“The balance is slightly off because we’re a little bit heavier in midfield than we would like“. So says Paul Clement, and he’s right, and it’s causing Swansea more problems than might at first be obvious.
Sometimes limitation is a good thing. Faced with so many midfielders — and of broadly similar levels of ability, there are no real standouts — Clement does not know which to play on any given day. Had Clement fewer players to choose between, his decision would be easy, and it would actually be of benefit to the team. The players could grow into their roles, knowing they’ll be expected to occupy them for the lion’s share of the season. Scapegoats like Sam Clucas and Renato Sanches, neither of which has hit the ground running, would almost definitely improve given a clearly defined role which they were allowed to play each week. Instead, they are given little chance to grow in confidence, find a rhythm, or feel at home.
Clucas is not a bad player. Many who watched Hull last season would not think £16m was a ludicrous fee. The limit maybe, but not silly money. And yet he’s looked awful at Swansea, surplus to requirements, a makeweight on a team already overweight in his department. Sanches is routinely laughed at by opposing fans every time he misplaces a pass. Both men are in and out of the squad seemingly on Clement’s whim. If either had played close to 90 minutes in every league game this season, they would have worked through their teething troubles and found their feet by now. Instead they flounder, never looking close to certain about anything they do on the football pitch.
Swansea have eight midfielders, not counting wingers. Alongside Clucas and Sanches are Leon Britton, Roque Mesa, Tom Carroll, Leroy Fer, Ki Sung-Yueng, and Jay Fulton. When Clement says the side is a little heavy in midfield, he is implying the team tried to move one or more players but were unable to do so for whatever reason. Looking at that group, four are new: Clucas, Sanches and Mesa joined in the summer while Carroll joined last January. It’s safe to say they are the players Clement wants (though it would be nice if he’d show a little more faith in Mesa). That leaves the four others: Britton, Fer, Ki and Fulton. So which of those four was Clement hoping to shift?
Fulton was nearly loaned to Bolton on deadline day, so it’s safe to say he’s one of them. Britton is irreplaceable, vital, and old. Time will ease the Swansea legend out of the team without management having to do anything except choose where to put his statue. That leaves Fer and Ki. Fer has played the most, but Ki was injured and might have played instead had he been available. However, Ki is in the final year of his contract, and this more than anything suggests it is Ki that is the odd man out.
The club can offer Ki a new contract at any time. They could do it right now. But at the time of writing, they still haven’t. Clement has recently described Ki as not only a “good player” but one of Swansea’s best. This seems like a reach given the Korean has really only had one truly solid season in Swansea over five years. In a recent post-match interview, Ki seemed to say he had struggled with depression, which makes more sense of Clement’s comments – the boss is trying to help the player rebuild his confidence.
And no wonder Ki has struggled — he is an attacking midfielder who has never been given a chance to play in his best position throughout a period that may end up being his prime playing years, instead always wasted as a defensive mid, a role for which he is simply not suitable. He is slow, poor in the air, easy to push past, and weak in the tackle. However, in the attacking third, he is a different player. He doesn’t have to run. He can thread a through ball better than any of his team mates, he is good at shooting from range, he has excellent vision for a pass when he’s afforded some creative freedom and he’s a composed finisher. Swansea should have taken more advantage of Ki’s attacking talents and fielded him as an outright #10 before now, but there’s always been a Gylfi Sigurdsson or a Michu or even a Jonathan de Guzman in the way.
Since Swansea presently have no such emcumbrances, Clement should finally try Ki in the hole, especially given the creative vacuum his side are now struggling to fill. What’s ironic is that Clement’s press conference hype over Ki’s abilities are as much sales pitch as confidence booster — if Clement really rated him, they’d offer him a new contract. The club will likely try to sell him in January so they can get something in return rather than allow him to leave for free next summer. They won’t get much, and the time to sell was two summers ago when Stoke offered £7m. Yet Ki could transform this side’s attacking game overnight. Swansea’s least-wanted midfielder could prove their most valuable, if only he’s played in the right position.
It’s a familiar theme and it’s killing Swansea City right now. If three midfielders suddenly left the club — take your pick, any three would do — the team would immediately improve, because the side would regain focus simply through limitation and allow Clement and Claude Makelele to get the most out of what’s left. Right now, Swansea’s bloated midfield merry-go-round is not allowing players to develop individually. Nor is it allowing chemistry to develop, or trust from the defence that they will be adequately shielded, or belief from the forwards that they will receive reliable service. Nobody in the middle of the pitch seems to know what they’re meant to be doing, so nobody is doing anything especially well.
Less is more. Swansea should have made sure they had six midfielders at most (and four full backs at least) at the end of deadline day, but they did not. Now Clement needs to make hard decisions about which players to privilege in his midfield, because until this side has some consistency of both selection and performance at the heart of the action, they will continue to struggle.