London – When Paul Clement was appointed in January by Swansea City, one of the questions at his first press conference was framed around the club’s dire predicament, specifically what made the third manager to take charge in as many months think that relegation was not a formality for a team anchored to the bottom of the table with the worst defensive record in the division.
To give a fuller picture of just how bleak things were at the time, Swansea had lost their previous four league matches – against West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough, West Ham United and Bournemouth – conceding 13 times during a woeful run that poured fuel on the fire of the supporter unrest that had been simmering since the takeover in the summer. Swansea, in other words, were in a mess on and off the field, and Clement could have been forgiven for thinking he was better off staying away. Not only did he have a high-profile position in Germany, where he was working as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2 at Bayern Munich, but he was also entitled to feel that the time to take the Swansea job was in October, when Francesco Guidolin was sacked. The calamitous decision to appoint Bob Bradley instead – Swansea’s owners felt that experience was needed in the dressing room – meant Clement was being asked to clear up the mess that two men had left behind when the American was sacked after 85 days.
Yet Clement never thought for one moment that Swansea was a lost cause and his answer to that press conference question, which was phrased in a way that suggested he was on a hiding to nothing, said much about the 45‑year‑old’s self-belief as well as his way of working. While some managers would have made a big fuss about needing funds to make signings in the transfer window, or offered up a throwaway line about how many points were still available, Clement explained that he thought Swansea could survive because he would get out on the training ground and coach.
“There are capable and able footballers here,” he said. “Over recent games, to ship 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 – there is a lot of randomness in football. But I’m pretty confident it won’t happen because with the players that I’ve currently got, I think I can get them more organized than they’ve been, give them a bit of solidity in the defensive work and that’s the foundation to build what they’ve already shown they can be good at, which is the offensive side.”
He was right. A team who shipped 44 goals in the first 19 matches of the season, including three or more on eight occasions under Bradley, conceded only 25 in the next 18 fixtures, during which Swansea had to negotiate away trips to Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. The Welsh club’s points haul has more than doubled, only Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal have won more matches since Clement took over and a league table since his appointment shows Swansea in eighth place.
That sort of shift does not happen by luck. It is a result of hard work, especially on the practice pitches, where Clement is in his element, but also in the team meetings, which are frequent but short. Since taking over at Swansea, Clement has never gathered the players together for more than half an hour at one time – on that occasion there was plenty of video feedback used – and the longest he has spoken for in one sitting is 10 minutes. By the time the players leave a meeting Clement expects them to be able to reel off three key points without any hesitation, which is why he spends so much time thinking about the clarity of his own messages.
Everyone at the club has bought into his way of working and it also says much for the Swansea manager that three of the new faces that arrived in January made a positive impact in such a short space of time, especially as two of that trio were recruited from the Championship (Martin Olsson signed from Norwich and Jordan Ayew arrived from Aston Villa), while Tom Carroll was in effect a reserve player at Spurs.
Arguably the pivotal moment for Clement this season came in the wake of a chastening defeat. His decision to bring 34-year-old Leon Britton into the side after losing 1-0 against Watford, play with a midfield diamond with Gylfi Sigurdsson at the tip, and start with Ayew up front alongside Fernando Llorente, reinvigorated the team at a critical juncture in the season and culminated in Swansea collecting 10 points from four matches to climb clear. They were bold tactical changes that reaped huge reward.
Clement, however, is not the sort to blow his own trumpet and is refreshingly honest about his mistakes. A self-confessed perfectionist, he believes he should have put more pressure on the players at the start of a damaging six-match run that yielded one point, regrets his tactics in the closing stages of the Spurs match, which Swansea lost 3-1, and wishes he had turned to Britton a game earlier. Yet few of the club’s supporters will be dwelling on any of those decisions right now.
Survival was the be-all and end-all for Swansea this season and Clement, given the awful mess he inherited, fully deserves to be among the nominees for Premier League manager of the year after his act of escapology.
In the process he has made Derby County look rather silly for sacking him last season, when they were fifth in the table and only five points behind the Championship leaders. Mel Morris, the club’s owner, said at the time that not enough progress had been made on “building on the Derby Way”. Fifteen months and four managers later, it would be interesting to get an update on that Pride Park project.
As for Swansea, amid all the relief and euphoria of the last 48 hours, it is hard to escape the feeling that Clement has got the club’s board off the hook after a catalogue of mistakes, from flawed managerial appointments to poor recruitment last summer. Lessons have to be learned in that respect as Swansea look forward to a seventh successive season in the Premier League.