Are Swansea City really now playing against themselves?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 22, 2018
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Swansea’s pre-season bore all the symptoms of a club preparing for a plunge down the Football League. Key players were sold cheaply, the spine of the team was ripped out and the manager was dismissed. The first objective for any team in their position is to defer to prudence; gambling on making it back to the Premier League at the first attempt is reckless, there are plenty of examples of why, but a balance always needs to be struck between security and ambition.

That mid-point wasn’t found. Alfie Mawson and Lukasz Fabianski were both sold, Sam Clucas and Federico Fernandez too, the Ayew brothers both left on-loan, and Ki Sung-Yeung was released. It was a purge which raised somewhere in the region of £45m and, in a single summer, the club had off-loaded almost all of their high-earners.

And yet there was very little in return. Goodness knows what happened to the bulk of those funds, they certainly weren’t reinvested in the first-team. Graham Potter was recruited from Östersund and his arrival was only supported by transfer-market thrift: Bersant Celina was snagged from Manchester City and Joel Asoro was plundered from sinking Sunderland, while Barrie McKay, Declan John and Yan Dhanda were all added for nominal fees.

Recruitment is determined by suitability rather than cost, but the supporters can be forgiven their concerns. Irrespective of the net spend involved, the off-season has left Swansea with a terrifyingly thin squad. Mike van der Hoorn is the only senior centre-half now at the club, an injury to either full-back would create a crisis and Potter has just one recognised goal-scorer to choose from.

Fans are often accused of being unrealistic in their demands but, remembering the atmosphere of suspicion within which these dealings took place, their despondency isn’t hard to comprehend. The assumption has long been that the club no longer works with their interests in mind, so the events of the past six weeks – and the eighteen months prior – have done little to assuage those concerns.

Interestingly though, Swansea are good – or at least they’re interesting. The season is just four games old, but they remain unbeaten and, a dour draw with Birmingham aside, have been exciting to watch. Never more so than on Tuesday night, when they held surging Leeds to a draw at the Liberty Stadium and, arguably, did enough to win.

It’s potentially fascinating because it’s so rare. Generally, a club’s mood is dictated from top-to-bottom and, albeit with a time-lag, few teams survive in institutional darkness. But, while it can’t yet be deemed a long-term trend, Swansea are certainly doing exactly that for now.

Credit to Potter for that. His new club may have arrived in the Premier League wedded to a certain style, but by the time of their departure they had conclusively snapped those moorings. Carlos Carvalhal Swansea, like those of Paul Clement and Francisco Guidolin, were an eye-bleeding watch. The neat triangles and ball retention were a distant memory, replaced by perma-caution and negative football. Swansea were a natural underdog at the level above, but those restrictions also turned them into a coward of a football team; the right pass was always backwards and, on the rare occasions when they did push forward, they crossed the halfway line at a snail’s pace.

They deserved to be relegated. They curled up in a ball and waited for it to happen.

From those ruins though, an unlikely revival is developing. Celina and McKay have both started the season extremely well, their technique and ambition on the ball restoring a crafty threat at the top of the formation which has been missing for eternity, while Oli McBurnie has been a revelation.

McBurnie is magic. Not because he’s pre-destined to rise to the top of the game or conquer any worlds, but because he casts such a defiant figure. He sounds like one too, on the basis of his post-match comments on Tuesday night. He’s a good player and is proving a fine Championship goalscorer – his second on Tuesday night was superbly taken – but he fits the local mood too. It’s easy see the half-mast socks and term him a throwback, but the way he plays the game is highly emotive. Swansea are in a fight now and he’s willing to swing an axe. He may never be the smoothest player, but his blue-collared style fits the picture and, importantly, he works in combination with the more gifted players around and behind him.

The effect is thrust. Going forward, Swansea have both force and finesse. The witless attacking phases have largely gone, replaced by something of actual purpose.

There’s encouragement elsewhere, too. Van der Hoorn was a competent Premier League player, so there’s no surprise that he looks accomplished at this level, but Joe Rodon looks like a capable centre-half in the making. Just 20, he was born in Swansea and so can expect plenty of goodwill throughout his first senior season for the club. But that enthusiasm won’t be charity: at 6ft4 he has plenty of height for his position, albeit in a slightly slender, gangly way for now, and his technique is good enough for him to be more than just a simple stopper.

There are caveats though, obviously. On the surface, the players who have arrived look well-scouted and suited. The temptation, then, is to credit North Yard Analytics for whatever input they’ve had. The trouble is, of course, that the same group of people are complicit in creating the situation in which the club find themselves. Despite the numbers, algorithms, and well-argued theories, Swansea’s transfer-committee have been responsible for some horrendous deals over the past two seasons.

It would take a lot, obviously, for the merits of the Celina signing to redact the memory of Andre Ayew or Wilfried Bony. Similarly, while Erwin Mulder looks a promising goalkeeper and a shrewd acquisition (a year ago), Sam Clucas and Roque Mesa have both recently departed for – in each case – half of what they arrived for a year ago. Swansea are guilty of substantial wastage and that’s a legacy which can’t be erased by a couple of smart, budget transfers.

Maybe it’s a work in progress. Perhaps Altman’s influence is being diluted or overridden by something or somebody within the organisation, but – whatever the truth – there’s no reason yet to feel that Swansea are in smarter hands or that they’re doing anything more than flipping a coin. Analytics should never be judged in isolation, its influence is often diminished by internal push-back, but there’s been little evidence of its positive impact so far.

The macro issues are more serious, though. One of the effects of this good start has been to focus attention on how unlikely it has been. The perception is that it has happened in spite of those in executive control, not because of them. What’s for absolutely certain, already, is that Potter is in a very strong position: should his team fall away over the course of the season, the majority will point their fingers elsewhere. Quite rightly, too, because he seems to have been given as little as possible with which to succeed. That he’s been able to is testament to his worth, but it also begs the question of what he might be able to achieve with more and with the full support of a club who are clearly, unambigiously focused on sporting performance.

With that in mind, maybe promotion shouldn’t be on the table so soon. While the team has found new life on the pitch, the same acrimony continues to swirl off it. To this day there remains no clarity over what the owners’ intentions truly are and, if they are to build bridges with a disaffected fanbase, they will have to extend themselves beyond occasional press-releases which contain little more than generalised, non-committing rhetoric. That won’t do at all – not if they want to recapture the momentum which gave this club its real value.

But life goes on. Swansea are not Sunderland, they are far from a hopeless case. A finer definition remains elusive though, hard to determine through the fog which loiters in that part of the world. It looks nice enough and, yes, it’s certainly fun to watch again. Nevertheless, someone might want to inspect the foundations and check that they’ve actually been built from concrete and steel, rather than just imported, painted ply.

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Graham Potter Swansea City
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