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Swans struggle as Clement switches system again

Swansea have an awful record in Premier League games following the season’s first international break. They’ve never won, drawing twice and losing the other four. That trend continued on Sunday with a weak 1-0 defeat to an even weaker Newcastle side, in a single stroke wiping out the momentum gained from the club’s 2-0 victory over Palace a couple of weeks previous.

The players mostly did not play well, but it was manager Paul Clement’s decision to revert to the diamond again which was most problematic. The victory over Palace had been won off the back of the new 3-5-2 shape, and although this shape has not yet been seen enough to make for serious comparison, it does appear superior.

With a four-man D, Swansea are being out-shot 23 to 6 on average per game, have not scored a single goal, are conceding 1.6 goals per game against a league average of 1.2, and have held 48% possession while manufacturing 4 key passes a game.

Most of the criticism for the three-man D is that it is too defensive, that Swansea can’t create enough chances in that shape. Well, it is defensive — Swansea are still being out-shot in a 3-5-2 but only by 9 to 14. But look at that – 3 more shots per game for Swansea in the so-called more defensive shape. Key passes per game are up too, with 4.6 versus 4. It’s not much, but it is better. Crucially, all (both) Swansea’s goals this season have come in the 3-5-2, with the team scoring 1.3 goals per game and conceding only 0.6, again against league averages of 1.2 both ways. And Swansea are getting these improvements despite worse possession — 44%, 4% less.

This helps illustrate the conceit at the heart of the possession game. Possession at 0-0 is mostly meaningless, as was the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s game. It is only a truly useful tool when defending a lead, or for the first five minutes or so of a game, where a small spell of possession will allow all your players to get a few touches and feel comfortable early on. After that though, you need to get to the business of scoring goals. Possession can even be damaging. On Sunday, Swansea had 62% possession but were still out-shot 16-10 by Newcastle, and still lost the game.

An opponent that doesn’t get much of the ball is going to be highly motivated to make it count when they do get it. And besides, to shoot is to relinquish possession, and you can’t score without shooting. Possession is inherently anathema to scoring, and scoring is the aim of the game. Swansea’s mediocrity in possession was embarrassing on Sunday, a textbook example of all that is bad about that philosophy.

In the diamond shape (or 4-3-1-2, not that it makes much difference), Swansea seemed short of players in every area of the field. This is in sharp contrast to how the team has looked in the 3-5-2, a swarm of white shirts all over, plenty of passing options, and plenty of defensive cover.

New man Renato Sanches seemed to be victimised most of all. It was as though his own team-mates had bought the hype harder than any fan, standing and watching him struggle to single-handedly extricate himself and the ball from two and three man pressure, seemingly waiting for him to produce Maradona’s second goal against England in ’86, while offering precious few passing options, no real support. He is barely 20 years old. He’s got talent, but football’s a team game still. Yes, he made a few sloppy passes. So did the rest of the team. Clement perhaps should have eased him into the contest from the bench where there would have been less pressure.

One player that did come on from the bench was Wilfried Bony, and given the physical focus of Newcastle’s play, it might have made more sense to start the striker or at least field him sooner than the 68th minute. Tammy Abraham did well enough up top, and would have scored but for an over-cautious finish, but almost literally had to fight to find space. Bony is a monolithic presence. He bends the laws of physics. You can break a finger just standing next to him. Perhaps he would have presented the Toon defense with a tougher challenge.

So what next for Swansea? A reversion to 3-5-2 despite the complete lack of defensive cover on the bench. An appearance for either Leon Britton or Roque Mesa, since Swansea need a calming tempo setter in the midfield not provided by the skittish Tom Carroll or the lumbering Leroy Fer. Some patience for Sanches. And 2 extra hours of forced practice per day for the side’s set-piece takers, who apparently can’t put a dead ball into the box from 30 yards away.

When Clement arrived in Swansea, he talked about keeping things simple, getting the basics right, and it worked. He should revisit that idea now, by sticking to one shape, finding the right fit for the new faces, and figuring out why nobody was marking Jordan Lascelles on that corner.