Swansea City made a bold decision on Monday, firing Francesco Guidolin and replacing him with the first-ever American manager in the Premier League, former United States national team boss Bob Bradley. The former USMNT manager, most recently employed by Ligue 2 team Le Havre, looks like a good fit for the job.
Swansea is in a delicate situation, sitting on the cusp of the relegation zone and on a long streak of futility. They’ve won one match all year, and that in their first game of the season. Currently, they’re on a four-match losing streak in all competitions, including throwing away a first-half lead to Liverpool on Saturday. That was the last straw for Swansea’s ownership, who relieved Guidolin of his duties Monday morning. The Italian manager missed several stretches of action last season thanks to a lung infection that took a toll on him, so there were questions about his health as well as the team's performances.
So Swansea has hired Bradley, who beat out three other serious candidates. He's a more experienced manager than fan favorite Ryan Giggs, has had more success than Paul Clement, and unlike former Villarreal boss Marcelino, speaks English fluently.
Bradley is best known in both the United States and England for his time as the USMNT manager, but he's had a few jobs since then. World events sent his tenure as Egypt boss into a tailspin; his team failed to overcome both the circumstances and an unlucky World Cup qualifying draw that pitted them against Ghana, who knocked them out of contention for Brazil 2014. After that, he took over a newly promoted Norwegian team in Stabaek and led them to strong finishes, ending the season solidly mid-table in his first season, then finishing third to send them to the Europa League for the first time since 2011. His Le Havre team finished fourth in Ligue 2 last season, only missing promotion by goal differential. They're only two points off a promotion spot so far this season, having won their last two games.
Despite all the positives, Bradley is an unpopular hire due to his lack of experience at the highest level of the game. Still, there’s a lot of reason to think that Bradley can succeed, and that starts with his tactics and many of the players at his disposal.
Bradley’s tactics aren’t pretty, but they’re perfect for Swansea
First and foremost, Bradley has the perfect approach for the situation Swansea are in. He has a reputation as a conservative manager from his time with the USMNT, and there’s certainly reason for that. He plays a deeper line and doesn’t tend to push his fullbacks up high, which along with often utilizing a relatively deep midfield pivot can certainly look like a bunker-and-counter setup.
But while Bradley does often lean on quickfire counterattacks to generate offense, he’s not at all afraid to utilize a more proactive style when the personnel available and the situation make it feasible. When he turns the dial up, his teams play fast and aggressive, in a style that’s not necessarily something you can call jaw-dropping attacking football, but certainly can’t be called negative tactics. Even when Bradley’s teams are playing more conservatively, they don’t just sit back and wait for a mistake to create an opening; they try to create those mistakes and openings themselves.
For a team fighting against relegation like Swansea, that’s a good blend of styles. Often teams in their position go with a manager who’s too conservative and can’t force results against better teams, or a manager who's too ambitious, setting up a team that over-exposes themselves and gets shredded. Bradley sits in a nice spot in between, taking risks when it benefits him and his team, and keeping his team out of trouble when he needs to.
Bradley’s USMNT teams between 2007 and 2009 offer an example of what might work with Swansea. Often outmatched by their competitive rivals, Bradley used fast counter-attacking tactics to win a number of strong results. His USMNT had a surprising triumph over Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final, winning 2-1 despite facing an incredibly strong El Tri side, and earned a big upset over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, before forcing Brazil to make a late comeback to beat the USMNT in the final.
That Gold Cup final win also highlights another strength of Bradley’s — making adjustments. He doesn’t always start things out with the right lineups, but during the match he sees what’s going wrong and addresses it aggressively when he needs to. Take that Gold Cup final for example — Mexico took a first-half lead and struggled at times in big part due to a poor performance from Pablo Mastroeni, but Bradley wasn’t afraid to pull the popular midfielder at halftime and replace him with Ricardo Clark. Clark helped stabilize the defense, freeing up the rest of the side to play more aggressively, helping lead a comeback to win 2-1 — with another substitute in Taylor Twellman instantly creating havoc in the box, helping lead to the winner.
The USMNT played defensively in that final, but you can see here how quickly they counter when they win the ball in midfield.
Bradley showed off his aptitude with using substitutes well during the 2010 World Cup, when his team regularly got off to slow starts. After going 2-0 down to Slovenia, he took off deep-lying playmaker Jose Francisco Torres and quick striker Robbie Findley for athletic defensive midfielder Maurice Edu and advanced playmaker Benny Feilhaber. That re-alignment of his midfield changed the game, and the U.S. drew 2-2 -- and had a late winner denied for a phantom foul. The next two games were similar -- the U.S. started very slowly, but Bradley's subs changed the game and his team scored in the second half.
What these games show is that Bradley might be married to a basic philosophy, but not to a formation or specific types of players. He wants to get numbers behind the ball in a defined shape, then counter very quickly, but he knows how to coach teams to do that whether they're playing 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1.
Bradley may not lead his teams to sexy attacking play that draws rave reviews, but he does find ways to win games his sides shouldn’t. That’s exactly what Swansea need right now — a manager who's used to finding a way to get results with talent inferior to his competition's. He's proven he can do that in three of his recent jobs.
Swansea’s team is almost perfect for Bradley
It also helps that Swansea’s existing squad is well-suited to how Bradley likes to play. That starts with Gylfi Sigurdsson, a versatile playmaker who any manager would love but who is almost tailor-made to play for Bradley. He can move around the pitch to occupy a few different roles at a high level, but more importantly he maintains his playmaking quality in any of those spots, whether that's in a deeper midfield role, out wide, or as a false nine. Better yet, his ability to score goals from a variety of ranges and his desire to create pressure when his team is out of possession fit well with Bradley’s style.
He should be able to get the most out of Jordi Amat, a young Spanish defender who has been solid since joining Swansea, but has yet to reach his potential. Amat’s strength lies in reading the action in front of him and reacting, getting to the right place at the right time and trying to keep things from getting too dangerous for his teammates. Bradley loves defenders who do that, and having one in hand already from the start of his tenure will make his life that much easier.
Bradley’s also likely to make use of some of Swansea's players who others have struggled with, like Ki Sung-Yueng and Jefferson Montero. Ki’s skills as a deep playmaker — and a sorely underrated screen for his defense from midfield — are skills that Bradley can make fantastic use of, and Montero’s explosive skills coming off the wing are ones that Bradley loves and hasn’t gotten to enjoy enough of in his teams.
Bradley and Swansea are the perfect odd couple
Both in terms of tactics and personnel, there is every appearance right now that Bradley and Swansea are a good fit for one another. Are they a perfect fit, or guaranteed for success? No, but let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as either in football.
What they are is a good marriage of need and opportunity right now. Bob Bradley might not be as popular a hire as Ryan Giggs is right now, and many EPL fans will ridicule this appointment due to Bradley's relative lack of standing in the game. But Swansea have given Bradley the perfect opportunity to show the world how good he is, and his résumé suggests that his skill set is suited to keeping them in the Premier League. It’s hard to ask for more than that from a mid-season hiring.