- The Swans are better than their current 17th-place position would suggest, but their new American manager has his work cut out for him.
It’s been 11 days since American soccer fans awoke to the news that Swansea City had hired Bob Bradley. Eleven days for the momentousness of the move to sink in. Eleven days for the takes about Bradley’s lack of Premier League experience to subside.
Now the attention turns to Arsenal, Bradley’s first on-field test, and to the broader question at hand: will Bradley keep this Swansea team up? And perhaps more specifically, does he have the players to do it?
Bradley inherits a squad that has won just one game and gathered four points from its first seven league matches. But Swansea’s league position, 17th, tells a bit of a misleading tale. Only two of the seven games brought realistic expectations of a result. The most recent five—at Leicester, vs. Chelsea, at Southampton, vs. Manchester City and vs. Liverpool—comprised about as tough a stretch as the league will throw at any team this season.
Francesco Guidolin’s Swans were also somewhat unfortunate. Strong performances against City and Liverpool were undermined by clumsy and/or questionable penalties and shoddy finishing. The first half against the Reds provided a glimpse into what this group of players is capable of producing.
On the whole, though, it’s still a relatively underwhelming group. It’s not the Swansea team that finished no worse than 12th for five consecutive seasons. The club’s sixth Premier League squad is likely the worst of the six. But it’s the one Bradley will have to make due with, at least until January.
Here’s a look at that squad and what Bradley may have in mind for it.
Bradley must rejuvenate a beleaguered defense
The summer sale of Ashley Williams to Everton was understandable. From a business perspective, to collect £12 million for a now-32-year-old might have even been laudable. But on the field, it cut straight to the heart of a Swansea back line that was already growing frail.
Williams’ replacement, unproven Dutch defender Mike van der Hoorn, has looked shaky in limited action so far, and Jordi Amat and Frederico Fernandez are average Premier League center backs at best. The same can be said for the fullbacks, three of whom have significant experience, but none of whom inspire much confidence. The one plus is Kyle Naughton’s versatility.
In particular, Swansea’s back line has failed to deal with crosses so far this season, both from open play and from set pieces. Of the 12 goals Guidolin’s side conceded, seven came either directly or indirectly via balls into the box. A few of those seven were the result of fluffed clearances.
Dead ball struggles might be more fixable. The Swans conceded 20 goals from set plays a year ago while scoring just nine, and so far this season, they’ve conceded more expected goals from set pieces than any other team in Europe’s top four leagues, according to the Double Pivot Podcast. Set plays were always a strength for Bradley’s U.S. teams; they’ll likely be a priority for him in southern Wales.
The midfield is talented but somewhat unbalanced
Bradley’s best player is Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelandic playmaker who has thrived at the Liberty Stadium. He’s done so primarily as the most advanced player in a midfield three. That specifically is not a position Bradley always features, but the American boss has, throughout his career, shown a willingness to be tactically flexible. One paramount task will be creating an environment that stimulates Sigurdsson’s attacking creativity.
But he’ll also have to account for the midfield’s deficiencies—namely the lack of a true holding midfielder. Bradley has no Ricardo Clark- or Pablo Mastroeni-type player at his disposal. Both Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-Yueng have been disguised as such at times, but neither shields a defense well enough to be relied upon. Both can be difference-makers as box-to-box players—especially Fer with his long, powerful strides and technical ability—but when they play together with Sigurdsson, the threesome is off-kilter, no matter the system in which they’re playing.
With the U.S., Bradley often opted for a 4-4-2 that would situationally morph into more of a 4-2-2-2. He preferred defensive-minded central midfielders and wingers—such as Landon Donovan and a younger, more explosive Clint Dempsey—whose primary responsibilities would be to ignite counterattacks. If he’s going to play that way at Swansea, he’ll have to do so with square pegs in round holes.
Jefferson Montero is a wild card
One player that should fit regardless of formation is winger Jefferson Montero. The shifty Ecuadorian was electrifying at times early in his Swansea career, but previous managers have tired of his inconsistency, often relegating him to the bench.
Bradley might do the same, especially if he wants two-way wingers. But if he can get Montero terrorizing fullbacks week in and week out, he’ll inject much needed life into an attack that is still searching for an identity.
It’s way too early to judge the strikers
Swansea shattered its transfer record this summer to bring in Borja Baston from Atletico Madrid. The 24-year-old Spaniard tallied 18 times in his first La Liga season (with Eibar), and was seen as the player to ease Swansea’s striking woes. He hasn’t so far, but that’s because he missed three weeks with a thigh injury, and is only just returning to full fitness. His first league start came against Liverpool.
Swansea’s second biggest signing of the summer was another Spanish striker, Fernando Llorente. The 31-year-old is a shell of the player who won World Cup and Euro titles with La Roja and played in a Champions League final with Juventus; but at 6-foot-5, he’s a unique player, the likes of which Swansea has never really had, and at the very least he offers a decent Plan B.
Baston will likely start up top by himself in this weekend’s match at Arsenal. Sometime down the road, Bradley could pilot a Baston-Llorente partnership, but it wouldn’t be the traditional tall man-small man partnership that 4-4-2s usually employ. And there isn’t much depth behind the two should one get injured, or should Bradley go in search of an added dimension. To find that, Bradley would have to either move Montero centrally or put his faith in one of a few younger players.
Baston should get his new manager enough goals to suppress any thoughts of relegation. But this isn’t the free-flowing Swansea of 2012 or 2013, and Bradley will have to put his years of experience to good use if he’s to get Swansea safely up into mid-table.