NB There is little direct discussion of the Brighton game in this piece, but the fallout of that result prompted these thoughts
Managers don’t get enough time. We hear this a lot in football, especially after a few sackings, and recent weeks have seen sackings. Ronald Koeman, Slaven Bilic and Craig Shakespeare have all gone, leaving Paul Clement to step up as the bookie’s favourite to be next. People say it’s not like the old days. And it’s not. Back “then” (pre 00s?), managers had a lot more say, clubs weren’t toys or projects or cash cows for foreign investors, and Directors of Football didn’t exist. Of course managers lasted a little longer; they had far more direct input in shaping a club, not just in terms of playing philosophy, but in terms of personnel, even culture (Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang being perhaps the best example of manager and player symbiosis — even under more than one manager).
Now, there’s all that money, which is the most obvious reason for anything ever happening in football (or life in general). And with high manager turnover comes the phenomena of managers inheriting rather than building squads, only being able to move a few pieces around before handing the perpetually incomplete jigsaw to the next manager in line, usually 18 months or so later.
For smaller clubs that try to play progressive football, it’s particularly difficult. Do well, and the manager will be poached by a big club (Brendan Rodgers, Mauricio Pochettino); do poorly, and the manager will be fired simply because when progressive football breaks down, it breaks down badly. It’s no co-incidence that Sean Dyche has been at Burnley for five years. Big clubs do not want a pragmatist (even a Champions League winning pragmatist like Jose Mourinho, as evidenced by the collective shuddering of most of Paris this week) so Dyche will never be given an offer he can’t refuse, and because his brand of football is so reliably defensive, his side will never really underachieve and never really struggle against expectation, so he’s virtually sack-proof.
In contrast, a man like Clement has to resurrect Swansea’s Premier League salad days, all triangles and Swansalona and plucky underdogging. Arsenal on less than a third of the payroll. It’s a tough ask. The squad is poorly balanced, weak in some areas, and hasn’t played good football since Huw Jenkins thought it prudent to sack a living legend and promote his completely inexperienced mate to the manager’s chair instead. However, while it’s trendy to bash individual players, Swansea do have a mid-table calibre squad, even if they’re presently not playing like it. Any frustration shown at the way Swansea’s season is progressing is a tacit admission of belief that this team has the ability to do better.
So what’s going wrong? Well, had Alfie Mawson not flapped like a paper doll in front of Richarlison, Swansea may have had a draw versus Watford. Had Luciano Narsingh’s shot been hit with three or four inches less venom, Saturday’s shambles versus Brighton could have been worth a point, too. Two more points right now would lift Swansea out of the relegation zone at least, so perhaps it’s just small margins after all (Swans drinking game! Every time Clement says “margins” in a press conference, take a drink!). However, until those margins are one and two goal winning margins for the Swans, nobody wants to hear about it.
Squad confidence is clearly an issue, and a Clement apologist such as myself should be talking about how the players are letting him down. However, that’s rubbish. A manager is meant to instil belief in his players. Harry Redknapp did not enjoy a 34 year career as a manager because he’s a tactical genius. Where is Swansea’s belief? Maybe hearing about how you lose every single game because of small margins isn’t exactly the shot in the arm these players need. It just makes it sound like whatever you do, you’re destined to come up short.
More insidious is this idea: that Clement’s playing style — predicated on caution and defensive responsibility — has the adverse side-effect of robbing the players of the bravura necessary to be a creative force. Being coached to play the Clement way is neutering all of Swansea’s swashbuckling urges. I’m not sure even Michu or 2013-era Wilfried Bony could score in a Clement team. No wonder the players are shorn of confidence; they’re being coached to play like risk-averse wimps, made to watch their timidity translate into humbling home defeats against sides that haven’t played football at this level for literally decades. Even if all Swansea’s complex and damaging off-field issues were fixed, if Clement had 100% control of transfers, I’m not convinced his style would thrive in the Premier League. It is so ponderous, so safe, so slow.
The owners say Clement has a lot of “credit in the bank” for saving the side from relegation last season. While his defensive approach was certainly instrumental, it is becoming increasingly obvious that he also benefited from a powerful weapon he inherited rather than created — Swansea’s three-pronged set-piece machine (Jordan Ayew to win it, Gylfi Sigurdsson to take it, Fernando Llorente to score it). With that mechanism no longer in place, Clement has come up woefully short on ways to replace those missing goals. That glorious set-piece triumvirate might actually have masked a considerable shortcoming — how many open-play goals did Swansea actually score last season under Clement anyway? Perhaps this attacking deficiency was always there, and was merely hidden by a lucky convergence of three players with compatible skills, brought to the Liberty under three different managers.
This season, Swansea’s set-piece situation has been mutinously bad. In open play, the defensive caution would work just fine if there was equal attacking thrust to give Swansea a lead to protect once in a while. Yet amid all this futility, Tammy Abraham has somehow managed to score some goals. Swansea have a real jewel in Abraham — Clement’s greatest contribution to the team this season — just imagine what the striker could do with some service?
Clement says he wants to be judged after 38 games. Swansea’s performances so far are projecting to a 38-game record of 7 wins, 7 draws, 24 losses, 24 goals scored, 45 conceded, and 28 points. Game in, game out, nothing is changing, and it is hard to imagine Clement has any further aces up his sleeve that he wouldn’t have used by now given the circumstances. Since there’s only one judgement any board would come to faced with such a record, would it be so bad if that judgement was made now, when there’s still time to save the season?