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Black Cats Analects: The M'Vila Reloaded

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Is Sunderland and Yann M'Vila the unlikely match to revitalise both parties?

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"… He reads the game like Claude Makélélé; has the presence of Patrick Viera, and can pass the ball like Yaya Touré …"

Frédéric Antonetti said that back in 2011; pre-emptively bragging about Stade Rennais’ controversial shooting starlet, Yann Gérard M’Vila.  The 20-year old French midfielder was barely out of his development contract with Les Rouges et Noirs.  Yet make no mistake, Yann M’Vila genuinely was – for a time – considered to be not only the most in-demand prospect out of France, but one of the most sought-after midfielders on the continent.

Yes – the same Yann M’Vila who is now forsaken in Sunderland’s spiral of relegation-induced chaos.  It’s a fall from grace for the player, sure; but what does this mean for Sunderland AFC? Should Lee Congerton be given a huge cheer for procuring a bona fide quality footballer, or are we still waiting for this self-destructing French time bomb to blow up and give us another reason to chastise the troublesome Sporting Director debate?

It’s a question that has little to do with on-field performances.  In fact, Yann M’Vila has been the first team MVP over his nine appearances for the senior squad.  Instead, the query refers to the unpredictable reputation that precedes M’Vila, and how negative exterior influences have regularly wrecked his promising natural talents.  Because, as things stand; the Frenchman is without an official coach, at a club whose purpose is being bled dry by constant re-upheaval, and in a team that is often perceived to be a detrimental influence unto itself.

Regrettably, Sunderland is not the ideal club for a player of M’Vila’s assumed reputation.  After all, his is a career defined by the idea that the player himself is not a wholly-committed footballer.  Stade Rennais coach, Guy Lacombe, believed as such in 2008, when he publicly vilified M’Vila as a walking self-sabotage, mostly due to the player’s casual absences from 08/09 Ligue 1 pre-season training.

Not that the midfielder wasn’t gifted.  M’Vila caught national attention in 2004, when he joined Stade Rennais’ academy and put on youthful master-classes in the U16 league tournaments.  He was scouted heavier upon turning pro with Stade Rennais B in the Championnat de France Amateur in August 2007.  By July 2009, M’Vila had captained France to the UEFA European U19 Championship semi-finals; partnered superbly in midfield with Alfred N’Diaye no less, to the high praise of his critics who commended his powerhouse performances.

Rennais boss Frédéric Antonetti was one of them, and the teenager was shuffled into defensive midfield with Fabien Lemoine for the 09/10 Ligue 1 campaign.  M’Vila would be the deep-laying playmaker; starting the attack to be finished by Rennais striker, Asamoah Gyan.

By the following season, M’Vila had undergone 2 contract extensions and cemented an iron-clad place in Antonetti’s starting eleven.  In December 2010, the midfielder completed 100 of 112 passes against Valenciennes FC and officially logged the pass accuracy record for a Ligue 1 fixture that season.  M’Vila was a known creator, an assist-provider, occasional goal-scorer; a team captain whose stock constantly grew until he ultimately became the standout young midfielder in Europe.  And Europe knew it.

Real Madrid and Liverpool were both linked with the Rennais tactician throughout 2011.  Tottenham Hotspur may-or-may-not-have had bids accepted for him, and he had about 12 medicals at Arsenal.  The ‘Viera’ comparisons were sensationalised immediately.  M’Vila was the incarnation of a rare 6-ft midfielder who could play the ball, put in a shift, pick out a pass; but all the while hold that balance of being both disciplined enough to read the game and be big enough to bully it.  He had all the tools to be one of the best and Laurent Blanc brought him into the national squad as if he already was.  However, despite all that – and a few shifts at Euro 2012 – that big-club move never happened.

There was a reason.  Well, a few.  In 2010, he allegedly punched a restaurant owner.  He punched a 17-year old in 2012 too.  That was also a few weeks after attending court to see two prostitutes jailed for robbing his laptop.  Then there was the handshake refusal with Laurent Blanc during Euro 2012.  And the two year banishment from all international duty imposed on him by the French Football Federation for going wild after-hours during the U21 Euro Championship Qualifiers.  Needless to say, the bad publicity put suitors right off M’Vila.

That; and his performances fell apart too.  By the time M’Vila called quits at Rennais, he was getting a lot of heat for some apathetic shifts.  The club didn’t suffer much for it, but the player himself lost a lot of favour from the upper echelons of club football.  And, in January 2013, the midfielder followed the money out of France to the 11/12 Russian Cup holders, Rubin Kazan, for a perhaps-undervalued £8.4m fee.

After a few minutes in Russia, the heat turned up even more when M’Vila publicly flaunted his newfound weekly wealth to the world.  His reputation, which was already taking a Raheem Sterling-level nosedive, became epitomised as a man who had given up on his natural talent to utter indifference.  His turn-out for the Tatáry was shoddy too.  He provided a single assist for Vladimir Dyadyun in May 2013.  That was about it.

M’Vila’s second season at Kazan was far more stable, if not complacent.  Now as a lone defensive midfielder, he provided assists sporadically for the likes of Bibras Natkho and Salomón Rondón, in both the Russian Premier League and in the Europa League Qualifying Rounds.  Though his end product was good, it was M’Vila’s questionable work rate that fed his detractors more.  Between 2009 and 2012, his tackling rate for Rennais averaged 3.1 per game; putting him consistently in the top five midfield tackling ratios in Ligue 1.  Alternatively, in Russia, the player’s rate of tackling, one-on-one duals and interceptions halved; and was lucky to be making even one successful tackle per game for Rubin Kazan.

And then, he disappeared.  That was in January 2014.  With Kazan spending the off-season training in Turkey; the Frenchman was meanwhile approach by Liverpool.  And, as any one would do when approached by Brendan Rogers, M’Vila went off the grid.  He never returned to the Kazan Arena.

Instead, the Frenchman rocked up on loan at FC Inter Milan in July 2014.  Despite his very-public problems with management, M’Vila was selected by Roberto Mancini to fill the midfield void left by the departing Esteban Cambiasso.  It was another botch-implosion by the midfielder.  14 apps later, M’Vila’s loan deal was terminated 7 months early; and Mancini cited the player’s poor motivation and fitness being the cause.

Next stop for M’Vila was FC Dynamo Moscow, where he trained ahead of a proposed Summer 2015 transfer.  But as we know – that didn’t happen.  Instead, Dynamo violated UEFA Financial Fair Play, was booted out of the Europa League, and its Sporting Director, Manager and President all did one.  Club ownership returned to the Dynamo Sport Club, and the new board vetoed all proposed transfers.  M’Vila, meanwhile, apparently destroyed his rented Moscow home, and was now missing in action somewhere in France.

So that brings us to now, and back to the question: come the end of this season, what version of Yann M’Vila will Sunderland have experienced? Well, so far, we’ve seen both.  Black Cats supporters’ first experience of the Frenchman was his U21 head-butt to Jamar Loza at Eppleton CW back in August.  His straight red card had observers speculating all sorts.  But, since then, the signs have been generally positive – and there may be an unlikely reason for this.

Looking at the recent dysfunctional history of both Yann M’Vila and Sunderland AFC, the pairing has brought about an intriguing sense of mutual benefit.  For the player, who is way off the radar of clubs willing to take a chance on him, he has a real platform on Wearside to reboot his career, and seems to be pursuing that purpose with some enthusiasm.  M’Vila, in similar fashion to Mario Balotelli, is no longer a boy earning a living before learning how to live.  He’s 25 years old and, after a haywire career to date, finally appears to be playing with a mature goal in mind.  You get the feeling that he knows this may just be his last chance.

As for Sunderland, the club can only thrive off having an in-form Yann M’Vila.  It cannot be ignored just how desirable a player he was such a short time ago.  He is far and above the team’s best overall player this season at a time when there are no expectations of him.  Aside from so-so performances against Norwich City, Swansea City and Manchester United; M’Vila is responsible for 2 of the 3 points Sunderland have this season.  It was his excellently converted free kick that helped secure the point against Aston Villa, whereas his two assists against West Ham United brought Sunderland to a 2-0 lead just last week.  He also put in a hell of a shift against Tottenham Hotspur, and emerged with a little credibility against AFC Bournemouth.

He has also been statistically sound.  No player has retained possession for Sunderland as much as M’Vila.  He makes the most average passes per game of the squad (49).  His 85% is the best pass accuracy of any player in the squad, and puts him in the top ten for Premier League midfielders.  Offensively, the numbers support his subtle deep-laying playmaker status too.  His 2 key-pass per game average is the club’s best this season.

Defensively, M’Vila is back on the progressive stats that he was revered for at Stade Rennais.  Currently, he is producing a 3 tackles-per-game and 2 interceptions-per-game average.  That puts him in good company, rounding off the top five Premier League players who have played as many games as him with better stats.  His tackling success rate likewise is approximately 48% which, although not the best in the league, means M’Vila is producing his personal best stats across all areas of his game since 2008.  His rates for interceptions, tackling, and key-passing in particular, are higher now for Sunderland than they have ever been in his career.

Still, there is a long way to go in this season, and part of M’Vila’s unpredictability is that these performances could either get even better, or it could all fall apart.  The player is still both that loose cannon detested by Guy Lacombe; and the workaholic box-to-box midfielder Laurent Blanc chose for the France national squad.

Right now though, it is Sunderland’s responsibility to ensure that the undirected calamity about the club does not affect the genuine talent in it, and M’Vila is key to that.  The Frenchman has finally found his purpose on Wearside that supports his professional rehabilitation.  The flame, that natural talent he has, is reignited, and the club cannot lose focus and risk having M’Vila losing sight of his own goals, or becoming destructive because of it.

Whether he is the player he was or not, Sunderland have a real talent in Yann M’Vila; a player still under the radar just enough to perhaps become a realistic investment beyond this season.  And so long as he is out of trouble, he is proving how he is worth the risk.  Or, should one season be all we see of the Frenchman, come May 2016 we could just be talking about one of the best loan signing this club ever had.