 2011/12 Premier League season so far.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.