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Summer Scouting: How can Sunderland upgrade the centre of their midfield?

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Phil Parkinson could be tempted to add some creativity and power to the centre of Sunderland’s midfield this summer. But who should we target? Phil Butler takes a look at the data to see which players might be bargain buys.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Central midfield is, along with a new striker, the position where Sunderland will be looking for a player who can slot straight into the first team rather than a squad player to offer backup for the players already present at the club.

After all, if Sunderland were happy with the quality of their options in the middle of the park, but merely wary of numbers, extending Ethan Robson’s contract would have been the simplest way to have another position sorted going into next season.

Since the academy graduate was released, it is safe to assume that whoever comes into this position will be an upgrade on last season’s options.

Sunderland v Stoke U21 - Checkatrade Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Defending

Since Phil Parkinson’s teams almost always operate with a two-man midfield - regardless of whether he plays the 4-2-3-1 from Bolton, 4-4-2 from Bradford, or 3-4-2-1 we have seen at Sunderland - both players in the middle of the park need to get through a lot of work defensively.

The table below shows possession adjusted (PAdj) stats meaning that they are given per 30 minutes of opposition ball possession. This means a players numbers aren’t based on how much possession their team tends to have.

The two main defensive actions for midfielders are interceptions and tackles (the graph shows slide tackles since the numbers for overall tackles wasn’t available), and these measurements are the main strength of George Dobson’s game.

Whilst the top right of the graph shows a good balance between tackles and interceptions, the form which these defensive actions take isn’t really important, so the rankings in the table include all players who complete an above average number of defensive actions.

This list of players is the basis of the shortlist for players Sunderland should be looking so sign, and one which can be narrowed down through looking at the more attacking attributes.


Passing

As is the case with all players who operate in deep positions, where losing the ball can lead to a chance for the opposition, it is important that both of Sunderland’s defensive midfielders have a high passing accuracy so that they allow the team to recycle possession, which gives the wing backs the chance to get up the pitch and turn the back five into a back three.

The graph below combines passing accuracy with long passing accuracy in order to add some context in terms of which players are simply boosting their accuracy stats by playing short high-possession passes frequently. Those in the top right corner play these short passes accurately, but also play long more risky passes with a higher degree of success than most.

Once again, George Dobson scores well by this measure, and he comes out fifth for average passing accuracy. Dobson’s good scores in both passing accuracy and defending could make the case that he would be better in the position Max Power is currently operating in - screening the defence and playing balls out wide to the wing backs.

This helps to make the case that Sunderland’s new centre midfielder provide more attacking output, with Power and Dobson both suitable for playing the anchoring role in the midfield two.


Ball Progression

If we were in the market for another defensive midfield, much of the analysis would stop there - ironically with George Dobson one of the stand out candidates for the role.

However, Sunderland's midfield is in need of something different, and that should include a midfielder with the ability to carry the ball forwards as well as being adept in the art of defence.

The graph above shows centre midfielders organised based on their dribbling ability, with those of particular interest situated to the top right of the graph. Unsurprisingly, many of the standout names are more attacking midfielders such as Rangers’ Joe Aribo and former Sunderland loanee Ovie Ejaria.

However, if we cross-reference this list with those on the original list of adept defenders we start to see the type of players Sunderland should be targeting.

Jude Bellingham would be a great signing... if he hadn’t just moved to Dortmund for £20 million, however Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, who spent last season on loan at Blackpool from Leicester, is one to keep an eye on should he be loaned out again next season.

The graph above assesses players on their ball progression, both runs and passes, and since the focus for this position is on running with the ball, players should be in the right half of the graph - and those who are in the top right corner are also adept at playing forward passes up the pitch.

Since we are looking mainly for someone to carry the ball forwards, the table in the second image includes all players with an above average number of progressive actions and orders them on the number of progressive runs they make.

Once again a number of attacking midfielders show up such as Crewe’s Callum Ainley and Leeds’ Pablo Hernandez - whose presence on the defensive actions shortlist owes more to Marcelo Bielsa’s pressing than to the Spaniard’s defensive awareness.

Blackpool v Tranmere Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Transfer Targets

As I mentioned at the beginning, this is a position where it is important Sunderland improve the quality of the squad rather than just adding numbers to it.

For that reason, it makes sense for Sunderland to look at loan players who have already proven to be a success at League One level. Leicester City’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall spent the second half of last season on loan at Blackpool; he is competent defensively whilst excelling at dribbling with the ball and moving forward into advanced positions. After a productive loan spell there is a chance Leicester would be looking for a Championship club for next season; however, Sunderland could use the promise of regular game time to skip to the front of the queue for a player who would offer something different in midfield.

For all Dewsbury-Hall’s qualities, at just 5ft 8 there is a chance that Phil Parkinson could want someone with more height in the middle of the park. Another loan option who gives Parkinson this height would be Joe Morrell who spent last season at Lincoln City. Like Dewsbury-Hall he is competent defensively and strong at moving the ball forwards; however, he is not quite as productive a dribbler as the Leicester youngster. Furthermore, with a new manager coming in at Bristol City it is likely they may want to keep Morrell around the first team squad, meaning Parkinson could be forced to look elsewhere to get both height and attacking quality into his midfield.

A permanent option who could help to provide just that is Shrewsbury Town’s Ollie Norburn. At 6ft - the same height as Morrell - he is tall enough to play in the centre of midfield, and has experience at the level which could give him the advantage over a loan signing. Norburn is slightly more defensive-minded than the two loan options, but still ranks an impressive 34th for dribbles and is a good passes of the ball. Norburn would represent a more subtle way of improving the attacking output of Sunderland’s defensive midfield, but this could also mean that he would slot straight into the side without any hiccups.


All Stats from Wyscout