Silva vs Clement: this was a proper two-horse race…
How did Swansea beat the drop? Even the oldest storytellers from Twitter are struggling to answer that question. After all, the lone Welsh wolves in the Premier League have spent no less than eighteen gameweeks in the relegation zone. From September onwards, they’ve never been above 13th place, dropping rock-bottom on four occasions. The New Year’s Eve saw them completely disjointed, going on a four-match losing streak with thirteen goals conceded to second-rate sides like West Bromwich, Middlesbrough, West Ham and Bournemouth. On the top of that, by the start of 2017, they’ve been looking for a new manager for the second time this season. According to BetFair, their January relegation odds were rated as mere 1.70, only above Hull and Sunderland – all while the team directly above those three, Burnley, were at a whooping 3.95.
Chapter One: Cruel Summer
Gone with the wind: Ashley Williams.
It all started with the departures. Like every proper Premier League club, Swans have been moving players in and out – however, this time, they’ve gone not one but at least two steps too far. In August, their rock-solid centre-back Ashley Williams has been allowed to leave Wales and join Everton. In exchange for £12 million, the American owners have got rid of not only the team’s second-longest serving footballer (after Àngel Rangel) but also the captain and one of the biggest aerial assets in the entire league. A year earlier, it was WIlliams, whose contribution would secure three crucial clean sheets against Norwich, Aston Villa and Chelsea; it was him, who helped the Welsh side to a memorable, 2-1 win over Arsenal at Emirates. The towering skipper had another fruitful campaign immediately after entering his new home at Goodison Park – but meanwhile, his former club suffered.
To make things worse, before that transfer even went through, Francesco Guidolin has already authorized the departures of both André Ayew and Bafétimbi Gomis. During the 2015/16 league run, it was those two who scored the team’s first seven goals of the campaign and linked up to secure eight points in the opening four fixtures against Chelsea, Newcastle, Sunderland and Manchester United. Unfortunately, right after that, the French forward has gone through a crushing crisis of form, scoring only two more goals in the remaining 29 matches. His Ghanian colleague took over his job and finished the season with 12 goals and 5 assists, leading Swans to few resounding victories, like the May wins over Liverpool and West Ham. Alas: for a selling team like his, even an individual success can be a curse. After Ayew’s heroics at Upton Park, Hammers have put a massive, £20.5m bid for him and the Welsh side obliged.
Chapter Two: American Nightmare
False step: Bob Bradley was managing Swansea for mere 85 days.
“We attacked for 95 minutes” – Guidolin after 0-2 loss to Hull. “They played better than us” – Guidolin after 1-2 loss to Leicester. “My team needs a reaction” – Guidolin after a 2-2 draw against Chelsea. “I think we can do better” – Guidolin after 0-1 loss to Southampton. “I’m proud of my players but disappointed with the result” – Guidolin after 1-3 defeat to Man City. “The right result would have been a draw” – Guidolin after 1-2 defeat to Liverpool. “W played against very strong teams in this period but I’m confident because I saw my team playing 95 minutes with character, with good quality” – he added on October 1st, during the 6-game winless streak. Indeed: despite horrific fixtures, a bad run of results, his team kept on fighting – even if the Williams-less defence kept screwing up:
Two days after the Liverpool loss, Guidolin was gone; the former Chicago Fire, United States, Egypt and Le Havre boss, Bob Bradley has replaced him in the managerial position.
If anything has been sorted out about the team by this point, Bradley, the first American ever in charge of a Premier League team, has tossed it away. One, highly unsatisfactory centre-back partnership of Jordi Amat and Federico Fernández has been replaced by even less satisfactory, inexperienced partenrship of young Alfie Mawson and Dutch new signing, Mike van der Hoorn. Already suspect ability to defend set-pieces has further deteriorated, resulting in several hilarious moments like a last-gasp 5-4 victory over Crystal Palace – in a game which, judging by the performances alone, Swans should have easily ran away with three points.
Bradley survived 11 games. During those, he’s made 33 squad changes. His lads conceded three or more goals on eight occasions, becoming easily the most leaky side in the league. The only convincing success of his era was a 3-0 home thumping of rock-bottom Sunderland. “In the moment, we’re our own worst enemy; no matter what we do, we seem to put ourselves in terrible spots” – said the man in question after the 1-4 West Ham fiasco in which André Ayew scored his first-ever goal under Slaven Bilić.
The next day, Bradley was gone.
Chapter Three: New Year’s Resolutions
Fernando Llorente celebrates his brace scored in front of 50.000 Scousers.
The lone Welsh Premier League stalwarts have entered the year 2017 with just 15 points and fixtures like Arsenal (H), Liverpool (A), Southampton (H), Man City (A), Leicester (H) and Chelsea (A) around the corner. It was all doom and gloom; even the lucky away victory over slumping Crystal Palace did not undermine the suspicion that the former Bayern Munich assistant, Paul Clement has been appointed far too late to reverse the teams’ fortunes. A heavy 0-4 lesson received from the hands of Arsenal which followed right after 0-2 cup defeat to fellow relegation side Hull City have only magnified the desperation at Liberty Stadium. Having dropped back to the 20th place, they were now going to Anfield, to take on Liverpool – the side so far undefeated at home, with a 26-7 goal difference earned in front of their fans.
If there was one game that’s ever defined the season of a troubled relegation team – it was this one. In the first half, Jürgen Klopp’s lads have been bland, enjoying over 70% of possession but not managing to get a single shot on target. At the start of the second half, the visitors have won a corner…
Ten days after that shocking upset, Swans took on Southampton and won again – again, thanks to a score-opening set piece by Gylfi Sigurðsson. The Icelandic international has always been head and shoulders above his teammates but this time, he’s gone an extra mile just to make sure his team is safe. Just like the season before, he’s discovered his form in the second half of the season and had his hand on 8 goals in seven consecutive games between January and March. During that period, his team has smoothly outplayed the terribly slumping champions from Leicester and struck twice in the second half to make a comeback against Burnley. The former Hoffenheim and Tottenham star finished the season with 9 goals and 13 assists to his name – meaning that 22 out of 45 Swansea’s goals have involved him directly.
Chapter Four: Utter Despair
Fabiański won’t be too proud of his performances this season.
The day was March 11th. Paul Clement’s side, now 16th and five points above the relegation zone, were visiting Hull for yet another six-pointer. A draw would have been enough for them to comfortably maintain the point edge over both The Tigers and the dreadful Middlesbrough. Swansea nearly started that game with a big bang, as Wayne Routledge has found himself on the end of terrific Sigurðsson’s through ball and aimed for a far post in a one-on-one situation with Jakupović. However – the Bosnian keeper saved that shot with the right leg and did the same with two other dangerous chances he’s faced. Unable to break through for over an hour, the visitors have finally suffered a big upset when Oumar Niasse raced for a through ball and put it away at Fabiański’s near post. It was the 60th conceded goal by the Polish keeper, who looked decent this season – but he also definitely had better times in his career:
Not only did Swansea lose that match and their point cushion with it; the defeat has sent them into yet another slump, marked by the second defeat to Bournemouth, a dismal home draw with Boro and the losses against Spurs, West Ham and Watford. Meanwhile, Marco Silva and his lads continued to win in front of their own fans, picking up 12 consecutive home points. By the middle of April, the team in orange and black was suddenly two points above the drop zone, pushing the side from Liberty Stadium deep into the abyss. With Crystal Palace enjoying a remarkable revival of form under Sam Allardyce, with Burnley and Bournemouth already enjoying secure amounts of points – it was all between the two sides that used to regularly clash against each other in the League Two from 1996 to 2004. Still: after shedding six points to Tigers and seeing them all set to host the atrocious, relegated Sunderland – the Welsh fans could do nothing better than saying their prayers.
Chapter Five: The Redemption
A true leader: ‘Siggy’ just had his best-ever Premier League season.
On a sunny, Saturday afternoon of 6th May, we’ve seen the final, shocking twist of the season. Sunderland, the already relegated Sunderland with absolutely nothing to play for anymore, have turned up at KCOM Stadium and snatched their first league win since February, ending the run of ten games with just two goals scored in them. It was Sebastian Larsson’s corner delivery flicked by John O’Shea straight into the path of Billy Jones that opened the score. By the end of the match, another set piece pass from Larsson landed in the box and the veteran Jermain Defoe has sealed Black Cats’ win. Few hours later, Swansea have finally turned around things and overcame Everton 1-0 after long, cagey 90 minutes. “We told ourselves that we have to win regardless of the Hull result” – said Paul Clement after the game. Maybe yes, maybe no: in reality, it’s Mackems who gave the Welsh team a new hope.
From them on, it was surprisingly easy. After a trip to hell and back, Swansea finally grabbed the chance that presented itself and never let that one go. They’ve concluded the season with four wins and a draw, eventually surpassing Hull by seven points and even climbing to the 15th place, above Burnley and Watford. “In the context of the situation – three managers in one year, bottom at the halfway point with only 12 points and a massive amount of goals conceded – I think, absolutely ‘yes’ we can celebrate if we stay in the league.” – said Clement early in May, after the ultimate reversal of fortune. His players took the hint: after Crystal Palace’s thumping 4-0 win over Hull, they’ve enjoyed a late-night party in celebration of the survival.
Chapter Six (unfinished): Into the Future
Focused: Swansea boss still has a lot of stuff to figure out this summer.
Now that it’s all over, it’s time to rebuild this pile of disappointment. Looking back at it, it’s crystal clear that only few players have survived the EPL’s baptism of fire: namely, Sigurðsson, Mawson, Llorente and two winter signings, Carroll and Olsson. Therefore, Paul Clement should first and foremost look for at least two new midfielders in order to put more competitive pressure on the inconsistent likes of Jack Cork and Leroy Fer. So far, Swans have hired AFC Ajax youngster, Kees de Boer (17) and are supposedly looking at Eibar captain Daniel García (27). Defensively, the club can now count on Kyle Bartley, who’s had a quite successful season on loan at Leeds United. However, there’s still one, far more urgent piece of business to be done out there…