The Season So Far
After the frustration and embarrassment of 2015-16, the only things most Swansea fans really wanted this time around were to stay away from the relegation battle and to start to enjoy watching their team again. The surprising departures of titanic, long-serving captain Ashley Williams and last season’s top scorer André Ayew gave a clear indication that all was not to be well at the Liberty Stadium and so it proved. The summer signings of Spanish strikers Fernando Llorente and Borja Bastón hinted that there may be hope, but the reality has been rather more disappointing – close to catastrophic, in fact.
Quickly sucked into a struggle for Premier League survival, Manager Number One Francesco Guidolin had no answer and was sent back to Italy in October. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – managerial change has been a constant theme for Swansea over the last few years – but it’s worrying that the trend in South Wales has changed in nature. Before, they lost their bosses to bigger clubs after significantly overachieving; now, they sack their managers every half-season because without a change they’ll find themselves in big danger.
Suspiciously American Manager Number Two Bob Bradley stepped into the breach and promptly angered much of the British Proper Football Man community by having been born in the United States and thus being inherently unable to understand football. Unfortunately, regardless of birthplace or the prejudices Bradley faced, he really did seem unable to understand football and Swansea’s freefall only accelerated on his watch. He lasted 86 days and a grand total of eleven games, and he was arguably fortunate to string it out for that long.
Manager Number Three, Paul Clement, is considerably more British and thus more acceptable to the Proper Football Man’s uniquely cultured palette. To be fair, Clement seems more acceptable to Swansea’s players, too, and since he arrived they have got out of the relegation zone and started to play like a proper football team again.
If there has been one shining light in the darkness of Swansea’s season – and there arguably has been only one – it’s been Gylfi Sigurðsson. Now with eight goals and a league-leading eleven assists this season, the talismanic Icelander is a beacon in a sea of absolutely terrifying mediocrity and will surely move on to greater things (again) in the summer.
The Season Ahead
Avoiding relegation is the only aim left for Swansea and they seem set to achieve it, although the recent revivals of Leicester and Crystal Palace may mean that it’s a straight battle between Swansea and Hull to survive and get 17th. Even with Hull also playing impressively again, Swansea have a great chance to stay up if only Clement can keep them doing the basics right, such as defending as a unit, giving the ball to Sigurðsson and Llorente, and not allowing Jordi Amat to set foot on a pitch wearing their colours ever again.
In contrast to Manager Number One and Manager Number Two, who experimented with several systems and never seemed sure which was best or in which one the players seemed most comfortable, Clement has stuck with one system and kept instructions very simple since taking over. He’s played a very lop-sided 4-3-3, with the right-forward playing as an orthodox winger and Sigurðsson cutting inside from the left, allowing perennial relegation-battler Martin Olsson to overlap at pace.
The attacks have primarily come down the right, with there being a more coherent and familiar feel to that side of the team, while the players on the left have to overload the centre or simply get into the box to get on the end of crosses. It’s worth noting that Swansea pose a huge threat from set pieces: Sigurðsson’s delivery and shooting are first-rate, and he has plenty of useful targets to aim his crosses at.
At the back, there’s nothing revolutionary about the way they defend but it’s worth noting that it’s a damn sight more cohesive and organised than it was a few months ago. While it’s undoubtedly true that Swansea don’t look anywhere near as porous at the back as they did under Bradley, it would be false to say they’ve stopped shooting themselves in the foot: they keep conceding stupid goals as a direct result of lapses of concentration, poor anticipation and embarrassing individual blunders.
The good news for Swansea fans, in the long term, is that they’re nowhere near as bad as their league position suggests. They rank firmly in the middle of the pack in almost all shot metrics and their defensive actions numbers are sound. For that reason, it’s no surprise that they briefly pulled away from danger and seem set to survive again.
More specifically, the most obvious danger is Gylfi Sigurðsson. There are plenty of far better teams with far worse number tens and it’s no surprise those same teams are sniffing around. Besides him, Spurs’ defence must be aware of the threat posed by the pace of the wing-backs Naughton and Olsson at transitions, while the very familiar Tom Carroll has been excellent in midfield in recent weeks. Also, Fernando Llorente is a very competent number nine and it’s no surprise he’s got double figures even in such a struggling team.
Conceding a set piece is dangerous in two phases: primarily, Sigurðsson could bury any free-kick from within 30 yards directly; secondly, Sigurðsson could work Lloris and leave another with a tap-in, or put a dangerous cross into the box. Spurs will have to be at their most careful when defending free-kicks around the box.
Even with the spectacularly hapless Jordi Amat nowhere to be seen, every member of Swansea’s backline has a penchant for slapstick and it would be no surprise if they gifted a goal or two in thoroughly laughable circumstances. Under Bradley the Swans were especially vulnerable from set-pieces in the absence of the departed Ashley Williams, and, if Spurs can get their delivery right, they can reasonably expect to have chances from dead-ball positions.
There’s also the fact that Swansea’s defensive strategy, while notably improved, limits their attacking possibilities on the counter, and asks way too much of Sigurðsson in open play. Spurs should find it relatively easy to regain the ball when it’s cleared and work it back into goalscoring positions, and with Sigurðsson drifting inside at will, Kyle Walker should have the freedom of the right flank.
Swansea are still without Wayne Routledge and may be without Fernando Llorente due to an ankle knock, but bar some rotation due to fatigue there shouldn’t be any changes from the now-familiar XI.
Swansea have improved a lot but they’re still a work in progress with considerable tactical problems in attack and a lack of quality at the back. Pochettino’s Spurs have become experts at punishing teams like this and they should do so again. 2-0.