AHEAD of Liverpool’s clash with Swansea City at Anfield, we spoke to Chris Wathan, Chief Football Writer at Media Wales, to get the lowdown on The Swans.
Swansea have just one win in their last six and currently sit bottom of the table, are fans fearing the worst at this stage?
Not so much fearing the worst in that a lot have already accepted their fate. The games over December, which many had looked towards as a chance to get themselves out of trouble were as bad as you could have possibly imagined, losing 3-0 away to Middlesbrough and then 4-1 at home to West Ham, which saw Bob Bradley sacked afterwards, and another heavy defeat to Bournemouth followed. At that point a lot of people seemed to resign to their fate.
There are those that still keep believing and see the appointment of Paul Clement as a chance to get back on track, and at least getting back to Swansea’s way of playing and thinking. If that gives them a chance of getting out of the relegation battle, then all the better for it.
The key thing to remember, which a lot of Swansea fans have been clinging to, is that as poor as Swansea have been for large periods this season they are still only a couple of points away from really dragging themselves out of it. That win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park has given a little bit of hope that so long as they can keep in touch they’ve still got to play a lot of the sides around them and that could give them a chance of pulling off what would be a great escape.
Do you think there are problems at the club which transcend the players’ performances on the pitch?
I think there are so many things you could look at and of course it’s easier in hindsight. Ultimately, one of their biggest failings has been recruitment, Swansea have earned a lot of praise for that over the years. Unfortunately, when you’re a club the size of Swansea if you get a transfer window wrong, as nigh on every club does at some stage, they haven’t got the funds to quickly correct that. Swansea have got a few windows wrong. They are a selling club, it’s inevitable that they’re going to lose players, but over the years you’ve seen them replaced with bargains, in many respects. That’s not something they’ve been able to do successfully in the last few windows.
Then you can factor in, what I perceive to be, the short-term thinking from the club, going away from the way they’ve operated and behaved over a longer period of time. You can go back to the appointment of Francesco Guidolin who was brought in to keep the club up a year ago, it was a surprising decision once he’d achieved that to keep him on, despite issues over his methods and suitability to Swansea being aired.
The decision to appoint Bob Bradley didn’t go down well with the fans. There was some existing tension regarding the sale of shares by local directors and owners to American businessmen, so there’s a whole myriad of things you could point fingers to.
You also can’t excuse the players who are either no longer good enough or have been dreadfully out of form. Of course, everything adds together and you can see there’s been a terrible loss of confidence, so when they have gone behind they inevitably concede two, three and four.
It’s been a horrible mixture of things and it depends on your viewpoint what you consider to be the biggest factor.
It was young coaches like Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers that helped establish Swansea’s identity, and you touched on Swansea’s old way of thinking earlier, is the appointment of Clement seen as a return to that?
Yes, I have written a couple of times that it feels like the club have pressed reset with this appointment. They used to go for the young and hungry managers with a certain emphasis and way of playing, it feels like they’ve returned to that and they’re prepared to think a little bit more long-term in the hope that it brings short-term success.
If you think back to the appointments of Martinez and Rodgers they didn’t have any pressure to bring short-term success, both were brought in to develop their way. As it happens, they did achieve that short-term success.
It could have been the easiest thing for Swansea to have fallen into the trap, which so many other clubs seem to do, of spending big in the window and bringing in a ‘survival expert’. Someone who would be against their way of thinking, their way of playing, not in keeping with what they’ve done in the past in an attempt to pull themselves out of trouble — only to find themselves not able to do it and lumbered with all these big wages, or they do manage but then find themselves back at square one the next season, with players and possibly a manager not fitting with the direction the club wants to go back in.
I do feel that Clement is the right fit and the feedback has been good so far. Whether he’s got the time to correct some of the mistakes made by the last two managers or enough games to get the points on the board is another thing. But it does feel that, whether it’s in the Premier League or the Championship, Swansea will be in a better footballing place with the arrival of Clement.
Do you think that is something fans would be happy with, aiming for a long-term vision when it could see them drop out of the Premier League?
As ever, it depends on which fan you talk to. There are those that, for example, wanted Sam Allardyce appointed and think they should have gone after him before Alan Pardew was sacked and Palace got him. With the greatest of respects to Allardyce, who has his own qualities, he’s as far away from what you would call a Swansea manager as you could imagine.
There are those that think they should splash big in this window and gamble. And there are those that accept that could be putting the club at risk later down the line. There are a mix of opinions.
What I will say is that, in recent weeks there was clearly a large amount of anger at the appointment of Bradley, some believing him to be the American’s man — in terms of the owner and his nationality — and not being up to the job. When the team would go behind you could feel the frustration and anger in the crowd, he certainly didn’t have the backing of the majority, by any stretch of the imagination. That did impact on performances and Swansea felt like a crisis club.
Despite losing heavily to Arsenal last game, when they conceded that first goal where there was anger in the past, there was a raw of encouragement for the team to go again, because they had witnessed what was a fairly decent 45 minutes, but they just couldn’t quite sustain it and Arsenal turned it on and ran away with it in the end. You did feel that there was more of a belief in the way forward again, that’s the crucial thing.
For all the arguments on both sides of this takeover, and there are genuine concerns from the fans, at any club if it isn’t pulling in the same direction then you’re destined for struggles. Steps have been made off the field to establish better harmony between the new owners and the supporters’ trust, who own 21 per cent of the club, they were further involved in the appointment of Clement where they had not been in the appointment of Bradley.
So it does feel small steps are being taken in the right direction by Swansea, whether it’s enough is difficult to know. But there’s no point, after making mistakes, making more mistakes to try and correct the first ones. Swansea would be wise to go back to doing what they gained their reputation for and what they were admired for, so hopefully that’s a positive.
Last time out Swansea troubled Liverpool, taking the lead and playing the better football in the first half, will that game give fans some confidence heading into this one?
I think given recent form some fans are fearing the worst here, or at least not expecting any result — not in the same way as when Swansea first came into the Premier League where they weren’t expecting results but were hopeful and confident in their side. In that regard, when they got a 0-0 draw at Anfield they were actually applauded off that day in November 2011.
Given that Liverpool are top scorers and Swansea have conceded heavily — I think they’ve conceded three or more in more than half of their fixtures this year — there is a fear that, if Swansea aren’t at it and Liverpool are, it could be another heavy defeat which would just suck any belief out.
One of the issues they had when they did trouble Liverpool was that they ran out of steam, at a time when there were questions over how prepared the team were and their fitness heading into the season with Guidolin. That is something that Clement has identified and is looking to address now and, if they can get a few lucky breaks which they haven’t had — being denied a 50/50 penalty at 1-0 down against Arsenal — then there might be a bit of hope of a competitive game at the very least.
But I think there are a plenty of Swansea fans fearing it could be a long afternoon. I wish I could be more positive but it’s been a long season, as you can imagine.
Clement did stress the importance of being defensively solid against Liverpool and given Jürgen Klopp’s comments in recent weeks, expressing frustration at teams that have been setting up to frustrate Liverpool or ‘parking the bus’, do you think we could see something similar on Saturday?
Clement does seem keen for them to become more organised and more defensively disciplined, but I don’t think Swansea are in any position to be able to park the bus because, if you’re conceding goals in the manner that Swansea are, you can’t just turn it on and say ‘park on the 18-yard line and try and stop Liverpool’, defending isn’t as black and white as that.
I think they will try and not commit too much going forward but Clement does want them to play in a certain way, which might not be as open as some Swansea sides in the past, but I can’t imagine them parking the bus.
Jürgen can be as frustrated as he wants but that’s very often a sign of respect to a good side, and the sides that manage to overcome those difficulties in a season are very often the ones that go on to win trophies and titles. So if it does become the case then that is the challenge Liverpool have brought upon themselves by starting as impressively as they have and you would expect managers of his ilk and players of Liverpool’s ability to be able to come up with the answers.
Where do you expect both teams to end up this season?
I think Liverpool have got every chance of a title and a lot will depend on a bad patch that Chelsea will inevitably have, every side will go through that sticky period where they’re in the spotlight and it feels like the world is against them.
I am intrigued by the fact that Liverpool have played an extra few away games due to the development of Anfield, whether that plays into their hands in the long run, and the intensity of the play under Klopp can be maintained without a lull at some point. It’s going to be fascinating at the top and I expect Liverpool to be right up there, whether they actually do it or not I don’t think anybody could tell you for sure right now.
As for the bottom, Swansea have to get seven wins to give themselves a chance. On paper, it is doable but they have to get some breaks and they have to improve on putting in performances across 90 minutes as opposed to 45, which they’ve done so far this season. As said before, the thing they can cling to is that, as bad as they have been at times, they’re still not completely out of it and that would worry me more if I was a fan of one of the sides just above them.
To stay positive I’ll say that they’re going to pull off the greatest escape in Premier League history and finish 17th — although, given the current standards, I can’t imagine they’re going to do it on goal difference.
Finally, how do you expect the game to pan out?
I think Liverpool should be able to find gaps, that’s the challenge now for Clement is to make them more disciplined within the style they want to play, and try to restrict the amount of midfield runners.
I think you will see Liverpool enjoy more possession, more chances and it’s whether Swansea can be clinical with the one or two chances that they get — can Gylfi Sigurdsson do some damage from a set-piece, for example.
I fully expect Liverpool to win but if Swansea can keep it tight then, in a strange way which says a lot about the season, that can be viewed as little bit of a success and gives them a chance of trying to build going forward.