During the international break of early October, Swansea City sacked their manager. It was October 3rd, in fact; the date significant as the birthday of Francesco Guidolin, the booted boss.
The sacking seemed harsh, and not just because sacking a man on his birthday always seems that little bit more ruthless. Swansea were on a run of six games without a win in all competitions, but sometimes when you read the numbers, you need to add a bit of nuance.
Five of those six games ended in defeat, only one was drawn – the home game against Chelsea when the Swans surrendered a lead late on to draw 2-2. It’s a run that most managers would see as grounds for dismissal, but this was no ordinary run. All of these games were played against teams you wouldn’t expect Swansea to beat: Liverpool and Chelsea were the only two who finished outside the previous season’s top six. We’re talking about the best teams in the country here.
The level of difficulty wasn’t enough to save Guidolin. Bob Bradley was appointed in his stead, but his first game in charge didn’t make things any easier for his new side: they travelled to Arsenal.
It wasn’t the subsequent defeat at the Emirates, or any of those winless games up until that point, that put Swansea where they are in the league right now. They are second from bottom after the halfway stage, and with only 15 points, because of what happened next. Defeats to Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool don’t relegate a team like Swansea. December defeats to West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough, West Ham, and Bournemouth do, though.
Yet, there’s a bigger picture than just results.
Bradley’s tenure started with a 3-2 defeat. And although we’re talking about a narrow defeat in a difficult trip to the home of a top club, the defeat would set a precedent for the American’s spell in charge.
For a club that’s managed only 15 points in over half the games – a rate that wouldn’t break the 30 point barrier – Swansea have managed to score goals. Certainly more goals than you might expect. Under Bradley, the Swans lost eight times, though they only failed to score on four occasions. They’ve managed 23 goals: not a stellar return by any means, but only three teams in the bottom half can better that. Having the ability to score twice against Arsenal at the Emirates was a precursor to this. But it was also a precursor to their defensive problems, too.
Under Bradley, only twice did Swansea fail to stop the opposition from scoring. And only three times did they manage to stop their opposition scoring more than once. And conceding three against Arsenal could be seen as one of their better efforts: they shipped three goals on seven occasions (including to West Brom and Middlesbrough), and more than three goals a further three times (including that victory over Crystal Palace). Only three times did Bradley’s side concede fewer than three goals, and their defensive record is now the worst in the division.
And so Bob Bradley’s first Premier League game in charge of Swansea, against Arsenal, set the standard for his entire time as Swansea manager. His replacement, Paul Clement, will also face Arsenal in the first Premier League game of his reign in South Wales.
The new king can learn two lessons from his fallen predecessors.
Firstly, that his defence conceded three or more goals in only one Premier League game before Bradley took over. That’s compared with ten times in their next 13 under Bradley. He knows that even a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, with a solid defensive performance, would be preferable to another 3-2 at this point.
And secondly, that defeats to teams like Arsenal aren’t what put Swansea in trouble in the first place – conceding more goals than anyone else did.
Clement needs points, but with only about half of the season gone, that means half of the winnable games still remain. The precedent to set in his first game at Arsenal need not be victory, but rather signs that Swansea’s defence is not as porous as it was under Bradley. Swansea games against Arsenal are beginning to take on the feeling of a date with the ghost of Christmas future – Bradley was shown his future and did not mend his ways. Clement has to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.
The Swans may only be one point adrift of Crystal Palace and safety, but that includes a 15 goal swing in goal difference. Plenty of damage has already been done.