End of season form can sometimes be deceptive. When the threat of the Football League hangs in the air, the senses are sharper. Supporters are louder, players run that little bit harder, and even a manager’s howl is an octave deeper. It’s what makes end of season football so compelling, but also why it’s not to be trusted. Just as a resurgent team’s form isn’t reflective of the performances which brought them to the cliff’s edge, neither are the hurried steps away from it indicative of their future.
Swansea survived 2016/17. Rather than being a pure footballing failure, for much of the season their first-team was weighed down by their corporate baggage. It didn’t help, either, that the squad tasked with shouldering that burden was an ideological muddle shaped by the opposing whims of four different managers. In recent months, though, the nosedive has been controlled and the appointment of Paul Clement and the cooling of boardroom/community tensions created the conditions for recovery. By the time the Premier League music stopped, Swansea had barged Hull City out of the way and sunk breathlessly into the last remaining chair.
If anything has been learned over the past few seasons, it’s that this competition rewards only those who are willing to keep moving. English football may still be characterised by the substantial financial advantage of the few over the many, but the size of the broadcasting contract means that even those lower down the table are capable of making quick, positive strides. Newcastle and Brighton have both been promoted, each bringing with them a strong hope of survival, and Crystal Palace, Watford and Burnley are all likely to improve before August arrives. Strugglers beware: though Huddersfield, the weakest of the promoted teams, should face a sharp learning curve, there isn’t going to be another Sunderland next season and neither is there likely to be a team as offensively anemic as Middlesbrough. All three relegation places will be open.
So Swansea need to improve and they will probably have to begin their growth from a position of disadvantage: Gylfi Sigurdsson is likely to leave the Liberty Stadium, with Everton reportedly his destination.
Sigurdsson is the critical piece. His goals and assists make a literal and obvious case for his value, but he’s also the player around whom the post-Clement renaissance was built. In fact, it’s not too tenuous to claim that much of Swansea’s most recent recruitment was instructed by the need to free Sigurdsson and maximise his contribution. Martin Olsson, Luciano Narsingh and Tom Carroll have all brought their own worth to south Wales, but it wasn’t a coincidence that all of them provided width, auxiliary delivery options or, in Olsson’s case, both. The team’s attacking focal point was and remains Fernando Llorente, but the diversification of the supply outside the box was seemingly aimed at freeing Sigurdsson and lessening the defensive attention he typically encountered.
The difficulty if Sigurdsson does leave, will be in finding a player who can not only replicate his production, but who also allows the players who previously orbited around him to retain their own value. It needs to be someone who favours the same receiving points, occupies the same shallow left position on the field, and has roughly comparable vision. As a pertinent example of why, consider the pass which allowed full-back Olsson to gallop into the box to score the equalising goal during the 3-2 win over Burnley back in March: Sigurdsson’s extravagant backheel was the touch of a classy player, but the success of the move depended on each of them reading the other’s intentions. Olsson didn’t check his stride, Sigurdsson’s didn’t turn to see where his teammates was: it was a move which testified to their respective abilities, but also to the importance of building combinations between complementary players and recruiting in a way which fosters that chemistry.
Swansea’s approach to the summer will be shaped by their circumstances. They’re wealthy in the general Premier League sense, but their reach into the transfer-market is shortened by their location and by an inability to match the wages on offer in the bigger English cities. They’ve equipped themselves to fight that disadvantage by employing Daniel Altman (of North Yard Analytics) as a consultant, in the hope of extracting maximum value for money and, hopefully, identifying Premier League difference-makers who have been undervalued by the market.
That’s a smart approach. However, contrary to what may be read online – where analytics is presented as the fringe movement of the outsider – almost every current Premier League side is, to some degree, partly instructed by similar processes. The fallacy of professional football teams blindly spending without any due diligence is just that – meaning, of course, that discovering under appreciated ability which translates to the top-tier is incredibly difficult. That’s particularly true when the objective is to replace someone like Gylfi Sigurdsson: a player whose primary functions – set-piece delivery, final-ball execution, and positioning traits – are all highly visible. Tim Sparv, he is not.
For Swansea, that stresses the need not to be seduced by “smartest guy in the room” syndrome. There are areas of their squad which can be reimagined by a data-led approach and the same analytical depth should absolutely employed to protect the club from overspending, but leaning too heavily on that mindsight in the hunt for Sigurdsson’s successor would be an error. In that instance, in which so many of the surrounding pieces have been assembled to amplify the impact of a particular player, the only option is to pursue an off-the-peg alternative. Not to shop for potential or to source someone who maybe…might…could…possibly succeed if the stars align, but to make a raw footballing decision which maximises the club’s chances of staying in the division.
The hope of course is that Sigurdsson doesn’t leave. His situation is one that suits both the club and the player and neither should really be in a hurry to trade it away. But if it comes to that, Swansea’s response can’t be half-hearted: find the talent, pay the price, and don’t knock down what has already been built by trying to overthink the reconstruction.