Guardian writers’ predicted position 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Stuart James’ prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 1000-1
Paul Clement’s frustration was tangible when the first question asked after Saturday’s‚ 4-0 friendly victory over Sampdoria focused on whether there was any update on the future of a player who was nowhere to be seen at the Liberty Stadium. It has been that sort of summer at Swansea, with the Gylfi Sigurdsson saga casting a shadow over pre-season preparations and becoming tiresome for everyone involved, arguably most of all the head coach.
Among the nominees for Premier League manager of the year last season after transforming Swansea’s fortunes, Clement leaves nothing to chance and would have relished the opportunity that his first pre-season provided to spend extended time on the training ground, implementing his ideas, working on tactics and running through the style of play for the campaign ahead. That process feels even more important when the most influential player at the club has made it clear he wants out and a replacement for a critical position needs to be signed, integrated into the team’s way of playing and, depending on their background, given time to adapt to a new language, league and culture.
The messy and protracted nature of Sigurdsson’s anticipated departure to Everton has done Clement no favours in that respect and means the Swansea manager is set to start the season at Southampton on Saturday not only without the services of last season’s best player, but also with no one ready to step into the boots of a midfielder who has been directly involved in 53 of the 133 Premier League goals Swansea have scored over the past three years. That is the size of the contribution Swansea are trying to replace if Sigurdsson moves to Goodison Park. The sight of Wayne Routledge being crowbarred into Sigurdsson’s No10 role against Sampdoria laid bare the manager’s predicament.
Assuming the painfully slow transfer to Everton does eventually go through (the only thing that can be said with certainty about Sigurdsson right now is that all the parties are fed up with how long it has gone on), Swansea’s prospects for the season are likely to depend heavily on how astutely the club reinvest the biggest transfer fee in their history. Clement would be entitled to think every penny should go back into a squad that needs at least one more striker and quality cover in defence, as well as a playmaker to take over from Sigurdsson.
In fairness, the club’s early business in this window was encouraging. Tammy Abraham, signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea, has the pace and movement to stretch teams, giving Swansea a threat on the counter-attack they lacked last season. The 19-year-old is unproven at Premier League level but scored prolifically in the Championship for Bristol City last season and if he plays as well as he sings – a rendition of a Boyz II Men track during his initiation ceremony was met with gasps of amazement rather than the usual laughter – Swansea will be on to a winner.
Roque Mesa, who was not quite so impressive belting out It’s Raining Men into a water bottle while standing on a swivel chair that refused to stay still, is the other eye-catching recruit. Signed from Las Palmas for £11m the midfielder made the second-highest number of passes in La Liga last season and has all the attributes to be a success at Swansea. Aged 28 and diminutive in stature, Mesa seems like a younger Leon Britton and, although Clement has not ruled out the possibility of playing both in the same team, it will almost certainly be one or the other in the holding role in the early stages of the season at least.
Britton is expected to get the nod initially. The 34-year-old was a revelation during the critical final five matches of last season, when Clement changed the formation and played the fans’ favourite at the base of a midfield diamond. Britton was every bit as instrumental with the ball at his feet as he is in and around the dressing room.
Tom Carroll, a shrewd January signing from Tottenham Hotspur, impressed last season on the left side of a narrow midfield and is now the go-to man for set-pieces in the absence of Sigurdsson. Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yueng, who is injured, will compete for the role on the right. Mesa will also come into the equation in that position if Clement feels brave enough to play him in the same midfield as Britton (the Spaniard, it is worth pointing out, is fond of a tackle – he picked up 14 yellow cards in La Liga last season).
Although options in those midfield areas are plentiful and suggest that Swansea will be adept at keeping the ball, the obvious concern is where the supply line for goals will come from. The level of dependence on Sigurdsson last season was huge – he created 13 Premier League goals. To put that figure into perspective, Jordan Ayew and Luciano Narsingh, both of whom arrived in January, were the next highest on the assists’ list at Swansea with three apiece.
Swansea never really saw the best of Narsingh and the Dutch international’s chances of featuring more prominently in his first full campaign in English football will depend on how often Clement plays with wingers. Other than Ayew, who can play across the front three positions, options on the flank are limited. Routledge and Nathan Dyer have been fine servants at Swansea but their best days are behind them. As for Jefferson Montero, patience appears to have run out with a man who has lost his way and the Ecuadorian is expected to leave this month.
Swansea desperately hope the same is not true of Fernando Llorente, who remains a target for Chelsea. Llorente weighed in with 15 Premier League goals last season, making him the joint-10th highest scorer in the top flight, and it would be a hammer blow to Swansea if the Spaniard, who is such a threat in the air, left in the same transfer window as Sigurdsson. Those two accounted for more than half of Swansea’s Premier League goals last season.
Wilfried Bony, a former Swansea player, is a potential replacement for Llorente, yet there is a strong case to be made for signing the Ivorian, or another centre-forward of some description, even if the Spaniard stays. Clement finished the season playing with two strikers and Llorente’s absence for the start of this campaign – he broke his arm in a cycling accident during the close season – leaves Swansea looking thin up front, especially as Borja Baston, the club-record signing, has joined Malága on loan and Bafétimbi Gomis has moved to Galatasaray.
Ayew, who partnered Llorente in attack towards the end of last season, is a willing and selfless runner but not a reliable goalscorer, while Oli McBurnie, a promising young striker who has made a handful of Premier League appearances from the bench, would benefit from another loan move, highlighting the pressing need for more firepower.
It was at the other end of the pitch where Clement made his impact felt most last season, bringing organisation and discipline to a defence that was an absolute shambles under Bob Bradley. Martin Olsson, signed from Norwich in January, proved an upgrade on Neil Taylor at left-back and Kyle Naughton improved at right-back, but the most important shift was made in central defence, where Alfie Mawson and Federico Fernández came together to form an excellent partnership.
Fernández, an Argentina international, rediscovered the form he showed when he first arrived from Napoli three years ago. As for Mawson, the 23-year-old cannot be far off winning a full England cap. He is an excellent prospect and it is an added bonus for Swansea that he also offers such a threat in the opposition area – Mawson finished as the club’s fourth-highest scorer last season with four (a statistic, admittedly, that is also an indictment of the poor goal contribution from elsewhere in the squad).
The worry for Swansea is what happens if any member of that back four gets injured, especially one of the central defenders. Kyle Bartley, who did well while on loan at Leeds United last season, has not started a Premier League match for 20 months (Garry Monk’s last game as manager) and has never given the impression in the past that he belongs at that level. The same can arguably be said for Mike van der Hoorn, whose last Premier League start for Swansea was the calamitous 4-1 home defeat against West Ham United on Boxing Day (Bradley’s last game as manager).
With all of that in mind it is hard to know what to expect from Swansea this season. A table since Clement’s appointment on 3 January shows Swansea in eighth place, with 29 points from 19 games, and there would be no reason to think they could not get close to repeating that sort of form over an entire season if Sigurdsson and Llorente were staying put.
Either way, Clement is not the sort of man to look for excuses. He is a positive thinker, as he demonstrated last season when Swansea were up against it with five games remaining. All the talk at the time, inside and outside the club, was about catching their relegation rivals Hull City, but Clement called the players together and told them to set their sights higher and focus on overhauling Burnley as well – something they achieved on the final day.
In the process Swansea secured a 15th-place finish – something that would have been unthinkable for anyone that witnessed the woeful home defeats against West Ham and Bournemouth before Clement’s arrival – and emerged unscathed from a relegation battle for the second year running. Swansea hope to be able to breathe more easily this season and get back to enjoying the ride in the Premier League, yet it is hard to escape the feeling so much depends on what happens in the transfer window over the next three weeks.
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