What Do You Do Exactly?
Last summer, Swansea shelled out £11m on the fourth best passer in the one league in world football renowned for its passing. Roque Mesa was the tempo setter on Las Palmas, one of the club’s two stand-out performers along with Jonathan Viera, and integral to the overachieving Canary islanders tactical plan. Mesa was seen as the heir apparent to Swansea’s own metronome Leon Britton, who looks likely to retire at the end of this season. What’s more, the charismatic Spaniard brought leadership and cajones to a Swansea dressing room light on strong personalities.
As foreign imports go, this one should have been a tap-in. Mesa had all the attributes to slip straight into Britton’s role — even sharing his diminutive stature — and Swansea’s playing style has basically been a love letter to La Liga for years. Or at least, it had. This was the first problem.
It is impossible to overstate the irony that it took a Swansea old-boy — Garry Monk — to fatally unstitch the sides swagger, but after the former club captain was put in charge as manager, Swansea’s style fell away, becoming gradually more pragmatic, more direct. Matters weren’t helped by the sudden drop-off in recruitment quality (unsurprisingly coinciding with Michael Laudrup’s dismissal) and once the club were in serious trouble, the firefighting began and the Swans have never been the same since.
Mesa’s acquisition seemed to be a step in the right direction — a signing to hark back to the (recent) old-days of Laudrup and Brendan Rodgers era Swansea, when this was still a ball-playing club through and through. A statement of intent, that from this season, Swansea wouldn’t be a scrappy relegation dog fighter again. This season, the team would regain it’s style, would string passes together again, would challenge for a top ten finish… with eight central midfielders, one left back and no number 10.
See, that’s the problem. There’s no joined-up thinking. Mesa almost feels like the kind of gift a slightly out-of-touch relative buys you for your birthday because they know you like that sort of thing, only you haven’t actually liked that sort of thing for a few years now, and these days you’re more into rudimentary survival football and self-flagellation. Mesa is like a care package from 2013, Jose Canas Mk II (now with added ability) that got lost in the post and finally turned up, not so much too little too late as too good to be true, but Swansea’s twisted, corrosive mangle of a hierarchy — perversely the very one that brought Mesa here — can’t see it.
Paul Clement said Mesa was struggling to adapt to the pace of the Premier League, but that’s nonsense. Clement was the one struggling, as time has proven. His football was far too ponderous, too slow, too timid. Clement’s Swans slid off the raw muscle of this league like a dribble of budget whey protein shake, poorly blended, the flavour unconvincing. If anything, Mesa added more pace, more power to the team. Yes, Swansea threw away a draw to lose to Watford 2-1, and yes, Mesa made a mistake on the winning goal, but so did Alfie Mawson. Mawson’s mistake was more egregious, yet he was allowed to live past it; Mesa was dropped and hung out to dry in a press conference, despite the fact Swansea’s second half resurgence had been almost entirely driven by the busy, vocal Spaniard.
Now, Mesa looks set to play the rest of this season for a Champions League team, with Swansea paying some of his wages to do so. In what world is this a better option than keeping him here? In what world does a team not twig that loaning UP might indicate that the player in question is worth hanging on to? Granted, by the time Carlos Carvalhal came to Swansea, Mesa had been sufficiently marginalised and diminished by Clement that he was already on the outside looking in, and yet he remains Swansea’s third best passer (next to perennial high percentagers Britton and Ki).
Those that were not sold on Mesa have suggested that “two managers can’t be wrong”, but when one of those managers is Paul Clement, I’d beg to differ. What did Clement do that was right exactly? Suddenly we’re trusting the judgement of a man that took a team demonstrably capable of beating Liverpool all the way to last place? Mesa has not had enough time to assert himself. Rather than judge him on his handful of appearances in a Swans shirt, judge him on his career to date: anyone connected with Spanish football will tell you Mesa’s gold. Sevilla want him, and they’re better than Swansea. Two managers can’t be wrong? How about an entire football nation can’t be right?
It’s hard to understand how a team can sanction that signing back in the summer and then even entertain this loan proposal less than six months later, with the team showing signs of recovery under Carvalhal, and in need of every scrap of quality it can muster. If Mesa leaves, he will join Borja Baston and Jordi Amat and Jefferson Montero as part of an apparent £32m La Liga loan package subsidised by a supposedly broke small market team staring relegation squarely in the face.
Swansea’s owners are new and inexperienced. The manager keeps changing. Apparently so do the players. Chairman Huw Jenkins is the one consistent factor, the one mainstay in a case study of how not to run a football team that becomes more frightening and real every month, a dysfunctional bizarro world version of the “model club” fawned over in Jack to a King, soon to be Prince to a Pauper, season one episode one of Ramsay’s Football Nightmares.
Even Jenkins position as chairman is strange, with American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien explaining that Jenkins has no say in “business decisions”, being trusted instead only with “football decisions”, but what does that mean exactly? Presumably, manager Carvalhal picks the team and organises training, so it can’t be those “footballing decisions” which Jenkins is responsible for.
What about transfers? Highlighting potential targets could be considered a football decision, but as soon as the club moves to acquire that target, and money comes into play, then surely that football decision becomes a business decision instead.
Jenkins himself has stated that Swansea take a committee approach to recruitment, and that he isn’t solely responsible, though how much of that is blame deflection is anyone’s guess — who would want to publicly claim responsibility for signing David N’Gog or Franck Tabanou or Nelson Oliveira or 45 third-string goalkeepers or any one of a dozen other players that roundly failed to enhance Swansea’s squad in any meaningful way?
That leaves contract renewals. This summer, Ki Sung-Yeung will almost certainly leave Swansea for nothing. His contract was allowed to run down. This is a player Stoke City were rumoured to have offered £7m for two summers ago — in the same month Liverpool made Joe Allen available to Swansea for £10m. Swansea only offered £8m, and Allen turned a solid showing at EURO 2016 into a £13m move to… Stoke City.
Assuming the rumours were true, it’s easy to see this as a sliding doors moment — and this was when Jenkins definitely was responsible for business decisions. What if Swansea had shown a little more guile, sold Ki to Stoke to satisfy their midfield need and used the £7m to effectively buy Allen back for £3m actual outlay? It might be different if Ki had ever been a central part of Swansea’s plan, but the midfielder has always been misused in Swansea, seldom any managers first choice, always shoehorned into a deep role where his attacking talents were wasted, and now the ultimate insult: captain of his country, in his prime, allowed to run out his contract on a team bottom of the league. Why not sell him?
Had Ki been used properly, allowed to blossom in a role suited to his skill-set, he’d comfortably be a £15-£20m asset now. For all Ki’s done in South Wales since, Swansea should have cashed in on Stoke’s £7m offer whether they bought Allen or not. Instead, he’s going to walk into a better side for nothing this summer. Meanwhile, veterans Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer, 2011-era wingers with too many miles on the clock and nothing new to offer, were recently awarded new two and four year contracts respectively. And they hardly ever play. Wouldn’t it be better for some of the under 23 prospects to be given their chance instead? And for prime-years players with actual value to be given the new contracts?
If the “footballing decisions” Jenkins is responsible for include choosing which players to offer contract renewals to and/or promoting the youth, he’s spectacularly failing on that front, allowing the youth to rot and current first team quality to deprecate while committing supposedly tight finances to players even the likes of Birmingham City only value at £3m. And that’s not even accounting for the Mesa farce, or the Borja farce before that. In any real, ruthless, successful organisation, those kinds of spectacular miskicks are sacking offences. In Swansea, they’re just business as usual.
There are four days left of the transfer window. Swansea have signed nobody, and are about to pay for one of their best passing midfielders to play for someone else instead. When nobody wants to come to Swansea, shouldn’t Swansea be wary of letting the players they have got go? Nicolas Gaitain remains hopeful of a move to somewhere else, anywhere else, despite Swansea offering him £120,000 a week. They might as well offer to make him King of Wales and write him into the Mabinogion while they’re at it, he’d still probably rather sit on the Atletico bench than come to Swansea, although if he did, there’s a very good chance he’d end up back in La Liga on loan next season anyway. With his wages subsidised, of course.
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