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Fabio Borini: Centre Forward Or Winger?

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With Sunderland having to shuffle the deck due to injuries it brings into question whether or not Fabio Borini could perhaps play at centre forward in the event of a Jermain Defoe injury. Graham Macmillan-Mason looks at the statistics behind the Italy international and ponders just which position is perhaps his best.

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Until his loan move here in 2013/14, Fabio was seen as primarily a centre forward. He had scored goals for Swansea and Roma consistently in that position, eventually bought by Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool as a forward capable of producing the goods in front of goal, as opposed to chipping in from an advanced wing role.

Although he only started twenty games for Roma in Serie A, his impressive return of almost a goal every other game was the catalyst for his move to Anfield. Unfortunately, his first season at Rodgers’ new look Liverpool was halted by injury and the incredible pairing of Luis Suarez and Daniel Strurridge. He only returned 1 goal, against Newcastle, before he was taken to Sunderland on deadline day as a replacement for Stephane Sessegnon. It wasn’t until the appointment of Gus Poyet though that Borini really started to appear in the team, thus showing his credentials as a sort of inside forward.

After scoring a crucial winner in his first Wear-Tyne derby, he began to make the left wing position his own. He made a massive impact on us during that season goal due to his sheer work rate and commitment down that side, a trait many fans attested to when the case for him to play through the middle was made after his iconic Wembley goal.

Many stating we would lose his work ethic and ability to track back if he was pushed further forward. Of course he went on to chip in an abundance of important goals in our great escape that season, all from the left wing. However a fair few of those goals did come from the penalty spot. He ended the season with a total of 7 league goals.

When Fabio returned, he was handed the number 9 shirt when he eventually re-joined us for a fee of £8m. Although squad numbers don’t mean a great deal these days, with Advocaat searching for a centre forward, we all figured he may feature prominently in his favoured position. However, it never came to the fore as he featured for the Dutchman in a 4-3-3 attack minded formation, this time on the right hand side of the forward three. Under his stewardship, he struggled. He never managed to grab a goal for the manager who signed him, even missing a guilt edged chance at home to West Ham, which ultimately cost us two points.

By the time Sam Allardyce came into the hot seat, he had lost his place to impressive form of Duncan Watmore. As we succumbed to 5 defeats on the bounce in December, a couple of goals against Chelsea and Manchester City went largely unnoticed due to the nature of what they meant at the time of goal going in. On top of a disappointing opening 4 months of his campaign, he had also not managed to assist a goal all season until January, in the home draw to Bournemouth, setting up a well worked Patrick van Aanholt goal. His work rate never in question, but his quality was, for once, in his fairy-tale like Sunderland career.

As Big Sam strived to find that illusive clean sheet and defensive steel, he took the Italian out of the starting eleven as he placed new signings Khazri and, to everyone’s annoyance, N’Doye on the advanced wing duty. It worked as his new signings helped us to four points from difficult games to Manchester City, Liverpool and most notably, Manchester United. With a big game on the horizon at home to out of form Crystal Palace, he kept faith with the same line-up and it began well, as Borini’s replacement N’Doye put the Lads into the lead. Unfortunately, the game went sour as protein shake enthusiast Connor Wickham smashed Palace into a 1-2 lead. As the fans cried out for Sam to put the little Italian on, Sam eventually gave him the last ten to try and turn things around, which he did as he smashed in one of the goals of the season, celebrating wildly in front of his onlooking manager.

He would eventually keep his place on the right hand side of the front three, as we lost only one game in our remaining nine to keep us in the Premiership. He added 2 more goals to his tally in true Borini style, both coming in massively important games against Norwich and Chelsea, coupled with a superb assist from him to set up Sunderland’s second for Defoe, in the 0-3 win at Carrow Road. His seasonal tally ended on five.

Of those five goals, one came from the penalty spot, two as a substitute and only two from the right wing position. Meaning that he only scored in 19% of the games he appeared in. He only appeared in one game as a direct centre forward and perhaps the stats show why he isn’t trusted to be the main man when Jermain Defoe isn’t available. Assist wise, despite his hard work, it’s a good argument that he doesn’t really do enough in the position we play him in, or that he maybe isn’t akin to playing there due to the fact he sees himself as a striker to be played through the middle? The truth is, from 48 shots last season, only five of those ended up in the back of the net. That perhaps isn’t the best evidence for a man who is allegedly begging to be played as a centre forward. Compare this evidence against Wahbi Khazri, known as an attacking midfielder who contributed two goals and as many assists as he did, but in almost half the game time. Compare his stats last season to Adam Johnson, who played only eleven games last season, and his goal scoring/assists record makes for an even scarier reading.

On the flip side, his pre-season has been tremendous as he bagged a total of three goals across games against Rotherham, Dijon and Montpellier. However, only one of those came from a position of centre forward.

I think, in theory, Fabio Borini’s ability to run his knackers off for the club, his determination, excellent technique as well as his ability to find the net when it matters most should make at least make him good back up for a prolific goal scorer like Jermain Defoe, however the more you look at the likeable Italian’s contribution, it’s worth arguing that maybe he needs to show us that he’s worthy of a starting place alone this coming season, not dictating where he thinks he should play.