Arsenal 2 Swans 1
It’s getting harder to write about Swansea’s performances as there are only so many ways of saying exactly the same things. You might as well pick another blog from this site at random where the Swans lost and read that instead; the issues aren’t really changing. Chances not being created. Lapses in concentration. Individual errors. The defeat to Arsenal featured all three — as usual — and again suggested that Paul Clement’s tendency to err on the side of caution is hurting more than it is helping.
Clement set out his side in the 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 given the opponent) which everybody expected. He used the same system to force Spurs to settle for a 0-0, and it might have worked here, but for a couple of defensive lapses — mostly Kyle Naughton playing far narrower than necessary, apparently so reluctant to mark Arsenal bruiser Sead Kolasinac he tried to hide inside Mike van der Hoorn instead. Clement can do nothing about that of course, though it’s worth remembering that Harry Kane hit the bar in that Spurs game. Spurs had their chances, and could rightfully feel unlucky not to have won. Had they won, as any side with 75% possession and 26 shots on goal should expect to do, would Clement still have favoured the same approach in this game?
After Kolasinac had scored one and set up another to put Arsenal ahead 2-1 with 63 minutes still left to play, Clement needed to act. Swansea had taken 3 shots up to that point, and would only take 1 more before the end of the game. Hardly the stuff memorable comebacks are made of. The thing is, while Swansea’s four total shots looks pitiful, they did have the ball in the net twice, and had Jordan Ayew possessed the superhuman reflexes and awareness necessary to square a tight pass to Tammy Abraham in what was literally a half-second window, they might have made it three.
Abraham’s offside was only marginal, and might have been a goal on another day. Sam Clucas even scored. Despite Arsenal’s dominance of the ball (78% possession), they looked vulnerable against a total of four whole shots, only two of which were even on target. Imagine Swansea had been able to take 6? Or 8? To do so they would have had to open up, to risk losing 3-1 or even 4-1. But so what? A 4-1 defeat is worth the same points as a 2-1 defeat, and while goal difference might eventually become important, to be overly concerned with such details at this stage of the season is to set an embarrassingly low bar of expectation.
Clement seems to be labouring under the idea that narrow losses are less harmful to morale, are somehow more credible than blow-outs, that if his side lose by single goal margins more often than not, he can say his side are being competitive, and make everyone believe they are “close” to “turning the corner”. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t, but it is easier to believe the latter when the performances each week allow for next to no plausible chance of victory.
Wins come from goals, and goals come from shots, and Swansea do not take nearly enough shots. They take the fewest per 90 minutes of any side in the league, 7.8 against a league average of 12.5. That puts an incredible pressure on Swansea’s strikers to convert the few chances their team-mates can create for them. The three clubs below Swansea in the standings — Everton, Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace — take a combined average of 11. How soon before the greater attacking intent of the those three clubs starts to show on the scoresheet, and inevitably in the standings?
At this point, I’m not sure anyone cares about defensive solidarity when it still equates to 0.8 points-per-game. I’d far rather lose 5-2 and have seen upwards of 15 shots on goal for Swansea than sit through another single-goal defeat in which the television camera crew might as well point everything they have at the Swansea third and pop down the pub for a pint.
Making three attacking substitutions in the last 10 minutes is nowhere near brave enough. Those chances smack more of fanbase appeasement than any real tactical plan to actually score a goal. “Hey I did make three attacking substitutions, it’s not my fault”. The Numbers Game details a study which strongly suggests that the latest a substitution can be made in a losing effort and still be expected to change the result to the good is the 57th minute. Not the 80th. Nathan Dyer has actually been good since he came back from injury. Luciano Narsingh has something to offer. Ki Sung-Yueng threaded one picture-perfect through-ball from the halfway line in this match — why isn’t he being shifted further forward where he might provide 2 or 3?
Clement can insinuate he isn’t happy with the club’s summer recruitment if he wants, but he can’t change the squad until January. In the meantime, he can use the players he has in ways which play to their strengths (Clucas might yet thrive at LWB where he can have a real role instead of just being another auxiliary midfielder, and Ki absolutely needs to be unleashed as an advanced playmaker), and he has to start being braver. Pretty much the entire fanbase is saying the same thing at this point. Win, lose, or draw, at least take a few shots, at least make it seem like something might happen.
Brighton are next. Lowly, relegation-favourite Brighton, who are currently 5 places and 3 points better off than Swansea, and feature the kind of fantastic bargain signing in Pascal Gross that Swansea used to be able to brag about. Time for a perspective check in South Wales. Anything less than a home win will likely put Clement’s position under intense scrutiny.
For the record, I don’t think he should go. I think his caution is patience-testing, but I understand his approach is about making small, gradual improvements rather than sweeping changes (in playing style if not personnel). However, if he was to be sacked, wouldn’t he stare at that pitiful shots-per-game figure and wonder, given a side with one of England’s hottest young strikers in Abraham and a man in Wilfried Bony who scored at an unfathomable 0.50 goals-per-game rate last time he was in Swansea, what could have been if only he’d let the leash go just a little?