If Swansea avoid relegation it'll be due to new players, not new manager
Swansea City's decision to dismiss Paul Clement felt entirely inevitable simply because sacking the manager has become the go-to solution when a club is struggling, regardless of whether he's actually done anything wrong. Yet they're in a relatively unusual situation because they have a fine defensive record and a very poor attacking record. In this situation, a quick fix is considerably more difficult than when a new manager inherits a leaky defence but a decent attack.
So far, 2017-18 has been an excellent season for proponents of the "new manager bounce." Five previous clubs have changed their manager this season and the first four all experienced a significant upturn in fortunes.
Crystal Palace fired Frank De Boer when in 20th place; they're now in 14th. Leicester fired Craig Shakespeare when in 18th place and are now in eighth place. Everton fired Ronald Koeman when in 18th place and are now ninth. West Ham fired Slaven Bilic when 18th; they're now 15th. The exception to the rule comes at West Brom, where Tony Pulis had the club in 17th place and they've since slipped back to 19th place, although it's arguably too soon to make a definitive judgement in that situation.
Whether these improvements are all because of the managerial situation, however, is questionable. Research involving "expected goals" figures suggest that teams are often simply unfortunate -- or, more accurately, poor at converting chances and poor at keeping out opposition shots -- in the lead-up to the departure of the old manager. Rather than the new regime working wonders, the side's performance is simply regressing to the mean.
The example of Crystal Palace is particularly pertinent here: the Eagles weren't particularly woeful under Frank De Boer, contriving to lose matches they'd completely dominated. Roy Hodgson was therefore taking charge of a side whose results would probably have improved naturally anyway.
This is a generalisation, of course, and it's obvious that intelligent upgrades in manager will have a positive impact upon those clubs. But in terms of mid-season appointments and the outcome by the end of the campaign, it's considerably more common that a new manager improves the defence rather than the attack.
Research by Omar Chaudhuri, a statistician who works for football consultants 21st Club, reveals this pattern clearly. "The biggest improvements tended to be in defence rather than in attack," he finds. "The biggest improvements in defence were worth about six to 10 points to the team over a season, whereas the biggest improvements in attack were worth around four to six points."
Assessing the performance of the five aforementioned clubs who have changed manager this season suggests they broadly fit this pattern.
Three of the five clubs, in fairness, have improved their scoring rate after appointing their new manager. Under Hodgson, Palace have scored 1.1 goals per game compared to 0.0 beforehand. Claude Puel's Leicester have improved their rate from 1.3 to 1.66, and Everton's bounce under Sam Allardyce has been 1.2 to 1.75. A new manager is clearly capable of improving the attack.
It hasn't worked at West Ham, however, where David Moyes' impact has meant West Ham went from scoring 1.0 per game to 0.85, or at West Brom under Alan Pardew, where the scoring rate has dropped from 0.85 to 0.25. But notably, each of these five sides have improved their defence since appointing the new manager. At Palace the concession rate dropped from 1.75 to 1.5, at Leicester from 1.55 to 1.3 at Leicester, from 2.0 to 0.5 at Everton, from 2.1 to 1.3 at West Ham and from 1.5 to 0.75 at West Brom.
These are, of course, not particularly large sample sizes, some of the differences are minimal and they ignore difference in the quality of opposition. But so far, this season's experiences fit the general pattern: a new manager has sometimes resulted in an improved attack but it has always resulted in a superior defence.
A better defence, however, is not what Swansea desperately require from a new manager.
Eight Premier League sides have conceded more goals but their attacking record is the worst in the division. And again, as a general rule, a coach is more responsible for a defence than an attack. Defending is largely about collective play and organization, which comes from coaching and familiarity. Top-class attacking can be about those factors but it's also more open to being influenced by moments of magic from talented individuals. So far this season, Swansea have desperately lacked those qualities.
This shouldn't come as a surprise: the departures of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente were not offset with significant signings in the summer. Renato Sanches was a worthwhile punt, especially on loan, but the Portugal midfielder's performances have been hugely underwhelming and a relegation battle isn't the best situation for him to regain his confidence.
Up front, Tammy Abraham is talented but raw and needs to be provided with service that simply hasn't arrived, while Wilfried Bony doesn't seem like the same player that hit 26 goals in 54 league games during his previous spell at the club, having managed just eight league goals in the two-and-a-half years since for Manchester City and Stoke.
This is what Swansea are desperately crying out for: individual attacking quality. The problem, though, is that signing this type of footballer in January is difficult. There's usually little movement in the winter window, anyway; players will be reluctant to join a club scrapping in the relegation zone and financially it can be risky to shell out tens of millions when relegation, at this point, seems likely.
It's a risk Swansea might have to take. They might well improve dramatically in the next few weeks and clinch Premier League survival by the end of the campaign. If so, the cause will probably be new players, rather than a new manager.
Clement, a talented coach who has demonstrated his ability to create a solid defensive unit, would be a perfectly good choice for Stoke City: they're surely next on the list for firing their manager, and a more classic case for a mid-season rescue job.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.