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Black Cats Analects: Winter Window Defence

Is just over five million quid spent on two defenders good business? It might just be.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

"I’m completely relaxed, because basically there’s very little expected from me so I can only come out as a positive surprise."

That’s Jan Tilman Kirchhoff saying that back in 2013 to FC Bayern Műnchen. If there is ever a player in need of a positive surprise right now, it’s Sunderland's £700,000 winter-window acquisition.

Risk-laden, injury-plagued, and debut-bombed; most supporters have made up their minds on the 25-year old centre back. That half-hour at White Hart Lane said it all! He’s crap, right?

Well, maybe not. He was, after all, a gem of a youth player for FSV Mainz 05 U19s.  His influence in fortifying the best A-Junioren Bundesliga defensive record from 2007 to 2009 was no fluke.  His commanding presence across 40+ club appearances, culminating in the 2009 A-Junioren Meisterschaft Cup Final win over Borussia Dortmund U19s, was no successful coincidence either.

Not only that, but we’re talking about a defender who learned from one of the most visionary coaches in world football, Thomas Tuchel; who developed Kirchhoff throughout Mainz 05, from A-Junioren to 1.Bundesliga; who saw this 6"5 centre back as a genuine rarity: an athletically mobile and technically gifted footballer in the strong framework of the archetypal defender.

That’s all blowing smoke, but it’s backed up. When the ‘Carnival Club’ took on 1.Bundesliga, it was the giant German who supported Mainz 05 into defensively solid 2010/11 and 2011/12 campaigns. Their defensive record in the 2010/11 season was the 2nd best in the division; and Kirchhoff’s back-line presence continued that good record when Mainz conceded the 4th fewest goals in 2012/13.

And when that sort of consistency is rewarded with an offer to join Josep Guardiola’s FC Bayern Műnchen, it just isn’t a mistake. When the pundits and the observers call Kirchhoff’s free transfer to the 25-time league champions a "great signing", that just isn’t a mistake. Although in hindsight, maybe the player himself might think it was.

Because, the dirt truth is, as good as Jan Kirchhoff was when he was 16-years old, or as highly rated as he genuinely was up until 2013; recent records matter more, and his standards have dropped. His debut 2013/14 term with the ‘Bavarians’ tallied to a tragic 177 minutes and 0 starts; he was recruited as midfield cover rather than the central defensive role he had earned such kudos for.

By January 2014, Kirchhoff was already out the door on an 18-month loan move to Jens Keller’s FC Schalke 04.  Excluding a self-destructive horror show against Chelsea that November, the defender was able to uphold his form against some severely-dampened hype; and at the time of his final match for the ‘Royal Blues’ in February 2015, Schalke had reached 3rd in 1.Bundesliga.

What shadowed the German’s steadying form however was a mark that stubbornly stains his career. Y’see, Kirchhoff is, in truth, a good and consistent player – when he plays. Unfortunately, what remains of his reputation is an Achilles tendon irritation, knee problems, thigh muscle strains, a groin operation, syndesmotic ligament tears, twisted knees; 804 days-worth of injury absences, and 112 matches missed – since July 2009.  It’s an unprecedented injury list for a 25-year old.

Add that to his surplus status at Bayern Műnchen, and the fact that, at 2,331 minutes, the most seasonal game time of his career was in 2012, and suddenly £700,000 is probably fair value. That Sunderland signed Kirchhoff to an 18-month contract indicates doubt already of a player who many pundits see as having peaked in his final months at FSV Mainz 05 – three years ago.

And let’s face it; he didn’t make the greatest first impression against Tottenham Hotspur, either. It doesn’t matter that he won all 3 of his tackles, knocked 4 clearances and snapped up 2 interceptions in 31 minutes.

It was a bad first day at work, and its questionable how fit the player himself was at the time, given he had only recovered from an 8-month injury last October.

But does this ill-fated defender offer anything to Sunderland? Simply put – yeah.

There aren’t many affordable defenders with his range of vision, discipline, tactical know-how, and regular 80%+ pass accuracy.

His tackling ratio, prior to last season, had always been over 70% across his 80 1.Bundesliga appearances. Plus, it’s always good to hear about a player who puts in the extra training shifts to return to fitness, as the defender did during his injuries at Schalke 04.

This throwaway idea of Jan Kirchhoff being some injury-hit reject is an unfair overview of his very young career.  Instead, as the player himself said, expect little; and if he gets a run of matches as he did at FSV Mainz 05, then we can start expecting more. Because if an injury-free, in-form Jan Kirchhoff was good enough for Bayern Műnchen, then he’s good enough for Sunderland.

And who knows, maybe we’ll have an unexpected winter-window bargain on our hands. Now that would be a positive surprise.

Meanwhile . . .

"He is big and strong, attributes you need to play in central defence in the Premier League."

That’s Sam Allardyce giving a no-nonsense verdict on his no-nonsense Côte d’Ivoirian defender, Lamine Koné.

It took some time, but this is one player who finally arrives with kind of low fanfare that often introduces those little-known players who can make big differences; and Koné is just the low-profile acquisition to seriously shake up Sunderlands desperate defence.

There’s a damn good chance he will. Koné has an encouraging track record of consistency, strong form, and seasonal improvement in Ligue 1. It’s certainly no accident that Allardyce, who reportedly scouted Koné whilst at West Ham United, has recruited a relatively young defender who, in the form of his career, plays with all the maturity of a seasoned pro.

That was noted back in 2006, when Koné played a stop-start bit-part role at Hervé Gauthier’s LB Châteauroux in Ligue 2.  The 6"3 French-born Ivorian, still just a teenager, broke into the first team, and through the glass ceiling of national attention by 2009; helping the club to a Quarter Finals finish in the 2008/09 Coupe de la Ligue.

His unshackled 2009/10 Ligue 2 performances gave rise to Koné as an aggressive and assertive brute; reliably fast, if not so reliably disciplined.  At 20-years old, with 78 senior apps, international experience, and the attitude to improve, Koné was a wanted man.

His August 2010 transfer to FC Lorient-Bretagne Sud for €700,000 was a shrewd move for his development. ‘Les Merlus’ coach, Christian Courcuff, was already in regard for his good improvement work on young talent, including ex-prospect Laurent Koscielny. However, it was a tibia fracture that month that shelved Koné for 8 months, and put the brakes on his Ligue 1 debut.

The difference Koné made to FC Lorient didn’t become apparent until around January 2012. His 3rd choice rotational role behind Bruno Ecuele Manga and Grégory Bourillon, and stints as right-back cover, eventually gave way to good performances in the 2011/12 Coupe de la Ligue, and Lorient’s overall stronger defensive setups in Ligue 1 when Koné was involved.

The defender’s first full season came in 2012/13, and Lorient thrived under his influence; barely dropping out of the Ligue 1 top 8, remaining undefeated for three months, and losing only 9 matches in the season when Koné played.

Despite Courcuff’s praise of him and a new 3-year contract, Koné was later dropped into sporadic use in the following 2013/14 campaign – consequently seeing FC Lorient free-fall into early relegation form in his absence. The later arrival of new manager Sylvain Ripoll saw Koné return to the first team throughout the 2014/15 season and, in this season to date, the player has taken his consistency and good form into 18 Ligue 1 matches.

So, that’s not a spectacular career; but is he worth the £4.5m price tag paid by Sunderland, or has Sam Allardyce brought in a dud? Well, the stats suggest he’s at least above average. There’s no doubt that he has the physicality to cope in the Premier League and, though he has limited strengths, he does what he can do well.

To briefly overview: this season Koné averages an interception every 31 minutes – a big improvement over next-best rated John O’Shea’s 50 minutes. Last season, the Ivorian crunched 44 of 50 attempted tackles, so an 88% success rate.  That’s better than all of Sunderland’s current defenders. Going further, since August 2010, Koné has hit 156 of 190 tackles successfully – that’s 82% over 6 years clamped perfectly; again, a real upswing over his team-mates. Clearances from the defender last season clocked in at one every 11 minutes.  That betters the rest too.

The notable negative to Koné’s game however is shot-blocking (1 per 129 minutes), but that’s no criticism of the player’s concentration. Koné is a player who comes out to put in a tackle early, but it’s a detrimental style that left him out of position at FC Lorient, and just couldn’t be available to block shots. Lorient’s high(ish) volume of goals conceded was sometimes caused by this.

On the plus side, Koné has one significant advantage that will serve him well in the Premier League: aerial presence, especially with goal-scoring.  5 of Koné’s 11 career goals have come from diving headers.  His goal ratio suggests he’ll probably bag a goal this season too.

Though Sunderland did not make any major waves defensively in the winter-window transfer market, Koné is still good business.  Given his age (28 yesterday) you would expect that the player is beyond talk of potential now, and is in peak form.  What has been seen of him this season in Ligue 1 is likely what Sunderland are going to get, and that’s a good thing.

What should settle any Sunderland fans’ concerns of Lamine Koné is that the player himself is an example of how a good defender does not have to overreach himself to make a difference. The limited strengths Koné has are all that’s required to improve the team’s feeble back-line, and Sam Allardyce is unlikely to ask much more of him.

So long as the defender listens to his manager, and keeps doing what he can do well, then all the transfer mobocracy it took to sign him will be worth it.

So there we have it.  Two defenders brought in; both at an age where experience is high and fatigue is low, both who have proven to do a good job when it counts.  Lamine Koné can expect higher expectations of him, and should be able to cement a first team place immediately. Jan Kirchhoff may only see a season of defensive cover and midfield shifts.  The German can do it, but his fitness will determine how his season ends. All in all; too unspectacular signings: one with all the attributes to succeed, and the other who may just surprise us.

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