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Black Cats Analects: Coates Under The Radar

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He wasn’t always the defender we were looking for last season. But is Seb Coates the man for Sunderland’s defence this season?

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"… [Coates] has deserved the chance.  I could see it coming in training …"

Dick Advocaat said that back in April 2015.  He was talking about Sebastián Coates Nion – his on-loan Uruguayan centre-back, beat by an injury-plagued season of iffy performances.  It was a dispiriting time for the defender who, after nearly 4 years in the Premier League, just didn’t seem to cut it.  However, just as Advocaat said, a lesser known side of Seb Coates was coming.  And it was great.

Y’see, just how good Coates can be is something of a forgotten story to Premier League observers.  The man from Montevideo began his career at 11 years old, captaining Club Nacional de Football through the youth ranks of Uruguay.  He signed his senior contract for the ‘Tricolores’ in 2009 and became a 2-time Primera División Uruguaya winner by 2011.  Coates – on 78 matches and 20 years old – became the in-demand defender in South America, claiming 5 goals and 7 assists over just 2 years.

His accolades throughout complimented a youth prospect, with a penchant for consistency, who could dictate play with maturity from the back.  Coates was a star of the 2009 South American U20 Championship; a 2-time Primera División Defender of the Season and Player of the Season; he even dabbled as a 2012 Olympian, and topped Neymar for the 2011 Copa América Best Young Player Award.

Coates was good, no doubt.  Kenny Dalglish sure thought so when he plunged £7.04m into the biggest fee in Uruguayan football history in August 2011.  One League Cup winners’ medal and a highlight reel scissor-kick goal later, and you’d think Coates’ inaugural season on Merseyside was a continuation of his defence-anchoring antics in his homeland.  Well, it wasn’t.

Though he genuinely contributed to Liverpool’s 2012 League Cup campaign, Coates had gone from a regular at Nacional to a bit-part role at Liverpool.  He completed just 487 minutes in the Premier League alone and that was blighted by the 4-0 debut drubbing by Tottenham Hotspur, followed by infrequent appearances thereafter.

His 2012/13 season was also unspectacular, save for his UEFA Europa League goal and assist against BSC Young Boys.  He was largely unused in the Premier League (making 2 starts), and unfortunately botched his first team opportunities in losses to Oldham Athletic and Swansea City in both 4th Round domestic cup competitions.  Coates took a lot of hassle for his errors in both matches.

After Brendan Rogers’ refusal to loan the Uruguayan in January 2013 and a season-damaging knee injury in August, Coates career quickly turned kaput.  Fortunately, a loan return to Nacional granted the defender first team starts by April 2014.  He played every minute of the clubs’ next 6 fixtures; conceding just 2 goals from 5 matches, but succumbed to a 5-0 loss to Club Atlético Peñarol.

Then, as we know, he joined Sunderland on loan.  And part of what makes Coates’ time on Wearside so interesting is that supporters were able to see both versions of what we know of the player; the poor defender who struggled against Oldham Athletic, and later the Primera División champion who shut out an all-attacking Arsenal team.

Take his debut for the Black Cats in September 2014: Coates was hauled off on half-time in the 1-2 loss to Stoke City in the League Cup 3rd Round.  He impressed nobody then.  Or even in the losses to Manchester City and Hull City in December 2014.  He was no £7m player then either.  Regardless of his good work in the away win against Newcastle United, Coates’ early months at Sunderland were awkward.

Then he got injured and nobody was talking about this forgotten loanee anymore.  It wasn’t until April 2015, after playing in the 3-2 win over Southampton U21s, that Dick Advocaat replaced Santiago Vergini with Coates for the end of season run-in.  5 matches and 3 clean sheets later, Sunderland headed into the final match-day with league safety assured.  Coates had contributed to just 3 conceded goals against free-scoring Southampton, Everton, Leicester City and Arsenal.  He went overnight mint.

It’s possible that the upturn in Sunderland’s defensive work merely coincided with Coates’ inclusion to the first team.  But it’s unlikely.  Coates was too heavily involved in Sunderland’s endeavour for him to be simply a witness to that momentary success.  The reality is that Coates has very real strengths as a defender, but it took a pragmatic coach to adapt it to the English game.  Advocaat certainly did that.

So now the question is: should Sunderland take the chance on Sebastián Coates for the 2015/16 season?

Looking at Sunderland’s current defensive options, you’d think yes.  The club is seemingly trying to arrange a permanent deal for him.  Should Advocaat have the patience to coach Coates back into his Nacional form, as he did in May this year, then that reported £2m transfer fee would be an utter steal.

Fortunately for Sunderland; for whatever reason, Liverpool – and Brendan Rogers particularly – appear to have abandoned their reasons for recruiting Coates.  The defender was not brought in by the current management and has been a perennial fourth-choice defender since Rogers took over from Dalglish.  It’s unlikely that even the stats-comparison image of Coates and Dejan Lovren will change that.

Any wage concerns may be easily dispelled too.  Coates would likely require a wage cut, but the player himself is, by all accounts, well grounded on the subject.  In 2011, he explained that his move to FC Dnipro was stopped in favour of a move to the Premier League due to the economic advantage of playing in England.  Coates’ career in Uruguay, though important, was also a financial no-go.  He would also describe how making a good living but not losing sight of his international aspirations was crucial.

Also, £2m is a good gamble for a 24-year old when considering today’s market values.  The idea that it could potentially lead to, at the most, a decade of service, would be excellent business for any club.  And after over 220 days worth of injuries since his debut in the Premier League, its unlikely Sunderland would want to pay much more for the defender.

Should Sunderland complete a deal for Sebastián Coates, he certainly won’t be the club’s most significant signing of the summer.  Regardless of the Uruguayan’s excellent form in South America, his experience in England has put him out of favour with Liverpool, and under the radar of most clubs.  However, if that means Sunderland could recruit a young international-calibre defender who still has a lot to offer, then maybe ‘under the radar’ is exactly what Sunderland needs Coates to be right now.