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Swansea’s Fish Should Swim, Not Climb Trees

Bournemouth make for an interesting comparison with Swansea. The sides are broadly similar in terms of size, budget, and expectation, and both won plaudits upon reaching the Premier League for playing a similar style of Arsenal-lite passing football. But while Bournemouth are almost certainly safe for another season, Swansea aren’t, and will need a win when the sides face each other this weekend in order to strengthen their own survival bid.

So why are Swansea suffering so much compared with their south coast-counterparts?

It’s all about identity. Swansea’s decline from neutral’s favourite to irrelevant top flight makeweight started with the appointment of Garry Monk as manager, beginning a cycle of survivalist football and stop-gap managerial appointments which has seen the Swans style progressively shorn away in favour of ill-fitting pragmatism.

Put simply, Swansea are trying to play shut-down defensive football while still carrying a squad of primarily attack-minded players. This misuse of talent is the primary reason behind the clubs underperformance on the field.

Bournemouth are presently five points and five places better off than Swansea. The Swans have arguably a stronger squad on paper in terms of internationally capped players and market value (approx. £122.5m v £159m), and while Eddie Howe’s side have scored more goals than Swansea (42 to 27), they have actually been worse defensively, conceding 60 times to Swansea’s 52.

Attack is demonstrably more valuable than defence. Every team from 8th place Everton down has a negative goal difference. Four of the five weakest attacking sides are in the bottom five (Brighton in 14th are the anomaly), while only one of the five weakest defending sides is facing relegation (Stoke, with a second-worst 65 goals against). The others are West Ham (15th), Watford (13th), Bournemouth (12th) and Huddersfield (16th), all of which are almost certainly safe (with the exception of Huddersfield, given the difficulty of their remaining fixtures).

Bournemouth might have an awful defence, but they’ve stayed true to their attacking style, and will enjoy at least another season of top flight football as reward. The book says teams in Swansea’s position have to play unambitious, defensive football to survive, but perhaps the book is wrong.

The idea that any team can be saved by playing negatively, keeping things “tight at the back”, and hoping for a goal on the break or from a set-piece is becoming anachronistic. Football’s stylistic tide is pulling away dramatically from ideals of conservatism and caution. Manchester City and Liverpool have the resources to field some of the world’s best players, but so do Manchester United, and yet it is attack-savants Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp that represent the Zeitgeist, with Jose Mourinho’s attritional grind now the ugly brother locked in the attic.

Of course Swansea can’t emulate clubs of that stature, but the idea can be scaled to fit. The game is about speed now. Fast, attacking football. Even Swansea’s beloved possession-obsession of 2011-12 would likely fare badly in the current climate, but would at least be halfway there.

Under Carlos Carvalhal, Swansea have shown both sides: slow, ineffective, defensive football in a hopeless 1-1 draw versus West Brom; enterprising, attacking football in a hopeful 1-1 draw versus Everton. The irony here is that the results were the same regardless, but anyone who watched both games will know Swansea were lucky not to lose the former, unlucky not to win the latter.

Defensive football is an art, but it is one in decline. Sam Allardyce “saved” Everton, but he probably won’t be allowed to see out the rest of his contract, not with such entertaining football being played the other side of Stanley Park. When Tony Pulis, the emperor of defensive football, has to drop down a level to find work, you know things are changing.

Swansea have almost no defensive players. The full-backs are better outside of their own third. The team’s best centre back is so good with the ball at his feet, he’d almost be more useful in midfield. Among the actual midfielders, only one has won more than half his duels this season — Leroy Fer, with a still meagre 55% — and even then he has made the most defensive errors of all with three.

Why would anyone set this team up to play defensively? There is a parallel here with the Albert Einstein quote that suggests “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid“. Swansea do not have a bad squad; they have a good, attacking squad made to look bad from having been asked to play against their strengths.

Part of the reason Bournemouth survive — even when they have a bad start — is because they do play to their strengths. In asking an attacking squad to play defensively, Swansea are neutering the squad’s inherent talent without even gaining defensive solidity in the trade-off. In effect, the side become less than the sum of their parts when playing this way.

There are three games left in this season. It is probably too late to change the side’s philosophy wholesale, but Swansea will stand a far greater chance of getting results from those games if they concentrate on attack rather than defence. In Lukasz Fabianksi, Swansea have one of the league’s best goalkeepers; if any of the smaller sides can afford to throw caution to the wind and lean on their goalkeeper to save them when things do go wrong, it is Swansea.

Carvalhal has a reputation for being too conservative in big games. If this is true, he needs to go against his nature now. Three more performances like the one versus WBA would be catastrophic; three more like the one versus Everton and Swansea almost certainly survive. Is it time to put all the meat on the barbecue? It’s time for a whole zoo and a couple of cans of petrol.