Swansea's defensive display shows the progress made under Clement
LONDON -- It wasn't pretty to watch, it certainly wasn't exciting and it's highly doubtful that it will remain long in the minds of anyone who was present, but Swansea City's defensive masterclass at Wembley on Saturday evening deserves credit.
Up against a Tottenham side that had wreaked havoc upon Borussia Dortmund in midweek, Paul Clement's men defended their goal stoutly and earned their point the hard way. Given how often it is claimed that the art of defending is dead, it would churlish not to praise when it is showcased in such redoubtable fashion.
"Good defending should be applauded," said Clement after the 0-0 draw. "If you go to Italy, that's something they're very proud of. I thought we defended very well. We had to defend very well. I was pleased with the character and the discipline and the effort of players, especially after last week (Swansea lost 1-0 at home vs. Newcastle) when I thought we were complacent. I couldn't say that today. I was very proud of the physical effort they had to put in to get that point and the strong mentality. We had to be strong; we were under pressure for long periods."
Tottenham's supporters may not be in the mood to appreciate their opponents' defending, but their team didn't help themselves by becoming increasingly ponderous on the ball. As their possession percentage moved strikingly close to 90 percent in the second half, all the zip went out of Spurs' game.
Moussa Sissoko was the worst offender, repeatedly eschewing the chance to run at Martin Olsson and instead preferring to take the simpler, safer option of stopping, taking a touch, turning inside and playing the ball back into the congested middle. Predictably, Sissoko's withdrawal was warmly applauded by the Tottenham supporters.
"We tried to make it difficult centrally," said Clement. "We tried to make them go wide and then defend the cross."
And it didn't matter which route Spurs chose, they couldn't find a way through. This was exactly what Clement wanted and the reason why he reverted to the back three he'd used to great effect in a win vs. Crystal Palace and against Manchester United, when his team was in the game for 80 minutes. With three central defenders, flanked by wing-backs who could drop in to form a five, space was at a premium.
Harry Kane, so devastating against Dortmund, was almost neutralised. Almost, but not quite: Swansea enjoyed some luck when the England striker smashed the ball against the crossbar from close range in the second half and they were also indebted to Lukas Fabianski for a number of excellent saves.
"The first step was to get to half-time having kept things tight," said Clement. "I'm not saying we did that; there clearly were some hairy moments, but we took it to half-time. I said: 'well done so far, but they're just waiting for a mistake, for someone to be out of position, they've got so many good players.'"
Clement knows Spurs' strengths well. Last season, amid a fight for survival, his team were beating them 1-0 in the 88th minute, only to end up losing the game 1-3. No wonder Swansea's manager Clement was happy to admit that he'd have taken 0-0 before the game began.
For a team that was defensively vulnerable when Clement took over at the start of the year -- Swansea conceded 18 goals in the six games prior to his arrival -- the improvement at the back is palpable. You have to go back to April 30 to find the last time they conceded a goal away from home and that was at Old Trafford.
The Swans have some distance to go before they can replicate the Top 10 finishes they achieved in 2013 and 2015, while the much-heralded Renato Sanches is yet to provide production to match his promise. The Portuguese midfielder remains well short of match fitness and struggled to influence this game.
But when he adapts and when Swansea are better able to impose themselves on games as they used to, they will have a solid foundation at the back. Clement, considering that he has barely been in charge for nine months, has made impressive progress.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.