Plundering five goals and nine assists in 2020 thus far, Chris Maguire has been Sunderland’s best performing player in terms of statistics, influence and general play since the turn of the year. It’s also probably a safe bet that he’s been the best performing player in the league too during this time.
However, one cliché often bandied around regarding any formation with a back-three is that the wing-backs are the most important players in the system. It’s a widely adduced aphorism and cliché because it is true, for the most part. In the case of Luke O’Nien, I’d claim it certainly is.
Over the course of the last two months, this Maguire-O’Nien axis has been quietly one of the most effective yet unheralded partnerships in the whole of the EFL. According to Instat, they are Sunderland’s two highest rated players this season and have among the highest average ratings in the entire league in 2020.
The pair have an uncanny ability to come out of crowded battles with the ball and constantly find each other in space. On Tuesday evening, they were the most frequent pass distribution in the whole team, with the pair receiving the ball from each other 19 times respectively for a total of 38. It was considerably the highest combination containing any attacking players, with every other of the top ten in the game for both sides combinations between central defenders and defensive midfielders.
The pair have an almost telepathic ability in knowing exactly where each other is at all times, especially in the opposition half and final third. In fact, they have been the most frequented pass combination for Sunderland in every game of 2020, the last 15 in a row and are the most frequented combination in the league this season in general.
But why? The pair are very similar - both have keen technique on the ball, are tenacious workers and play very closely together. Over time, their partnership has only become stronger thanks to Phil Parkinson’s consistency in selection.
Our right-hand side is dominant in most games - we haven’t conceded a goal through this route since we swept aside Lincoln at home, and that was offside anyway and in every single game since the turn of the year the opposition have focused more upon attacking down the left.
Naturally this is also due to other teams seeing Denver Hume as a defensive weak link. Fleetwood’s left-hand side has been directly responsible for nine goals and six assists this season - McKay from inside left, Josh Morris as a left winger or Danny Andrew from left-back or left wing-back - but on Tuesday night they attempted a paltry ten attacks against Maguire, O’Nien and Willis and succeeded in zero.
Their total attacking output down the left-hand side was 0% for the first time this season. They were truly and utterly dominated for the full 90 minutes.
Luke O’Nien has been touted by many to play central midfield and CAM throughout the last 18 months, but it is clear now he is the first choice right wing-back in the team and is performing with aplomb. He may not have a beautiful cross or lightning quick pace, but in this awkward and unconventional system that means naught.
O’Nien plays as an inverted wing-back, as perfected by Pep Guardiola. His role is akin to Oleksandr Zinchenko’s at City: to shadow Maguire an provide him the ability to roam free by both patrolling the channel and the by-line. As a result, Jordan Willis does not play as a centre-back but a right-back, as explored previously. His pace, power and surprisingly brilliant driven cross has bamboozled opposition defenders for weeks now.
This attacking axis gets the best out of Jordan Willis. In truth it is a little harsh to leave him out of the headline of this piece, as he has been one of our most consistent performers and is a brilliant foil to the pair ahead of him.
Their work-rate and willingness to cut in allows Willis acres of space down the right to cause havoc & with every game he gets more confident. I’m not quite sure if the fact he had a higher xG than Wyke on Tuesday is a compliment to him or an insult to Wyke.
Luke O’Nien is actually the highest rated “right-midfielder” in the league according to Instat, despite many claiming he is not “suited” to the role. In fact, I personally believe he is still one of the unsung heroes of this side, providing the perfect framework and platform to let Maguire shine. Parkinson almost immediately began to play Luke at right back not just to solve a problem position, but because he is a natural in the role.
Often, central midfielders and full-backs have to share similar attributes in order to be successful and for over ten years now you often see players of either position cropping up in the other.
The first time he tried a back-three down at Gillingham, Parkinson started Conor McLaughlin as the right wing-back. He has years of international and championship experience in the role, but almost immediately he restored Luke to the team - just like Jack Ross before him.
Of course, it is a team game and all the Lads need to be at their best to attain promotion. But this right-hand axis is truly one of the most important parts of the team’s arsenal, both defensively and offensively. Keeping them both fit, firing and flying is of the utmost importance. By way of a dénouement, just take a look below at the sheer quantity of passes, key passes, combinations and shots the pair either have or create.