The matchday programme at The Liberty Stadium carried an interview with Alex Thomas, one of Swansea City’s data scientists, and perhaps it was he who best surmised the changes brought by Paul Clement.
“When he (Clement) came in the pre-match report went from five pages to thirty. He is very structured in his approach and very organised and interested in the facts when you can give them to him.”
Or maybe it was Clement himself, who used his own notes to stress the importance of the side’s belief.
“The confidence we have built up has not been damaged by the Chelsea loss…I repeat, our confidence has not been damaged.”
Detail and desire. Swansea certainly play like a different team these days, far more aware of their strengths and weaknesses than they previously were. But they carry themselves in a different way, too, as if infused by their manager’s blunt positivity. Under Bob Bradley, and during the last days of Francesco Guidolin, Swansea were a flimsy side, one who could been blown off course by the most mild adversity. Good starts in games would often be derailed by conceding a goal and initially tight contests would quickly become chastening defeats.
Clement has made changes to his personnel. Tom Carroll has added his cheerful percussion to the midfield, Martin Olsson is now available to raid from full-back and Luciano Narsingh’s pace scorches the grass on the opposite touchline. But if Swansea are now better equipped, their actual performances are being inspired by more than just literal ability. For much of 2016/17, they have been a betwixt and between side and neither one thing nor the other. Tethered to their club philosophy of attractive, possession-based football, they neglected the obvious strength of the hulking Fernando Llorente and typically moved upfield too slowly to create pressure through numbers.
Now, that’s gone. Clement has clearly placed an emphasis on working the ball to the flanks and engineering crossing opportunities for his wide players. The actual delivery admittedly remains haphazard, but it’s an approach governed by logic – and one which was validated by Saturday’s first goal against Burnley: Leroy Fer was played down the right side and his whipped cross was met by a thumping Llorente header.
But then, controversy. Anthony Taylor correctly spotted a handball in the Swansea penalty box, but failed to recognise that the arm in fact belonged to Sam Vokes. Andre Gray converted from the spot and the Liberty Stadium seethed with injustice.
But that adversity helped to illustrate the emotional hardening which has occurred in south Wales. There was no sulking, no submissive body language and no dampening effect on either Swansea’s rhythm or their intent. Back they came, pushing possession around as they had before, and had Llorente not been denied by the crossbar, or Sigurdsson by Paul Robinson’s wrists, they would have taken a lead into the dressing-room.
They didn’t and instead emerged to take another kidney punch. Gray, spritely all afternoon, reacted first to a Vokes knockdown and whipped a shot across Fabianski and in. It wasn’t a goal Burnley particularly deserved, but one they still did took efficiently. It also created the very scenario which has haunted Swansea all year. Between August and December, goal concessions created terminal reverses in momentum. Good intentions would be replaced by dejected apathy and that cycle dragged the club right to the bottom of the Premier League.
But times are changing and that habit has been broken; Swansea now have a tougher jaw. After Gray’s goal, there was no self-pity or comfort in knowing that they could likely blame any loss on the referee. Midway through the half, Sigurdsson’s delightful flick found the onrushing Olsson, with the full-back collecting the ball in the box, steadying, and then leathering a finish high and beyond Robinson.
And finally, the climax. The Liberty Stadium has seen late winners before this season, notably at the end of the ridiculous, Bradley-tastic win over Crystal Palace. But this was different: it was deserved. Carroll was worked into shallow space on the left and his swirling cross to the back-post found Llorente’s iron forehead. Swansea had searched and searched for that ball all half. When it came, deep into stoppage time, the crowd melted into joyous frenzy; this has been a hard, humbling season in south Wales and Saturday’s contrasting mood was reflective of the change Clement has brought.
Burnley’s record away from home implies that this was likely easier than it was. In theory, it should have been simple and had it not been for referee Taylor it might have been, but the fact remains: Swansea dug themselves deep holes and yet, uncharacteristically, managed to climb out of them. They played well and this 3-2 win was flecked with individual improvements, but their undimmed spirit will be the game’s lasting emblem. There was palpable belief, right until the end, that the points were theirs for the taking – given how often these players have had to play out meaningless time over the past six months, it was novel for these supporters to feel such a strong pulse of life.
May, of course, remains distant and the season could yet spring surprises. But this Swansea – Clement’s Swansea – will now not go without a struggle and, clearly, have no intention of going anywhere at all.
Hymns and Arias echoes around the Liberty Stadium whether the team wins, loses or draws. At times this season, though, it has carried a sorrowful, hollow tone. Not on Saturday, though. It shook the ground as Swansea played out the final seconds and encapsulated the growing belief that – no – this town’s time in the Premier League is not coming to an end.
Detail and desire; Clement has really struck a chord with that formula.
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