"… I’d say my favoured position was that holding role in midfield … I don’t think there’s any need for me to drop back into central defence yet … maybe it will happen in a few years, when I have gained more experience and maturity …"
Promising England U21 defender, Jack Rodwell, didn’t want to be a centre-back in March 2010. He dodged that positional shift at both Everton and Manchester City too. But now Rodwell is at Sunderland AFC – where nobody gets what they want.
Because should (or should not) Sunderland be relegated to the Championship, Jack Christian Rodwell could become surplus to the midfield requirement. Despite the outcome of this season and any managerial decisions thereafter, Rodwell’s own record may inevitably call for a change.
Currently, for £11.09m; Jack Rodwell – as an attacking midfielder - hasn’t provided an assist in four years; as a box-to-box midfielder, runs a strong engine on legs busted by torn tendons and hamstrings; and as a defensive midfielder, has been statistically the least effective at the club.
Injuries aside, it is debatable whether Sunderland needs Jack Rodwell in midfield. However, looking at the impending exodus of defenders at the club; the short-term gap in central defence could become the foundation of a long-term revival in Rodwell’s struggling career.
This isn’t a new concept, either. The notion of Jack Rodwell as a future international-calibre defender was the consensus of most football observers and pundits as far back at 2008, when David Moyes began blooding the Southport native into senior level competition at Everton.
It wasn’t until the 2009/10 season that Rodwell featured in central midfield; initially in Everton’s UEFA Europa League campaign, scoring a brace against SK Sigma Olomouc in the 4th Round Qualifiers; then regularly in the Premier League after an Achilles tendon scare in January 2010.
A five-match run in February and March 2010 was the defining aspect in Rodwell’s career when, at 19 years old; he assisted goals against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, whilst scoring against Hull City and claiming an unexpectedly cool solo goal over Manchester United.
He may not have been a commanding midfield presence but he was a well-disciplined one, with smart composure and movement in possession. Rodwell was good, but not great; and despite high-price transfer rumours of switching clubs as a defender, he didn’t improve either.
From August 2010 to August 2012, Rodwell would start only 25 Premier League matches for Everton; scoring 2, assisting 2. Though Moyes persisted with him in a defensive midfield role, Rodwell became less defined by his contribution to results and more by his absences. He wasn’t just struggling to recapture form; he also missed 22 fixtures due to injuries from January 2010 until Manchester City’s £13.2m purchase of the midfielder in August 2012.
Rodwell’s injury-plagued tenure with the Citizens was no better, playing just 26 matches from August 2012 to May 2014. Though Rodwell’s only notable contribution was a brace scored against Norwich City in May 2013, by October he was being sounded out as a defensive option to City’s back-line injuries due to his physical attributes. That never happened.
By March 2014, Rodwell was 23 years old; the toil his midfield duties had stacked up 305 days’ worth of injuries; he had missed 54 matches across two clubs in the Premier League, and was also injured out of representing Team GB Men’s Football at the 2012 London Olympics.
That unwanted record was perhaps overlooked amidst the naïve £11.09m Sunderland’s recruitment spent for Rodwell’s services in August 2014. Disregarding the daft fees for English talent, the idea that the midfielder’s fee could be justified by his potential was also questionable.
Consider that David Moyes, in October 2011, said, "… [Rodwell is] more mature … he isn’t that young boy any more … [he] now has to perform like a senior player …" Rodwell even received his first senior cap for the England national team a month after Moyes’ public view on the player.
Equally contentious were expectations of what he could bring to Sunderland. Rodwell’s most successful year was the 2009/10 season. Since then he had been as unfortunate with career-threatening injuries as he was unfairly hyped up as the player with those standards 5 years ago.
That explains the dilemma Jack Rodwell had upon joining Sunderland, but his stats in this 2014/15 season are nonetheless either unspectacular or no better than his midfield counterparts.
Should Rodwell continue as a holding midfielder, as he sought to be in 2010, only two statistics are above average: his rate of dispossession is a commendable 0.6 per game and unsuccessful touches is a lower 0.4 per game. That’s okay for a midfielder, but Lee Cattermole matches both.
His rates for other midfield defensive duties are less impressive. Per game, Rodwell’s record is worse than Cattermole, Sebastian Larsson and Liam Bridcutt for interceptions, tackles and total defensive actions. In a league that requires a reactive pace, Rodwell is the slowest of the four.
However, his defensive strengths are in his concentration. Though he cannot match his team’s midfielders for quantity of actions, he can better them for success rates. His tackling (45%) is the 3rd highest at Sunderland after John O’Shea and Anthony Réveillère. Over 50% of his defensive actions are instinctive clearances from the defensive third. Most effectively, Rodwell averages the 2nd highest ratio for blocked shots at Sunderland with 0.93 per game – also one of the better ratios for blocks in the Premier League.
Then there’s his aerial presence. Rodwell is 6"2 and his height has given him a 52% win ratio for aerial duals; a stat that eclipses other club midfielders. That thereupon has led to the more obvious minor successes of his time at Sunderland: his 3 goals; all headers, all from set pieces, from 12 headed efforts on goal averaging 65% accuracy – the 2nd highest at the club.
It’s been said enough this season. Rodwell hasn’t bombed on Wearside but he is not what he was. If he ever was. He may not have played regular football in three years but his identity as a midfielder is dwindling anyhow. Yet these positive aspects of his game – concentrated defensive actions, shot blocking, tackling success rate, aerial strength, set-piece goals – can all compliment a player who was touted as a centre back since his days in the Everton Academy.
It may also be a responsibility on the part of the club to invest in Jack Rodwell as a defender. He may still be young but his career could have been ended several times over, and unfortunately he may never be as physically mobile as he was in that 2009/10 season. To protect Rodwell’s longevity at Sunderland, the club has a duty to avoid sacrificing his wore-torn legs and put his stamina to better use. To play Rodwell as a box-to-box midfielder over the next four years could, in hindsight, be not only inadvisable but irresponsible too.
There are other potential benefits. Should the England international be reshuffled as a centre back, Rodwell could may well become the cornerstone of a prosperous, youthful defensive line; one that could subsequently kick-start a rebuilding process within the squad. This may even become likely should Sunderland be relegated and Rodwell not be sold on.
In the meantime, Sunderland is currently a platform for Jack Rodwell to re-establish himself. This season is the most he has played since 2011/12 and the most he has contributed to a club since the 2009/10 season many compare his standards to. His contract at Sunderland will keep him on Wearside until August 2019. What Sunderland do with him until then will define whether Rodwell really does still have some potential left in him.