Bob Bradley reflects on a tumultuous 85 days in charge of Swansea City
In the days following his firing as manager of Swansea City, Bob Bradley ran through the gamut of emotions. There was disappointment that his bosses didn't stick with the plan agreed when he was hired, plus frustration that he had just 85 days in charge.
But in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN FC, conducted in the days after he was dismissed, Bradley also gave some insight into his thinking, his experiences with the players, his hopes for the transfer window and even his approach to stabilizing Swansea's defense. There was also introspection as to what he would have done differently if he had to do it over again.
Wherever Bradley has gone, he has taken great pride in putting his stamp on whatever team he happened to be in charge of. But he admitted that, when he took over at Swansea on Oct. 3, it was obvious there were more pressing concerns. Stability was a priority and so were points. Everything else would have to wait.
"The emphasis on everything we did from the time I got there was re-establish good habits, try to restore confidence," Bradley said via telephone. "We worked in that way, and we were still fighting for consistency. When you have a team that has gone through a tough stretch, when you have a team that now is being scrutinized by the supporters, then as a manager you're going to stand strong for your players. I made sure of that. I was positive, I took responsibility, I never blamed any players and threw it at them."
With the Swans currently bottom of the Premier League and having fired two managers already this season -- Bradley and his predecessor Francesco Guidolin -- it's a squad that, as currently constituted, is facing relegation. The summer departures of defender Ashley Williams to Everton and forward Andre Ayew to West Ham left a void that has yet to be filled. Bradley admitted he was direct in his conversations with the coaching staff, board and ownership that the team needed to be strengthened in January, but wonders if that approach damaged him.
"It can hurt you because it can create a feeling that you don't believe in the squad," he said. "But I separate two important things. First is the message that you give to the players. I went out of my way with this group of players to be very positive. Maybe even too positive, but I chose that because I knew they were down on confidence and I thought they needed someone to put their arm around them and say, 'C'mon guys, here's how you've done it in the past, we're going to do it the same way. As long as we're in it together, we're going to make this work.'
"Now in other moments, you have meetings as a staff and you talk with the owners and you talk with the chairman, and in those moments, for me, it was important to be very clear, that I felt we needed to improve ourselves. Now if that gets taken wrong, and people say I don't believe in the squad because I've been direct and straightforward, I don't know how you can get anywhere in football if you don't have those kind of real discussions. But they have to be done in the right times and they have to be done confidentially. At the same time, I think some of that was taken wrong."
As for where reinforcements were needed, Bradley said Swansea needed help from back to front, but mostly in defense.
"Certainly, the loss of Ashley Williams was a big one," he said. "I felt we needed a central defender who could still, no matter who he played with, make the others better. We talked about possible additions in the midfield. We spoke about some attacking players with some speed who could play on the outside, who were threats to get behind but also worked hard. We talked about different things, and we had some good names. It was going to be interesting to see what we could make happen."
In the meantime, Bradley was left to make do and nowhere were his struggles more profound than at the back. The numbers are brutal no matter how you look at them: Swansea allowed 29 goals during his 11 games in charge.
Bradley chopped and changed, using six different back-line combinations among eight different defenders, with centre-back a particular pain point. He initially opted for Guidolin's approach of using Jordi Amat and Federico Fernandez in the center but, after his first match in charge, a 3-2 away defeat to Arsenal, the new manager didn't like what he saw.
"At the end of that match, I felt like in the center of defense we weren't strong enough," he said.
The next match was against Watford and, in a bid to combat what Bradley described as the Hornets' "direct" style, he started Mike van der Hoorn and Alfie Mawson, giving the latter player his Premier League debut. Swansea recorded one of only two clean sheets in Bradley's tenure with a 0-0 draw and, during the next few weeks, he persisted with that partnership. After losses to Stoke and Manchester United, though, he used the international break to reassess.
"I think our feeling was that as much as these young defenders are going in a good direction, it's too much to expect that they can play all the games," he said. "Now over that international break, I've challenged Fede. 'We need to get your level higher. I don't think you're as fit as you should be.' Now we have a good chance to work, and when we go and start with Everton, we go back and say, 'Okay, let's see if we can back up a little bit in terms of the way we play and see if this makes sense.'"
The defense seemed to improve and only a late Seamus Coleman goal allowed Everton to record a 1-1 draw on Nov. 19.
A week later came a remarkable encounter against Crystal Palace, a match that proved to be a prime example of a hollow victory. Swansea were up 3-1 and cruising before a period of calamitous defending allowed Palace to take a 4-3 lead. Bradley's men staged a late fightback to win a thriller 5-4 but, in the manager's eyes, the manner of the game seemed to blunt the impact of his first Premier League win.
"From a confidence standpoint, man if we win that 3-1 or tack on another goal and finish 4-1 it would go a lot more," he said. "And now, at that point, [Fernandez] breaks his toe, so now we have to make a change again."
A 5-0 hammering at Tottenham was followed by a 3-0 win against Sunderland but then came three straight defeats -- against West Brom, Middlesbrough and West Ham -- in which Swansea gave up a total of 10 goals.
"Without a doubt, the changes that we made were constantly to find consistency and find a group that we thought was going to gel the right way," Bradley said.
The "Swansea Way" has historically been that of a slick-passing, possession-based approach. The team have gotten away from that during the past few seasons and, while Bradley felt that progress was made in that regard, it was overshadowed by bigger problems.
"If you don't combine [possession] with being good in the penalty area on both sides, then you're not going to win enough matches," he said. "When I talk about improving ourselves, that's where we needed to improve."
Bradley also took issue with any assertions that Swansea played too aggressively. The one exception, he felt, was the loss to Tottenham when, with the team down 2-0 at half-time, he challenged his players to take more risks in a bid to get back into the game. Otherwise, the problem was down to basic defensive errors.
"We conceded too many goals in terms of defending corners in the second phase, where we actually got our head on the ball first, we didn't do well enough, and now the ball is still in and around the box, and when we needed to react and finish that part of the play, we were second best," he said. "That was the very first game at Arsenal -- the second goal -- that was early on at Stoke to put us behind 1-0. That was a couple of the goals that turned the Crystal Palace game upside down.
"And then we conceded too many goals where our initial reaction when a ball turned over, to get back, was very good. But once we got numbers back, our ability to then step up and make the play defensively wasn't good enough. So those are the two biggest categories in terms of goals we gave up. That gets magnified in situations when you've gone down and now you have to take more chances."
Bradley insisted that he had good relationships with most players and that he left on good terms: "I had a number of guys when I shook hands with [Wednesday] when I said goodbye who said, 'From the day you got here, you challenged us, you were honest with us, training was great, we were prepared, and in the end it still comes down to the fact that we've got to be able to do it on the field. We let you down.' Now, not every player feels that way, not every player says that. But I had a bunch of guys that said that. I had guys on the staff who said that to me.
"There's always going to be some that maybe at the moment aren't playing as much, or maybe now you've had some tough conversations and there's something in it that they don't like. This is what happens in football. This is what happens where in moments where some of the agents of those players have certain contacts in the media and put things out there that are totally false. But that's not just happening to me in my first go-round in the Premier League."
As for what he would do differently, Bradley said there was plenty. Most of it centered on his individual interactions with various people at the club.
"You try to tailor your message every day, with the group you have," he said. "And so you look back on all that, and you think about, 'This is your work,' and so you think maybe this didn't come across right. I think about all that."
When asked for specifics, Bradley dug a little deeper.
"I'm not going to give you names, but maybe I showed trust in some players who didn't deserve it," he said. "I would say in both France and here, there were also days where I delegated more and I think in the long run that's important. But does that also mean on a given day that the quality of the training session wasn't what I thought it could have been or should have been? So yeah, I can think about stuff like that.
"Sometimes we had discussions about players like Jefferson Montero and Modou Barrow. (Swansea first-team coach) Alan Curtis, who is a great guy and has been around the club for a long time, I think Alan felt that maybe these are guys that still are best for 30 minutes. I think sometimes I've had success in the past where I'd say, 'Look, I understand that's what the book says, but I think we need to challenge that to see if we can add to that and make it bigger, make it better.' We played Mo from the start most of the games I was here and over time we would make a decision as to whether that helped or whether Alan had it figured out at the beginning. So there's things like that you look back on."
In the upcoming days and weeks, Bradley will now have even more time to analyze his Premier League experience.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.