EPL 2016/17: Charting the slow and painful decline of Swansea City
In May 2015, as Chelsea were crowned Premier League champions, Swansea City also celebrated their own small achievement. They had finished eighth – ahead of other mid-table clubs, such as Everton, who had regularly finished above the Welsh club.
Less than two years down the line, the Swans now find themselves in 19th place with only four wins and 13 losses after 20 games. Barring a miraculous comeback that most Sunderland managers come by in the second half of the season, the club looks destined to be relegated six seasons after gaining promotion to the Premier League.
For a club that played delightful attacking football rather than adopt survival instincts that is the norm among newly promoted clubs, it is painful to watch for both the Liberty Stadium faithful and neutrals alike.
So how did it all come to this? How did a fairy-tale story of promotion from the fourth division to the top flight suddenly descend into every football fan’s worst nightmare?
The sacking of Garry Monk
It all started to go wrong for Swansea when Garry Monk was in charge. A bonafide Swansea legend who played for the club between 2004 and 2014 and had seen it all from League Two to the Premier League, club captain Monk had some big shoes to fill following the departure of Michael Laudrup.
He had a dream start to the 2014/15 season, beating Manchester United away at Old Trafford – a historic result the Swans had never achieved in the league before. Having played under Brendan Rodgers and Laudrup, Monk carried on in the same vein of possession football and championed the use of pacy wingers in a 4-3-3 system that also thrived on counter-attacks.
But it wasn’t just all about attack for Monk. Without the ball, he would ask the team to settle into a 4-4-2 to deny most attacking teams any space in midfield. Up against two banks of four, most teams struggled and this was where wingers such as Jefferson Montero and Nathan Dyer wreaked havoc.
Not many teams can lay claim to doing the double over both Manchester United and Arsenal in the same season but Monk’s side accomplished exactly that. He was steadily on the rise and some even considered him to be a viable candidate for the England job.
However, his plans suddenly fell apart the following season. It seemed like the players had stopped responding to Monk’s methods. Double training sessions did not sit too well with the squad and all was not well in the dressing room. As much as Monk tried working with the players, there was no reciprocation and the slide began.
One win in 12 games sounded the death knell as the defence also suffered under Monk. Swansea had been found out and Monk was unable to motivate his squad. Even though his side kept possession, their use of the ball was not as effective as the previous season.
In the end, letting Monk go was a decision that was “made very reluctantly and with a heavy heart” according to club chairman Huw Jenkins. It would only get worse for the club while Monk has now taken Leeds United to new heights they have not seen in quite a while in the Championship.
Botched transfer strategy
Although Monk may have been partly to blame for Swansea’s struggles last season, it was the club’s transfer strategy that did them in. Nothing highlighted the club’s plight more than the failure to replace a player of the calibre of Wilfried Bony.
Having signed the Ivory Coast striker from Vitesse Arnhem for a club record £12m, they could not compete with Manchester City’s riches when they made a bid of £25m. Bony saw it as a step up and the club did not stand in his way, even if it was, in hindsight, not the best move for a player used to playing every week.
After the loss of Bony, Swansea lost their attacking impetus and their style of play changed. Bafetimbi Gomis was never the ideal replacement and his style was a stark contrast to Bony. He preferred long balls from midfield rather than working with Gylfi Sigurdsson and the Swans’ attack looked bereft of ideas – very much unlike the possession-based side that created chances with ease. Gomis almost made a move to the Middle-East too, proving exactly how committed to the cause he was.
Andre Ayew was a good signing, especially on a free transfer, and the Ghanaian did score 12 goals in his first and only season. The likes of Eder and Franck Tabanou arrived and left soon after with Tabanou on loan at his second club.
Their biggest losses came last summer when the club sold Ayew to West Ham for £20.5m and Ashley Williams to Everton for £12m. The loss of Williams was arguably the last straw. Williams had spent the last eight seasons at Swansea and had taken the captain’s armband from Monk.
He was the heart and soul of the club and had done everything in his capacity to lead the team both on and off the pitch. Williams had even taken Spanish lessons when the number of Spaniards at the club increased, just so he could communicate easily with his teammates in training sessions and on the pitch.
Neither player was adequately replaced and the club has suffered as a result. Without the leadership and defensive organisation of Williams, the Swans have conceded the most goals in the league so far this season.
Other transfer targets they failed to get on board included Joe Allen; who was actually looking to return to Swansea. Liverpool set a price of £8m but the Swansea board dilly-dallied. By the time Euro 2016 was over, Allen’s stock had risen and the club failed to match it. Leonardo Ulloa and Nacer Chadli were also other targets that would have improved the squad but neither of them were signed.
Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley gone in quick succession
After taking over from Monk, Guidolin had managed to steer Swansea to safety from relegation in his first half season. But his lack of a summer transfer plan proved to be his undoing. Many had scratched their heads when Guidolin was appointed Swansea boss but his accomplishments of playing in European competitions with Udinese on a low budget was what impressed the club.
Securing Guidolin on a two-year contract and then sacking him in October was easily the most short-sighted thing the club had done. Swansea were slowly making progress in spite of the narrow losses. But just one win in seven saw Guidolin sacked on 3 October – his birthday – and replaced by yet another questionable appointment.
Bob Bradley became the first American manager to take charge of a Premier League club but he was already up against a number of forces. Neither were the players impressed with the appointment nor the fans. In a “negative atmosphere” where even the fans called for his sacking, Bradley struggled to get the best out of the squad (who secretly called him Ronald Reagan; alluding to his old-fashioned training methods).
Another string of heavy losses followed and soon Bradley was also sacked – without the benefit of having a transfer window to sign players he needed to bolster the squad. His reign lasted 85 days.
Can the new owners turn things around?
In the summer of 2016, an American consortium led by Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan bought a controlling interest in the club and it was a move that saw more outrage from the fans.
The club is known to have their fans involved in decisions the club makes and the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust claimed that they had not been informed until the deal was almost done. While the new owners have had a dialogue with the Trust and assured them of their involvement, the fans have not been impressed and even let their feelings be known during games at the Liberty Stadium.
The Trust did, however, appreciate the owners after they were “fully consulted by other shareholders in the appointment of Paul Clement” as Bradley’s replacement. Having worked under Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea, Paris St Germain and Real Madrid, Clement was appointed Swansea manager this week – their third manager this season.
Clement has a huge task on his hands but he also has the January transfer window to make necessary signings and also hold on to other players such as Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente who has become a Chelsea target.
Survival has once again become the sole aim for the Welsh club, primarily because the new television deal has given added incentive for Premier League clubs to stay up. Even finishing 17th will give the club approximately £100m to rebuild this summer, which may have been a factor the owners considered when they sacked Bradley.
What the Welsh club has now is time to set things right at the Liberty Stadium. Hull City and Crystal Palace are also struggling but Swansea can easily finish above the two other clubs at the bottom who have new managers. Only time will tell if the Swans have finally made the right decision after 19 months of mismanagement.