Sunderland lacked cutting edge in attack on Tuesday night, as they failed to take the many chances they had in front of goal in order to make Oxford United pay.
Whilst ultimately the result that mattered was the one of the penalty shoot-out at the end of the tie, it’s easy to forget that we actually drew the game inside the ninety minutes. Sunderland created the best chances but were poor in converting them, and were robbed of two blatant penalties that the officials on the night failed to award.
The glaring omission in Sunderland’s creative front-line was Chris Maguire, who was forced to miss the game through suspension. He’s been a key component in Phil Parkinson’s side since the new manager arrived but for the first time he was forced to re-think his attacking game-plan without having the luxury of Maguire available to him.
That, in my opinion, was a big reason why Sunderland failed to progress through to the quarter-final stage of the League Cup in normal time. We created more than enough chances but just weren’t good enough to make them count - and had Maguire been on the pitch I suspect that things could have gone a lot differently.
Here I’ve presented Sunderland’s creative statistical data from before the Oxford game in order to demonstrate just how important the former Sheffield Wednesday man is to our best attacking play - and to express why I feel that taking the rough with the smooth when it comes to Maguire’s performances could be key to how successful we are on the pitch.
Goals & Assists Combined
The data prior to Tuesday’s cup loss shows just how important Chris Maguire is to Sunderland’s best attacking play, and perhaps reflects that in order to defeat Southend on Saturday that we have to pair him with Marc McNulty up top if we are going to take full advantage against League One’s leakiest defence.
I’ve written often recently about why I think Maguire’s best position is as a number ten, and I can’t help but wonder what his total goal and assist contributions would be had he played in that role consistently this season.
Jack Ross would often place the former Scotland international out wide, and whilst his ‘numbers’ are still impressive from wide areas it’s my belief that he can be more of a threat playing in support of the lone striker, linking midfield to attack.
What is clear is that he’s our most effective attacker, and the numbers don’t lie.
When Maguire is on the pitch he’s crucial to our best attacking play. Granted, his all-round ‘performances’ are occasionally inconsistent, but it’d be fair to allege that was he a consistently effective creative player that he wouldn’t be playing third tier football.
Perhaps the mantra on Maguire’s usage should be that you simply have to accept that he’s not perfect - don’t give up on him when he has a poor game, because even when playing badly he’s worth having on the pitch more often than not.
This selection of data shows overall contributions in scoring attacks - i.e., not only attacks where players have scored or assisted, but where they have had a hand in creating said goal further down the line. This could be a key pass to play the assister in, like Maguire did for Duncan Watmore against Tranmere when the former England U21 wide-man squared the ball into the opposition penalty area for Lynden Gooch’s goal.
Maguire tops this table with a massive 15 contributions - a 48% share, which basically shows that the former Oxford attacker has pretty much had a hand in almost half of Sunderland’s total goals this season. That’s 1.29 contributions per game on average - an impressive statistic.
You might look at this selection and wonder why I’ve included it, but I think that it’s important to point out that, bar Max Power, every player above Maguire in this table is a defender. Obviously, the majority of passes made by defenders are under no pressure to the feet of someone not too far away, so naturally they will more often than not carry the highest percentage of successful passes of anyone in the team.
Creative players have to have faith in their ability to create. If they don’t try to forge openings and back themselves to eventually find success, they’ll never get in amongst the goals. Maguire’s eagerness to get on the ball and force the issue is impressive, and the big take from this particular selection is that whilst he’s not the most accurate passer in the team, he is our more accurate attacker.
When taking both this figure and the fact he’s had a hand in more goals than any other player into account, it could perhaps be said that Maguire deserves more credit than he gets for his sheer willingness to take risks and find gaps for his fellow players to exploit.
So... Maguire as a ten, then?
I can’t help but wonder what sort of numbers - even though currently they are brilliant - we might have seen from Maguire had he played in the number ten position consistently this season. Despite playing pretty much everywhere across the attack, his contributions have been impressive and I look forward to seeing how much more he’s capable of now that it would appear that Phil Parkinson has recognised that his best role is in the hole behind our main striker, linking play with the wide men, full backs and central midfielders.
The last time that Maguire was consistently played as a number ten was during his final season with Oxford United, where he scored 17 goals and collected 15 assists during perhaps his most successful club campaign in his career to date.
The key for me, as mentioned above, is to stick by Maguire in that role even after he’s had a bad game. He’s the one player in our ranks who I feel is comfortable in that position, and is one of just a handful of players at this level who, creatively, is on another level to the majority of the other players in League One.
The Tranmere game was the perfect example of how effective Maguire can be. Southend on Saturday should see us play under similar circumstances - the Shrimpers have shipped tonnes of goals this season and are not coming to Wearside hoping to win, but to maybe return back down south unscathed, with a point in tow.
I believe that will go one of two ways for us - under the instruction of their new manager, Sol Campbell, they’ll be disciplined and sit deep, or they’ll turn up simply unprepared to cope with wave after wave of our attacks. In either scenario we’re going to need a player like Maguire, who has demonstrated that he’s willing to take risks to carve openings.
There are many factors that need to fall into place for Sunderland to be successful this season, but one of the main ones - in my opinion - is for Chris Maguire’s role in the side to become established. Whilst he’s capable in many positions, he’s best as a ten, and we have to show patience in his ability to perform there more often than not.
Doing so could be the key to promotion - you just never know.