December 06, 2016
Bob Bradley's Swansea City club wasn't supposed to beat Tottenham on the road, but it also wasn't supposed to be a 5-0 loser.
One week after a 5-4 home triumph over Crystal Palace that saw Bradley become the first American coach to win a Premier League game, his team looked more like an English Championship side at White Hart Lane.
The second division might be where Swans end up next season if Bradley doesn't get things turned around, and he's got a hell of a fight in front of him.
Swansea is mediocre at best, and it's obvious that the loss of players like Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew has left gaping holes in the starting eleven. The defense is porous, the players are soft, and the fans didn't exactly welcome their new head coach with open arms.
But Bob isn't helping himself. He's made some questionable lineup and tactical decisions since taking over at the Liberty Stadium, first rifling through personnel in an effort to find his best eleven, then tinkering further with lineup changes and eventually settling on some kind of a false 9 in recent weeks.
For reference, here's how Swansea lined up against Tottenham and Crystal Palace, a 5-0 road loss and a 5-4 home win, respectively:
There are a few things going on here, but the main concept is that Bradley is trying to find the right balance between attacking and defending while getting his best players on the field.
I think we're all in agreement that Sigurdsson is Swansea's top player. He provides the most threat going forward, he's superb on restarts, and he knows how to play possession and keep the ball on the ground. The problem, obviously, is that he's just not a center forward, and he's going to give you the most production when you can play him as a number ten behind a real striker.
That's issue number one.
Issue number two is that moving Sigurdsson back to the ten creates a domino effect of similar considerations. Leroy Fer, Swansea's leading goal scorer, is a defensive liability in a deeper midfield role. Moving Fer back to a No. 8 spot puts a lot of stress on a holding midfielder, and Swansea just doesn't have that stud No. 6 to put out fires behind two attack-minded players.
Let's take one of Fernando Llorente or Borja Baston, the strikers currently sitting on the bench, and add them to the lineup with Sigurdsson and Fer moving one position deeper in the shape.
This is a traditional 4-2-3-1, featuring a certified center forward with Sigurdsson playing in his best role. You've got a lot of firepower on the wings with Jefferson Montero and Modou Barrow.
The problem is that you're asking your No. 6 to do a ton of work in this formation, playing alongside a No. 8 who isn't a great defender and an entire backline that doesn't inspire much confidence. This is the type of team that can score four goals while conceding four goals.
And maybe that's the way forward for Bob Bradley. He's always been a coach who values defense, structure, and discipline, but this team just isn't built for that. They don't have that intangible American spirit that masks a lack of overall quality. The best players on this team are attacking pieces, and I think he feels as though the false 9 is the most balanced shape that he can deploy without sitting good players on the bench.
Swans were out-shot 25 to 1 by Spurs on Sunday, one week after out-shooting Palace 18 to 12. They've been all over the place, showing glimpses of greatness going forward while looking completely inept at other times.
One idea would be to try Fer at the number ten spot with Sigurdsson out wide, but the consensus is that you're wasting Gylfi in that kind of shape. It also forces one of Montero or Barrow to the bench, which doesn't make a ton of sense considering that wide play is one of the few strong points in the Swansea game.
Bradley tried something like that when he rolled out a 4-4-2 against Manchester United, at home, back on November 6th.
This is what the shape looked like:
👥🔢— Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) November 6, 2016
Here's how the #Swans will line up against @ManUtd this afternoon... #SWAMUN pic.twitter.com/9nbFZFVDgx
It was a lineup with attacking power, and I think Bradley decided to "go for it" at home, which some people saw as a really positive move from a normally conservative coach.
The problem was that Swansea couldn't get a sniff of the ball. They couldn't do anything in the possession game, and Borja and Llorente spent most of the match stranded up top while the other eight field players sat behind the ball, chasing.
Bradley changed the shape in the second half but Swansea lost 3-1 with just one shot on goal.
Here are the five things I think Bob Bradley and Swansea City need to do to avoid the drop:
1. Scrap the false 9, play Sigurdsson as your number ten, and put a striker on the field. Gylfi is the best player on the team and he needs to be in his best spot. Swansea ain't Barcelona, and you're not going to avoid relegation playing a 4-6-0 in the EPL. You paid 20 million pounds for Llorente and Borja in the summer.
2. Give Leroy Fer an ultimatum: He has to defend, or he sits. He's an excellent attacking player, but he's not Sigurdsson, and he needs to play a two-way game at the number eight or vacate the spot for someone else. It's a raw deal, but it is what it is. You've got one preferred spot for two very good players.
3. Sign a defensive midfielder in the transfer window. Swans really need a solid six in the middle of the park, because Jack Cork, Jay Fulton, Leon Britton, and Ki Sung-Yeung are not the answer. Guys like N'Golo Kante don't grow on trees, but if West Brom can reach 7th place with Claudio Yacob and a 32 year old Darren Fletcher, then Swans can come up with a solution.
4. Figure out the center half pairing and stick with it. Bradley has tried every combination imaginable, with Jordi Amat, Federico Fernandez, Mike van der Hoorn, and Alfie Mawson all getting a shot in defense. Eventually you have to find something that works and commit to it.
5. Feed your wingers. Mo Barrow has been an attacking threat all season long, and a healthy Jeff Montero gives you another threat on the opposite side of the field. Swansea has quality wide players and they need a target to aim for in the box.
That's it. That's the solution for now unless you want to drop fifty million pounds in the transfer window. You've got five winnable games on the December schedule, starting with fellow bottom-dwellers Sunderland at home this weekend.
Bradley is skating on thin ice already, and he needs to take a step back, simplify the process, and lean on the quality attacking pieces at his disposal. The false 9 is an understandable attempt at providing defensive cover while also putting out a decent front four, but it just isn't the answer for Swansea.
Get a striker on the field, let Sigurdsson run the show, and take your chances because you're already at the bottom of the table.
Bob is a good coach and he just needs to get out of his own way.