Lamine Kone has powered his way into our hearts like it was a Yaya Toure 50/50. His no-nonsense approach to defending mixed with exuberant enthusiasm going forward has been a breath of fresh air to the Sunderland back line.
In these early stages, just how much has Kone improved our side?
Sunderland were in desperate need of defensive reinforcements come the January window. John O'Shea had been fairly solid but a lack of consistency in who was partnering him was becoming a key factor in the amount of goals Sunderland were conceding, meaning Sam Allardyce needed to find him a partner.
Allardyce experimented with a 3-5-2, which yielded some results, but injuries to Younes Kaboul and Wes Brown rendered it unfeasible to carry on with this system. Such had been the drop in form from Sebastian Coates, Allardyce was willing to be ruthless and sanctioned a loan move for the Uruguayan, to free up space for Lamine Kone.
Kone has been able to slot straight into Sunderland and the Premier League seamlessly. With Sunderland needing extra steel in defence, he's already showing his capabilities with an average of 1.7 tackles per game and 2.7 interceptions per game. Younes Kaboul is the only central defender who leads Kone in the tackling ranks which underlines Kone's importance, as Sunderland have lost out on the experience of Kaboul, through injury, for a lot of the campaign.
The only player in any position who leads Kone in interceptions is Yann M'Vila and even then the gap is marginal, with only 0.1 tackles per game being the difference. It will be pleasing for Big Sam (a big stats subscriber) to see how the stats back up Kone's confidence in stepping out to rob attackers of the ball and how his clever positioning is allowing him to make a high amount of interceptions.
It's not just at the back where we've seen Kone's contribution though, as his ability in the attack has been an added bonus for Sunderland. We all witnessed how he kept trying to force the issue against Manchester United and was rewarded with a goal, or he rather put the ball in the area for David De Gea to score an own goal, if you're a massive killjoy.
His shots per game tally backs up his enthusiasm at the top of the pitch, with 1.3 shots per game he is equal with Jeremain Lens and is ahead of forwards such as Duncan Watmore and Ola Toivonen. In terms of key passes per game, Kone is miles ahead of any other central defender with 0.7 per game, which may not sound like a great deal but when you compare that to the 0.9 made by Patrick van Aanholt and Jeremain Lens, it's certainly good going for a centre half.
Stats like these are fine in isolation but what about during individual games? For this I'm going to look at the last game before Kone's arrival (the 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth) and the last game he featured in (the 2-1 win over Manchester United), John O'Shea started in each of these games with Kone replacing Wes Brown. A look at Brown's heatmap shows a big emphasis on holding down a position in one main area of the pitch where as Kone's is much more spread out.
Wes Brown's heatmap v Bournemouth
Lamine Kone heatmap v Manchester United
A confidence in his pace and strength allows Kone to attempt to win the ball in variety of positions, something that Sunderland wouldn't be able to expect from the ageing Brown.
A good example of Kone's ability to win the ball in different areas is his inceptions from the Manchester United game.
The Ivorian made four overall, one of which was as the last line of defence and one was on the halfway line. Compare that to Brown's two against Bournemouth, which were in the same area of the pitch and you see the alternative approach Kone brings.
Wes Brown interceptions v Bournemouth (2)
Lamine Kone interceptions v Manchester United (4)
The decision to play with more defensive minded central midfielders obviously gives Kone more freedom to make challenges in different areas but he still needs the ability as well and his performances have demonstrated that he has the attributes. With three aerial duels won Kone had more than both O'Shea and Brown combined in the Bournemouth game, and his three shots against Manchester United was more than the entire Sunderland defence had against The Cherries.
Getting shots in isn't his main prerogative, of course, but with Sunderland desperate for results an alternative and unexpected outlet isn't to be taken lightly.
It's still early days for Kone but the way he's came into the side, without any fuss at all, gives Sam Allardyce and the Sunderland supporters plenty to be optimistic about. The team looks to be benefiting from his presence on and off the pitch, as Allardyce has spoken about the way the new signings have lifted the dressing room.
Radiating an infectious smile shows how happy he is to be playing his football here and long may that continue.