03 June 2014. "… when we knew there was a possibility of Seb staying, we really pushed it. It was very important to have a quick agreement on the contract and get him signed. He was so important during the season – and especially at the end – that we were really desperate to have Seb on board with us …"
When Gus Poyet gets enthusiastic about a divisive player, it invites a combative climate. Since June 2011, his Swedish midfielder has prompted widespread contrary judgment from commendation to resentment. Yet when the 2014 mass player exodus occurred, Poyet was resolute: Sebastian Bengt Ulf Larsson was not leaving Sunderland – wanted or not.
It’s rarely recalled how sought-after Larsson was before joining Sunderland. The IFK Eskilstuna and Arsenal Academy prospect was a coveted U21 international of 44 caps by 2006. He repaid Birmingham City’s £1.32m investment in him with the 2011 Football League Cup. So for Sunderland to acquire his calibre for free was canny business.
Despite some initial dubious notions of him, the Swede was a satisfying solace during Sunderland’s disappointing 2011/12 campaign. He characterised his inaugural season as the Black Cats’ number seven with that enrapturing dwimmer-crafty debut volley at Anfield; and culminated the momentum in the dramatic 3-3 Etihad encounter, where Larsson’s rip-roaring brace rattled the eventual league champions. Overall his form was as gorgeous as his damn face.
That impressive run however set supporters’ expectations of Larsson. No one cares that he was in the league’s top eight for accurate crossing and corners that season – he scored seven league goals; some crucial, some just aesthetically class. But Larsson couldn’t replicate that goal haul for Sunderland in his second year, or in his third.
And so, Larsson’s suddenly souring popularity coincided with Martin O’Neill’s painfully monotonous, bulwark-inspired ideology in 2012/13. The Swede’s shot accuracy dropped from 48% to 26% with only one league goal all season, albeit a screamer.
O’Neill also surmised that Larsson’s stamina was attuned for central midfield and withdrew him from wide midfield where he was a matured attacker. That was a laudable idea since Larsson regularly busts a gut over 90 minutes. However his forward play suffered in juggling with defensive requirements and he eventually lost favour with a lot of supporters. His barely visible contribution became synonymous with Sunderland’s dead tempo under MON, even if exceptions were made for his work effort.
Yet the malicious observations toward him were unjust. Under O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio, Larsson was subtly developing his game, not hindering it. He produced the club’s second highest unconverted assists tally. His rate for unsuccessful touches and dispossession both halved compared to his admirable prior season. His distribution accuracy for short passing, crossing and corners all marginally improved, and his long pass accuracy swelled from 40% to 72%. Understatedly, his celebrated free kick accuracy ballooned from 34% to 67%; doubling in precision a year after Arsène Wenger had already described the player as "the best free-kick taker in the league".
When Gus Poyet was appointed Sunderland Head Coach in October 2013, the Uruguayan quickly embraced Larsson’s central midfield achievements and sought to constructively use them. To support the new vision of Sunderland as a pace-dictating team of sound tactical possession, Larsson became an indispensable linchpin at the club. He offered a comprehensive knack for sensible passing and possession, an alternative set piece mode of assault, and was consistently throwing his body and soul at opposition players in defensive hysteria for Sunderland’s cause.
Subsequently, the strengths of Larsson’s distribution stats were maintained throughout Sunderland’s 2013/14 season too. His possession figures in ball retention were additionally enhanced and he averaged a potential assist every 45 minutes – his career best. Though his shot accuracy dipped to 18%, Larsson’s sole league goal at Old Trafford in May was one of the most significant in the club’s recent history. It also augmented the resurgence in appreciation of the Swede and his unobserved contributions.
Today, supporters are becoming endeared to Larsson again, not just for the vehement performances but for his uncomplicated attitude. That desire in his defensive grit is equalled by his methodical set piece offence. He’s found the balance. In this 2014/15 season, Larsson has created the most goal-scoring opportunities for his team (36 – Adam Johnson, the second highest, has 18), has scored a meticulously canonical direct free kick whilst still being a midfield intercepting omnipresence.
Sebastian Larsson is a rare player, one who epitomises that unrelenting desire his supporters demand and represents them with pride. He’s got a strong engine, some specialised skills and reliable concentration. He turned down Newcastle United in 2011 to reaffirm his allegiance to Sunderland in 2014; and should he see out his contract to 2017 he may just become an unsung hero at this club. We only know now that the man from Södermanland is loyal to Sunderland; to its supporters, and its future:
"… I’m delighted to have signed a new deal with the club … I feel that this is a club moving in the right direction and I want to be part of it."
And after so many who didn’t want to be part of it, Sebastian Larsson deserves to be.