Bob Bradley Never Had a Chance at Swansea A.F.C.
85 days. That's how long Bob Bradley—former U.S. Men's National Team head coach and the first American manager in the history of not only the English Premier League, but any of Europe's top flight leagues—was given to turn around struggling Swansea City before he was unceremoniously given the axe on December 27.
85 days. Not even three months. Two weeks longer than Kim Kardashian was married to Kris Humphries.
Club chairman Huw Jenkins said at the time of Bradley's hiring that, "We are looking at a long-term appointment" and that "Bob can settle us down and stabilize matters on and off the pitch."
What a joke.
Getting hired in the middle of the season as Bradley was is never easy. The manager inherits players used to playing and training in a certain way. Overnight, he has to get them to buy into not only his training and playing methods, but him as a person. It's walking a tightrope even in the best of circumstances, and the climate at Swansea was anything but that.
It's only logical that a midseason hire be given a chance to not only adjust to the current squad, but also use the transfer window—which opens on January 1—to bring in players who address holes in the squad and fit the manager’s preferred style of play. It is positively shocking and ridiculous that Bradley was not afforded this opportunity, even considering the managerial turnstile that is the Premier League.
It's no secret that there are few positions in professional sports more tenuous than that of a Premier League manager. Teams, and their rabid fan bases in particular, don't have the patience for "The Process" that Americans do. If a manager doesn't deliver instant results, the heat cranks up right away. According to The Guardian, more managers were fired across English football last season than in any other year since they started collecting data in 1992; in the Premier League alone, 11 managers lost their jobs. This year, there have already been 28 changes in English football (according to The Sack Race, a site whose sole objective is to track manager firings), with five of them coming in the Premier League.
Even though job stability was never a guarantee when Bradley was hired—regardless of what the club said at the time—failing to give a new manager three months to turn the team around is patently wrong. Bradley inherited a squad that had lost its starting centerback/captain (Ashley Williams), top goal scorer (Andre Ayew), and No. 3 goal scorer (Bafétimbi Gomis) just before the season started, then opened up their campaign with one win, one draw and five losses over their first seven matches. A top half contender this was not. The objective for their remaining 31 matches was a simple one: avoid relegation this season and truly reload over the summer.
Not only was Bradley charged with fixing the team's on-field problems on the fly, but he also had to take a crash course in how to manage the relentless scrutiny that comes with being a Premier League manager. Being an American did not help; the British snobbery when it comes to football is very real, and the undercurrent of "this guy says 'soccer' instead of 'football' and 'field' instead of 'pitch,' and therefore has no idea what he's doing" permeated all the coverage of Swansea over the last 85 days. Defiant and self-assured to the end, Bradley's stoicism and commitment to simply managing his team and ignoring the outside noise in the face of this criticism was admirable. But the skepticism that ran rampant at his opening press conference never abated and quickly poisoned both fans and media against him.
There is no denying, however, that even with all the anti-American sentiment rising up against him from the start, Bradley would have quickly silenced the critics with wins. Or even short of wins, with improved play and signs of hope. Unfortunately, there was very little of that. It also did not help that Bradley was hired by two American owners who failed to consult with the Swansea City Supporters' Trust, a group comprised solely of fans of the team who collectively own 21% of the club. Fair or not, Bradley never had the fans’ collectively backing.
In his 11 games at the helm, Bradley went 2-7-2. Over a full season, that projects to a feeble 28 points, a virtual lock for relegation. That's not good enough. Furthermore, much has already been made of the fact that under Bradley, Swansea was shipping goals at a prolific rate: 29 in 11 games (2.6 per match), eight instances of allowing three or more goals in a game, and 13 goals allowed in their last four games (all of which came against less-than-stellar competition). It is perfectly reasonable to look at those numbers and think a change is needed.
But did the change really need to be the coach, again? Swansea tried that once before this season and it didn't work. After getting waxed 4-1 at home on Boxing Day against a West Ham team also fighting for its Premier League life, Swansea defender Alfie Mawson said that the blame should be on the team and not Bradley. "The manager is not out on the pitch," Mawson said, "he is not the one out there on the field making mistakes...we are the ones who put ourselves in this situation."
Indeed they have. The Swansea back line is a complete mess, to be sure. But that isn’t entirely on Bradley; the mistakes are much less due to poor tactics than they are a lack of awareness and quality. In the West Ham match alone, all four goals could be ascribed to simple defensive ineptitude:
- Goal No. 1: Defender Jay Fulton takes a nap, allowing Andre Ayew (whom Fulton is ostensibly supposed to be marking) to waltz in unaccompanied for a tap-in at the far post
- Goal No. 2: Winston Reid runs right in between two defenders, heading home a corner kick from point blank range when he had no business getting to the ball
- Goal No. 3: After a good save by Swansea goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, nobody bothers to pay attention to West Ham's Michail Antonio, who simply redirects the ball into the net off a wayward shot. The Swansea pleas for offside are a nice touch, but also reflect the fact that the Swans’ defenders generally have no idea where their teammates are on the field
- Goal No. 4: Perhaps the saddest defensive effort of all. Rather than try to get a body part on the ball, Swansea defender Àngel Rangel simply turns his back and lets Andy Carroll side volley the ball into the back of the net from six yards away
Could Bradley have aligned his side to be a bit more defensively-oriented? Absolutely. Indeed, that is probably the most legitimate reason to say 85 days was enough to justify firing him. Bradley seemingly did little to shore up the team's biggest weakness and instead simply tried to outscore opponents, knowing full well that he really only had one legitimately dangerous attacking player (Gylfi Sigurðsson) to throw at them.
However, while that may be a flawed strategy, it is not ultimately a fireable one. To bring on a new manager and then not even give him an opportunity to truly shape the squad he wants is not only short-sighted, it's downright idiotic. As Bill Parcells famously said when he left the New England Patriots, "If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."
For Bradley, it's tough to say whether another opportunity in the Premier League will come along. If one doesn't, it will be a sad and anticlimactic end for someone who deserves far more credit than he gets. A trailblazer for American coaches abroad, he deserved far better than this ill-conceived, misguided railroading.
Author: Doug Sibor