Individual errors cost Swansea as Mesa shines despite mistake
3-5-2 is not a purely defensive formation. Three men at the back is one fewer than the four of a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Yes, the wing backs can drop back into defensive positions and make a 5-3-2, which Swansea used to grind out that 0-0 drawn versus Spurs, but a three man defence is still just a three and only becomes a five if the situation demands it. The shape still has one more striker than a 4-2-3-1, and in theory a five-man midfield which ought to be able to dominate possession.
Paul Clement’s decision to start a 3-5-2 against Watford at home then was not actually a negative stance. However, Swansea inexplicably seemed set on playing long ball out of that shape which was baffling. Lukasz Fabianski targeted long-range goal kicks towards Wilfried Bony more than once, as though the striker is Llorente-tall or Abraham-fast. Bony came second best in the aerial game, and while the Ivorian is useful in the air, it is not his strongest suit. His hold up play shines from balls to feet, where he can use his physical strength and underrated touch to play in team-mates.
In defence Alfie Mawson had his worst game in a Swansea shirt. Watford set-up in a 4-2-3-1, and with only one striker to worry about, the onus was on Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn to contain the wingers (Swansea’s wing-backs would have been covering the Watford full-backs). Mawson allowed Andre Carrillo far too much space to send in the cross for Watford’s first goal. Federico Fernandez was actually pointing and telling Mawson to cover the winger, while Clucas dropped into the box to allow Mawson to push outside, yet the centre back hesitated, Carrillo crossed uncontested, and Watford scored.
Later, Roque Mesa would make a suicidal cross-field pass which Troy Deeney picked off, but Mawson still had the opportunity to stop Richarlison either fairly or unfarily (MOTD’s Martin Keown offering that he’d have taken the man out to preserve the point so late in the game). Again, Mawson faltered, offering a weak, wrong-footed challenge which Richarlison blew past. When Clement changed shape at half time, he should have replaced Mawson and not van der Hoorn. The Dutchman has not had much practice working as part of a paring with Fernandez, so it’s likely Clement felt familiarity with the system was more important than individual performance at that point, but van der Hoorn was having the better game of the two.
There were other selection issues. The shape was not so much the problem as the personnel in it. Playing Leroy Fer and Bony made sense given Watford’s physical power, but Clement’s midfield combination of Fer, Sam Clucas and Tom Carroll presented a leadership vacuum in the centre of the field, which a start for Roque Mesa or Leon Britton could have remedied. Clucas in particular has yet to shine in a Swansea shirt — he is always asked to play as a #4 when his talent is as a #8 — while Tom Carroll has become undroppable for no apparent reason. The diminutive midfielder has become the side’s set-piece taker, and yet Swansea are producing nothing from set-pieces.
Watford are the league’s dirtiest side, and Jordan Ayew is the league’s best foul magnet. Swansea should have concentrated on dribbling to win free-kicks, and on playing those free-kicks short and on the ground. It should have been possible to get half the opposition booked while advancing upfield in this way, while winning further free-kicks in more dangerous positions or even penalties. Instead, Swansea continually wasted long-range free-kicks by playing to Watford’s strengths, with Carroll directing every ball high into an aerially dominant Watford defence. Perhaps someone needs to send Clement a memo that Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente have left the building — new personnel requires a new approach.
Yet despite all these obvious problems, Swansea still should have won the game. The Swans out-shot Watford 10-8, and were by far the better side in the second half, after Clement had made two substitutions and switched to the diamond. Watford’s goals came purely from individual errors on the part of Swansea players which Clement could do nothing about — Bony and Mawson for the first, Mesa and Mawson for the second — and the manager was at least bold enough to recognise his gameplan wasn’t working and to make significant changes relatively early on.
The problem Clement has is figuring out why his side can only seem to perform well in fits and starts. Until Saturday, the 3-5-2 had looked robust; defensively solid and just needing one or two tweaks to generate more offense, but against Watford it was horrible. The diamond had seemed completely impotent before this weekend, but Swansea looked fluid and purposeful in that shape for the majority of the second half here. The key is getting the right blend of players in either shape.
There are a lot of new faces in the squad, and Clement is still working out what each player’s best role might be. Fernandez suggested the side needs stick to one shape, and offered that the Swans are not comfortable with the ball at the moment. Whatever Clement decides to do with the formation, he needs to at least start one of Swansea’s tempo setters — Britton or his heir apparent Mesa — in every game. Mesa might have been partially culpable for Watford’s second goal, but his contribution the rest of the game was significant, and his introduction had more to do with Swansea’s resurgence than anything else. If Mesa is dropped as punishment for his error on a day when others were guilty of worse, then Swansea will have lost more than just a match.