To the naked eye our attacking midfield players, or certainly those who were earmarked for the role at the start of the season, have been less than impressive so far with not much time left to particularly change those perceptions.
We've always viewed Stephane Sessegnon as something of a creator, and combining him with Adam Johnson and James McClean seemed like it would be a match made in heaven behind the potent Steven Fletcher. This hasn't worked out so far.
Seb Larsson probably felt he could slot in as well. He's played the majority of the season centrally, but compared to his competition in Lee Cattermole, David Vaughan and Jack Colback he's been the one charged with doing something from the middle while the other sits back. The recently acquired Alfred N'Diaye has provided some attacking threat but we're yet to really work out what he is.
All four have played a similar amount this season. Obviously due to his recent benching James McClean has played the least, but all four are well over 1800 minutes of football this season, so we're going to draw some comparisons on what they've done in that time with a fresh set of Opta stats.
The most obvious stat most will point to are goals and assists. While Sessegnon leads in goals with 5, Johnson heads the leading pack with 4 while Larsson and McClean find themselves trailing with 3 between them.
Into assists, where most people's eyes will immediately look Johnson comes up tops with 4. Sessegnon and McClean come in with 2 each while Larsson comes in with a paltry 1 to go alongside his solitary goal.
So with Johnson second in goals and first in assists, his lead as our best creator this season could have been even further extended. So far according to Opta he's created 42 chances for teammates. That's a lead of 9 over Stephane Sessegnon who has 33, while Larsson come sin with 28 and McClean 22.
A chance can obviously be defined in many ways, and some much easier to score than others, but luckily there's a stat for clear cut chances created. Again, Johnson leads with 6 clear cut chances created. Sessegnon comes in with 4 while Larsson and McClean have only 1 each. All in all, quite poor, but Johnson remains the front-runner.
Pass accuracy remains pretty much the same across the board with Johnson and McClean both on 80% and Larsson and Sessegnon both on 83% but there's slight differences in putting in accurate crosses.
In this field Larsson leads the way as you might expect given he probably is our best crosser of the ball. The Swede comes in with 30% of his crosses finding their target. Johnson comes in a healthy second with 20% but Sessegnon and McClean, both of whom we're putting a fair bit of stock into from wide positions nowadays come in with 17% and 14%. McClean's low percentage quite an eye opener for someone deemed a more 'natural' winger than any of those in the comparison.
It's difficult to get yourself an assist or create anything if you're not playing the ball forwards though, which is something we'll find Johnson doing a fair bit and McClean not really doing at all. When it comes to the amount of passes played into the final third, Larsson comes up trumps with 161 made into the danger zone, and while this is a healthy lead it could be viewed as a false economy given his recent deployment into a deeper position.
Johnson comes in second with 111 passes played into the final third, while Sessegnon a respectable third on 105. The shocker here is McClean, with only 54. Given the Irishman's hardworking, it's fair to say not every ball he plays is from within that area.
Never mind getting the ball in their though, what about the players themselves? Are they doing enough to support Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham in and around the box? For some I'd say yes, for others it's a big fat no when you look at the number of penalty area entries.
Surprsingly Larsson leads here with 85 entries. Johnson comes in a healthy second with 75 but the surprising failures here are Sessegnon with only 35 entries and McClean with only 27.
Larsson and Johnson come up top in the final category we're looking at which is how often they've lost possession. Obviously in order to create we need the players to keep a hold of the ball. Larsson comes in with only losing the ball on 15 occasions this season, while Johnson's 35 dispossession's look quite high, it's nothing compared to Sessegnon who has lost the ball on 65 occasions while McClean has lost it on 47 occasions.
Overall there's two clear winners and to slight losers when it comes to creating chances and hopefully getting us goals to take us away from the relegation zone. O'Neill seems to be on a bit of a "back to basics" tip at the moment with the reintroduction of the 4-4-2 formation which died out a long time ago.
If we are going to persist with it though, looking purely at the numbers, he could do worse than taking a look at putting Johnson and Larsson out wide. What do do with Sessegnon here? he's obviously too valuable a player to leave out, but pushing him into attack might be a better option than the ineffective Danny Graham so far.
Stats courtesy of Opta, correct at time of writing on 08/03/13.