Swansea Autopsy Pt.1 : 8 Reasons the Swans Sank
The Swansea City autopsy begins. First, I’ll be looking at some of the most significant contributing factors to the Swans relegation. Undoubtedly there are others; in a season marked (and marred) by imbalance, inconsistency, and the unexpected (Renato Sanches comes to Swansea! Renato Sanches does literally nothing!), there’s a lot I might have forgotten (deliberately or otherwise). I’ll write a similar piece outlining the positives (there were some, honestly), but for now, here’s eight reasons the Swans sank:
1: The Siggy Saga – Swansea’s Botched Transfer Business
Last summer, Gylfi Sigurdsson had just finished the best single season in his career, so it made sense for Swansea’s owners Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan to hold out for market value. In isolation, the summer-long game of hardball Levien and Kaplan played with Everton was admirable — a small club finally standing up for themselves. In context, the move was stubborn to the point of self-sabotage.
Although it seemed obvious that Sigurdsson was definitely going to go (a case of when rather than if), the board appeared hesitant to buy a direct replacement until he was sold. When the move finally happened, it was too late; Swansea had to wait til January to overspend on Andre Ayew, one of seemingly very few players available to the club in the winter window, and hardly a like-for-like replacement anyway.
In the meantime, money was squandered on moves for deeper central midfielders the club didn’t need. Roque Mesa would have been a fine addition to any Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup -era Swans side, but was a poor fit for this one. Renato Sanches was always a risk, but nobody could have anticipated just how utterly forgettable his £8m pound season-long loan would be.
Those two moves alone represented £19m worth of investment, and Swansea got almost nothing for their money. Meanwhile, Pascal Gross was signed as a #10 by Brighton for just £3m and ended the season with seven goals, eight assists and a Player of the Year award. Getting a huge fee for Sigurdsson was fine, but Gross is a reminder you don’t have to spend big to buy effective players.
It might have been better had Swansea taken slightly less money for Sigurdsson earlier in the window when there was still time to provide Paul Clement with a replacement, or at least spent the Mesa and Sanches money more wisely.
Not only did Clement have to cope without Sigurdsson, he was left with one left back and eight central midfielders. These issues could and should have been resolved before training camp, if only the board weren’t so busy trying to win a battle of wills with Everton.
2: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Ki Sung-Yeung?
With no obvious Sigurdsson replacement coming through the door before the summer window ended, Clement had to look to fill the hole (literally) from inside. Ki Sung-Yeung has almost never been used properly in Swansea, an observation I’ve made before and so won’t recount in depth here.
In short, Ki is a significantly better attacking player than he is anything else, and the fact he’s never been given a chance to play as an outright attacking midfielder in Swansea might be the saddest thing that ever happens in his career (and he once played for Sunderland).
Ki’s highlight reel videos from Celtic show a creator, and a scorer of beautiful long-range goals — a description that would fit Sigurdsson himself. Garry Monk’s single positive contribution as Swansea manager was allowing Ki to get forward, and playing as a #8 rather than a #4 the Korean notched 8 goals in 2014. Imagine what he might have done as a #10?
In the past, Swansea had superior options in that position, so Ki’s diminishment to a holding role was a result of circumstance. Under Clement, the path was clear, and yet Ki was still asked to sit deep and shovel purposeless five-yarders sideways while mostly standing still.
There’s an obvious joke to be made about Ki unlocking defences, but YouTube and half a season under Monk says he can create and score, and Swansea were short of both those things this season. That one’s on Clement, and with his contract up, Ki has since left town, so I guess we’ll never see what he could have achieved had he only been used properly.
3: Swansea 0 Brighton 1 – Clement Survives the Sack
This game should have been Clement’s last. I’ve written before about why Clement’s Swans were a quiet disaster. Suffice to say, losing 0-1 at home to a newly promoted Brighton side having won just twice all season to this point had to have been the final straw, but somehow wasn’t. Clement was allowed to continue dragging his confidence-shot sleepwalking Swans through another seven games, from which they would earn four of a possible 21 points.
Had the board sacked Clement after this game, it is reasonable to imagine the team could have recovered and avoided relegation. Swansea finished the season three points short of survival — had Swansea averaged even just a point per game over that seven game stretch (rather than 0.57), they would have earned the three extra points required.
4: Leicester City 1 Swansea 1 – Fer & Bony Bow Out
This was the game in which Swansea lost both Leroy Fer and Wilfried Bony to season-ending injuries. Both players have taken their share of criticism this season (Bony for having lost his fitness during the wilderness years, Fer for being part man, part accident waiting to happen), but both had important roles to play.
Bony was on the way back — his fitness was improving, he’s a proven goal scoring machine, and he’d shown great leadership as temporary captain — while Fer was the all-action box-to-box midfielder Carlos Carvalhal needed in his system. Such was Carlos’s reliance on a big-engine, physical force in midfield that he couldn’t find a place for £11m man Mesa, and allowed the club to loan the Spaniard to a better team.
However, Fer was the only big-engine, physical force among Swansea’s midfielders. Once the Dutchman was ruled out for the season, Swansea’s soft centre became a target for every single opponent, with a mixture of lightweight loanee Andy King, Ki (out of position as ever) and tiny Tom Carroll offering next to no presence whatsoever in the middle of the park. Love him or hate him, Fer was essential to Carlos’s system. With Fer in the team, Carlos’s Swans managed 1.83 points per game; without him, 0.75.
5: Huddersfield Town 0 Swansea 0 – JAyew’s Red
As if the loss of Fer and Bony wasn’t enough, this was the game where Jordan Ayew got red-carded, in somewhat unfair circumstances. The punishment ought to have been even for both sides given Jonathan Hogg’s involvement, and considering how important Hogg was to Huddersfield, his absence likely would have hurt his team as much as Ayew’s hurt Swansea, and affected the relegation picture accordingly.
Regardless, Ayew’s constant running, back-tracking, tackling, dribbling ability, and knack for winning a set-piece was unmatched in Swansea last season. Add in his old-school, sleeves-up, no-nonsense work ethic, and it’s easy to see how much he drove this team.
One of the three games he was suspended for was a cup match, and the other was a routine 2-0 win for Manchester United, but crucially he missed the 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion, a game in which a lethargic Swansea badly needed a motivating presence. Had Ayew been on the field, he might have inspired Swansea to win.
6: Swansea 0 Tottenham Hotspur 3 – Cup Capitulation
Swansea’s cup run provided some welcome excitement in a difficult season. Even though replays against Wolves and Notts County might normally be considered an unwelcome burden, the extra games actually seemed to help the side find some chemistry under new boss Carvalhal, and winning games — even against lower league opposition — must have felt good.
And then came Tottenham. Swansea were always likely to lose, but sometimes the manner of the loss matters more than the loss itself. Carlos played passively with a weakened side, almost trying to be beaten, and while it was possible to make a case for him honouring players who had been cup starters up to that point, the fans wanted to see the team make a real effort to reach the semi-finals.
A full-strength starting XI would have made a statement, and whether Carlos was paying respects to backup players or saving the stars for the league struggle, the plan didn’t work, Swansea were soundly beaten, and subsequently played without confidence during the home stretch.
7: Jose Mourinho’s Kiss Of Death
In his post-match conference after the win over Swansea, Mourinho invited his countryman to the podium and announced “This guy is going to keep Swansea in the Premier League and he will be the manager of the season“. Swansea didn’t win another game after that. Thanks, Jose.
8: Carlos’s Caution
Undoubtedly the biggest reason behind Swansea’s relegation was the undue caution shown by Carvalhal during three of the team’s most important matches — the 1-1 draw versus West Brom, the 0-1 loss to Bournemouth, and the 0-1 loss to Southampton.
As bad as things had been, as many mistakes as ownership had made, as much of a mess as Clement had left behind, as unfortunate as the injury woes and suspensions were, Swansea were still in with an even chance of survival with as few as three games left.
The West Brom result perhaps wasn’t as awful in hindsight as it first seemed. Jordan Ayew was absent, and that match was Darren Moore’s first in charge. Given what Moore then went on to accomplish, it’s not too shameful that Swansea were only good for a draw, but if the result was reasonable, the performance was a dreadful show of defensive fear against a more-or-less already relegated side with even less confidence than Swansea.
The defeats to Bournemouth and Southampton, both by the same 0-1 scoreline, were similar. Rather than seize the momentum by playing on the front foot with attacking intent, Carlos set up the team with five at the back for both those games; perhaps understandable but still overly cautious away to a Bournemouth side with nothing to play for, but unforgivable at home to Southampton in a match that pretty much decided the season.
With Swansea struggling to score, Carlos started both games with his only fit goalscoring striker on the bench. On the surface, Tammy Abraham had a difficult season, but then who in Swansea didn’t? Look a little closer, and both my Regressive Assists Index and Opta’s xG model finger Abraham as Swansea’s most dangerous attacking player.
The Ayew’s were not firing, and Bony was injured, yet Carlos chose to field an additional centre back against two sides playing single-striker formations, rather than trust a player who scored almost as many league goals for Bristol City on his own last season as Swansea scored collectively during this one.
That both matches were decided by a single goal margin, and that Swansea failed to score in either, seems like the most obvious outcome given all the available information; low-scoring and confidence-shy team field extra defensive cover against not-especially-formidable opponent: 0-1.
If ever there was a time to take some risks, that was it. Had Swansea gone down swinging, I’m not sure anyone would have complained; the rest of this list provides enough excuses for even the most reckless manager to escape culpability for a last minute rush of blood to the head.
To lose playing defensively, playing with fear, taking a combined six shots on target in the two most important games of the season in a sport where shooting is necessary to scoring goals and scoring goals is the point of the sport, that’s what’s difficult to take.
Defensive football just ain’t what it used to be, and but for the courage to go with the flow and open up a little, Swansea could have been looking forward to the return of the South Wales derby. Instead, the club are gearing up for a season in the Championship, and hoping perhaps to pass Cardiff on the way back up next season… providing they can find a manager more interested in scoring goals than stopping them.