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Black Cats Analects: The Santon Fallout

Does the non-purchase of Davide Santon give a hint to what Sam Allardyce is after?

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"Sunderland AFC will not be pursuing its interest in Inter Milan player Davide Santon, after negotiations between the two clubs failed the reach a positive conclusion."

It was inevitable that transfer dealings with a club that probably hates us for a player whose career history involves another club that probably hates us would end the way it did.

By whichever story you want to believe, Davide Santon will not be returning to the north-east, and the social media fallout has regurgitated some familiar remarks; most supporters don’t really care, some never wanted him, others are fuming at seeing a potentially-all-potential player slip through more ‘bad recruitment’, while the rest have chosen to just blame Ellis Short.

But what about Sam Allardyce? What do these failed negotiations over Davide Santon tell us about the manager’s preference for his squad’s next full-back?

Well, let’s try and see how good Allardyce believes the Italian can be.  At 25 years old, Santon cannot be judged off the raw potential he exhibited for Inter Milan in 2009.  Besides, he only played a restrictive 755 minutes in the Serie A 09/10 season.  Likewise, nor should we critique Santon’s 15/16 second stint at Inter either – his 978 minutes game time last season shows nothing for consistency.

Instead, just look at how the player fared in the 12/13 season with Newcastle United.  On 2,643 minutes played, this was arguably his best season for overall contribution and individual play.  That this occurred in the Premier League is an added bonus for familiarity’s sake.

For starters, his defensive work was acceptably average.  The Italian crunched a successful tackle every 38 minutes approximately – the eighth best rate for EPL full-backs that season, on par with Kyle Walker.  Similarly, his 48 interceptions ranked in the top five; his 140 clearances made the top six, whereas his rate for blocking crosses ranked second-best for any full-back in 12/13.

Elsewhere, for offensive play, Santon shot on goal at a rate of one every 115 minutes – the fourth-best for full-backs.  He ranked the same for his 27 chances created, at a rate of nearly one a game, supported further by an excellent 84% pass success rate.  Also, for total dribbling take-ons and successful take-ons, the Italian finished second-best.  All in all, not bad at all.

So those are the stats of a player who Sam Allardyce wanted, but what does that tell us to expect of Sunderland’s eventual next full-back?

Well, unfortunately for us loanee loyalists, it means it probably won’t be DeAndre Yedlin.  Despite his notable improvement and public endorsement from Allardyce himself, the American’s time on Wearside doesn’t match the standards Santon set in 2012.  You can count on both thumbs the stats Yedlin betters Santon for from last season alone.  The manager evidently wants someone better.

Also, considering the clubs Santon is both currently at and came from previously, it appears Allardyce is willing to overlook the negative sideshows to procure a player whose developmental years are now behind him.  The likes of Yedlin still require seasons to adapt and, in the better interest of the club, a proven 25 year old right-back is the more logical option in Sunderland’s never-ending effort to avoid the annual relegation scrap.  A younger player such as Yedlin, whose ‘potential tag’ fanfare is still ongoing, would be a greater risk than a four-year league regular whose own starlet promotion peaked nearly five years ago.

Consequently, much of what Davide Santon accomplished in 12/13 reflects the best form he can offer over a seasonal campaign: being defensively competent without being exceptionally good, but a valuable attacking asset.  In that respect, what Allardyce is willing to accept from Santon reflects the standards he has accepted of Patrick van Aanholt; the now-established modern-day full-back, such as Julian Korb or Rafael, whose efficient forward play is prioritised over deep defensive positioning.  The rare gems that can do both consistently may not be on Allardyce’s radar, but one who can meet the Premier League’s statistical standards sure is.

Looking at the attacking stats Santon possesses; the non-coincidental standout pattern is the player’s decisiveness in the final third.  There’s a lot of assured chance creation with Davide Santon that was severely lacking with DeAndre Yedlin, whose final ball was often poor.  Again, much like van Aanholt, Allardyce looks to be after a right-back who is equally as willing to shoot at whim.

Additionally, it’s likely that Allardyce requires a player such as Santon for his versatility.  Due to managerial methods and mishandlings, the Italian has played over a hundred matches at left-back, twenty more at right-back, with the further odd appearances at centre-back, defensive midfield and on opposing wings.  Though he’d not soon buy a player for all those positions, you’d think Big Sam wouldn’t turn down a player flexible enough to play across the defensive line.

Lastly – and it’s a long shot – but it may also be true that Sam Allardyce (or the club) is searching for a player with all of the aforementioned traits on a low budget.  Santon, in this instance, was reportedly set for a Wearside switch for just £3m.  You could debate all day about how low that fee is, especially for a player young enough to justify a lot more.  Perhaps Sunderland are being cautious in a transfer window already ruined by ludicrous transfer sums, and looking to the more skewed market values of underrated players.

Regardless, the club’s recent statement perhaps indirectly hints at another negotiation elsewhere; and if Sunderland is truly no longer pursuing Davide Santon, at least this failed transfer gives some indication of what kind of player will be arriving.