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Spotlight: Carlos Carvalhal

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Swansea’s new Portuguese gaffer is off to a fine start. Is it the beginning of something beautiful, or just a new manager bump?

Watford v Swansea City - Premier League
Swansea’s new manager celebrates his team’s stunning last-minute victory over Watford at Vicarage Road. Can he sustain the success?
Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Swansea’s 3-1 defeat at Goodison Park on December 18 left them stuck in 20th place, four points adrift of safety. It was the club’s 12th loss of the campaign against just three wins. Paul Clement, who had been criticized all season for his boring and negative style of play, was finally sacked two days later.

On Christmas Day, Swansea announced that Clement would be succeeded by Carlos Carvalhal, who had just been fired from Sheffield Wednesday. It was the fifth time Swansea had made a “permanent” managerial appointment in the last two years.

Carvalhal lost his job with Sheffield Wednesday after the club’s winless streak was extended to seven games at the hands of Middlesbrough on December 23rd. Given that he was just sacked by a second-tier club for underperforming, quite a few eyebrows were raised by his selection as the man to arrest the slide of a team languishing in the basement of the Premier League. Just who is Carlos Carvalhal, how will he plan to save Swansea from relegation, and what will his appointment mean for fantasy managers?

The 52 year-old former center-half was born in Braga, Portugal. Most of his time as a player was spent with his hometown Premeira Liga club, S.C. Braga. He began his managerial career in 1998 and spent the next decade at eleven different clubs throughout the various levels of Portuguese football.

In 2009 he was hired to finish the season at Sporting CP, one of Portugal’s “Big Three,” after Sporting fired manager Paulo Bento in mid-November. Carvalhal guided the Lions to a fourth place finish, and then, as planned, left the club at the end of the season. In the summer of 2011, he was hired as caretaker at Turkish club Besiktas while manager Tayfur Havatcu attended to legal issues. When he finished there, Carvalhal did a stint with Instanbul BB that ended in 2012.

Carvalhal was then inactive for three years until he was named manager at Sheffield Wednesday in the summer of 2015. His inaugural campaign ended with his team in sixth, qualifying them for the playoffs. They advanced to the final but missed out on promotion to the EPL by a loss to Hull City. The next year, Carvalhal guided his side to a fourth place finish and another appearance in the playoff final, where they were again denied promotion, this time on penalties by Huddersfield. His success during the previous two seasons proved harder to replicate in 2017/2018 though, and Carvalhal was cut loose halfway through the season with the Owls in the lower half of the Championship table, having won just 6 of 23 games.

So that’s brief synopsis of Carvalhal’s professional resume. But what about his football philosophy and style of play? Ironically, the former defender naturally tends towards attack-oriented football. Last year while at Wednesday he said this:

“I love football, I love my teams to play good football, I am a coach with a complete philosophy of attack. Clean sheet? We don’t use this word in Portugal. It does not make sense to me. I want my teams not to let in goals but between 1-0 and 5-4, I prefer 5-4 because I love football. I have a good connection with the fans and I want the fans to enjoy part of my work.”

And indeed, if we look to history as a guide, that is the philosophy he applied to Wednesday when he arrived there two and a half seasons ago. He was little-known in England, and was considered a left-field choice to replace Stuart Gray. But his charismatic personality and fast-paced, silky-smooth, exhilarating style of play quickly won over players and fans. Carvalhal called it “rock and roll football”, and fans loved it, describing it as the most entertaining play they had seen from Wednesday in decades.

Even better, Carvalhal’s blueprint was getting results on the pitch. Carvalhal took command of a Wednesday team that had no reasonable hope for promotion and brought them to the playoff final. And on the way, they beat Arsenal 3-0 to knock the Gunners out of the 2015-16 League Cup (now Carabao Cup). Fans literally sang his name in the stands, where they belted out “Carlos had a Dream” to celebrate the club’s rebirth under his leadership:

But Wednesday had glaring deficiencies at center-back, and the team also desperately needed a commanding defensive midfielder. Although the club brought in a slew of new players in the summer of 2016, neither of those critical needs was filled. Carvalhal was left with an unbalanced squad in his second year, and was forced to dispense with the inaugural season’s fluid style of play in favor of a more utilitarian approach. The team was still able to grind out results and once again make it to the playoff final, but their style had became boring and predictable.

Worse, in the 2017 summer transfer window Wednesday once again failed to address key weaknesses in their squad, entering the 2017/2018 season with many of the same problems that had plagued them the prior season. Results became inconsistent, fans grew tired of the team’s pedestrian style of play, and morale in the dressing room flagged. Carvalhal too became increasingly frustrated, once pounding a £20 note with his fist during a press conference in a bizarre display of anger:

The writing was on the wall, and after the miserable run of results in November and December, Carvalhal’s “dream” at Wednesday ended when he was shown the door.

What lessons can we draw from his story at Wednesday? First, Carvalhal is capable of turning around struggling teams. Second, he can be successful with more than one approach to the game, having taken Wednesday to the playoff final in his first year with flowing, attractive football, and then repeating the accomplishment the next year with a much more pragmatic and conservative style.

So which style will he choose for Swansea? He says it will be the former. “I like to play more in attack. We have to manage the ball very well and have ball possession. But we don’t just want ball possession, we want possession to try to score goals.” Surely that is music to the ears of the Jack Army. Although the current squad desperately lacks creativity, historically Swansea is a club known for playing attractive football. The supporters and owners will want to see a return to that ethos.

And early indications are that that’s indeed what Carvalhal is plotting. In his EPL debut against Watford, Swansea started off on their front foot in a 4-4-2, with brisk passing producing a movement that culminated in Jordan Ayew blistering a shot off the crossbar just five minutes into the game. But despite Swansea’s bright start, Andre Carrillo headed past Lukasz Fabianski to put Waford ahead in the 11th minute, and the Swans were visibly deflated.

Yet Watford struggled to find a second goal to kill the game, and Swansea gradually grew back into the match. Carvalhal brought on Nathan Dyer and fringe players Luciano Narsingh and Oliver McBurnie, and the substitutions proved genius. With four minutes remaining, Swansea equalized by McBurnie heading down a Narsingh cross for Ayew to tap in. And just three minutes later, Dyer’s shot was parried into the path of Narsingh, who calmly slotted in the game-winner. See the highlights here:

So which players should thrive under Carvalhal, and how can fantasy managers capitalize? Although new EPL managers often start their rehabilitation projects by shoring up the back, it is clear that Carvalhal will have to prioritize creativity and end-product in his side’s attack. Indeed, his penchant for this style of play is a major reason he was selected to replace Paul Clement: Before Carvalhal’s arrival, Swansea had scored only 11 goals all season.

Prior to his hamstring injury Wilfried Bony was Swansea’s big-gun striker, and once he returns to health we have to assume he will reclaim that role. Any improvement in Swansea’s ability to create chances should directly benefit Bony’s real-life prospects, as well as his fantasy value.

In the interim Jordan Ayew should prosper. Already his team’s hottest attacker, Saturday’s goal marked his second in three games, and his first performance in Carvalhal’s 4-4-2 system suggests he may flourish there. He finished Saturday’s game on 17 points in Fantrax. Given that Carvalhal favors a 4-4-2, Ayew may retain a starting role even after Bony returns to health.

Ayew and the other strikers may commit more fouls under Carvalhal, however, as the manager does employ a higher press. Indeed, after the game Ayew said, “The manager had to remind us to do the basics - run, run, run and be aggressive - and we won because of it. He was vocal because we were not winning enough duels, we were not aggressive enough.” And run the Swans did: On Saturday they covered 5.7 more miles than they did in their last game under Clement. The new manager’s philosophy could thus see the attackers’ improved prospects for fantasy returns offset somewhat by an uptick in deductions for fouls and cards.

It will be very interesting to track the progress of Renato Sanches under Carvalhal. The on-loan midfielder was selected by his fellow Portuguese for his first start since November. Although Sanches registered just 3 Fantrax points despite playing 90 minutes as an attacking midfielder, going forward his manager may be able to leverage their cultural connection to nurture the player’s promising raw talent. Says Carvalhal, “I think he needs confidence. We can forget that even though he played for the national team and Benfica, he’s still a kid. He’s still learning, he needs a role in the team. When he understands exactly what we want, he can be a completely different player.”

Luciano Narsingh’s substitute performance against Watford must surely have thrust him to the forefront of his manager’s thinking. The on-loan Dutch winger was involved in both goals against Watford, providing the cross that led to Ayew’s goal before tucking in the winner himself at the death. A squad player under Clement, he could now be given a more important role under a new manager who will run the rule over his players with a fresh set of eyes. Says Carvalhal of his approach to player selection at his new club: “The first step is to try to give confidence to the players and give them the opportunity to show what they can do.” Narsingh was given that opportunity, and he made good. Like Ayew, he finished Saturday’s game on 17 points in Fantrax, and is available in that platform for just $1.99.

It will be interesting to see how Carvalhal’s fluid system affects the fantasy value of central midfielders Tom Carroll and Ki Sung-Yueng, who is currently sidelined through injury. While Clement’s attack typically relied on runs down the flanks followed by crosses into the box, Carvalhal’s possession-based system will emphasize play through the middle of the attacking third, with passes to feet. I would therefore expect Ki and Carroll to enjoy a more prominent role in Swansea’s offense under the Portuguese, with fantasy returns likely to flow from that. Notably, Carvalhal benched midfielder Leroy Fer, and did not include him among the substitutes that were called into action to salvage a result. This would suggest that Fer has not made a favorable first impression.

One player whose stock may decline under Carvalhal is Tammy Abraham. The striker hasn’t scored in weeks and was unimpressive again in Saturday’s audition for his new manager. He went off injured in the 57th minute for McBurnie, who instantly added physicality and purpose to Swansea’s attack before scoring the equalizer. With Ayew scoring goals, Wilfried Bony nearing fitness, and McBurnie winning Man-of-the-Match honors against Watford, the slumping Abraham may have to compete for minutes even if Carvalhal sticks with his favored 4-4-2.

The prospects for Swansea’s defense under Carvalhal are more difficult to assess. Although Carvalhal studied for his UEFA Pro License alongside Jose Mourinho and has proven that he can play the same kind of conservative football that his compatriot is known for, he is unlikely to emphasize defensive organization at the expense of creativity and threat in Swansea’s attack. The Swans own the Prem’s worst goal-scoring record, so it is clear that their path to safety hinges on creating more chances and more goals.

While this may ultimately mean more win points for Fabianski, it may also mean more goals shipped. Carvalhal allowed outside midfielders Renato Sanches and Sam Clucas more freedom than they were given under Clement, and both frequently came in off the flank when Swansea were in possession. However, this sometimes left the outside defenders exposed. Indeed, Carrillo’s goal smacked of the same negligent defending that the Swans displayed under Clement: Swansea were dispossessed in midfield, Kyle Naughton was caught out and lost his marker, and the ball was played in behind him. For the time being, I would avoid Carvalhal’s defensive assets until we can make better decisions based on more data.

Keep in mind also that we may soon have new Swans to choose from: When he arrived, Carvalhal bluntly told his players that they have two games to save their Premier League careers. Those who fail to make a case for themselves could be replaced in the January transfer window. That is certainly a sobering message, but the clock is ticking, so if Carvalhal is to save Swansea he has no time to wait.

Despite the fairytale start to Carvalhal’s reign, Swansea were still second-best for most of Saturday’s game. Ultimately his side pulled off nothing more than a last-minute smash-and-grab against a slumping Watford team that has now lost five of its last six. But the win on Carvalhal’s debut — just the 4th victory of Swansea’s season — has at least planted the seeds of hope:

“Before this game, I said that if you ask 100 persons of football, they will all say that we will be relegated. In this moment, I believe that 98 will say that we will be relegated. It is still a small percentage. We are still not in a good position. But confidence is more high, belief is more high. Me, my players, my chairman, the fans, we are not part of this 100. We believe. It will be very tough until the end. But this is the first step.”

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What are your thoughts on Carvalhal’s appointment? Can he save the Swans from relegation? Will his attack-oriented style of play be effective in the Premier League, or will he have to change to a more conservative approach? Does his appointment renew your interest in any Swansea players? Tell us what you think in the comments below.