Hands up who else thought Swansea might actually win a game after Wilfried Bony scored that beauty in the first few minutes against Stoke? The Swans are way overdue for a victory, and it’s often seemed like the side might actually be able to defend a lead this season if only they were able to take one. Turns out they can’t, or at least they couldn’t last Saturday.
So what’s wrong with Swansea? There are so many possible answers to that question. Poor recruitment. New ownership. Huw Jenkins. Paul Clement. No number 10.
Off-field issues with the hierarchy aren’t going to get solved any time soon, so most people are turning their attention to the pitch, where is where the results (and the money) comes from after all.
I still think Clement’s style is too soft, too slow, and too nice to succeed in the Premier League. It needs about 40% more dirt, oil, and aggression, because Swansea are presently moving the ball up the pitch like the cast of a Sun Life commercial playing croquet. And when I say up, I might as well say to the sides and back.
The problem is midfield. Not just the lack of a true #10, but also the composition and sheer numbers. There’s no way any club of modest means would plan to carry 8 central midfielders into a season while having only one left back. It’s easy to say “rah rah terrible recruitment jenkins out”, but nobody’s that stupid. There’s no way this was the plan.
So consider this. Roque Mesa, Sam Clucas and Renato Sanches come into the team. They’re new, so they figure they must be in Clement’s plans for the season. But when they arrive, instead of seeing open slots in the Swansea midfield with their names on, they see five other guys sitting in their seats.
Those five — Leon Britton, Ki Sung-Yeung, Leroy Fer, Tom Carroll, and Jay Fulton — have to realise that with three new faces in their position, at least a couple of them were supposed to have been sold. It’s not Carroll. He only joined last January and was practically undroppable in Clement’s eyes earlier this season despite his first-man-magnet set-piece delivery.
Fulton is nowhere near the first team, and Leon has already been eased into a coaching role (will he play again? I’m not so sure), which leaves everyone’s favourite scapegoats, Fer and Ki. Ki still hasn’t been offered a new contract at the time of writing, despite Clement describing him as one of his best players.
I’ve not spent any time in the Swansea locker room, so this is all just guesswork as far as personal relationships go, but I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that a combined 35.5 million pounds worth of new talented players are struggling to find their confidence simultaneously, while the very men they were bought to replace are still training with them.
Tell me that doesn’t make for a negative competitive atmosphere? You really think Sanches, Mesa and Clucas could all be so unsure of themselves all at the same time? Sanches had that EURO 2016 and is still technically a Bayern Munich player. Clucas was a key player in Hull’s relegation fight and deserved to stay in the top division on merit, believe it or not. Mesa’s comfortably looked the best of the bunch, but was severely marginalised at the start of the season. Why? How welcome are the other midfielders making these guys feel if they know they’ve basically been bought not just as replacements, but as upgrades?
The midfield is a mess of similar players without the necessary specialisation for any one to assert his place over any other. Where’s the muscular, shutdown defensive mid? Where’s the tricky, slick 10? Where’s the reliable, big engine 8? Fer is calamitous but confident, and while that confidence can produce goals, it can also backfire and cost them. Ki has forever been wasted in a holding role, but is likely being put in the shop window at this point and has to play to drive up his value.
Sanches, Mesa and Clucas aren’t being given the reassurances in terms of playing time and perceived importance to the squad that new signings need to feel at home at a new club, to feel wanted, part of the plan. With their confidence undermined, it’s too easy for Clement to lean on old hands like Fer and Ki instead who at least have familiarity and the comfortability (not to mention complacency) that brings, than to trust nervous newcomers who pass to advertising hoardings and get booed just for trying or for having cost a lot of money.
A team is a team when every player knows their place and trusts each other. Right now, Swansea’s engine room is over-full with an incompatible mix of unwanted club veterans and already under-appreciated new blood. Who plays where? Who’s good at what? Who’s actually part of the plan and who’s dead wood? Who knows, who knows, who knows.
Paul Clement should.
You want to save Swansea’s season? Choose your guys. Play them every week. Explain to the others that you understand it’s hard to sell a house in January and that you’re sorry, and start fielding a team instead of slinging mud at a wall.