Although all but one of Sebastian Larsson's six seasons at the club have coincided in relegation struggle I, and many others, will most likely look back on the Swede’s time at the club fondly. He will be remembered as the committed and likable individual that he is, and as the player who won our Player of the Year in 2015.
Even though he initially struggled to move into the centre of midfield to accommodate then big money signing, Adam Johnson (eurgh), his competence there was such that he became a regular fixture under successive managers who praised his energy and pressing style of play. He was, and still is, a workhorse, who tries his best to pull the team forward with his energy.
However, as a fairly impressive Southampton side smashed four goals past us last weekend - dominating the midfield and tearing our defence to shreds - I couldn’t help but despair at Larsson's performance.
Despite him missing almost the entirety of our impressive run-in last season, the long serving Swede was one of many on the treatment table at the beginning of this season we hoped would make a difference upon his return. But if truth be told, however, he’s been poor this season and has struggled to make an impact on proceedings. The high octane style of harrying play he was originally renowned for has slowly descended into a series of niggling, needless fouls; whilst his passing, and perhaps most notably, his corners have lost their crisp quality.
A midfield missing the likes of our battling vice-captain Lee Cattermole and the ever-calm Jan Kirchhoff has been crying out for someone to stamp their authority on it. Yet, experienced pros like Larsson and Steven Pienaar have left the job of trying to run the game or spark the crowd into life to a young boy in his first season in the Premier League.
Bought for a large figure and already under pressure to deliver, Didier Ndong has had a baptism of fire. To be fair to the Gabonese international, he’s had some great games and looks to be a very good player. He cannot run the midfield as a one man show, though, and others - including Larsson - need to prove their worth.
Whilst the former Birmingham midfielder has had his fair share of injury problems, his 2014/15 season was undoubtedly his most impressive at the club. Winning almost half of his duels that season, his chances created also sat at an impressive 56. Fast forward to this season, however, and he’s won only 33% of his duels in 12 appearances giving away far more fouls in the meantime.
Whilst his passing accuracy has stayed relatively consistent over the last three seasons at 83% it’s a far more telling statistic that he has created far fewer chances this campaign (0.5), whereas two seasons before he was functioning at 1.6 chances per game. It’s understandable that limited game time and injuries have hampered his athleticism, however it is disappointing that Seb’s abilities appear to be on the decline.
Stats don’t always tell the full story, but in this case it’s pretty evident that something has changed over the past few years for the Swedish International. Have his legs gone? Have injuries finally caught up with him? Is he hiding? Making the wrong decisions? You could make a case for each of those questions.
One thing is for sure is that he is not aiding the team right now, and the only argument for keeping him there is that he has experienced several situations just like the one in which we find ourselves. That’s not to say he is the only one struggling to make an impact right now, but with his experience and nous it’s fair to say we have come to expect better.
And whilst he may be good for giving the local rag soundbites on how teams should fear our supreme ability to dodge the Premier League trap door, it might be time for someone new to step into the mold of chief irritator and set-piece taker.
Perhaps we would be better served with someone like Lynden Gooch to add that much-needed drive and mettle; the young American is far from the finished article, but his tenacity and flashes of quality certainly warrant a chance to stake a claim as the heir to Larsson.
Now that Gooch is deemed back to full fitness and ready to play his part in the first team again, there won't be a better opportunity for him to make his mark on the Sunderland starting eleven when we travel to Goodison Park next Saturday to face an Everton side littered with quality young talent.
Though the returns of Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff are very much on the horizon, the introduction of a player like Gooch could add a spark and youthful exuberance to a midfield that sorely needs it. Whilst experience can be incredibly useful in some situations, it can only get you so far - you have to worry about your ability to impart yourself on a game when you're expecting the likes of Steven Pienaar and Sebastian Larsson to still be able to function at a high level in 2017.
Ultimately, Larsson has been a superb servant to this club, and he will always hold a fond place in our hearts. Yet, if we are to progress as a club we must stop relying on players based on a sentimental or nostalgic basis. Players like Sebastian Larsson have given us their all, but perhaps now is the right time to move on.