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Swans aren’t good, but they are fighting for their lives

Everton will face a motivated side at the Liberty Stadium

Swansea City v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Following last week’s loss against near-champions Chelsea, Everton have just three matches remaining in the 2016-17 season. After a brief flirtation with the top 6, The Toffees seem, yet again, all but locked into the number 7 spot. Analyst Constantinos Chappas has the Toffees at a 94% chance to finish seventh:

Everton’s opponent this weekend is in a much more precarious position. At the mid-season mark, it looked like Swansea were great bets for relegation. As it stands, they have a good chance to survive the drop. Chappas (above) rates them at 43% to survive, but other models are less chipper:

In any case, it’s been a real roller coaster for the Swans this season, as @11tegen11’s graph illustrates:

The upshot is that Swansea will be playing for their Premier League lives over the next 3 matches. After Everton they have Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion, whereas competitors Hull City have to face Sunderland, Crystal Palace, and Tottenham Hotspur. Swans need to make up 2 points in there somewhere, and any result against Everton will go a long way towards doing so.

Swansea’s managerial musical chairs

Remarkably, Swansea have had 4 different men take charge for at least a game at various points this season. With that in mind, the fact that they even have a chance to survive is remarkable. It’s worth taking a brief look at how they got to this point.

Francesco Guidolin was in charge for the Swans’ first 7 matches and managed just 4 points. At first glance, that’s pretty bad, but it would have been worth noting to the Swansea board that their attack was suffering from a dreadful case of the yips that was unlikely to continue. They managed just 5 open play goals from 8.1 expected (according to Michael Caley’s model) and were converting shots on target into goals at an incredibly low rate of 18.5% (the league average is about 32%). Regardless, Guidolin was sacked on his birthday.

In stepped Bob Bradley, fresh from Le Havre in France’s Ligue 2. Bradley didn’t really change the underlying numbers but Swansea magically started scoring more goals (funny that). Unfortunately, things took a dip on the other end, and suddenly opponents began banging in goals at rates well exceeding xG. The result was an unforgettable 29 goals conceded in 11 games, a nasty stretch that included a 5-4 win against Crystal Palace followed by a 0-5 loss against Tottenham. Nevermind that Swansea’s xG against hadn’t really budged since the beginning of the season (and he won more points per game than Guidolin), Bradley’s defense was slated by all and out the door he went.

After a one-game caretaker stint by Alan Curtis, Paul Clement came in to right the ship. Immediately he set about tightening up the defense, and this worked to some extent. Defensive xG went from about 1.8 to 1.2 per game, and opponents’ boots cooled off. Under Clement they’re letting in 1.6 goals per game, which isn’t great but is better than their full-season average of 1.97.

Unfortunately the defensive restriction came with a big tradeoff at the other end: Swansea’s attack is not producing much in terms of underlying numbers—about 0.8 xG per game under Clement, which is near-relegation worthy. However, it’s been masked by some fine finishing (1.2 goals per game), and as such Clement’s points haul has exceeded his predecessors, and Swansea have a shot at survival.

In short, it’s been a bumpy ride for the Swans and the run-in promises a few more twists and turns. As an aside, their season is an excellent case study in how luck, form, and narrative can affect managers and how we judge them.

Tactics

Long gone are the days of a tiki-taka-esque Swansea, but they are still better with the ball than most of their bottom-of-the-table mates. The issue, as usual, is consistent chance creation. They are over-reliant on crosses and headers, and are not a constant creative threat in open play.

“But wait!” you say, “what about Gylfi Sigurðsson?” Indeed, he is tied for 2nd in assists and tied for 5th in key passes in the Premier League this year. However, a third of those assists and 20% of the key passes have come from free kicks. As such, he is a notable absentee from Paul Riley’s open play expected assist (xA) table:

Beyond Gylfi, there’s not much else going on in the creative department. Striker Fernando Llorente and 32-year-old Wayne Routledge are next on the team’s key pass chart. Indeed it is Sigurðsson, Llorente, and Jordan Ayew that carry the attacking burden:

In truth that’s not a bad trio to have leading the line if you’re a club in the bottom half of the table, and to be fair Swansea’s attack has put up numbers this year that suggest they don’t deserve to be relegated (15th in shots, 11th in shots on target, 15th in xG, 14th in goals), even if they are often a bit toothless in possession.

Even with Clement’s defensive mindset, it is at that end where Swansea’s potential ticket to the Championship has been written. Conceding almost 2 goals a game will make any season a rough one, and especially damning is that the Swans are allowing opponent’s a higher chance quality (xG per shot) than any other side in the league. This is ugly:

Shot locations of goals conceded by Swansea this season
Courtesy of Paul Riley

Opponents don’t need to resort to set pieces, crosses, or hopeful shots against Swansea, because they’re finding for the most part that they can generate quality shots from open play just fine. Unsurprisingly, a lot of those shots are flying into the back of the net.

Matching up with Everton

Swansea will probably set up in a 4-3-3 or something similar and will likely spend a lot of this match in their own end. Clement’s concern will be to first and foremost keep the ball out of his own net. As such, the onus will be on Everton to dictate the match and coax the Swans out of their shell. This isn’t necessarily their strong suit, and the lessons of recent matches against West Ham and Burnley should indicate to Ronald Koeman that some width will be necessary to pick apart the Swansea rear guard.

It’s hard to say how much motivation will play a factor in this match; on paper, Swansea will have plenty and Everton will have little. Perhaps Koeman will sneak a few more youngsters than usual into the lineup and see if that livens up a group that is scoreless in their last two matches. Again, I wonder if Ademola Lookman would be a good fit for this match.

As a support it can be hard to get excited for these end-of-season matches but I think we still have plenty to learn about this Everton side.