There are times when football becomes farce. So many matches have we watched, so many millions of scenarios played out between hundreds of different teams, that we have expectations of what is normal and what is not. There is chance in everything, of course, or we would not flood back to the stadia and television sets for our latest fix. But we still have expectations.
Every now and then, even those broadest of expectations are turned upside down. The word unbelievable is overused in sport, a euphemism for mere surprise, but this came close. Tottenham had 26 shots, but could not score. Tottenham had 75% possession, but could not score. Tottenham hit woodwork, blazed over and wide, screamed for penalties, but could not score.
If the tendency in these situations is to curse lady luck as a cruel and wicked mistress, Tottenham must accept their own culpability. In the first half they were sluggish and sticky, as if waiting for a mistake rather than creating their own magic. In the second half, as things got more desperate, too many through balls and searching crosses were played in inexact manner. You make your own luck, after all.
Mauricio Pochettino can also cry foul. You fear that Mike Dean’s list of Christmas cards from Premier League managers was already pitifully short, but he should not plan for season greetings from Pochettino after failing to award Tottenham two clear penalties. If Dean’s extravagance and flourish sets him up for the fall, his incompetence adds grease to the slide.
Yet enough of negativity for now. For if Tottenham will be astounded that they could not register a first home league win of the season, Swansea deserve credit for their endeavour and spirit. The cliche is worth repeating for the vice versa situation: you make your own luck.
So too does their manager. When Paul Clement took over at the Liberty Stadium in January, Swansea had conceded 44 times in 19 league games and were on their way to setting unwanted club records for goals per game conceded. In his first press conference, Clement was in no mood to paper over the cracks.
“I think over recent games to ship three goals, three goals, four goals, five goals – I’m confident in my ability as a coach that that won’t happen under my reign. I can’t say 100% it won’t.” Clement said.
“There is a lot of randomness in football. But I’m pretty confident it won’t happen because I can get a team organised. With the players that I’ve currently got, I think I can get them more organised than they’ve currently been, give them a bit of solidity in the defensive work.”
Can’t he just. From 44 goals conceded in 19 league matches, Clement’s Swansea have since conceded 31 in 24 including Saturday. That is all the more impressive given that the four most defensive outfield players against Tottenham (Kyle Naughton, Federico Fernandez, Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn) were all players Clement inherited.
There is no secret. Clement signed two central midfielders this summer in Sam Clucas and Renato Sanches, and playing them alongside Tom Carroll meant Swansea effectively played with a back nine. They challenged Tottenham to break them down and, with occasional exception, achieved that feat. They headed away crosses, stuck close to markers and blocked shots time and time again. Of course the home team should have won, but that is because they are a better team with better players. Solidity can win the day.
Yet parking the bus is also a team game. If Jordan Ayew deserves credit for harrying the Tottenham midfielders in possession, Tammy Abraham was arguably Swansea’s best player despite touching the ball just 32 times. The maturity in his work ethic and hold-up play far belies his age and inexperience. He is surely set for bigger things.
Swansea are unbeaten away from home this season, but more impressive is that they have not conceded an away league goal since April 30. It’s all very well setting up for an attack vs defence training drill, but another entirely pulling it off. If the headlines will focus on Spurs’ profligacy and misfortune, the spoilers deserve their spoils.