SHORTLY before Reading visited Leeds in February, Mark Bowen made the bold claim that his midfielder John Swift possessed more talent than any player currently at Elland Road.
“They might have a midfielder who runs harder and faster than John but they won’t have anyone with his ability,” said the Royals boss.
Pablo Hernandez, the Whites’ gifted playmaker, may politely disagree. Bowen’s sentiments, however, were somewhat vindicated by Marcelo Bielsa, who admitted after Leeds’ 1-0 victory that he had worried Mateusz Klich would struggle to shackle Reading’s dangerman.
“Swift is a great player,” said the Argentine, who was widely linked with a £7m bid for the former Chelsea trainee last summer.
“I value him a lot. He is a player who can appear suddenly in attack and is very good in transition. He is dangerous, especially when he passes from the defence to the attack. I was not sure if Klich could defend against him.”
In fact, the Pole did a fine job, attacking so relentlessly that Swift failed to create a single chance and touched the ball just once in the opposition box.
Such stats, though, are an anomaly for a player now proving himself to be one of the most productive players in the Championship.
Deadly from set-pieces, Swift works with a specialist free-kick coach he met whilst on loan at Brentford and has notched nine assists this season. That total is bettered only by West Brom’s Matheus Pereira and Niclas Eliasson of Bristol City (both 12). Play the numbers with this Roulette game online real money after watching the Championship action.
He also ranks second behind Pereira for key passes, with 2.4 per game, whilst Kalvin Phillips of Leeds is the only player to have completed a greater quantity of accurate long-range passes.
Phillips, however, is less consistent. The Whites midfielder finds a target with just 55 per cent of his attempts; Swift hits his mark 62 per cent of the time.
And when it comes to chance creation, Swift is top of the tree. Nobody can match his tally of 74 for the season, or 2.6 per game.
Those numbers are indicative of a player who does not simply pass to keep the ball. Like Hernandez, Swift passes with a clear purpose.
Yet it was not always thus. Prior to this season and the arrival of Bowen, Swift’s effectiveness was stymied by youth and versatility.
Handed a Premier League debut by then-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho in 2014, the midfielder spent time on loan at Rotherham, Swindon and Brentford before making a permanent move to the Madejski in 2016.
During that time, he made 52 appearances as a No.10, 20 as a central midfielder, 21 on the left wing and eight as a deep-lying playmaker.
This year, however, all but one of his games have come in a central position and the improvement – at least in terms of output – is clear. With five goals and nine assists pre-weekend, Swift has already contributed to more goals than in any of his previous campaigns.
Tactical changes have helped, too. Under Jaap Stam and then Jose Gomes, the Royals played a slow, possession-based system that meant Swift frequently received the ball in his own third of the pitch.
Under Bowen, the ball often goes early to the strikers, forcing the team up the pitch and allowing the Royals’ key creative talent to work inside the opposition half. “In the first 10 or 15 minutes we can go long and stretch teams,” Swift explained earlier this season. “It’s been a very positive change.”
Weaknesses remain. Swift remains guilty of taking too many touches at times and is dispossessed with relative frequency.
Both, though, are occupational hazards of any player seeking to pass through the lines and should improve with experience.
At 24, there is plenty of scope and it would be a considerable surprise if Reading were not inundated with offers at the season’s end.