Only 12 clubs have collected six points or fewer by this stage of a Premier League season and only four of them survived. “It’s like a twist on: ‘Is the glass half empty or half full?’ It’s like: ‘Is it a third full or two-thirds empty?’ the Swansea manager said, smiling. “My glass is a third full, for sure.”
It needs to be. This is crunch time for Swansea if they are to follow in the footsteps of Everton (1995), Derby (2001), Wigan (2012) and Sunderland (2016) by pulling off their own act of escapology. On Saturday they host Crystal Palace, who are in freefall and have the worst record across all four divisions in the calendar year. For Swansea, who are without a victory since the opening day of the season and anchored to the bottom of the table on six points, it feels like “must win” territory. “Yes,” Bradley said, agreeing. “Must win, will win – we just have to have a way now to be strong and positive, take things that are going in a good direction and make it count.”
On the face of it, not much is going in a good direction for Swansea. Bradley, however, made the point that he was able to take plenty of encouragement from the performance at Everton last Saturday, even if Séamus Coleman’s 89th-minute equaliser knocked the stuffing out of everyone at Swansea. “I went out of my way this week with the players to make sure that they see the positives,” Bradley said.
Appointed as Francesco Guidolin’s replacement at the start of October, Bradley has endured a tough baptism. As well as the failure to win any of his first five games as manager, the 58-year-old has had to contend with all sorts of issues off the field on the back of the takeover in the summer in which the Americans Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien bought a controlling stake.
Swansea’s supporters’ trust, which owns 21% of the club, felt it was “bypassed” during the takeover talks and the simmering anger about the millions of pounds that Huw Jenkins, the chairman, and other former shareholders made by selling to US investors boiled over during the last home game, against Manchester United, when the mood was mutinous.
Bradley, wisely, is keeping out of the politics. His only request is that the club is unified for 90 minutes against Palace. “I think that with everything that goes on in football, that feeling when it’s game time has to still be different and special,” he said. “I know that if we were in a pub talking with our most loyal supporters, they would say the exact same thing.
“Whatever discussions need to take place off the field with some of the other issues, people can find the time and the place for that. But that’s got to be a separate fight and we’ve got to really pull together when we step into the Liberty. I’m counting on everybody to understand that and to realise: ‘Come on, this is a big challenge’, and it’s one everybody has got to accept together.”
One of Bradley’s biggest problems has been trying to work out his best team. He has made 20 changes across the last four matches, shuffling the pack in search of a good hand. He did indicate, though, that not much will change from the Everton game, which means that Swansea are likely to start without a striker against Palace. While that may seem strange in a match that the manager has described as “must win”, in many ways it is an understandable decision given Bradley’s woeful attacking options.
Borja Bastón, the £15m club-record signing from Atlético Madrid, and Fernando Llorente, who joined from Sevilla for £5m, have been hugely disappointing so far, scoring only one goal apiece and raising major questions about Swansea’s recruitment strategy in the summer.
All of which means that so much rests on the shoulders of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who looks set to continue in the false nine role that he occupied at Everton. “He works hard and does a great job there,” Bradley said. “He comes away from defenders and gives us another option and forces defenders to make decisions. It helps us string more passes together and you need your forward players to come away from the defence and find pockets of space. I was not satisfied with parts of the other games in that area.”
Sigurdsson’s deployment further forward is a short-term fix to a long-term problem that will be solved only with the signing of a proven goalscorer in January, by which stage Swansea will know if they have a realistic chance of getting out of this mess. Five of their next eight fixtures are against teams in the bottom six, starting and ending with games against Palace, which is why the next six weeks are so crucial.
Bradley is full of belief that they can defy the odds. “The spot we’re in creates a big challenge and now the response to that situation, the determination, the part that says: ’We’re not done yet’…” the Swansea manager said, his voice trailing off as he pondered that statistic again. “Four out of 12 [have stayed up], that means it’s been done four times. Now we’ve got to find a way to be the fifth.”
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