Swansea and Crystal Palace: Re-Emerging Spirit, Growing Fear

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Penny (cent) for those thoughts, Bob Bradley.

Over time, it’s become accepted that poor performance is always attributable to a manager – his tactics, his relationship with the players, and his powers of organisation. But, so wretched have Swansea been this season, that suspicion too has been directed at the players. Body language is really just a half-science, but it has nevertheless evidenced something untoward: Swansea have been bad this season, but they’ve frequently accepted that inferiority too readily and too often. Shoulders have sagged too quickly, arms have flailed too often. 

As Swansea’s Dylan Thomas once wrote: Do not go gentle in that good night. There hasn’t, however, been much rage to the football team in recent weeks.

Tuesday night showed them for what they are – and inadvertently damned them for what they had been up until then. These players are capable of cohesive football, they can force opponents to work hard to hurt, and, as goals from Alfie Mawson and Angel Rangel showed, they can punish teams for their own lapses.

For Palace, it was concerning. The generous applause offered to Sam Allardyce as he emerged from the tunnel quickly turned to disgruntled murmuring. The hosts were anaemic in the first-half, perhaps warranting a penalty for an iffy Fabianski challenge on Benteke, but otherwise looking confused and directionless. Allardyce’s reputation may not be built on his ability to pump flair into a side, but he is supposed to have a knack for imparting defensive resilience; alas, Swansea might have been three-up before half-time.

Confidence is another precious intangible and perhaps most conspicuous in its absence. Swansea have a right to be down on life. They’re a troubled club who are stretching their ideological tether and, once Alan Curtis steps back into the shadows, will be onto their fourth coach of the season. As winter has closed in they’ve been more frequently humiliated, suffering defeats which have grown more chastening by the week; no team’s self-belief could have survived shipping four to West Ham at home, five at White Hart Lane, and being brushed aside so easily by Bournemouth’s little limbs.

But Palace? Palace seem afraid of what might happen rather than what currently is. Allardyce has inherited a talented squad assembled at relative expense, and yet his new players appear choked by the potential for disaster. That inhibition showed in almost everything they did. Passes from the back were tentative and sideways, the spikey wing-tandem of Townsend and Zaha was generally blunt – the former replaced shortly into the second-half on Tuesday night – and their best chance of the game came from a goal-kick.

They would equalise – brilliantly – through Wilfried Zaha’s falling volley and, at the time, it was reward for concerted attacking pressure. But even then, even with the weight of possession, the hosts had been formulaic: move the ball out wide; toss it in towards the penalty-box; hope something happened. Their goal relied on a dash of fabulous technique rather than anything more concentrated. It was, essentially, a moment which belonged to Zaha, rather than to his side.

With the game’s shadows lengthening, Swansea regained the lead. Angel Rangel drifted beyond the defence, collected Leroy Fer’s floated ball, and drilled the ball under Wayne Hennessy. It was poetic justice: the visitors deserved their points and the wild celebrations in the far corner of the ground betrayed just how important they were.

But, again, there was that irritating sub-text. Swansea had passed the ball well all evening, had defended without making mistakes (one horrendous Neil Taylor moment aside), and had reacted well to adversity. Essentially, they grew qualities which they’d been without all season. How: Curtis’ coaching, Paul Clement’s sudden appearance in the technical area during the second-half? Not likely. This was just the reappearance of spirit, concentration, and character, and a myriad batch of emotional attributes which had been semi-wilfully misplaced.

On the one hand, great, on the other….really?

“New manager bounce” is an illusory force and often disguises just how low a squad’s collective attitude has fallen. What’s often described as a renaissance is, then, is more often a simple return to an acceptable standard.

Travelling from South Wales to south London on the first working day of the year must have been an arduous trip and so Swansea’s fans were owed this win in return. It’s tempting to believe, though, that they – and some of their club’s recent managers – have been owed a whole lot more for a while.

Seb is a Premier League-accredited football writer in Bath, Somerset. He writes regularly for FourFourTwo and acts as content editor of uMAXit.

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