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Black Cats Analects: The Left-Back Strikes Back

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The rise and fall and rise and rise of Patrick van Aanholt.

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"... he is Ashley Cole in the making ... he bombs on, and in the 90th minute, he’s still getting forward [and] earning corners for the team ... there’s not many left-backs around the world who do that ... he’s got a lot of energy, and is a very good player ..."

Medical room striker Daniel Sturridge said that back in 2011, on Sunderland’s sound-barrier breaking Patrick John Miguel van Aanholt. It’s a hell of a compliment to compare the Dutchman to one of the finest left-backs of the modern era, but it’s all true. Van Aanholt was, back then, set for a big future at Chelsea FC. But now, after years of waiting, has his time come now, on Wearside?

Talk of van Aanholt’s potential has been small pub-talk for years; as far back as his 2009/10 Championship season loans to Coventry City and Newcastle United. His strong showings in England’s second-tier also caught the attention of Chelsea boss, Carlo Ancelotti, who saw van Aanholt – alongside Ryan Bertrand – as a competitive successor to club left-back, Ashley Cole.

Unwilling to see the Dutch U19 defender swamped in the reserves, Ancelotti thrust van Aanholt into both domestic and international cup fixtures during Chelsea’s 2010/11 campaign. At just 20 years old, the wing-back was experiencing UEFA Champions League moments against FC Spartak Moscow and Olympique de Marseille, while putting in goal-scoring shifts in England.

Though Van Aanholt was brought to Chelsea in 2007 under the relatively tiny fee of £225,000; he was quickly considered the most competent prospect of Chelsea’s home-grown players. Still, he was no Ashley Cole. So to prove himself further, van Aanholt was shipped out on domestic loans again: to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Leicester City in January 2011; and Roberto Martínez’ Wigan Athletic in August. His time with the ‘Foxes’ was canny, his stay with the ‘Latics’, not so much.

Then in January 2012, new Chelsea chief, André Villas-Boas, presented the defender with an opportunity to ply his trade in the tactically-orientated and spacious world of the Eredivisie, with a fifth loan to John van den Brom’s SBV Vitesse Arnhem. This extensive stay at the GelreDome would last until May 2014, and was the making of van Aanholt.

His 2011/12 season with the Vitas had its moments; the left-back contributed assists for the ultra-form Wilfried Bony, and was instrumental in the club’s UEFA Europa League Play-Offs success. The Den Bosch native grew into even finer form when the 2012/13 Eredivisie coincided with the managerial appointment of Fred Rutten. Under this new coaching, a 6-goal contribution to the team was decent return for risk-gifting van Aanholt more attacking freedom. Van Aanholt became the irreplaceably unconventional left-back; whose booming runs cannoned the Vitesse offensive, who had grown into an adept crosser; and who won points for Rutten against big name league managers, such as Frank de Boer’s AFC Ajax and Dick Advocaat’s PSV Eindhoven.

2013 ended good for van Aanholt. Vitesse qualified for the Europa League again, and the player, at 23 years old, was finally capped by Louis van Gaal for the Netherlands senior team. But his final season with Vitesse, in 2013/14, was his real breakthrough. Under a third head coach, Peter Bosz, van Aanholt helped the club to a 12-match undefeated streak; while his attacking flair continued to dazzle, culminating in a rip-roaring crushing of Philip Cocu’s PSV in December 2013, where van Aanholt scored and planted 2 assists for Davy Pröpper in the final 8 minutes. It was a staggering example of his attacking capabilities, totaling to a 10-goal contribution that season – a YouTube year.

Then he came to Sunderland, and became the club’s first permanent left-back in at least 100 years. You’d think that, for £1.5m, a 24 year old defender on a 27-goal contribution tally was good business – and it was, in hindsight. That said, you wouldn’t have thought it by the end of his 2014/15 season on Wearside. Most of van Aanholt’s first season back in the Premier League involved a lot criticism. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. And it was justified.

To say that the Dutch left-back was somewhat tactically unreliable last season is an understatement. He showed a strong work effort going forward, but consequently his defensive positioning was infuriating for supporters, and likely for his managers. Nonetheless, his 1 goal and 5 assists – some being match-winning – papered over the player’s shortcomings well.

As for this season, it was nearly more of the same concerns for a while. Dick Advocaat never could find a balance with the player’s attacking work rate and defensive positioning. Step forward, Sam Allardyce, and recently supporters have seen a welcome change to that, and a surge in popularity for the left-back is his reward. Within the last few months, van Aanholt has become more defensively aware, and his added goal contribution has come at crucial times – something that always stays with the fans.

Our left-back is on 2340 minutes played, 2 assists, and 4 (sort of) goals; but is he just a temporarily in-form player, or is he finally hitting the potential he was meant for back in 2007? Let’s crunch the numbers and see how van Aanholt ranks alongside other Premier League defenders this season.

Well, he’s the 3rd highest-scoring defender in the league. Good start. His 28 shots on goal is the 2nd most for defenders; that’s a shot rate of one per every 70 minutes – also the 2nd best strike rate for defenders after Leandro Bacuna. Consider Bacuna’s zero-goal haul this season, and you could already argue that van Aanholt is the best attacking defender in the league off these stats alone.

And those forward runs he makes: van Aanholt’s on 34 successful dribbles from 43 attempts. That’s the 4th most by a league defender, and puts him 3rd for success rate per minute (one every 58 minutes). On the downside, he’s dispossessed on average every 86 minutes – the 2nd worst in the league for defenders, after Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín.

His mindset for running on-goal means his crossing stats don’t compare well either. Only 12 of his 41 crosses have been accurate this season. That’s still the 10th most accurate amongst league defenders, but it’s a low quantity compared to the 30+ supplied by Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov. Still, 6 of the 20 goal-scoring opportunities van Aanholt has created have come from crosses – another top 10 stat he falls into.

For all that his back-line positioning is erratic, there’s not a lot van Aanholt has done wrong defensively this season. Stats such as his 85 total tackles attempted; 63 on-target tackles; 31-minutes-per-tackle rate; 26-minutes-per-clearance rate; 14 crosses blocked and 47 interceptions all rank inside the top eight for Premier League wing-backs. Consider that there can be up to 40 wing-backs playing per week in the league and, hey, that’s not bad at all.

Though statistics can only mean so much; on these standards van Aanholt is performing at the rate of a mid-table-level defender, admittedly in comparison to players who have been genuinely exceptional this season (such as Christian Fuchs and Nacho Monreal). The Dutchman is not only performing to strong standards, but out-performing other wing-backs with higher expectations.

Take even the often-disregarded disciplinary rate. Van Aanholt can boast some of the most matured disciplinary performances of any defender, since Sam Allardyce took charge. With 12 fouls committed all season, at a one in every 165 minute rate, the left-back is by far the most reliable outfield player at Sunderland. Putting that in more perspective; DeAndre Yedlin fouls every 83 minutes, and Billy Jones hits an irresponsible every 65 minutes. Van Aanholt may not execute tackles at the rate of his wing-back counterparts, but is the most accurate when he does.

When Sam Allardyce arrived on Wearside, his only left-back choice was this inconsistent, pace-driven defender called for the chop. Fortunately, with some pragmatic tactical changes (and sheer good coaching), Big Sam is balancing the Dutchman’s defensive responsibilities without stifling his attacking strengths. The added defensive cover from Yann M’Vila and Fabio Borini has allowed the defender to flourish going forwards, and has integrated van Aanholt as more of a team player.

What this means for Sunderland supporters, most importantly, is we can finally warm to van Aanholt’s attacking spirit without worrying about the consequences of his positional misadventures. With the team playing to his strengths more, it’s like – we get it now, what type of player he is, and how his alternative style improves the team. The be-all-end-all, for him, isn’t a long-ball cross into the box, as it is for Séamus Coleman or Aaron Cresswell.

He can do that, and is a good outlet for it; but we know when van Aanholt has the ball, he’s prepping a long-ranger.

Nor can anyone judge van Aanholt as some cheap Congerton signing from a league with weaker competition. If anything, our left-back is one of only-so-many players to thrive in the Eredivisie and actually perform better in the Premier League. He contributed to 17 goals in 84 matches at Vitesse Arnhem, and is already on 12 in 58 at Sunderland.

As for his defending, well, van Aanholt is probably as aware of his shortcomings as we are. Back in 2011, he was given advice from another left-back who also struggled defensively in his early career; who told van Aanholt that the ‘defensive element’ to being a left-back is a gradual experience, but the attacking play comes naturally. The player who told him that: Ashley Cole.

£1,500,000 well spent.