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New season, new shape: Clement’s evolution continues

Just a quick one* this time as Saturday’s 2-0 away victory over Crystal Palace was not exactly bursting with incident. Palace were terrible, Swansea were not, and once again Paul Clement’s 3-5-2 looks to be a natural fit for this season’s squad.

Three-at-the-back is very much the zeitgeist around the Premier League these days, pretty much since Antonio Conte won the league with it last season. Those with short memories will forget how much Louis Van Gaal was derided for attempting the same years earlier with Man Utd, and if I could be bothered to dig out an old ESPN article I’d written around the time suggesting the three man D would become the league’s next tactical trend even despite LVGs difficulties I’d get to look smug for a couple of minutes.

I like it so much because it allows a team playing a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 base formation to contract the winger and full back on each side into single players, thus freeing up two bodies in the process and allowing the addition of an extra central defender and extra striker. As long as the wing backs are strong — or at least have good stamina — there are very few disadvantages over those other systems.

The best thing about Clement’s three man D is precisely that it doesn’t look like just another copycat manager copping late to the moves of sharper minds. There are no pegs in inappropriate holes, no fog of collective confusion (in sharp contrast to the first-half Palace performance on Saturday). The system works so well in fact it has made centre backs Kyle Bartley and Mike van der Hoorn — previously thought of as inadequate cover options much less starting options — look every bit as capable as last season’s starting duo Alfie Mawson and Federico Fernandez. Bartley was probably Swansea’s best player against Man Utd, and van der Hoorn was similarly excellent on Saturday, making a fantastic last-man tackle and dominating aerially.

Further forward the real genius of Clement’s switch to this system comes into sharper focus. Gylfi Sigurdsson is an irreplaceable talent, as is any player who dominates their team’s performances so completely. Had Clement stuck with last season’s diamond or the time-honoured 4-2-3-1, the onus would be to find a direct replacement to play that #10 role. And that replacement likely would have struggled to fill those shoes, or at least been given very little margin for error. It’s a nearly impossible task. It’s a situation that demands a small club plough the meat of it’s limited transfer kitty into one player and then hope for the best.

Whereas a single #10 can be man-marked, kicked out of a game, or neutralised tactically, Swansea’s threat is now multi-faceted. On Saturday, new midfielder Sam Clucas played triangles with wing back Kyle Naughton and midfielder Leroy Fer in the build up to Tammy Abraham’s opening goal (a difficult finish from Fer’s cross) despite having been fielded ostensibly as an anchor man. He was one of Swansea’s most advanced players during that phase of play. Naughton provided a slick interception and assist for Jordan Ayew’s strike, able to pinch higher up the field even during the defensive phase by virtue of the extra cover behind.

By changing systems, Clement has sidestepped this summer’s biggest issue — replacing Sigurdsson — and improved his team across the board. The 3-5-2 allows for any of the front 7 to become involved in the attacking phase, instead of relying mostly on a single creator, and the players can do so without leaving huge holes positionally. Where one man makes a forward run, another can cover, and since using this formation, Swansea have swarmed all over opponents, seemingly outnumbering them in almost every part of the pitch, especially defensively.

It’s worth remembering that this side held Man Utd to a close 1-0 in this shape until Clement switched to the 4-2-3-1 at 66 minutes, and Palace’s best chances came after a similar Swansea switch on 69 minutes on Saturday. Swansea currently hold a super stingy average of 0.6 goals-against-per-game in the 3-5-2 against a league average of 1.3. There is still work to be done on chance creation, and Clement really needs to stop making that formation change, but the first issue at least should be remedied by the eventual resolution of the Fernando Llorente / Wilfried Bony / Nacer Chadli / Renato Sanches situations.

Last season’s relegation escape was memorable, but it is naive to expect last season’s heroes (particularly Sigurdsson and Llorente) to reprise their roles unchecked in this campaign. Last season’s plan worked for last season’s situation, but rivals get wise to one-dimensional game plans sooner or later, and it seems as likely as not that Swansea would have struggled to play to the same tune this season. With a new shape — and exciting new players to fill it — Swansea are beginning to look more cultured, more effective, and more capable than ever before.


* it wasn’t quick