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BCA: Just Play Lens

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Right now, Jeremain Lens is contracted until June 2019. However, if Sam Allardyce does not unleash this genuinely excellent forward player before the season’s end, then there’s a good chance we’ll be looking back on one of the most wasted opportunities the club has ever had.

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"... with each position, I have the levels of an elite performer and an average performer for a Premier League player ... what Jeremain has to do overall [is] lift his level up in terms of work-rate ..."

Sam Allardyce said that back in December.  We’ll get to that later.

Every now and then, Sunderland AFC will acquire a player of unique value, strong technique and numerous accolades to his name; the sort of signing that has you expecting a good season ahead.  Back in August we got that in Amsterdam’s own, Jeremain Marciano Lens.

Not that you’d think that now.  Instead, Dutchman Lens has had one of the most underwhelming years a footballer can have; from ever-present goal contributor under Dick Advocaat, to near-anonymity under Sam Allardyce.  Is he just unsuited to Allardyce’s tactical paradigm or, as Allardyce said, has Lens’ attitude to work-rate been his undoing?

Regardless, ‘work-rate’ talk was four months ago, and while Allardyce doesn’t entirely trust Lens’ defensive endeavour, he hasn’t given up on the £8.55m man entirely.  That, most likely, is due to the more positive aspect of Lens’ attitude.  Notably, this one:

"... I hate to lose ... after a game I am still p***** off when we lose ... I am not used to losing games.  I have a winning mentality ..."

Lens himself said that back in August.  Within two months he was Sunderland’s chief goal contributor; as both joint-top goal scorer and leading assists provider.  It was no fluke start either – this was supposed to be the continuation of the Dutchman’s prolific career.

Seriously – Lens had brought an excellent record with him to Wearside: Eredivisie and Ukrainian Premier League titles, KNVB Cup, Johan Cruijff Shield, the Ukrainian Cup; a career of 92 goals and 84 assists in all club competitions; a backlog of praise from ex-managers – Advocaat, Ronald Koeman, Louis van Gaal, Fred Rutten, Phillip Cocu; and all of whom combined forked out over £18,000,000 for the winger’s services.

He had thrived domestically and competed against the European top brass; scoring and assisting against teams like Arsenal, Standard Liège, LOSC Lille, SL Benfica, Trabzonspor Kulübü, SSC Napoli and ACF Fiorentina, to name a few.

His 31 Netherlands caps involved a continuous six-year stint in the national squad.  The likes of van Gaal, Bert van Marwijk, Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind, all continued to play Lens upon their appointments.  His ten-goal contribution was an excellent return for his nine-match run in the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifiers too.

And he was always consistent! Prior to joining Sunderland, Lens had contributed to no fewer than fifteen goals in all but one of the last six seasons! Better still, he also scored or assisted a total of twenty or more goals in every season between 2009 and 2013.  That’s seven seasons of non-stop good form. £8.55m should have been a bargain!

And yet now, in March 2016, there’s talk that Jeremain Lens won’t make it at Sunderland beyond this season!  December reports told of fallout between the player and Sam Allardyce; that Lens’ attitude went sour after a sixth consecutive match benched and, having being ignored in the home loss to Watford, refused post-match training.  Dropped!

Refusing to train is, no doubt, disrespectful, but considering Lens’ contribution prior to Allardyce’s arrival, his frustration is somewhat understandable.  Under Dick Advocaat, Lens had played 674 minutes with nine starts in a row; but under Allardyce, his game time dropped to 221 minutes, starting one in eleven, and subbing for Duncan Watmore.

We know that Lens’ defensive work-rate (or lack thereof) caused his first team exclusion in October and surplus luxury usage in December.  However, since then, Lens has noticeably bought into Allardyce’s demands – albeit with some consequences.

Look at how Lens was used through January.  The Dutchman put in some okay defensive work; made some half-committed tackles, occasional shot-blocks and, most importantly, was found in possession more in his own half than the oppositions.  The sole positive of this involvement, for Lens, was the reward of four consecutive starts at 295 minutes played.

The downside, however: a total of two shots in one month.

As much as a united, defensive display can be paramount to keeping clean sheets, having a player like Jeremain Lens starting attacks from the defensive third and being rarely found anywhere close to the opposition penalty area is a concern.  It shows how much Sam Allardyce values sincere commitment, yes, but there’s a cost here.

The truth is, despite his high quantity of goal contribution, Jeremain Lens is not a clinical player.  Take this season: he hits an accurate shot every 238 minutes on average, but he ranks fourth-most for shots at the club (24).  His dribbling take-on success rate is poor (38%) but that hasn’t stopped him making more than anybody else in the team (58).

Even the goal scoring chances he has created (17) is the most of any attacking player at Sunderland, on par with Wahbi Khazri; the difference being Khazri’s chances are from set-piece work, whereas Lens’ are near-entirely from open play.  These are all statistical examples of how much Lens will repeat and repeat and repeat what he does until it works.  Playing him for 15 minutes with defensive instructions only hinders that.

And, before you think that means he’s a bad player, consider this: Lens has played 1,190 minutes – a third of a Premier League season, yet he’s currently the club’s third-highest goal scorer and second-highest for assists, even though he’s contributed to neither since October, when his first team appearances stopped for nearly three months.

Sam Allardyce has corrected many problems since he arrived at Sunderland, and he is the manager to turn our bad fortunes around.  However, with Jeremain Lens, he has to re-think on how best to use the versatile forward.  If that means second-half, game-chasing sub appearances then so be it; just don’t hold back the strengths he was brought here for.

Because; Jeremain Lens is the open-play creative spark that Sunderland needs and having him scuffle with defensive duties only deters that.  Make no mistake – he is a winner with a winner’s attitude, but it’s an attitude that’s only positive when he’s allowed to play his way.

Lens is not a prospect.  He’s played only one way his entire career.  If his loitering around corner flags means that he’ll keep bombing forward, crossing balls in, and shooting whenever, but will lead to a goal or assist, then that can only be a good thing.  Look at his first nine matches! Who else does Sunderland have who can play – with his experience – on the right, the left, in the creative hole, at centre forward or as second striker; who, at 5"10, can still beat a man in the air, and has all the pace and technique in the world to score the kind of goal he did against West Ham United in October?

Sam Allardyce was right; Jeremain Lens does have a questionable work ethic when it comes to his all-round game, but as a forward player his work-rate is second to nobody.  That said; the Dutchman needs to play a full 90 minutes if we’re ever to expect something special from him.  Squad rotation and late-sub roles will do little to get the best out of him but, if this is going to be the case, then Allardyce should – at the very least – use him to finish teams off, not defend narrow leads!

Right now, Jeremain Lens is contracted until June 2019.  However, if Sam Allardyce does not unleash this genuinely excellent forward player before the season’s end, then there’s a good chance we’ll be looking back on one of the most wasted opportunities the club has ever had; to have a player with the experience, technique and – yes, the attitude – to produce goals for Sunderland, but was left behind for a greater defensive good.