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BCA: Welcome To Sundongland

Why Didier Ndong is the midfielder you need but didn’t want.

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". . . three times we refused the departure of Didier Ndong, from €12m to €14m and then €16m, but when the last offer, €20m, and probably a little more with bonuses, arrived, his departure became inevitable . . ."

That was FC Lorient Président, Loïc Féry, speaking last month; and making it irrefutably clear how adamantly Sunderland AFC and David Moyes wanted his midfield starlet, Didier Ibrahim Ndong.

But for a fee so high as Féry quoted, it’s a shame that barely any Sunderland supported 'wanted' him.

Y’see, with no disrespect intended toward a Gabon international such as Ndong, there just isn’t a whole lot of fanfare about the twenty-two year old that screams ‘club record transfer’.  And it is inexplicably easy to forget how his £13.7 million fee is the most paid by Sunderland since the £13.6 million acquisition of Asamoah Gyan six years ago.

And that is an unusually beneficial position for the player himself; to be brought in under the strain of immense financial risk (by our standards), and yet nobody caring enough about it to really set any expectation of him.  For the most part, that’s still the case now.

But why is that? Maybe it is because Ndong has a relatively unknown record.  Maybe it is because there just aren’t that many reports or highlight packages touting him as the next big thing.  Maybe it was the series of transfer mini-sagas that eclipsed his under-radar recruitment.  Maybe it is that nobody supporting Sunderland realistically sees him as an immediate game-changer.

Or maybe it’s because Didier Ndong is not Yann M’Vila.  Actually, there might be something to that.

Let’s not forget, after all, that a longer term relationship between Sunderland and Yann M’Vila was tantamount to unavoidable destiny.  It was inevitable that the popular French loanee was to be brought in from the cold of the Rubin Kazan training ground.  He was the story of our entire summer transfer window.  We, the people, had spoken: we wanted him here.  Most still do.

And let’s face it; anybody recruited this summer who was not Yann M’Vila was already a predetermined poor imitation – an irrelevant transfer in comparison.  Nobody could seemingly replace him.  And with Didier Ndong, you have to start wondering if that’s exactly what he is: a poor and more expensive imitation of a player we thought was returning.

And that’s okay, it’s one opinion.  But here’s another: Didier Ndong is better than Yann M’Vila.

Or he will be, anyway.  Actually, yeah – he is.  And come January 2017 it is entirely probable that nobody will care an ounce of anything about the non-return of Yann M’Vila; because all eyes and words will be on the younger, more athletic, more energetic and just plain better Didier Ndong.

Okay.  Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but there are enough commodities about the midfielder to suggest his best is coming this season.

For a start, our chip-haired lad from Lambaréné has had a mini-meteoric career rise since his professional debut in July 2012.  He was already 18 years old, four months off his Gabon national team debut, and a £30,000-rated recruit for Club Sportif Sfaxien in the Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle (CLP-1).

By April 2013, Ndong had scored his first goal – a long range screamer.  The following month, he registered his first assist from a neat cross.  By June 2013, he had won the CLP-1 Championship under manager, Ruud Krol.  By February 2014, the midfielder had provided his second assist for CSS (another cross).  By March 2014, the player was competing in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League and, come August 2014, he had tallied his third and fourth career assists.

For a player not-yet twenty-one years old playing regularly in a two-to-three man defensive midfield setup, it was a productive two years for Ndong at the Stade Taïeb Mhiri.

His good work and so-so goal contribution to boot earned the player a route one way to Ligue 1 when FC Lorient manager, Sylvain Ripoll, approached Ndong in January 2015.  And that brings us to last season.

The 2015/2016 season was the real turning point for the player.  Over a commendably high 3,629 minutes (for a player of his age), Ndong was given a noteworthy amount of first team pressure at a club that was only an injury or two from plummeting down the league table.  However, with a bundle of good performances (especially in the strong Coupe de France run) capped off with further thunder-b*****d goals and occasional assists, €904,000 became an utter bargain for Ndong.

Well.  Aside from the three yellow cards he picked up from the five Coupe de France fixtures he played . . . and the other eleven yellow cards he got over twenty-five league matches.  As you can probably tell already this season, discipline is not a strong point for Didier Ndong (he was technically suspended when we bought him).

Anyway, so! We know he’s got talent.  But how is he better than Yann M’Vila? Well, it’s not just the mostly-good performances, or his half-decent commitment to goal contribution, but it also comes down to something Sunderland has been in desperate need of for a long time: distribution.

Let’s wind the clocks back to January 2015, when Ndong debuted for FC Lorient, and check through his distribution stats from then all the way to now.  It looks like this: his short passing is 88% accurate from 2101 attempts; long-ball passing is 73% from 193 attempts; open play crossing – the source of his assists – is 10 successful from 37, so around 27%.  Even his free kick accuracy has a remarkable 97% efficiency with 46 out of 47 hitting the mark.

Then there’s Yann M’Vila’s comparative statistics for us last season.  The Frenchman mustered 86% short passing accuracy.  That’s only just not as good, but still not as good.  His long ball accuracy was 51% from 205 attempts.  A lot worse.  Open play crossing was less effective on 21% from 83 attempts, while his free kicks (one of which he scored from) ranked at 79% from 24 attempts.

Are these small margins? Yeah, you bet.  But the print is all there: on paper, Ndong is better.

Hell, even as an overview, Ndong is at least on par with M’Vila as a defensive midfielder.  His career tackling success rate bests M’Vila’s last season by 67% to 66%.  Only 3 minutes separate their minute-per-interception rate in M’Vila’s favour (the French international has been applauded for years for his tactical eye for interceptions, for what it’s worth).  Ndong even wins overall pass success by 87% to 81%.

That’s 87% passing success for a twenty-two year old midfielder who, more often than not, plays forwards! Jack Colback, he ain’t.

Now, should Ndong be able to add more chance creating to his game (something M’Vila was far better at), then we’d have a ready-made replacement who genuinely is the superior alternative to a fan favourite.  He’d also need to put a quick stop to the 28 yellow cards and 3 red cards that currently blights his 105-match career to date.

But don’t let that drawback fool you.  Much of the ill-disciplined aspect of Ndong’s performances comes from his own desire to win.  The Gabon international, as you may have noticed, has a lot of relentless energy with the momentary lapses of realising when not to fully commit.  In many ways, the player is an incomplete blueprint; combining the blue-tacked boot ball retention of Jan Kirchhoff with the studs-down-your-throat attitude of Lee Cattermole.

Dare I say it, but Ndong has all the tools to be for Sunderland what N’Golo Kanté and Idrissa Gueye are for Chelsea and Everton respectively.

So does that mean we have a player worth the value of £13.7 million? Maybe not.  After all, this is still the same player who commanded only £838,000 thereabouts until this past August.  Even after chasing Ndong all summer long, an eight-figure fee seems excessive for an on-off defensive midfielder who was only-just established in a league of competitively inferior standards.  You’d suspect that there were similar, more affordable options available around the continent.

That said; we still now have a very young central midfielder with a high level of experience in his favour; his 100+ apps, for starters, is impressive, and his further eighteen appearances for Gabon since 2012 is only more beneficial.  Add to that his frequent rotation across central midfield, from holding to attacking to defensive, and we have as versatile a midfielder as we could realistically ask for with his experience.

Then there’s that comparison to Yann M’Vila.  Check it again, ‘cause not only does Ndong have a killer cross on him, but his long passes are phenomenal.  Expect plenty of penalty box involvement from him as well – he’s been providing accidental assists and setups for a while off his parried shots.

Considering all that, and keeping tabs on the three years that would have remained on his FC Lorient contract and, yeah, £13.7 million could turn out to be a fair price long term.  Is it still a risk? Absolutely.  That suspension list of his is ominous (he’s missed nearly as many matches through red cards and double bookings as he has from his 51-day fractured leg layoff in February 2014).  And yes, he does play to the beat a young Lee Cattermole once did, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

While Yann M’Vila oozed an air of matured class around his natural midfield talent, Didier Ndong is something of a polar opposite.  The twenty-two year old has many raw traits that Sunderland has been missing for some time, but it may take some time longer for us to truly appreciate them.  Ndong has something to prove and he will need to play like he wants to do just that.  Fortunately, after years of praising average players for having above-average work rates, Ndong is just the player able to use his own strong work ethic to produce excellent performances – the kind Sunderland supporters appreciate most.  At his best, he’s a fearless player going forward and is quick to react in possession, and a lot of that comes from work rate.

With a contract that runs into 2021, we are in a convenient position now where we have a still-somewhat underrated young player with five years to prove just how good he can be.  It is one thing to attempt building a reputation on what you believe a player can do, but with Didier Ndong we have a midfielder who is already starting to forge a status in football.

And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky, and the worst we’ll ever feel about him is when we sell him to Liverpool in three years for £25 million.