During last summer’s transfer window left back went from one of Sunderland’s most reliable positions - with Oviedo, James and Hume competing for one starting spot - to a problem position. Hume has been largely impressive since making the step up from youth football, but Sunderland tried and failed twice last year to find a capable deputy to the academy graduate, and with Hume still liable to drop offs in form it is important that Parkinson and co. can find some reliable competition at left full back.
With defending the part of Denver Hume’s game which requires the most improvement, it is important that whoever is brought in to compete with the young wing back is capable in this area.
Unlike players at centre back, ability in the air isn’t an important quality for those at full back - even less so wing back - however, they are still required to be competent defensively. As a result it makes sense to look at players’ success rate in defensive duels.
The above graph organises all left backs within Sunderland’s most likely scouting range based on the number and success rate of defensive duels over last season.
If we remove the right-footed McMillan from the graph, Greenock Morton’s Lewis Strapp scores highest in this department, since he is placed nearest to the top right corner of the graph.
Whilst it isn’t important for full backs to have good aerial ability, they are required to be strong when competing with the ball in attacking parts of the pitch. This is something required even more when playing at wing back, since Sunderland’s left back operates as a winger when attacking in the 3-4-2-1 formation.
Whilst no players stand out alone in the graph above (again, top-right is the target area), those at the top of the graph score highest in terms of number of successful offensive duels per 90 minutes. Brandon Flemming (on loan at Bolton from Hull), Hayden Coulson (Middlesbrough) and James Brophy (Leyton Orient) all score highly for offensive duels, but their underperformance with regard to defensive duels makes it difficult to class them as solid in defence.
However, Jerome Opoku spent last season on loan at Accrington from Play-off finalists Fulham and not only comes fourth for offensive duels, but also ranks in the top ten for defensive duels. If Sunderland played a flat back four, with full backs who were asked to be defenders first and foremost, Opoku would be a top target for left back.
Although defensive ability is important, the modern game dictates more and more that the most important part of a full backs game is their attacking. The focus on attacking attributes, is even more clear when playing with a back three, where the ‘left back’ plays as a left winger when Sunderland are in possession of the ball.
The time in possession of the ball can be split into two broad phases: the build up, and chance creation. The first graph (above) focuses on the build up play and how efficient players are at moving the ball forwards through running with the ball, or passing.
It is no surprise to see more players from top teams in the target zone of these graphs. Two of Celtic’s left backs (Greg Taylor and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo) and Rangers left back Borna Barisic both appear near the top right of the graph, and Antonee Robinson (linked with a move to Milan in January) is comfortably the best for progressive running.
Closer to Sunderland’s budget, whilst Burton’s Colin Daniel ranks 2nd or overall ball progression, this comes mainly through passing whilst more emphasis should be placed on dribbling when scouting for a wing back in Sunderland’s system.
Two young full backs who show good balance of progressive passes and runs are new MK Dons signing Daniel Harvie, and Dundee’s Jordan Marshall. Bristol City’s Cameron Pring who spend last season at Walsall, is probably the best dribbler available to Sunderland in this position.
The final consideration when looking for Sunderland’s next left back is their ability to create chances - something which reflects their status as wing backs rather than old-school full backs.
Here, I have used the Expected Assists (xA) stat instead of assists top avoid players being ranked differently based on the quality of their teams’ strikers, rather than their own individual chance-creating performances.
Once again, several of the same names who scored highly in ball progression also do so here. Barisic is way out in front at the top right of the graph, with Greg Taylor scoring well once again.
Overall, 13 players appear in the top right quadrant of both attacking graphs, with Salford City’s Ibou Touray standing out, especially in regard to xA. The other players I have previously mentioned: Jordan Marshall, Daniel Harvie and Colin Daniel are all in the correct part of the graph.
Options in the Transfer Market
Left back is a unique position for Sunderland to recruit this summer because they have a few options as to the profile of player they can choose to target. Parkinson can either opt for a solid defensive option to contrast with Hume’s attacking, or he can sign a more attacking left back to provide constant competition and an option to rotate without changing formation.
Personally, I think the latter option is the way to go and by replacing Laurens De Bock with Declan John in January showed that Parkinson is likely to go down this route as well. For these reasons, a greater emphasis will be placed on prospective targets’ attacking attributes, rather than their defensive ones.
Only one player performed above average in all statistics used - Mansfield Town’s Malvind Benning. Whilst his highest ranking was a modest 14th for ball progression, this stat showed that he was equally good moving the ball forwards through passing and through dribbling and the main strength of his chance creation was through the most important xA score. The 26 year old has been at Mansfield for five years, and with his contact expiring next season Sunderland would be well-placed to swoop for a player who, due to his well-rounded game, would likely be a reliable back up to Hume in both four and five man defences.
Whilst Benning is statistically the most all-round player available, a more attacking option whilst retaining a decent defensive ability is Jordan Marshall from Dundee. Marshall excels at ball progression and ranks 4th in that category, whilst he also appears in the target zone for offensive duels and chance creation. In fact, even the part of his game in which he is weakest - defensive duels - this is down to fewer duels attempted rather than a low success rate. Again with one year left on his deal, Marshall would be a younger alternative to Benning and could be seen as the more long term option, something which could result in Sunderland having the left back position sorted for the significant future.
With Hume the definite first choice going into the new season, and the wing back role requiring a player with energy, it could make sense for Sunderland to use the loan market to acquire some competition on the cheap. The stand out option if the club goes down this route would be Rhys Norrington-Davies, a 21 year old Welsh Internation who spent last season playing at wing back for Rochdale on loan from Sheffield United. He ranks 9th for defensive duels last season and 16th for chances created and, whilst he is out of the target zone for ball progression - due to fewer progressive passes - he made the 4th most progressive runs out of all players included. Norrington-Davies would be a safe option, with experience of the league and the position and will most-likely be up for loan again - if Sunderland are to use the loan market he could be a shrewd aquisition.
All Stats from Wyscout