Those who know me best know that I have a veritable fetish for centre halves and defending. For all I care, you can shove your tiki-taka and trequartistas up your bottom. Give me a tight nil-nil packed full of assured and imperious defending and I'm as happy as a conspiracy theorist reading the Daily Mail.
Sadly, for the defending enthusiast it can be slim pickings at Sunderland, especially in the full back positions where, apparently, trying to prevent a cross is immeasurably more important than actually preventing it. I digress. Anyway, we've sifted through a nexus of statistics to have a look at the centre back positions in the latest offering in our positional analysis series.
What is perhaps most striking about our findings is that the oft-maligned Michael Turner just may have spent the season breaking a few myths. He has been quite persistently criticised for being an injury-prone and uncultured hoof-merchant for much of his Sunderland career, but that is not reflected here.
If Turner is indeed unreliable from a fitness point of view, then it does not bode well for the rest. The former Hull stopper played more games at centre back (23) than anyone else over the course of the season. Wes Brown (20) was a surprising second, while many, myself included, will be disappointed that John O'Shea (11) failed to reach over a dozen appearances in the centre of the defence.
The figures are certainly telling as they highlight an inability to forge any real continuity at the heart of the defence. A total of six players started games in the centre back position for Sunderland, so the difficulties in finding any defensive consistency become abundantly clear.
The second myth that Turner looks to have disproved is the one that claims he fails to take care of the ball whilst in possession. Only Titus Bramble (78.4%) was able to better Turner's pass success rate of 77.7% over the course of the season, with O'Shea and Brown languishing some way behind. Admittedly, Turner struggles to match the pass completion of the top defenders in the division, but when compared to players such as Sylvain Distain (71.8%), Phil Jaglielka (74.5%), Richard Dunne (74.1%), and Antolin Alcaraz (77.4%) it isn't too bleak a picture at all. Given the overall poor/moderate passing figures in the Sunderland defence, it would appear to point towards a problem in the way the team as a whole support the man in possession rather than how comfortable the individuals are on the ball.
Finally, with a team leading 201 clearances and 48 interceptions, Turner has also proven himself a far more intelligent reader of the game than he is generally given credit for. You would, of course, expect him to be out in front numerically given his greater number of appearances, but he is also way out in front in terms of average clearances per game at 8.4. Once again, Bramble (7.1) is his closest rival.
Unexpectedly, John O'Shea struggled somewhat from a statistical view point. During his 11 games at centre back, he won just 9 aerial duels and made 6 blocked shots whilst also making far fewer clearances on average per game than all of his colleagues. This could be misleading, however. Many of these games came during the purple patch just after Martin O'Neill took charge when the defence had less work to do and were afforded very good midfield protection.
Wes Brown, meanwhile, made a largely impressive start to his Sunderland career before injury brought it to a sudden halt. Whilst the former England international couldn't match Turner for clearances, he was a hugely solid performer in the other defensive duties, and no one could better his ball-winning prowess. One interesting note about Brown, though, is the relationship between his relatively low number of clearances and his poor pass completion rate. Clearly, Brown is a player who is reluctant to clear his lines, choosing instead to attempt to feed the ball into midfield with varying success. It is an element of his game which has drawn criticism from fans, but I personally think it is to his credit.
What does all this mean moving forward? Well primarily it means that the club is well-served in the position. Martin O'Neill may want to insert his own man in there this summer, but it is in no way a priority position for summer strengthening. Indeed, Sunderland's defensive record was the best in the bottom half by quite some distance, and better or equal to half of the top six. Brown, Turner, and O'Shea look perfectly capable of doing the job next season, although with Titus Bramble's future sure to come into question some addition cover to the generally steady Matt Kilgallon would be welcome.