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Tactical Philosophy: Paul Clement

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Hiko Seijuro has a look at Paul Clement’s rise in recent seasons.


Paul Clement has been drawing a lot of plaudits from fans and pundits after successfully keeping Swansea City in the Premier league. He took over as Swansea’s third manager of the season in January after both Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley had been sacked by the Welsh club. Even more daunting was the fact that he took over in the middle of exceptionally bad run of games for the Swans who had lost their last four league game managing to concede thirteen goals in the process. Clement took over and duly saved them from relegation with one game to spare but what exactly has made him so successful and what are his ideas about how the beautiful game should be played?

Clement is the son of former Queens Park Rangers and England player Dave Clement and the brother of former West Bromwich Albion player Neil Clement. Clement, however, did not progress beyond non-league football as a player and only represented Banstead Athletic and Corinthian Casuals and so he began to focus on coaching from the age of 23, working at the Chelsea Centre of Excellence while holding down a job as a PE teacher. He became a full-time coach in 2000 following his appointment with Fulham’s academy, while he coached the Republic of Ireland under-21 national team.

Though a relatively unknown quantity on the coaching scene, his position at Swansea City is his second in a managerial capacity, having previously taken charge of Championship side Derby County but was sacked (albeit harshly) after a run of seven games without a win.

Clement returned to Chelsea in 2007, initially working with their under-16 team. He progressed through the coaching ranks there and began working with the Chelsea first team when Guus Hiddink was appointed manager in 2009. Clement was retained as a first team coach and, eventually, became assistant manager to Carlo Ancelotti during his two seasons in charge of Chelsea. They went on to win the Premier League title and FA Cup in their first season in charge and their association would continue to Ancelotti’s other jobs at Real Madrid, Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich where they would win multiple titles including the Champions League, the Copa Del Rey, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 titles.

Derby appointed Clement as their manager in the summer of 2015 but he departed the club later in the season after seven games without a win with the owner accusing him of not playing “the Derby way”. Clement then left his job as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Bayern Munich to take up the head coach position at Swansea and has enjoyed a good few months at the helm, becoming the Swansea manager with the highest win percentage in the Premier League.

Tactical Philosophy

Learning under a manager as successful as Carlo Ancelotti and working in several different leagues has helped shape Paul Clement’s footballing philosophy.

However, in all the clubs where he’s assisted Ancelotti, he has had players of the highest caliber to work with, the likes of Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG), Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), headline the top level players he has worked with, but this could serve as a disadvantage as the quality of players at Swansea city is markedly inferior. Clement however, is incredibly pragmatic and prices defensive solidity above other things.

Formation and Tactical Structure

In football, there are basically two categories of coaches:  Category A: Those that prioritize control (Guardiola, Mourinho, Joachim Low, Maurizio Sarri), and Category B: Those that prioritize dynamism and seek to create transition moments as much as possible (Ralph Hassenhuttle, Jurgen Klopp) NOTE: This is not a hard and fast categorization as there is a degree of malleability in coaching approaches. In the former category, we have a sub category of those that seek to achieve control through possession of the ball (coaches like Pep Guardiola) and those that seek to achieve control primarily through defensive control of the space (Diego Simeone, Jose Mourinho). Paul Clement would fall into the latter category with his first thought being controlling the opponent’s play by controlling the space. To do this, he usually employs a 4 -1 – 4 -1/4 – 4 – 2 zonal defensive formation to achieve horizontal and vertical compactness.

Swansea in their 4 -1 – 4 – 1 mid-block shape against Liverpool; the wide midfielders go out to engage the full back with the ball near CM providing supporting and Jack Cork sitting between the lines to offer vertical compactness. Image credit: ESDF Analysis

The above image shows Swansea in a midblock, but Paul Clement is not adverse to pressing the opposition high into their own half in a bid to prevent clean buildup and slow down the opposition’s advance. However, when employing the high press, Clement generally reverts to man marking to increase pressing access for his team.

Swansea in their 4- 3 – 3 high press, Mignolet is about to receive possession and all his immediate options are marked by Swansea’s front three, he can either play a lofted pass to the full back or to Wijnaldum in the right half space but that would be sub optimal due to the longer time such passes take to reach their target allowing the opposition to press the receiver immediately the ball  gets to him. Image credit: ESDF Analysis

Paul Clement is also a very adaptable manager as he constantly tailors his tactics to his opposition in a bid to stifle their play as much as possible.

This is Swansea against Hull. Clement adapted his 4 – 1 – 4 – 1 to a 4 – 5 – 1 to allow his wingers have access to Hull’s fullbacks in order to counteract Hull’s propensity to build up through the full backs. Image credit: ESDF Analysis

Clement’s Offensive Approach

For all the talk about Paul clement prioritizing defensive space control, the Englishman is a very attacking coach that sets up his team to stretch the opposition with their width in a bid to take advantage of the spaces that appear inside. In an attacking sense, Clement also plays to the strengths of his players with Swansea depending a lot on crosses to Fernando Llorente to make use of his height and aerial strength. This season, Tammy Abraham seems ready to step up and fulfill that role – he definitely has the height.

Swansea in their attacking phase against Liverpool. The two wide forwards have tucked inside in order to offer support to the target man Llorente. In response, the fullbacks Naughton and Olsson step up to the last line to ensure that all five vertical line are occupied thereby stretching Liverpool  to the maximum. See how much space Olsson has to attack should he receive a switch of play. Image credit:

Another feature of Swansea’s attacking play under Paul Clement is blind side third man runs into space and positional rotations to maintain balance in the attacking structure should the team lose possession and have to counterpress.

Here Naughton has the ball in the right back position with Routledge and Llorente as the immediate options. Fer recognizes that space has opened up between Milner and Matip due to Llorente’s occupation of the left back and then makes a run from Hendserson’s blind side to exploit the space. Carroll sees Fer making the run and starts moving back to cover for him in case the ball is lost. Notice that Sigurdsson has moved into the centre forward position to ensure that Swansea have bodies in the box when the cross comes in. Image credit:

These runs to exploit the space created by positional rotations are a key concept of positional play and the covering movements of the other players are part of a wider philosophy to maintain an optimal structure at all times in the match.

Three Career Defining Games

Liverpool 2 – 3 Swansea: In his first game in charge of Swansea City, Clement faced the daunting task of going to Anfield against one of the Premier League’s free scoring sides with a team that had a notoriously leaky defense. He implemented a zonal defensive 4 – 1 – 4 – 1 formation successfully stifling Liverpool’s creative talents. Despite the reds coming back from two goals down to put intense pressure on the Swans goal, Clement’s men held on and then scored to secure a famous victory that set them on the road to relegation survival.

Manchester United 1 – 1 Swansea: Despite coming into this game with a win over Stoke, the Swans were apprehensive because defeat at United would see Hull take a three-point lead into the final three games. The Swans gave a good account of themselves with a controlled defensive display; however, all their hard work seemed undone when Marcus Rashford dived to get a penalty which Wayne Rooney converted. However, Swansea didn’t fold and duly equalized with a Sigurdsson free kick. The result was a confidence and morale booster, handing them the advantage in the race for survival.

Swansea 1 – 0 Everton: Coming into this game, Swansea were buoyed by Hull City’s home loss to the already relegated Sunderland, and despite Wayne Routledge getting injured in the dressing room, the Swans put in a professional display to dispatch Everton one nil and all but confirm their Premier League status – which they duly did one week later.

Three Key Players Developed

Martin Olsson: Before being signed by Paul Clement at Swansea, the Swede had been having an erratic career at Championship side Norwich city as Robbie Brady was usually preferred to him at left back. However, the left back has found a new lease of life at the Liberty stadium with his energy and aptitude for crossing an important asset to Paul Clement. So far he has impressed with his all round contributions, even scoring some important goals for the club and looks set to continue on that trajectory.

Leroy Fer: The physically imposing Dutchman was experiencing a kind of low before the arrival of Paul Clement. Having moved out on loan to the Liberty Stadium, Fer was considered to be a defensive liability as the Swans constantly shipped in goals with the defense lacking adequate midfield protection. However, since Paul Clement took over, the Dutchman has improved his defensive work rate while still getting forward to contribute to the team’s attacking play. Things are looking up for Fer and that is down to the work ethic and organization instilled by Clement.

Tom Carroll: the twenty five year old is valued for his passing, and creativity, however, after a slew of loan deals away from Tottenham, Carroll has found a home at the Liberty stadium with a manager that trusts him to be a center piece for his team. If they keep working together, then the sky is the limit for Tom Carroll.

Read all our Tactical Philosophy articles here

Hiko Seijuro

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