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BCA: The Magnificent Twenty Seven

Jan Kirchhoff was great last season.  This season, we need better.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Jan Tilman Kirchhoff. Now there’s a player. That warmth of assurance he brings when he enters the field of play; that fluid movement as he gently glides around the soft, innocent grass. The control he has over us ... forcing us to look on in pleasure as he caresses balls around other men ... penetrating boxes with ease so elegantly ... watching this squad member push forward ... erecting his body into the air on corners ... making the crowd sweat with anticipation. He’s more than a midfielder. More than a man.

Soon he will come ... back. From injury.

You get the idea, Jan Kirchhoff is one sensual son of a b***h. He is the cut above of a player, the likes of which we don’t get to see all too often at Sunderland amidst the fatality of duds we pay to endure.

The irony of that is the 6”5’ German isn’t even a great player. He’s not even one of the best in this league. Hell, believe it or not, but we haven’t even seen the best of him yet! That all occurred in the Bundesliga around three years ago.

But we’re not getting into his good work over in Germany, or the short-lived, stop-start, injury-botched career path he’s taken since. We’ve covered that. The gist of it is straight-forward: back in January we bought this defender/midfielder who had a nightmare start here, but also had all the potential to surprise us and become key to our season under Sam Allardyce.

And yes, he became just that.

That said, again, there is no point in glorifying Jan Kirchhoff’s accomplishments because, quite frankly, there isn’t a thing he does that a lot of other players don’t do better. The difference, however (and why it means something to us), is that those other players don’t come to clubs like Sunderland AFC.

Not that this is to neglect the quality he holds. Far from it. In fact, you could argue that Kirchhoff is one of the better players in world football to have gone a career on next-to-zero in transfer fees for his services. To date, only ourselves and FC Schalke 04 have paid a dime for the midfielder; one loan fee of €425,000 in January 2014, and the £850,000 used to recruit him up to Wearside ten months ago. To say that these payments were below his worth is an understatement.

And just look at the stats for last season, and see where he made a difference.

It reads like this: fifteen matches; enough mobility to tally the second best dribbling take-on rate in the squad after Wahbi Khazri (2.1 per game), the third best interception rate (2.1 per game), and the absolute best at the club for average rate of tackling success (3.5 per game). We didn’t get a man who could do both – he could do anything. No wrong, for a start.

Well, apart from the other stats. His clearances on 3.5 per game, chance creation at 0.7 per game, 1.3 unsuccessful touches per game – those were bang average compared to the rest of the squad. On the plus side, his rate for dispossession ranked around 0.8 per game, so about the same as Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila. Essentially, he didn’t lose possession all that often on his own.

His passing, however, was a real problem. Last season, Kirchhoff only mustered 70% pass accuracy. That, no matter what league you’re in or position you play, is poor.

And, unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better this season, either. To date, Kirchhoff has completed only 71% of his passes in the six matches across all competitions he’s appeared in.

It’s the same nearly across the board, too. In truth, the story for the German so far this season is that he is barely the player he was last season, let alone the better performer he was in 2013. Though it is unfair to entirely condemn the former German U21 (he has been injured for most the season), there has been a noticeable drop in his form.

For starters, Kirchhoff’s tackling rate has dropped a lot to just 2.3 per game. That may still be the third best in the squad, but by his own standards, it’s awful. Worse still, his dribbling take-on rate has plummeted into non-existence at 0.3 per game. His chance creation has also dropped to 0.3 per game, and his 1.8 clearances per game rate has halved completely.

On the plus side, Kirchhoff is maintaining his consistency with interceptions (1.8 per game), and has been dispossessed far less also. Elsewhere, his rate for unsuccessful touches is a lot better than last season, at 0.3 per game.

The summary of those numbers is fairly obvious. The midfielder is still a competent possession-player, and hasn’t lost his uncanny knack for strolling at a slug pace in, out and all around opposition as if the ball were super-glued to his boots. He still looks like the player who should probably ignore his team-mates and just walk the ball into the net.

However, with all realism, as good as Kirchhoff still is – we need to see the best of him this season. Not only for the sake of the club’s status in the Premier League, but also for the player himself.

As it stands, Kirchhoff is due back from a hamstring injury around early November, when Sunderland may or may not have registered a first league win of the season. His return cannot come sooner. The team has blatantly missed the inevitable assurance and confidence he brings to the side, and with more full-throttle runners around him, such as Didier Ndong, there’s a place for Kirchhoff to stick to his strengths without having to do more than his knackered legs will allow.

However, again, this isn’t just about the team. Presently, Jan Kirchhoff has 247 days left on his Sunderland contract. Yes, seriously, the club didn’t get around to extending that 18-month deal he arrived on. Nonetheless, you’d think – injuries aside – that a 26 year old player as well-liked and as reliable as Kirchhoff should be able to get a new contract here off the back of a good season.

If he even makes it through this season, that is. It’d be a shame to think of what could happen to his career should he become a free agent this summer.

Hopefully, that won’t happen. Hopefully, the club realises the kind of unique player that Jan Kirchhoff is. Yes, he may be somewhat broken at times, but that doesn’t change the known qualities that he has. We know that he can be even more, if his body allows it. It isn’t often we get a midfielder as heavily-built as the Frankfurt Main native man is, and who is yet one of the more mobile in the squad.

We truly do have something of a luxury player in our squad in Jan Kirchhoff; one that is seen few and far between here at Sunderland. We can only pray that everything falls in the midfielder’s favour, and we see the German beyond June 30th. He has fooled us into poor expectations of him once before and, this season, it would be a shame if he couldn’t again raise the standard on how good he subtly and unspectacularly is.

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