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The Infallible Tripartite System To Achieving A Top Ten Finish

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Establishing Sunderland as a top ten side, that’s the brief right? It is five years since Sunderland’s last tenth place finish (under Steve Bruce in case you didn’t know) and since then we’ve become the perennial bottom-feeding basket case. But, tenth it’s easy when you know how.

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On average the team who has finished tenth in the Premier League has done so with about forty eight to fifty points. Last season, Chelsea finished tenth with fifty points; Sunderland ended with thirty nine. Another ten to twelve points to make tenth? Easy huh? Here’s how we will do it.

1. The Clean Sheet

The Clean Sheet holds a prestige in some footballing quarters. It represents something pure, macho and virile in the game – hard work, thwarting your opponent and demonstrating commitment to the cause. It also represents Tony Pulis, but it doesn’t have to be that dull.

Euro 2016 has been a clean sheet extravaganza. Of the forty-one games played so far, twenty five have resulted in a clean sheet; nearly 90% of those then resulted in a win.

There is a reason for this vogue in football. The value of a clean sheet is proven. Keeping one will guarantee you don’t lose and guarantee a point. Achieving an average of a point per game almost always guarantees Premier League survival. Goals provide excitement, but points make the money.

In 2013, in their book The Numbers Game, Anderson and Sally analysed ten years data from Premier League matches and showed that coming away with a clean sheet is worth an average of 2.5 points per match. Around half of all games in the Premier League last season featured a clean sheet, eight out of ten of those games resulted in a win for the side who kept it.

Last season, Sam Allardyce continued his long-held obsession with hailing the benefit of the clean sheet, but Sunderland only managed seven of them and four of those came in the last six weeks of the season; yet Sunderland achieved an average of 2.4 points from each clean sheet attained. Of the sides who have finished tenth in the Premier League this past five years, on average they’ve kept an average of ten clean sheets.

There is no greater gift in Premier League football than inheriting a Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis side. That’s a quote I read somewhere last year – two men whose sides are built around defensive stability. Just ask Mark Hughes and Slaven Bilic how great a gift it really is; and Sunderland possess one of those men.  So, let’s say we need another three clean sheets next season in our mission for tenth and let’s call that an additional six points. That’s us on forty five points and we’re on our way.

2. The Man with the Golden Key

The man who holds a golden key can open any door. The man who holds a golden key possesses sufficient wealth to accomplish anything he wishes.

That golden key is a spark in midfield – to link the back with the front and to unlock defences. We have a goal scorer - Jermain Defoe, but last season featured long spells of depressing balls humped up to him. We need the man with the golden key, an attacking midfielder with guile and craft.

We’ve searched, oh my we’ve searched – Giaccherini, Jordi Gomez, Jack Rodwell, Ricardo Alvarez, Ola Toivonen, Sully Muntari, Jeremain Lens; the list goes on.

Whabi Khazri has some potential here, but so far he has been used effectively out wide on the left or as part of the front line in a 4-3-3 going forward.

Actually, much is made of Khazri being utilised as a number ten at Bordeaux; and he did, with some success, but not buckets of it. Before his switch to Sunderland in January, he had scored four goals and made five assists during the first part of last season. Of his twenty appearances for Bordeaux last term, six had been in the number 10 spot, but he was arguably more effective when he played out wide, with three assists and two goals from the flanks.

Last season’s Sunderland midfield line-up contributed a total of twenty goal-assists. Six of those were supplied by a player who is now in jail. The next two most productive midfielders were Yann M’Vila with five assists and Jeremain Lens with three. Compare that with a top ten side such as West Ham, whose midfield provided double the number of assists that Sunderland’s did and you can see its pretty desperate stuff.

We need a Moussa Dembele sort, to sit ahead of Kircchoff and alongside M’Vila. Indeed such was Dembele’s influence over Tottenham last season, that they averaged a point-per-game more with him in the side than when he was absent. The problem is, the man with the golden key costs money, lots of it. Number tens are worth their weight in gold, Raheem Sterling - £49m, David Silva - £24m. To get the man with the golden key, we’re going to need the man with the golden key to Ellis Short’s golden safe.

Regardless, if we can find him, over a season, an influence like that is going worth at least six points. We’ll take that. We’re on fifty one points now, and we’re tenth, anything more is a bonus but we have one more obstacle to overcome – ensuring the supply of goals continues.

3. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success

Alex Ferguson said something like "goals win you games, defence wins you titles". Well, we’ve covered defence, and sorry but we aren’t going to be winning the title next season; but we need them goals. The team who has finished tenth since 2010/11 has scored on average of forty eight goals. Sunderland scored forty eight goals last season, so what’s the problem? Well its two-fold, one man scored most of them and we just don’t win enough games.

As you know, the burden on Jermain Defoe last season was crazy; only a basket case of a club would stick all of its eggs in it. We have to assume that Defoe may not be as prolific next season and factor that in. That means – more goals from midfield and an additional striker.

Indeed, only a paltry 20% of Sunderland’s goals last season came from midfield. Of the clubs who finished in the top ten, the average goal return from midfield was 38%. It’s not an exact science, despite how obvious it sounds, to equate a higher percentage of goals from midfield with a higher number of points gained. As an example, look at last season’s second and third placed teams – Arsenal scored 19% of their goals from midfield, while Spurs’ midfield hit 47%, yet Arsenal finished a point higher.

What is true, though, is that Sunderland’s midfield goal return was pathetic. If we’re going to play one up front, those behind need to be weighing in; currently that means finding a way of unleashing Fabio Borini plus the Man with the Golden Key. It also means signing another striker, and that’s where the big money will go this summer.

So, there you go – three simple ways of ensuring we get 50 points next season – concede less, score more and win a few extra games. Football is a simple game after all. The margin between our usual 17th place and 10th isn’t that huge a chasm. It’s simply turning five defeats into more three more wins and a couple of draws.

Easy eh?