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Highs, lows, and vocabulary wars: Bob Bradley’s Swansea

The American coach has pulled off a few good results, and also has to answer for some very poor ones. Just don’t ask his home fans about his soccer vernacular.

Tottenham Hotspur v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Swansea City are a bad team at the moment, and that’s a shame. The history of the club doesn’t deserve a loser. A nearly-liquidated club turned first Welsh team to ever compete in the Premier League, the Swans have always been plucky since reaching the top flight in 2011, and have on more than a few occasions produced some excellent play as well. But these Swans, Bob Bradley’s Swans, are not good.

Is it fair to call them Bob Bradley’s Swans, after ten games in charge and nothing in the way of a transfer window in order to make some changes from the side Francesco Guidolin had put together? As fair as Guidolin’s firing only seven games into the season was. In the minds of Swansea fans, Bradley was smuggled in by the majority ownership under their nose, prematurely taking Guidolin’s place after a tough run of matches. He was picked by an American ownership group that snubbed Welsh legend Ryan Giggs for the job. Outside of his international coaching career, he had coached in MLS, Norway, and Ligue 2. Pardon them for being skeptical, but Bob Bradley and his New Jersey accent were always going to be a tough sell. These fans have every right to feel entitled to their opinion: they literally own the club. The Swansea City Supporters’ Trust holds over 20% of the team’s shares.

And so, in 19th place but only three points away from clearing the relegation zone, these are Bob Bradley’s Swans. And the fans? I wouldn’t call them thrilled.

In case you missed it, the Brits are very amused and/or annoyed with the fact that Bob Bradley is American and we call soccer soccer and have a few other different words for things. We Americans like to seize on this and throw it back into the faces of not one, but two countries that haven’t advanced further in the World Cup than the U.S. since 2006.

But the ridicule and the questioning is to be expected from anyone that isn’t setting the Premier League on fire. The media over there currently thinks that Pep Guardiola is a fraud; do you really think people were going to start engaging in a thoughtful conversation on how language morphs with geography and the Imperialistic nature of prescriptive, nativist grammar? Bradley saying “PKs” and “road games” is an easy, tweetable thing to hold on to when the grievances with Bradley extend far beyond that. He’s inexperienced at the highest levels of the game. He wasn’t their choice. The same team played better under Francesco Guidolin.

Or did it?

It’s a loaded question that can be answered in several different ways, depending on how you define “better,” but the closest thing I can come to an objective answer on who was better in 2016, Guidolin or Bradley, is a push.

In the most obtuse, black and white sense, Bradley’s Swansea is superior. Results and points are what truly matter at the end of the game. Francesco Guidolin only managed to pick up 4 points from the first 7 games of the season, averaging .57 points per game. Bob Bradley has improved that mark marginally, with 8 points over 10 games, or .80 points per game. One of the main gripes most Swansea City fans have with these marks and Guidolin’s firing, however, was the perception that Guidolin faced much harder competition than Bradley has. I mean, he lost 3-0 to Middlesbrough, for god’s sake. But while that might be true, a look at the table standings prove that the difference between the two isn’t incredibly far apart. According to the current table, all the teams Guidolin faced this year average out to place about 9th in the table. All the teams Bradley has faced? Rounded down to 10th from 10.4. Yes, Guidolin faced tougher competition, but by and large the difference was not that significant.

But what about the performances between the two managers? Guidolin wasn’t getting many points, but he also wasn’t going out and losing games 3-0 to Middlesbrough, either.

Turns out its not as simple as all that either. Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley had very different philosophies of play. For reference, here are a couple charts showing possession percentage and shot counts for Swansea under both Bradley and Guidolin.

Source: BBC Sport

Guidolin’s team trended downward in terms of possession as the season progressed. That makes sense: he started the season off against Burnley and Hull before meeting up with tougher opponents in Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool. Guidolin’s team took the more conservative route of making the game tougher for their opponents when facing a stronger team, and it clearly shows. Guidolin’s Swansea never gave up more than 3 goals in a match, and never lost by more than 2.

If any complaint can be leveled at Bob Bradley, it has been his side’s defense. Swansea under Bradley have averaged 2.5 goals against per match, including a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Tottenham, and conceding 4 goals to Crystal Palace. On the other hand, he’s also increased Swansea’s attacking outlook from .85 goals per game under Guidolin to 1.4 goals per game. And here’s why it’s so difficult to definitively say Guidolin or Bradley got a better performance out of this Swansea squad: they were setting up their teams with seemingly opposite strategies.

You can see the defensive mindset in Guidolin’s passing trends and the players most relied upon when he was in charge. When the ball was being pushed forward from defense, more often than not Jack Cork was the man to do it, with Leroy Fer chipping in beside him. Their respective positioning and game influence got deeper and deeper as the season progressed, and the influence of a skill player like Gylfi Sigurdsson waned considerably. This is directly in contrast to Bob Bradley’s side, who immediately began pushing their respective influence and lines of confrontation further up the pitch. The midfield began seeing more balanced touches on the ball, Sigurdsson had more influence, and more attacking players like Ki Sung-Yeung saw a much greater role in the side. This hasn’t always worked, obviously, but the philosophy under Bradley seems to be “at least we’re trying something.” Bob Bradley has built his team to try to control games as much as they can, for better or worse, and that’s represented in possession and passing statistics as well. Guidolin’s 2016 team averaged 324.7 passes completed on 415.3 attempts per match, while Bradley has averaged 348.5 completed on 441 attempts.

How do you compare or separate those two sets of data? Well, you can’t, really. Guidolin obviously sought to keep matches tighter with the hope that Swansea could snatch points here and there, with the odd match against a lesser side providing opportunity for more dominant play. Bradley has been the opposite, trying to throw the book at other teams, which has created some good performances (a 3-2 loss away to Arsenal, 3-0 and 5-4 victories against Sunderland and Crystal Palace, respectively) and some truly awful ones as well (5-0 to Tottenham, 3-0 to Middlesbrough, 3-1 to West Brom). Is one strategy necessarily better? It’s impossible to say. With a few more games, Guidolin’s tactics very well may have paid off, lifted Swansea off the bottom and we wouldn’t even need to be having this conversation. Bob Bradley’s team is unafraid of taking big risks, but clearly do not have the individual personnel to make his tactical plans very sustainable. As the field gets more stretched and players push into the attack more often under Bradley, it’s repeatedly been clear that his defensive line have the resilience of a wet piece of toilet paper. Stretching the field requires a team comfortable in making individual plays consistently, and Swansea City is not that team.

So what do we do with Bob Bradley, the American phrases, the unjustly sacked former boss looming behind him and a team that seems to be getting better at winning points, but worse at performing with any sort of consistency? We wait, most likely. I’d be surprised if Swansea’s owners didn’t at least give him the January transfer window to make some squad changes in order to build a team that can better carry out his style of play. Then again, they didn’t have any problems sacking Francesco Guidolin quickly. Bradley might need to get another result or two before New Year’s for his own job security.

And the “soccer” ridicule? We let Bradley win over his own fans. Sure, making fun of someone saying “soccer” is as dumb as making fun of someone else for saying “football,” “futbol,” “calcio,” or “futebol,” but closing ranks around Bradley in the name of “WE’VE BEEN BETTER THAN ENGLAND THE LAST TWO WORLD CUPS” doesn’t really help him or American soccer in general. First of all, Wales isn’t England. While I don’t think Bob Bradley’s Swansea is worse than Francesco Guidolin’s, it also hasn’t been ridiculously better, and that can easily kill a team wasting away in the relegation zone. It’s his job to get them out of the situation they’re in. If he cannot do that (and he has not done that so far), he will lose his job, too.

But that’s not going to be the end of the world for American soccer and American coaches. He’ll find another job, just as thousands of coaches of all nationalities before and after him have done, and he’ll keep coaching. Because maybe the best way to keep allowing the American game to grow and to see more and more players and coaches receive opportunities at the highest level isn’t to defend every single American to the death against the dreaded eurosnobs. Maybe it’s just best to let them all prove themselves and see what comes out. The legacy of Swansea City’s 2016/2017 season will not be American soccer’s legacy. It will be Bob Bradley’s, and his alone.

Statistics sourced from BBC Sport and FourFourTwo’s Stat Zone