soccer

Judge Bob Bradley on the Quality of his Coaching, Not the Tenor of His Accent

Bradley has inherited a roster at Swansea that is bereft of talent. He deserves a shot at fixing it.
December 9, 2016, 7:19pm
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

There's plenty to dislike about Bob Bradley's managerial tenure at Swansea City—the offense, for example. And the defense. And, you know, his New Jersey accent. In late November, before Swansea's 5-4 defeat of Crystal Palace, former Swansea striker Dean Saunders said Bradley's accent "isn't helping him."

I fear Sanders is right.

As an American sportswriter in Europe, I can testify that many here remain convinced the United States is a soccer backwater. When I conduct interviews, I often start out not by asking a question but by fielding inquiries about whether I might be wasting my time. Because nobody in the US really cares, right?

I'm just glad I'm not a manager. In Bradley's case, this anti-American bias is compounded by the sense that the only reason he got the job to begin with was because Swansea was purchased by an American consortium over the summer.

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If he'd started things off with a string of wins, he probably would have shut people up, but under Bradley, Swansea has picked up just five of 21 possible points. The team is in last place, and on Thursday bookies in the UK made Bradley the favorite to be the next Premier League manager fired. If he doesn't beat Sunderland, another relegation candidate, at home this Saturday, we're unlikely to see his shiny dome on the touchline again.

The weird part of all this is how many people seem to want Bradley to fail.

Bradley might not make it to the January transfer window but Andy Legg, another former Swansea player, has already suggested that, even if he made it that long, Bradley didn't know "what sort of players to bring in." This statement is as comical as it is confounding, given that Bradley's two-month stint in the Premier League has not coincided with a transfer window. How could Legg know? And in any case, Legg has no experience in the Premier League himself, so who is he to even judge?

Bradley's unfortunate spell is the latest chapter in what has been an amazing change of fortunes for Swansea. In 2002, the club was in League 2, the fourth division. When Swansea won promotion to the Premier League in 2011, Swansea didn't just thank everyone for the opportunity and head back to the Championship. The team found Premier League stability and exemplified good club stewardship by adhering to an identifiable, attractive style of play even as it frequently changed managers. The reward was a League Cup and a taste of European competition.

Now, the club is a disaster, a trash fire stoked with the feathers of white swans. To read the news, you'd think Bradley lit the match. But guess who has been there the whole time, from the 2002 boom to the 2016 bust? Club chairman Huw Jenkins.

Jenkins deserves every bit of credit he's received for taking the club on its amazing journey, but it's Jenkins, not Bradley, who should also answer for the mess the club is in.

Swansea's talent pool is about as empty as its stadium in this picture. Photo: Christopher Elkins, Wikimedia Commons.

Consider the current Swansea squad. It's not exactly talent rich. Every starting 11 has at least one player—sometimes 3 or 4—who isn't good enough for the league (I'm looking mostly at you, Routledge and Ki). It's not Bradley's fault. To complicate matters, the team's two Spanish strikers, both of whom have some pedigree, can't seem to find any momentum. But neither of them were hitting the net for Bradley's predecessor either.

And while Bradley has received a lot of criticism for his player selection and tactics—Gylfi Sigurðsson, a false 9?—they're far from irrational. As Kevin Kinkead shows in his excellent analysis over at the Philly Voice, playing Gilfi as a striker is not a condition of Bradley being an idiot (he's not) but an effort to get Gilfi into the same lineup as the club's top scorer, Leroy Fer. It makes sense to try and get the club's most talented, in-form attacking players into the same lineup. The problem for Bradley is that both players do best when deployed as a No. 10. If the club had a halfway decent defensive midfielder, Bradley could justifiably play both Fer and Gilfi in the same midfield three. But without one, the team lacks a natural ball-winner, leaving its defense exposed, which is an especially big problem when your defense is the worst in the league.

The blame for this goes to Jenkins—not Bradley. Over the summer, the club sold its best defender (and captain), Ashley Williams. Williams went to Everton, who signed him as a replacement for their own star defender, John Stones, who left for Manchester City. But whom did Jenkins sign to replace Williams? Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn, two youngsters with no Premier League experience. It's no wonder they sometimes look downright scared.

The problem is that this kind of transfer window—one where good players leave and mediocre ones come in—isn't a one off. It's been happening since the club sold Wilfried Bony in 2014 for a nice pile of cash and a couple not-as-good replacements. Shit, this past summer, the club sold one of those replacements, André Ayew, and didn't sign anyone capable of replacing him.

Arguing now about whether Bradley deserved to get the job is to completely miss the point. The fact is he's there. The real question is, how do you deal with it? Will you continue to disparage a man in charge of a team that, like it or not, would be relegation contenders with Alex Ferguson at the helm? Would you prefer the chaos that will come with a fifth manager in two years?

If supporters want Bradley to fail, it will surely happen. If they want the club to succeed, they should let him do his job, and make sure Jenkins fixes the problems he has already admitted were of his own making.