On March 4, Paul Clement thought he was winning the war. Swansea’s manager is known as a methodical, diligent personality, but the pressures of Premier League management can change people. After Swansea had beaten Burnley with a late, late winner, Clement embarked on an emotion-fuelled sprint around the Liberty Stadium pitch to great cheers from buoyant home supporters.
That victory took Swansea five points clear of the bottom three. Clement had masterminded three consecutive home victories, a run prompted by surprise win at Anfield. After the collapse of the Francesco Guidolin’s tenure and the failed experiment with Something Different™ in Bob Bradley, Swansea were performing their escapology act from a forgettable season.
Having extricated themselves from serious trouble, Houdini has put the chains back on and secured the padlock. Swansea have taken one point from their last five league games, secured after a miserable 0-0 home draw with Middlesbrough. If an apparently gentler run of fixtures gave Clement’s team chance to pull clear, their incompetence ensured the opposite effect. Late defeat to Tottenham was galling, but it is the one point taken against Hull City, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and West Ham that has inflicted the most self-harm.
Now Swansea are ensconced in the relegation zone by two points, with Hull the only reasonable candidate to replace them. While Marco Silva has produced his own unlikely run of helpful home wins, Clement is left clutching little but desperate hope. Stoke and West Brom are likely to arrive at the Liberty Stadium with their passports, swimming shorts and suncream in hands; apathy may be Swansea’s best chance of survival.
One explanation offered for the dire display against West Ham was fatigue after midweek defeat to Tottenham. “We put in a massive shift physically against Spurs, a lot of heartbreak at the end, but you have to put that aside quickly,” Clement said. “The players are a little bit fatigued, statistically and physically we put in our highest shift of the season against Tottenham, but you’ve got to roll sleeves up and get on with it.”
Clement may have a point. Swansea recorded their highest distance covered for the season (115.22km) on Wednesday, and comfortably their highest number of sprints (609). This is a small squad in which rotation is not easy. Yet his relegation-threatened peers hardly boast squads bursting with options from the bench.
The problem for Clement is that Swansea’s performance level has not just slipped, but fallen off a cliff. In the five league games until the win over Burnley, they averaged 4.4 shots on target per game and allowed 3.4 shots on target on their own goal per match, a differential of +1.0. Against weaker opposition in the last five games, the shots on target average has dropped to 1.8 and the shots on target faced risen to 5.6. That’s a differential of -3.8 and a negative swing of 4.8.
As Clement himself alluded to, Swansea failed to even get the basics right on Saturday. Their passing accuracy against Burnley was 85.5%, but that has dropped below 80% in each of their last five league games. It is as if fatigue and a loss of belief has led players to get more desperate and go more direct.
Whatever the issue, Clement needs to find a quick solution. Swansea are not consigned to relegation yet, but the form of Hull presents a huge barrier to the hopes of survival. So too does their slump back into ineffectiveness. The time is now to climb back up the cliff.