A look at each position on the field, and who should be where next season
There's no doubt that the man pictured above has led Sunderland to some wonderful things this season. Martin O'Neill's arrival on Wearside injected the Black Cats with badly needed vigour, and a remarkable run of results followed. From a shock 1-0 win against Manchester City, to an FA Cup run including a win against Arsenal, it seemed as though a new Sunderland team had been born. It seemed as though the only thing that had been wrong prior to O'Neill's arrival was his predecessor, Mr. Steve Bruce. However, following the FA Cup defeat against Everton, it became obvious that there were still flaws in the squad that would have to be fixed. In this article, I will attempt to analyse each position in the team, from goalkeeper to striker, and will give my views on who is best suited to each role.
This season saw young Belgian stopper Simon Mignolet establish himself as Sunderland's number 1 keeper. Although he has Keiren Westwood's faulty immune system to thank somewhat, there's no doubt the man from Sint-Truiden deserves his position. Mignolet kept 11 clean sheets last season, impressively beating seasoned veterans Petr Cech and Mark Schwarzer. He also proved his credentials by saving 74% of the shots he's had to face, and this is only beaten by Joe Hart and David de Gea. All very impressive stuff. But of course, the Belgian is not without his faults. A lot of the criticism aimed at Mignolet has been targeted at two areas; distribution and free kicks. First, to his distribution. Mignolet's kicks can send the ball flying to almost anywhere, and has completed less than 40% of his passes, which is poor when compared to Hart and de Gea with around 60%. If he is to be number 1 next season, it is vital that the coaches work with him on this. Next, his positioning when it comes to free kicks needs working on. The Mig tends to stand in the wrong place, putting us at risk. And quite frankly, sometimes he does this even when it's clear to everyone watching where the kicker is going to drive the ball into. I think this was shown best against Fulham with Clint Dempsey. When you have someone like Lee Cattermole playing for you, you are definitely going to be conceding many free kicks. All this being said though, he is still an excellent keeper, and can only get better with age.
Keiren Westwood filled in for his injured colleagues Gordon and Mignolet on 9 occasions this season, and was certainly no slouch, making a remarkable double save against Manchester United. Westwood, making his first Premier League start, saved first from Wayne Rooney then kept out the rebound from Patrice Evra with a reflex stop at point-blank range. Statistically, he saved 66% of his shots, and while this is 8% less than Mignolet, it must be remembered that Westwood played only 9 games compared to Mignolet's 29. One can't really find a fault in Westwood. Compared to Mignolet's erratic kicks, Westwood's usually end up where they're supposed to, and he has managed over 6.4 accurate deep passes compared to Mignolet's 5.9. In 9 starts he conceded 11 times. Mignolet conceded 33 in 29. In addition to that, the Irish keeper may very well feature in Euro 2012, depending on Shay Given's fitness. If he does play, and impresses, Mignolet's going to have a lot to contend with.
Without a doubt, both are superb goalkeepers, proven by their international credentials. Mignolet is Belgium's number 1, and Westwood is right behind Shay Given in Ireland's team. So who deserves to be first choice for 2012/13? Mignolet probably has the more obvious flaws, but it would be unfair to shaft him out of the way simply because Westwood has better stats. I do remind you, Westwood has played only around a third of the games Mignolet has. Mignolet has saved us from embarassing results with superb performances (Everton, Man City) and I'm confident MON and his staff can help him out with his issues. Of course at the same time Westwood impressed during his short tenure between the sticks, and if he does feature for Ireland, then a few good performances could warrant some reward. In the end, I think the only fair way to solve this dispute is to share duties for the friendlies, and for the first few league games. The better performer would then get the number 1 spot for the rest of the season. But if I had to choose, despite the fact I quite like the Mig, I'd have Westwood between the sticks.
Verdict: Keiren Westwood
Phil Bardsley is a man who divides opinion on Wearside. On the one hand, he has a high workrate, is never intimidated, tackles well and is pretty quick. But on the other, he wouldn't be able to pass or cross the ball if his life depended on it. Bardsley can also be a bit reckless, in the vein of Cattermole, and he also tends to get caught out of position. John O'Shea is an excellent centre-back, but he lacks the pace required for a fullback, which means he would be unable to get the passes and crosses in, despite having a better record than Bardsley (72.6% to 71.9%). To give you a few more numbers, Bardsley averaged 3.5 clearances whilst O'Shea averaged 5.6. That being said, Bardsley is a much better tackler with almost 2.5 per game, compared to O'Shea with 1.7. With all this in mind, who should be alotted the right-back position? In my opinion, neither of them. Allow me to introduce another candidate...
Yes, Craig Gardner.
Despite being a midfielder, Gardner featured at right-back on two occasions last season. First some stats. Gardner managed 0.5 tackles on average, which, is admittedly underwhelming, but he makes that up with his clearance rate, which is well up at 5.5 per game, only just behind O'Shea (5.6) and well ahead of Bardsley with 3.5. But enough with these numbers. What exactly does Gardner bring to the table? Well, he supports the attack well, his passes and crosses are far more accurate than Bardsley's, and I do not think he has let the team down defensively during his tenure at right-back (I recall a tackle he made which drew comparisons with Bobby Moore. Which game it was, I sadly cannot remember). Add to that fact his trigger-happy feet. He's not afraid to go for goal, with a few spectacular goals this season and plenty of shots (though where those end up vary a lot). With all this in mind, he would add a lot to Sunderland's attacking punch, while at the same time being more than adequate for defensive duties.
Verdict: Craig Gardner
For many, the left-back position represents one of the major problems that needs to be rectified this summer. Let's look at the number of tackles made by the main two occupants of this spot. Kieran Richardson managed 28 in 19 games, followed by Phil Bardsley with 25 in 10 games. Richardson's ratio would suggest he isn't exactly the man for the job, and this is supported by the fact he has managed only 2.9 clearances per game on average, with even Bardsley, who was throughly outclassed by Gardner and O'Shea in the right-back position, beating the former Man United man with 3.5. One thing Richardson does bring is speed. This, coupled with the fact he was formerly a midfielder means he's very good at bombing forward and supporting the attack, an ability Bardsley somewhat lacks. However, this doesn't hide the fact he doesn't read the game very well, and has probably let more opponents slip past then he would have wanted to. So with both having their faults, who should be given the place?
Why Jack Colback of course.
Colback featured 5 times in the role of left-back, and earned rave reviews for all of his performances, in particular the matches against Manchester City. Colback made 10 tackles during his tenure, and had he played as many games as Richardson in the position, would have surpassed the ex-Man Utd man. Colback fails to come anywhere near Richardson and Bardsley when it comes to clearances with 1.5 per game. However one of the things that really wins it for the ginger in my opinion is the fact he trumps the others when it comes to passing. His 83.5% success rate destroys Richardson and Bardsley, who come in at 75% and 71.9%. He also fits the role of an attacking fullback. During his time at left-back, he could be seen making speedy runs, complimenting McClean very well, and with his superior crosses and passes (compared to the other candidates for the role), ticks all the boxes. There's very little to complain about. Defensively, he is similar to Bardsley, and offensively, he is superior to Richardson. Yes he does make some silly errors, but he's young, and has all the time in the world to improve.
Verdict: Jack Colback
No, I'm afraid that's not us lifting the Premier League trophy, but rather Wes Brown and John O'Shea doing so for Manchester United. Now, I will keep this part of the article slightly shorter, as I think there isn't much to argue about here. I think it's pretty straightforward that both Wes Brown and John O'Shea are first choice centre-backs. O'Shea has been at his best for us whilst playing at centre-back, and I believe that both Michael Turner and Matthew Kilgallon need to be sacrificed for Brown. Now, Turner has had some good games, but that's where it ends unfortunately. 'Some' is not enough in the world of top-level football, and he has cost us games on more than one occasion. Kilgallon is my personal favourite, and if it came down to who I liked, then I would say Kilgallon. He's been superb during his time there, especially the two Man City games, but towards the end, began to slow down a bit, culminating in not even being named on the bench in the season finale. However, he's still very good, and will certainly be challenging the two former devils for a place on the starting XI. Brown has been solid and has a good relationship with O'Shea. The pair are not prone to mistakes, are consistent, and are certainly talented. It's exactly what the Mackems need.
Verdict: Wes Brown and John O'Shea
As with Bardsley, most Sunderland fans are divided when it comes to club captain Lee Cattermole. Some say he can't be trusted, that he is reckless, and that he costs the team points due to his challenges and attitude. Well looks like I have the polar opposite view on him. First things first, he has made almost double the number of tackles and interceptions when compared to someone like Jack Colback, who is absolutely adored. Secondly, his workrate is second to none. Third, he's not even 25, and his best years are ahead of him I'm sure. As with everybody else in the team, he can only get better under O'Neill. It's unfair in my opinion to blame him for losing points. Okay sure he does concede free kicks, but like I mentioned earlier in the article, Mignolet requires work done on his positioning. He is a vital part of the team, and as far as i'm concerned, it would be near suicidal to leave him out.
So with one spot filled, who's best suited to partner Catts?
Well with Jack Colback and Craig Gardner, who would normally be in contention for this place, already utilized in other places, it leaves us with the two Davids; Vaughan and Meyler. Now, this is a pretty forgone conclusion, and it's pretty unfortunate. I do believe Meyler is talented, but he simply hasn't been given enough chances. Now, just to prove Vaughan deserves his place, time for some stats. Cattermole sets the benchmark for all the others to follow with 85 tackles and 75 interceptions. Fan favourite Colback has 44 tackles and 40 interceptions. Meanwhile, Vaughan has made 60 tackles and 41 interceptions. In addition to that, he is a superb passer with an 84.8% success ratio which is by far the best of anyone in the team, and he has also achieved 10 key passes, once again the best. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Vaughan has only played 17 times, compared to Colback's 27 in the position and Catts' 21 apperances.
Verdict: Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan
Throughout the season they've really only been 2 players who have played on the right wing, those being Swede Sebastian Larsson and Egyptian Ahmed Elmohamady, and let's face it, the Super Swede has really made the position his own, with 21 appearances while Elmohamady came 2nd with a measly 7 appearances. First let's talk about Elmo. This man is supposed to be challenging for the right wing spot, but he simply has not been up to the task, despite showing potential. This sad fact was merely exacerbated when O'Neill opted for Fraizer Campbell instead of Elmo when Larsson was out with his hernia operation. By the way, just a quick word about Campbell. Never again as a right winger, thanks. He brings speed, but nothing else. Only 25 passes, no assists, no goals and no dribbles. Not pretty at all. Anyway, Elmo may have very well played his last game for us Mackems against Manchester United, and surprisingly did a good job. However, I think it's best for both parties that he leave for new pastures, at the present moment, it looks like West Ham calling.
Now on to Larsson and McClean. Super Seb has managed to complete 645 passes, compared to McClean's 396. The Swede also managed a pass success rate of 74.1%. The difference in passes can be explained by the two men's different styles. Larsson prefers to get involved in the middle, compared to McClean who sticks to the byline. Despite this, Larsson has managed 44 crosses, more than McClean's 35. Both men don't exactly have any obvious flaws, but they need competition in order to prevent complacency. I'd go for Aiden McGeady. I just feel he has the McClean characteristics. Strong, direct and tricky. He can work on both sides of the pitch, meaning he'll provide both competition. Judging by the way he blew McClean's 90 minute performance for Ireland out of the water in just 45 minutes, McGeady would be a phenomenal addition. He's worked with O'Neill before so that's another positive. How much he costs is another matter though. Another option would be Adam Johnson. Realistically, we would only be able to afford a loan. Johnson's style requires him to cut in which requires a fullback to overlap. With Bardsley and O'Shea, this would have been impossible, but with Gardner, things may just be different. Johnson will also be able to compete with McClean for the left wing spot.
Verdict: Sebastian Larsson and James McClean + Aiden McGeady/Adam Johnson
There is only one, so there is nothing to compare, but how can you have a Sunderland article that does not include the one, the only, Stephane Sessegnon? In this campaign, he has managed 4 goals and 5 assists. Sessegnon has a 81.3% passing success rate, including 52 key passes and 65 dribbles. These statistics are simply phenomenal, and show why the team is so desperate to hold onto him. When injured or suspended, we lack a replacement for Sessegnon, and therefore revert to a 4-4-2 formation. However, if O'Neill really wants another option for the role, there's Junior Hoilett. The young Canadian notched up 88 dribbles, the highest in the Premier League, and he can also play on the wings. Knowing our financial situation though, it's probably asking too much.
Verdict: Stephane Sessegnon
The major problem Sunderland face, at least to the majority of fans and pundits alike, is the lack of a good enough striker. Now, what defines a striker depends on who you talk to. Most will say it's someone who scores a lot of goals ala Darren Bent. For Martin O'Neill, it is someone who holds the ball, gives it and is physically imposing, the classic O'Neill target man. Nicklas Bendtner came on form far too late, and unfortunately he will not be staying. Fraizer Campbell played only thrice in the striker role, but was pretty impressive, scoring twice. He has a few key qualities, being quick and energetic. If he can stay away from injuries, he will probably be used quite a few times. Other than that we have Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham. Ji will forever be remembered for that goal against Man City, but other than that, he's been pretty good, except for that horrific miss against Blackburn at Ewood Park. 2 goals in 11 games is good, especially considering you're in your first season, not to mention they were against MC and Chelsea. With a pass success rate of 84%, he betters even Stephane Sessegnon. However, he is not ready to be selected week in and week out. As for Wickham, it's been disappointing. Injuries ruined his season despite a bright start, and he failed to impress when he returned. He is extremely young though, and I'm confident he'll eventually show what he's truly capable of.
So the question is, Campbell, Ji or Wickham? Or perhaps someone else?
There are a lot of attractive things about Steven Fletcher. He fits the O'Neill bill perfectly. He is someone prepared to batter and be battered by defenders. He is a clinical striker, which makes the fans happy. He seems like someone who would be able to get on the end of crosses from McClean and through balls from Sessegnon. 10 Million pounds is somewhat excessive, but I think it may just be worth it. And if it turns out to be too much, we have a bunch of strikers to call upon.
Verdict: Steven Fletcher
With all that done, this is my final 'dream team'.
Westwood, Gardner, O'Shea, Brown, Colback, Cattermole (C), Vaughan, Larsson, McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher
I tried my best to work with what the team already had, knowing the tight financial situation. Looking at this first team, the only purchase is Fletcher, who at 10 Million will stretch our wallet. I did mention possible additional signings such as McGeady, Johnson and Hoilett. These would only be possible with some sales, and I would suggest people like Bramble and Elmohamady be sold in order to fatten up the budget and ease the wage bill. However, things would be fine with Fletcher being the only add-on. The rest of our current squad is enough to compensate for any injuries or suspensions. An alternative starting XI with our current players and Fletcher:
Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon, Richardson, Meyler, Vaughan (C), Elmohamady, McClean, Campbell, Fletcher
Allowing for the addition of my other wanted men, this is another alternative XI:
Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon, Richardson, Meyler, Vaughan (C), McGeady, Johnson, Hoilett, Campbell
In the end, what has been written down is merely what I believe is best for the club. I am not Mr. Martin O'Neill and he obviously has other plans for the club. I am glad he has showed up, and I truly believe he'll lead the Black Cats to some great things. We just got to see what he has in store...
Sunderland till' I die...