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Is There Still Room For Seb Larsson In The Sunderland Side?

Could Seb Larsson suffer a double dose of misery this summer?  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Could Seb Larsson suffer a double dose of misery this summer? (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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While much of the hubbub and hoo hah regarding Sunderland's transfer activities of late has focused on Martin O'Neill's search for a striker (or two), it would be folly to assume finding a replacement for the outgoing Asamoah Gyan is the only item on the Ulsterman's summer agenda.

With Stephen Fletcher seemingly the manager's chief target, this has led to much talk surrounding the formation O'Neill will seek to employ come the season's start next month at Arsenal.

The prevailing wisdom, at least at this point in proceedings, suggests the Black Cats opting for something of a 4-3-3 formation, with a lone striker - hoped to be Fletcher - flanked by two onrushing wingers.

On the left, James McClean's position is assured. The Irishman was a revelation last year and, despite a disappointing lack of action at Euro 2012 last month, he will undoubtedly be one of the first names on O'Neill's team-sheet.

It is on the opposing wing, however, where question marks lie.

At first, this may seem a rather harsh judgment. In his first season at the club last year, Seb Larsson was one of the standout performers. Eight goals for the campaign is nothing to be dismissed easily - he also weighed in with a few assists - and his dangerous set-pieces added a powerful dimension to Sunderland's play that has been missing for too many years.

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But, in spite of this, his role at the club is an uncertain one. Larsson, at twenty-seven, is arguably entering his prime, yet whether or not he can retain a starting role in Martin O'Neill's system next year has become a very real and contentious issue.

Where McClean is the epitome of a direct winger, relying on pace and power to get to the byline, Larsson is the opposite. The Swede is not blessed with great pace, relying instead upon his pinpoint crossing and shooting accuracy to trouble opposition defences. Larsson is much more likely to cross from deep than attempt to beat his man with skill or pace - though his good stamina means he performs an important role in assisting his full-back defensively.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Larsson's style of play. Indeed, it served him well last season, and again this summer at Euro 2012; despite Sweden's early departure, Larsson weighed in with an assist and two goals.

Furthermore, it is not like every side must play with two wingers of McClean's ilk. Though clearly on a different technical level, a McClean-Larsson partnership could reasonably compared to the late 1990s Manchester United partnership of Giggs and Beckham, at least with regards to style of play.

However, Martin O'Neill's managerial past suggests that Larsson may not quite be the winger for him. Most glaringly at Aston Villa, but also in spells at the likes of Celtic and Leicester City, O'Neill has invariably looked for one overriding attribute in his forward players - pace.

Favouring a counter-attacking style built on a solid defence, O'Neill likes his sides to break forward like greyhounds bursting from the traps, surprising opponents by the sheer speed with which they can transition from defending to a goalscoring opportunity.

This style of play is reflected in O'Neill's alleged transfer targets this summer. Victor Moses was touted very early on (though now looks set for a much grander stage), Junior Hoilett's name appears still to be reverberating around SR5, Aidan McGeady is said to be tempted to return from Russia, and Adam Johnson - though perhaps a pipe dream for Sunderland fans - is another whose name remains in the alleged fold. All of these players possess pace, and would mirror the style of McClean on the opposing wing.

Though we cannot be sure of anything before the season starts, no less before a pre-season ball has been kicked, it is reasonable to assume that O'Neill will opt next season for one up front with Stephane Sessegnon acting as a bridge between midfield and attack. With two wingers a given, one would then expect the Irishman to employ two deeper central midfielders behind Sessegnon (most likely Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback). This, in turn, would free those wingers to attack with more vigour, worrying less about their defensive responsibilities should the move break down.

Should O'Neill thus seek to pursue a pacey right-winger, it is difficult to see where Larsson may fit in. A central midfield berth would probably suit him given his stamina and relatively good passing accuracy, while it would also mean the side retained a set-piece specialist.

The problem with this is that his defensive capabilities, while sufficient for a right midfielder, may not stand up in the heat of the centre. Cattermole and Colback conversely seem to offer the perfect blend of grit and creativity - whereas Larsson would largely only be able to offer the latter.

Three years shy of thirty, the Swede is unlikely to be content with a role on the bench - especially given his good season last term.

It remains to be seen where Martin O'Neill will turn in this transfer market, and other positions certainly seem to be taking precedent at the moment. However, should he cast his glance to the right, Seb Larsson's days on Wearside could well be numbered.

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