Sitting two points behind 17th-place Hull with five games left to play, Paul Clement has described Swansea's match against Stoke this Saturday as a "must-win" fixture. In truth, Swansea must win another couple of games beyond Saturday to have a reasonable chance of survival. Though the Swans' recent play has been characterised by a baffling lack of intensity given their plight, perhaps the visit of an old rival can be a catalyst for a timely resurgence.
Stoke are no Cardiff City but while Swansea's arch enemy remain a division removed, the Potters are probably the closest team to filling the void. The acrimony between the clubs goes back to Swansea's first Premier League season, when the Welsh club won plaudits from all for their slick, continental passing football. Well, almost all. Stoke were still in full-on Tony Pulis mode with an old-school kick and rush, centre-backs as full-backs, set-piece brutality. The clash of styles was never more pronounced: chalk vs. cheese, immovable object vs. irresistible force, function vs. form.
A lot has changed since. Mark Hughes has reinvented Stoke as a passing side while Swansea are presently the league's fourth-best set-piece specialists (Pulis' West Brom are No. 1, of course). However, there has been enough bad blood in past fixtures that even if the stylistic differences aren't as pronounced these days, the taste of victory is still as sweet as ever.
Who can forget Bobby Madley's phantom penalty call on Nov. 10, 2013, which gifted Stoke an equaliser with the last kick of the game for an alleged Wayne Routledge handball that replays prove simply didn't happen: the ball didn't come within half a foot of the player. Or former Swans Wilfried Bony and Joe Allen connecting for both of Bony's goals in this season's earlier fixture, a 3-1 victory for Stoke. Or anything involving Charlie Adam.
There have been 25 yellow cards and one red in the 11 Premier League matches between these sides, and five penalties. There have been 32 goals, with Stoke holding a slim 17-15 advantage. These matches are always eventful and on Saturday, Swansea will have the psychological edge of greater motivation. Stoke are comfortably mid-table and have little to play for beyond bragging rights.
If Swansea haven't yet been able to channel the very real threat of relegation into any kind of intensity, perhaps the added agitation of a rival conflict will do the trick. In a perverse way, Swans fans should be hoping for some obnoxious brilliance from Marko Arnautovic, some physicality and recklessness from Ryan Shawcross and a bit of Pirlo-esque punishment from hometown boy Joe Allen, assuming the Welshman is fit to play. Like an inoculation provoking an immune system into action, Swansea need a shot in the arm -- not just for this game, but for all their remaining fixtures -- and Hughes' lineup of villains have the ability to provide it.
The Swans could also use some help from within. Clement has perhaps been unduly cautious of late, losing by respectable scorelines instead of risking enough to win in a shootout. In their past six games, Swansea have scored twice. Nearest relegation rivals Hull have scored 10 in the same stretch, in large part because their new manager, Marco Silva, has been bolder.
Clement's 4-3-3 clearly isn't working anymore. The accumulated fatigue of talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson is a problem nobody seems willing to admit to, much less address. Though the Icelander will move from the wing into central positions in attack, the backtracking required in the defensive phase from the flank has taken its toll.
Swansea's actual wingers have been typically inconsistent: Luciano Narsingh unable to guarantee delivery, Jefferson Montero out-of-sync and lacking fitness after a long injury layoff, and Routledge routinely offering little in attack of defence.
In Saturday's 1-0 loss to Watford, Clement made a late switch to a 4-4-2 diamond, putting prodigal striker Borja Baston up front alongside Fernando Llorente. It wouldn't be a terrible idea if the new boss started with this shape against Stoke. Llorente is a powerful weapon but needs service, while Borja is finally looking like the dynamic, goal-hungry striker Swansea paid €15 million in the summer.
With such a poor recent goal return, can Clement afford not to field both?
Better yet, Clement should consider starting midfield anchor Leon Britton, for so long the heartbeat at the centre of the Swansea machine. The Swans stalwart has yet to feature under the new manager but took it into his own hands to organise a players-only night out last week in a bid to boost morale. If the club captain can boost the players' spirits while sitting in a restaurant, imagine what he could do on the field?