Carlos Carvalhal might not have been at the top of most people’s lists to become next Swansea manager (and given the delay in appointing him probably wasn’t even at the top of Swansea’s list, although he has been linked with the post in the past), but at least he’s got the balls to take the job on and risk a relegation on his cv. For that reason alone he’s already shown more bottle than most of the players in the Swans squad, which bodes well.
Carlos is known for playing possession football, which makes him a welcome throwback for a team which has routinely finished games on the slim side of 50% since Garry Monk decided to covertly swap triangles for long ball back in the heady days of statistically improbable 8th place finishes. However, the Portuguese also encourages physical play and favours 4-4-2, which suggests an interesting fusion of contemporary football philosophy and old school simplicity.
Now Swansea have got their man, here’s a listicle breaking down a handful of factors that could determine that man’s success:
Let’s get one thing straight — Wilfried Bony is a first class striker. Yeah, ok he had a couple of lean years, but before he got sucked up into Manchester City’s 24-karat early retirement home for not-quite-elite-level backup players, he was a career 0.50 goals-per-game scorer — a rate he hit for Swansea City the first time round. That’s not an achievement to be sniffed at.
Swansea have never been prolific scorers in the Premier League. They’ve always carried accusations of “possession for possession’s sake”, always endured criticism for “lacking a cutting edge”, and for the most part it’s been deserved. Bony was the Premier League’s joint-top scorer in the calendar year of 2014, his 21 goals tied with Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez. He’s in the top ten scorers that year across Europe’s best leagues, along with Ronaldo and Messi.
Bony never lost it. He was injured a lot at Man City, and owing to that club’s involvement in multiple competitions, was rarely afforded enough training time to get back to full fitness. At Stoke, he scored twice in his first 10 games and was dropped, never to play again. Remember when he first came to Swansea, and it took 9 league games before he scored? Mark Hughes didn’t.
Bony is a slow-burn player. He’s the opposite of an impact sub; he’s a player who needs 90 mins a game every game to get his motor running. He’s a bowling ball; slow and heavy at first, but let him pick up some speed and he’ll knock everything down. Had Hughes persisted with the striker, he probably would have gotten the best out of him. He didn’t, and Bony has to carry the can for someone else’s lack of belief.
Including his goal against Bournemouth, which should never have been disallowed and shows the striker’s finishing ability and positioning instincts are still intact, Bony has scored three times in his last 5 games for Swansea (excluding the Everton game where he was subbed after 5 mins through injury). That’s good for a 0.6 gpg rate (0.4 not including the Bournemouth goal), and had he not gotten injured, history suggests he could have maintained a similar scoring rate from here on.
Carlos has to put his faith in the big Ivorian, and take care to get him back to full fitness, because he is still a 2014-vintage weapon on a team badly lacking numbers in the GF column. Whenever a pundit lazily suggests Swansea’s scoring problems are solely because “Bony’s not very good”, they look stupider than Hughes did. Everyone knows Swansea’s problem is not finishing, it’s setting up chances. Which brings us to…
If you’ve been following me on twitter for more than a couple of seasons you’ll know how I feel about Ki. The Korean was brought in from Celtic boasting a highlight reel full of geometrically satisfying through balls and laser guided long shots, only to be dumped into a “holding” role and left there to spend the prime years of his career mostly labouring over 5-yard passes in the second quarter of the field, making one tackle a season and waving anyone wearing an opposing coloured shirt past like a steward at a school sports day.
However, in the handful of times he’s actually been allowed to get forward, he’s been pretty good. At the end of the 2014-15 season, he scored 8 goals, playing as a number 8 rather than as a 4 or a 6 or a 0 or whatever he was before. If you watch him in the final third, he’s a different player. He can pass, he can shoot. Those 8 goals prove he can finish. His creativity suddenly switches on, the inane safety passes stop, and we start to see sly little scoop passes and reverse through balls instead.
Granted, this has probably only happened about 3 times in 5 years, but it should be obvious that Ki’s skill set belongs to the final third. He’s not a 4, or a 6 or even an 8. He’s a #10. He’ll tell practically anyone who’ll listen how much he loves to score, while rolling out the expected lines about being happy to do what he’s asked to do for the team when talking about being played deep.
Ki wants to contribute offensively. His skill set is made for it and as a #10 he wouldn’t even have to run that much, which is probably for the best. Swansea desperately need a playmaker, and the first order of business in the January transfer window should be buying one, but Ki deserves a look-in, too. This is the first time there’s not a Michu or a Sigurdsson or a De Guzman to force him deep. Carlos could do a lot worse than see what the Korean can do when allowed to satisfy his attacking ambitions. Swansea might have had an answer to their creativity problems in house all along, and he can’t be any worse than he’s looked as a DM.
Swansea are soft. Not in the gentlemanly, “good sportsmanship award” way, since they actually make the 10th most fouls per game, with 10.7. But in the way where they’re just not physically threatening. Look at the Bournemouth game. The Cherries were flopping every time a Swansea player went near, and were getting free kicks all game long (18 in total), yet at no point did Swansea decide to make their opponent pay a physical price for taking such liberties. I’ve said it before, but if you’re going to get the punishment, you might as well commit the crime. One or two tough tackles can leave enough marks on an opponent or put enough hesitation in their minds that they’ll start to back out of 50-50 challenges for the rest of the game, and that can give a team a meaningful edge.
In his first season with Sheffield Wednesday, Carlos’s team committed the most fouls in the division, with 12.5 per game, and ended with the fourth worst disciplinary record (86 yellows, 5 reds). They went all the way to the playoffs and lost to Hull by a single goal. Last season, they managed 76 yellows and 7 reds while committing 12.2 fouls per game. They went to the playoffs again, losing this time in a penalty shootout to Huddersfield. Physical play is not just for cloggers. Successful sides can play tough, too.
Remember when Swansea played Huddersfield this season, and Leroy Fer poleaxed goalkeeper Jonas Lossl inside the first few minutes? Swansea won 2-0 — a rare thing this season — and Fer’s challenge set the tone. I’m not suggesting Swansea should play dirty, and battling with 10 men is rarely a great idea, but right now, this team are weak. This team has no lunch money. This team’s shoes are hanging from telephone cables. This team needs to play tougher and stop allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. Carlos’s track record suggests he can definitely make Swansea a little more streetwise.
The most obvious factor in Swansea’s survival — beyond even Carvalhal’s appointment — is the transfer business the team will or won’t conduct during January. Swansea have an awfully imbalanced side: 1 recognised left-back, 8 central midfielders, no number 10. Elsewhere the squad has the right number of bodies, but none of starting calibre. At the very least, the side needs:
- a new left back to push Martin Olsson, who’s lately been playing with the mental sharpness of a someone stuck in the middle of a five hour night time drive with the heating on, one CD, and a snoring passenger for company
- a new right back, because the Kyle Naughton project is surely over, and has furnished only a backup player / cup starter, and Rangel can’t play forever
- a number 10, because creativity is this side’s one significant weakness this season, and Sigurdsson was never replaced
Jonathan Viera would be a fantastic addition, not just because he’s a first class playmaker with enough versatility to also play on the wing, but because Las Palmas might be getting relegated too, and if he’s going to go down, he might as well do it with his friend Roque Mesa with twice the salary in his pocket. In all seriousness, Mesa has looked capable of playing an important role in this side, and bringing in former team-mate Viera would likely help both men to settle in that much quicker.
It’s entirely likely that Carlos will have no say in transfers, even though he might be able to poach one or two good players from his old club, and that Swansea will have to settle for whichever bizarro world superstars Huw Jenkins chooses to overspend on, hopefully as his swansong. If the Americans are even halfway serious about nurturing their investment, they’d do well to take some broader advice on transfers than to trust only in the demonstrably flawed and diminishing wisdom of a roofing salesman that played in goal once.
As stated at the top of this article, Carlos likes 4-4-2. Swansea haven’t played a flat 4-4-2 in over a decade, which will make the new managers choice of system and personnel very interesting. If he’s insistent on sticking to his favourite system, then Swansea might have to wheel and deal a little bit more than they’d imagined this window, because it’s hard to see how a squad carrying 8 central mids and maybe 1 passable wide man can pull off British footballs “default” formation successfully. With Wednesday, he did flex very occasionally into a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond so there might not be a revolution after all. However, with only half a season to save the side, Carlos will need to pick a shape and stick to it almost straight away. If he knows how to coach 4-4-2 best of all, then logic says that’s what he’ll try first.
The defence and attack take care of themselves, but that middle four could feature just about anybody. For the middle two — Mesa and Sanches will seem like suicide at first reading, but Sanches has one thing no other Swansea midfielder has — the ability to do something genuinely world class out of the blue. Ok, we haven’t seen anything like that yet in Swansea, but he’s done it before. Is it worth giving him a bigger role under the new manager in the hope he can harness that higher level?
Fer might as well have been wearing a Liverpool shirt on Boxing Day, and is just too lazy and error prone to trust in a two-man mid. Ki doesn’t have the engine or the physicality. Leon could pull some strings, but instead of Mesa rather than alongside, as both together would present no physical challenge whatsoever. Ditto Carroll — he’s too small to play alongside another small player, and his anticipation is dark speed slow. Fulton has some battle in him and might have a chance under Carlos since he knows how to put a boot in, but he’s raw.
On the flanks, Clucas can play left mid, and Carroll could conceivably play there, too. Ayew could play on the right, but was as bad as Fer against Liverpool, and needs to prove he can pass and mark properly before being trusted to play quite so deep. Narsingh surely has to be fielded further forward to be of use. Then there’s always Dyer and Routledge and a postcard in the hearts of the nostalgic with a date stamp marked 2011.
It’s not an easy jigsaw puzzle for the new manager — more like being given half a dozen pieces of half a dozen different jigsaws and being asked to make a convincing picture. But then, after Paul Clement’s somnambulistic, spirit-breaking caution, perhaps a little Portuguese dadaism will be just the change that Swansea need to survive.