Archive for May, 2017

Reflections on a Turbulent Season.

Monday, May 29th, 2017

I just watched Arsenal defeat Chelsea in this year’s FA Cup Final. Champions Chelsea looked tired and jaded while Arsenal appeared to be rejuvenated winning the Cup for the third time in the past four seasons. Why didn’t Arsenal play like this during the season? This is the same team that was annihilated 0-5 at home by Bayern Munich  in the Champions League only a couple of months ago. Based on this result Wenger, Arsenal’s beleaguered manager, has probably saved his job for yet another season or two. Nevertheless, they did miss qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in twenty years.

Ironically, it was Chelsea’s 0-3 defeat to Arsenal earlier in the season that prompted new manager Conte to introduce his system of three central defenders which he had successfully implemented in his time as manager of Juventus and latterly Italy. Chelsea reeled off 13 successive wins which propelled them to the title.

Speaking of which, normal service was restored in the Premiership with little chance of another minnow doing a Leicester City by snatching the title from under the noses of the elite teams. Chelsea deservedly won the title with an ever improving Tottenham Hotspur runners up. Manchester City finished third which prompted their manager Pep Guardiola to quote: “If I had finished 3rd at Barcelona or Bayern Munich (his previous two clubs) I would have been sacked!” Liverpool squeezed into the top four at the expense of Arsenal and will be playing Champions League football for the first time in a number of years.

Chelsea won the title from Spurs by a comfortable seven points, but more significantly was the 15 point gap between the seventh placed team, Everton and the rest of the division. Prior to this season the consensus leaned towards the premise that the Premier League comprised three layers; the top six, the middle tier who don’t usually contend for the title, but are safe from relegation struggles, and a bottom six or seven proverbial relegation contenders. Now, any team from 8th position downwards should fear the drop.

England will have five representatives this year because Manchester United also qualified by winning the Europa Cup in benign fashion. It is rumored that United will have a transfer fund of 300 million pounds to spend on new players in the summer. Manchester City has kick started the off season crazy spending spree by paying  Monaco 43 million pounds for their playmaker Bernard Silva.

My home town team, Swansea City (yes, it’s a euphemism) gave me some sleepless nights. They had a meager total of 12 points and bottom of the table on New Year’s Day with half the season over. Paul Clement became the fourth man to manage the team since last August (Alan Curtis was caretaker manager for two spells.)

He obviously got many things right to muster 29 points from the second half of the season, but the key decision for me was to play Mawson and Fernandez as the two central defenders for the remainder of the season. Bob Bradley had chopped and changed his defensive pairing continuously throughout his brief reign and the Swans were conceding goals at nearly two per game. Fernandez and Mawson brought stability to the back four, and it was no coincidence they only conceded two goals during the last five games of the season, winning four and drawing the other away to Manchester United.

What was incomprehensible was the six game stretch in the middle of Clement’s tenure where they only managed to pick up one measly point. Clement’s hiring had initially galvanized the team to the extent they were four points clear of the relegation zone until they hit a six game brick wall.

Fortunately Clement turned to thirty four year old Leon Britton in their hour of need. Britton has been a first team fixture for fourteen years, having played in all four divisions of the Football League with the Club, helping them rise from near extinction to the promised land of the Premiership. Britton is the epitome of the” Swansea Way” of playing football, retaining possession and passing, and his influence on the strong finish to the season should not be under estimated.


The Great Escape

Friday, May 19th, 2017

For Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Charles Bronson read Gylfi Sigurdsson, Fernando Llorente, Leon Britton and Paul Clement. Swansea City pulled off the greatest escape since Harry Houdini was performing his “get out of jail free” acts. At the turn of the year, the club was bottom of the Premiership with 12 points from 19 games. Not many teams have avoided the drop from such a precarious position.

They lost 0-3 to fellow strugglers, Bournemouth on New Year’s Eve, and Bob Bradley was belatedly dismissed from a job where his only somewhat bizarre credential was the fact he was American to satisfy the whim of new  American owners. He was managing Le Havre  in the French Second Division for goodness sake when he was plucked from relative obscurity to manage a Premiership Club which proved to be way above his pay grade.

Paul Clement was hired on January 3rd and the Swans defeated Crystal Palace 2-1 the same day. The team was selected by caretaker manager Alan Curtis, but Clement quickly left the comfort of the stand to add support to Alan Curtis’ cajoling.

Clement engineered another four wins over the next couple of months including a surprising  away win over Liverpool. Losses to Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea during that period didn’t dim the spirit and optimism that Clement had created and remarkably they were 4 points clear of the relegation zone.

It appeared to be a false dawn.Inexplicably they could only muster one point from their next six matches which dropped them back into the relegation zone. They lost to fellow strugglers Hull City, could only take one point off the worst team in the Division, Middlesbrough, and were totally inept in losses to Watford and West Ham. Prior to those two losses, they played Tottenham Hotspur at home who  were lying second in the table. The Swans led for 83 minutes before conceding an equalizer. Clement’s body language on the touchline suggested he would be  content to take a point when unfortunately the floodgates opened and Spurs scored two more goals to snatch a win they barely deserved.

The players were shell shocked by the devastating loss to Spurs, and while not citing it as an excuse, it surely contributed to the subsequent losses to Watford and West Ham. Clement was clearly stunned by the team’s reversal in fortunes which possibly influenced him to make three important decisions in a last ditch effort  to avoid relegation:

  1. Since he was appointed manager, he had resisted the temptation of placing too much pressure on the players. However he informed the Media and fans that the next home game against Stoke City was a must win for the Club.
  2. He decided to return wily veteran and club captain Leon Britton to the fold having ignored him for the past four months.
  3. With the return of Britton, he decided to play with the diamond formation in midfield.

The players responded to Clement’s rallying call and defeated Stoke 2-0 on April 22nd, but remained 18th in the table, two points adrift of Hull City and safety. But a first victory since March would give them a much-needed lift with four matches to play. The following week, the Swans earned a valuable point at Manchester United which could easily have been three if Llorente had not missed a sitter nearing the end of the match. Unfortunately Hull grabbed a point at Southampton and the Swans still trailed them by two points.

However,Week 36 would prove to be the pivotal point of the season. Hull played relegated Sunderland in the early Saturday game and surprisingly lost 0-2 at home. The Swans were entertaining Everton  two hours  later, and  aware  that a win would leapfrog them over Hull and move them out of the relegation zone for the first time in weeks. A 1-0 win was grinded out against a disappointing Everton side, and the Swans were now one point ahead of Hull with destiny firmly in their hands with two games to go.

Last weekend introduced a role reversal with Swansea playing first on Saturday, followed by Hull’s game against fellow strugglers Crystal Palace on Sunday. Ironically, the Swans were away to Sunderland who had done them such a favour by defeating Hull the previous weekend. Fortunately, Sunderland were a pale shadow of the team which snatched the points from The Tigers, and the Swans, magnificently supported by the Jack Army, secured a comfortable 2-0 victory to take them four points clear of Hull. Hull appeared to be suffering from a hang over from the Sunderland defeat, and were walloped 0-4 at Crystal Palace, leaving the Swans safe from relegation for another season.

I guess avoiding relegation by the skin of your teeth shouldn’t be a cause for celebration. Nevertheless, it appeared so implausible that a retreat from the abyss could be achieved with only four matches remaining, that celebration is obviously tempered with relief.

Paul Clement believed that Swansea’s fate would be decided by the final game of the season, but fortunately he was wrong, and not for the first time since he was appointed. In his defence,  he has probably got more things right than wrong, and Saturday’s home game against West Bromwich Albion should be a big party for players, staff and more importantly the beleaguered supporters. O Nerth I Nerth.