"... I’m delighted to have signed a new deal with the club ... I feel that this is a club moving in the right direction and I want to be part of it ... I had a few options but I want to be at Sunderland ..."
Seb Larsson said that upon renewing his contract with Sunderland AFC in June 2014; a rare sign of club loyalty in these monopolised times. And as the current second-longest serving player at Sunderland, the Swede has seen up to sixty contracted players come and go since his arrival in July 2011. Today, Black Cats Analects takes a look at the half-decade of Sebastian Bengt Ulf Larsson.
When Steve Bruce bosman-brought Sebastian Larsson to Sunderland in July 2011, it was met with a so-so shrug of approval; he was 26 years old; had acclaimed set-piece creativity, thirty international caps for Sweden, and just ended an admirable five-year stint at Birmingham City. To get that standard of a player for nothing but wages was the hint of some good business all round.
It didn’t take the Swede long to repay those wages either. His opening-day acrobatic goal at Anfield in August commenced a solid season of high goal contribution and decent dead ball play, as his long range free kick exemplified that October at the Emirates.
By Martin O’Neill’s managerial debut against Blackburn Rovers in December, Larsson had already contributed to eight league goals; just two less than in his entire previous season with Birmingham City. Further commendable performances ensued – including his hard-earned, brace-induced razing of Manchester City – until Larsson ended his inaugural 2011/2012 campaign on eight goals and five assists in all competitions; the second-most at the club after Stéphane Sessègnon.
Realising that his wide-man had both a full motor and the penchant for regular box-to-box presence, Martin O’Neill reshuffled Larsson into central midfield during the 2012/2013 campaign. Though he was obliged to forfeit his wide midfield role to James McClean and Adam Johnson, the Swede’s creative work in possession, coupled with his suitable tackling rate of one every 38 minutes, nonetheless made him an indispensible choice in the centre.
However, the one snag to this new central role (or rather O’Neill’s demands of it) was a vastly reduced goal contribution. Y’see, before his positional changeover, Larsson had notched four assists in all competitions by mid-September 2012, including a well-executed free-kick for Steven Fletcher at the Liberty Stadium in August.
But as the defensively banal methods of Martin O’Neill began to sink Sunderland into a series of dull, bloodless performances, Larsson likewise struggled. Inevitably, it was his worst season – from a creative standpoint – to date; creating only 40 chances at a rate of one every 75 minutes. Ironically, he still created the team’s second-most chances, after Stéphane Sessègnon.
Though his defensive work rate was usually competent, the only notable event that the midfielder was praised for was his 25-yard weak-footed thunder-b****** against West Ham United in January 2013. Beyond that, most supporters were indifferent to Larsson’s performances under Martin O’Neill; his good work ethic in defence hadn’t been fully recognised at the time, and his once-applauded goal contribution had been stifled entirely by O’Neill’s deep, counter-attacking setup.
This was further proven by the full-throttle, swashbuckler tactics of O’Neill’s replacement, Paolo Di Canio. When the tyrannical Italian shored up on Wearside, a rejuvenated Larsson was juggled out wide, in the centre and at full-back over seven matches. It paid off, as the aggressive inspiration of Di Canio brought three assists from the Swede; one point-saving, another match-winning, and the third in his master-class shift at St. James’ Park. It was one goal and seven assists for 2012/2013.
Despite his assist for Emanuele Giaccherini at St. Mary’s in August 2013, there wasn’t a lot Larsson (or anybody) could do about Sunderland’s hap-hazardous omni-shambles of season-opening form in 2013/2014. Di Canio was found out as a flimsy managerial messiah; and his relationship with the squad became total hell. It was hard times.
And when Gus Poyet took the cursed coaching role at Sunderland in October, Sebastian Larsson’s role in the first team was gradually redefined. After a half-season of rotation with Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yueng; the 28 year old was finally awarded a run of first team starts in April and May 2014. It was a shrewd move by Poyet, as Larsson served up two assists and a match-winning goal at Old Trafford over three matches – his personal contribution to the ‘great escape’. When all was said and done, it was two goals and four assists in all competitions for 2013/2014.
There’s a few reasons why Larsson got into good favour with his Uruguayan coach; his influence in Sunderland’s ludicrously brilliant Capital One Cup and half-hopeful FA Cup campaigns being one of them. His 60 accurate tackles that season were another example of his desirable defensive work rate. His rate of dispossession had improved dramatically too, from losing the ball every 90 minutes two years earlier, to every 177 minutes under Poyet. His pass accuracy also improved to a point where it had consistently remained at over 80% (and still is today). All that and, with very few exceptions, the midfielder was possibly the only player in the first team to adapt and thrive in the pass-possession paradigm Poyet tried – and failed – to enforce.
Then came Seb Larsson’s 2014/2015 season; undoubtedly his very best for Sunderland. Any part of his game that was once deemed average or only-just good were improved upon in what was a engine-filled, graft-loaded year for the midfielder. His 85th minute equaliser at the Hawthorns in August 2014 spared the club a bad start, and his surgically-accurate direct free-kick against Everton in November showed that, at 29 years old, he could still be instrumental.
Last season, his was the sort of improving form that just didn’t end; even when the mega-exasperated Poyet was replaced by Dick Advocaat in March 2015. Not only did his accurate tackle rate get better, his total tackles attempted (135) was the most in the Premier League, tied with Nemanja Matić. Better still, his creativity reached his career best to date; forcing 58 goal-scoring opportunities at a rate of one every 52 minutes. Those two stats were not only the best at the club (by a huge margin) but ranked him eighth in the Premier League for both in 2014/2015.
That’s not all; ‘cause then there’s the traits that everyone associates with Seb Larsson: the dead ball and set-piece specialist.
Take, for example, his average minutes-per-accurate crossing rate. In 2011/2012, Larsson made an accurate cross every 39 minutes; that was the second best rate in the Premier League. Between August 2012 and May 2014 thereafter, his rate worsened to every 57 minutes, but still remained in the league’s top four most accurate crossers. However last season, despite that rate falling to an even less effective every 66 minutes, he had the best rate of crossing accuracy in the league.
He’s probably the most improved accurate corner taker too? In 2011/2012, Larsson booted an accurate corner on average every 75 minutes – the seventh best rate in the league. That accuracy then dropped to every 100 minutes in 2012/2013, though it still kept the Swede in the league top four. He was also ranked fourth best in 2013/2014 with a very good 55 minute average rate; and that got even better last season when Larsson got it down to 52 minutes, lifting him up to third best in the Premier League.
Then there are his free-kicks, and the irony that Sebastian Larsson – in his prolific 2011/2012 season – had his worst season ever for taking them. His minute-per-accurate free-kick back then averaged at every 225 minutes, and just scraped the league top twenty. He rectified that in 2012/2013 with an accuracy rate of every 120 minutes – the third best in the league. Since then he has boasted a 76 minute rate over the last two seasons; and the second best free-kick accuracy rate in the Premier League after Santi Cazorla in 2014/2015.
As far as this 2015/2016 goes, none of Larsson’s stats have any real context. The last of his five starts this season was in November and he’s played only 14 minutes since. Encouragingly, there isn’t much to separate his performance this season to his excellent showing last season.
That said; the first team landscape at Sunderland leaves the Swedish international’s future up in the air. Not only has Yann M’Vila been integral to a strong central midfield, but the kick-started Jan Kirchhoff is also crucial to the team’s success. Then there’s Wahbi Khazri; who is, near literally, everything Seb Larsson is, down to the set piece accuracy, only younger. You’d think, given the current setup, the Swede can expect to be on the subs bench for the rest of the season.
But if that does happen, then what’s next? What if the club avoids relegation and Sam Allardyce decides to take financial advantage of that final year on the Larsson’s contract? It’s unlikely that it will be a departure met with any great recognition – so few club transfers are anymore, but how would his career be remembered on Wearside?
Hopefully, Sebastian Larsson will be recognised not just for the good player he has been, but also for the respectable character he has shown during his time here. While other players have dragged their (and the club’s) reputations into the dirt, Larsson has remained an abiding professional.
Also his constancy to management has been a real praiseworthy quality. From 2011 to 2014, he was taken from the wide left by Steve Bruce, to wide right and central midfield by Martin O’Neill; required to learn new central defensive duties that he was not brought to the club to do; then had to grit teeth with the delusional Paolo Di Canio; and finally had to adapt to the detrimental South American style of play under Gus Poyet. And not only did he just get on with all that, but he actually put to shame every other player who either couldn’t, or just didn’t want to – with no fuss.
He hasn’t just remained loyal to his head coaches, but he has also remained loyal to Sunderland AFC – and to us. Look back to July 2014, at how downcast players had become at the club. Craig Gardner, Phil Bardsley and Jack Colback all had contracts expiring – and all left; whereas, despite significant interest from abroad, the only one to renew his contract was Sebastian Larsson.
As for on the pitch; fans won’t soon forget the good work Larsson has done for Sunderland. He has never been our best player, but his industrious work ethic is a showing of mutual respect both to and from his supporters. More often than not, you can always tell that Larsson is one of but few players at Sunderland who understands and appreciates what the supporters want to see. Everything else he does is just a bonus.
Fortunately, everything else Seb Larsson does is usually effective, and it’s more than just his first-class set-piece play; it’s the box-to-box shifts, the (actually very good) take-ons; the countless times he throws his whole body at shots and crosses, the constantly-improving ways he keeps possession; and surely he must be the most creative player we’ve had since he got here, right?!
Whether he’s here for just the next five weeks or for another five years, here’s to him.
Sebastian Larsson: bought for nothing, gives everything.