Continuing our week of stastical analysis of last season, we move on to the central midfield position. Having already covered keepers, left backs and right backs it's about time we moved a little further forward.
It's one of the most, if not the most important positions on the pitch for me, and finding the right combination can be difficult, especially a settled one. We've a number of players for the role including our captain Lee Cattermole, plus of course rising star Jack Colback, David Meyler, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner... all of whom filled one of the two spots last year.
But who performed the best, who could improve, and what should we be looking for moving forward? Join us as we look at the central midfield position in great detail...
Back in August, Steve Bruce had signed a couple of midfielders to give us some much-needed depth in the middle of the park. The problem was, that he was reluctant (or didn't know how best) to use them. Despite spending a reported £5m fee on Craig Gardner, Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback was his preferred pairing at the start of the season. Gardner's first start came away to Swansea City, as Colback was moved to the left-hand side - temporarily doing away with the idea to deploy Sebastian Larsson as a left-sided midfielder.
The Cattermole-Colback tandem was the most used throughout the season. When looking at Cattermole's statistics for the season, his importance to the team is evident: he led the way with tackles (85) and interceptions (75), significantly more than Colback (44 tackles, 40 interceptions) who played just one less game in central midfield.
Gardner arrived at the Stadium of Light with a reputation as a goal-scoring midfielder after surpassing the 10-goal threshold for Birmingham City in the previous season. Having had to bide his time, and contest with homesickness (which was later diagnosed as frustration at not playing by the man himself), Gardner chipped in with three goals - although only two came as a central midfielder (the free-kick away to Wigan was scored from the starting position of right-back). When utilised in the middle, Gardner recorded the highest number of shots (27 in 17 games) but also the second highest number of fouls.
Four different players played 15 times or more as central midfielders, indicating that the options Bruce sought after were available, although often discarded. David Vaughan's season seemed to end as ours did in the FA Cup defeat to Everton - he featured in half of our eight remaining games, completing none. When you look at how he shapes up over the course of the season, there is a fair argument that he was the most underused of all our midfield players. The Welshmen played just 17 games, yet recorded the highest pass success ratio (84.8%) and led the way with 10 key passes.
Ahead of Sunderland's home game with Swansea, I suggested that Vaughan would be perfect for that type of opposition because of his capability to do the less glamorous parts of the midfield trade, as well as being an attacking threat, and he shows up favourably here too - his 60 tackles and 41 interceptions are only bettered by Cattermole.
Aside from assists, the key passes area is another weakness in midfield although there is argument that it has been off-set by Sunderland's new style. As part of a counter-attacking team, central midfielders are less responsible for probing, incisive passes but more quick distribution; simply get it, and give it to players further up the field, which is supported by the fact that Stephane Sessegnon's key passes are significantly more than the central midfield options combined - the playmaker recorded over five times (52) as many key passes as Vaughan, the midfield's leading man. In addition, a key part of Sunderland's ability to become such an effective counter-attacking team (specifically in O'Neill's first ten games in charge) was the patience that its central midfield portrayed; it kept its shape and waited for the right time to retrieve possession which is best highlighted by Cattermole's interception figures.
What season average stats cannot tell us however is that improvement is being made. The most obvious example was Colback's defence-splitting ball for Nicklas Bendtner's goal against Bolton Wanderers. It is particularly damning when you consider that it was only the second assist from a central midfield player this season, but the increased responsibility Colback embraced as the season drew to a close suggests the red-haired midfielder has scope to be more influential in that department. And, of course, there is the option of utilising Vaughan more often than this season.
As for next season, there is definitely room for improvement in an attacking sense. Bruce not only wanted to create depth in this department, but also to find a way of taking the pressure off his frontmen in terms of goals. Gardner did not live up to his billing in his first season, and a pass success of 78.9% indicates that he may not be the man capable of quick, accurate distribution to the wings. He also demonstrated an inability to assess his options throughout the season, often getting dispossessed as he carried the ball out of his half. Despite that, he remains Sunderland's best goal threat from a central midfield area. One player who has demonstrated that he is suited to that situation is Vaughan - in addition to being the most accurate passer, he completed only 15 less passes than Cattermole, despite featuring in six less games. Defensively, however, the midfield looks encouraging. Since Martin O'Neill's arrival, Sunderland are remarkably organised, and Cattermole's tackles and interceptions ranked him second-highest in the entire league.
There could easily be some movement here over the summer; Gardner still has convincing to do and David Meyler - who featured on just seven occasions - will need more regular football to prevent his fledgling career stagnating. As previously mentioned, there is scope for improvement within the squad, but an addition in this department is certainly not out of the question.