Although attacking midfield is actually one of Sunderland’s strongest positions in the squad - Gooch and Maguire scored 21 goals between them and the latter also notched 10 assists - it is one in which Sunderland’s squad depth could still be improved.
Antoine Semenyo was brought in during January to play as back up to Lynden Gooch and with both him and Duncan Watmore leaving at the end of the season there is room for Sunderland to add player to the attacking part of their team. This would give them five options for the attacking midfield positions, with either Benji Kimpioka or Jack Diamond taking up one of those.
Since Phil Parkinson’s formation includes two out-and-out defensive midfielders, the brunt of the side’s creativity comes from the two attacking midfielders who operate in behind the lone forward.
For this reason it makes sense to start by looking at the players who have created the most chances in Sunderland’s scouting range. The graph below is probably the easiest way of showing who the most creative players are, since those the furthest left are creating the most scoring chances (expected assists) with the higher up a player is, the most other key passes they complete per game.
As you can see, Chris Maguire stands out as one of the best chance creators - something which is backed up by his ten assists last season. Celtic’s Ryan Christie and former Peterborough midfielder Marcus Maddison also present their team’s forwards with plenty of chances to score. However, the main standout player here is Bristol City’s Niclas Eliasson who is out on his own in the target top-right corner of the graph.
Since Sunderland’s two number tens play as inside forwards - taking up positions both out wide and in the half-spaces - it is important that they have the ability to go past players with the ball. This is one of the main strengths of Lynden Gooch’s game, so whichever player is going to challenge him for a place also needs to excel in this area.
Without doubt, the top right of the graph below shows players who are the best at dribbling with the ball. Thibaud Verlinden, who was on loan at Bolton for the first half of last season, is the standout, along with Colclough and McDonald - who attempt some of the highest number of dribbles per game.
Whilst dribbling and chance creation are the main roles required of wingers of all types, in Parkinson’s 3-4-2-1 the attacking midfielders are actually the main goalscoring threat in the side - and even with better strikers than Wyke and Grigg at his disposal, Parkinson’s teams have always shared the goals around their forward players.
The first graph shows the quality and quantity of shots taken by players. Players in the top right corner take a lot of shots and have a high xG, meaning these shots are likely to result in goals. Since Sunderland are looking for a goalscoring attacking midfielder, the xG score is more important than number of shots and secondary it is better for this xG to come from a lower number of shots. This is why in the table Andre Ayew ranks top above Ryan Christie who has a similar xG from a greater number of shots.
Although taking shots with a higher xG makes it more likely that players will be able to sustain their goalscoring, it is also true that some players are good finishers and outperform their xG consistently as a result - Josh Maja did this at Sunderland and has continued to do so at Bordeaux.
The table below shows all players who outperformed their xG and can be considered "good finishers."
Whilst it is likely that players such as Jamie Murphy - who outperformed his xG by a goal every 3 games - would be unable to recreate this same form over the course of next season, it is a clear benefit to have players who showed they can finish the chances they are presented with.
Despite attacking players generally commanding fees in excess of their defensive counterparts, when it comes to filling this particular hole in Sunderland's squad there should be no need to break the bank. Free agents such as Jordan Clark - who signed for Luton Town on Wednesday - prove that plenty of attacking talent is available without needing to spend a penny in transfer fees.
Out of the seven players who performed above average in all metrics, only one is both available for transfer and within Sunderland’s reach financially. Marcus Maddison ranks third for expected assists, 23rd for successful dribbles per 90 and out performs his xG by 0.14 - incidently the same amount as Lynden Gooch. He is a free agent following his release by Peterborough and although he will have transfer interest, the coronavirus got in the way of his only spell at that level - a loan at Hull City - meaning there could still be a chance of him turning up at the Stadium of Light if the club was interested.
Another ambitious signing for Sunderland could be 23 years old Liverpool winger Sheyi Ojo who spent last season at Steven Gerrard’s Rangers in the SPL. He didn’t quite create as many chances as Maddison last season, but he made a similar number of key passes and his xA of 0.24 per 90 puts him comfortably above average amongst the players scouted. However, Ojo makes up for fewer chances created by excelling at dribbling with the ball and his 5.55 successful dribbles per game is the 6th best amongst the players scouted; something which might make him a better fit in the ‘Lynden Gooch role’ than Maddison in terms of style. The main weakness in Ojo’s game is his finishing, with a chance conversion of -0.11 meaning he misses more chances than is expected but, with experience at the higher level at a big club he could be a brilliant loan signing if Sunderland could convince him to drop to the third tier.
With Maddison and Ojo possibly seeing their level as greater than League One, it could be sensible for Sunderland to look at players still working their way up the pyramid. Bez Lubala from Crawley Town scored 12 times in League Two last season from the wide positions and seems to be a good fit in terms of player profile to play the role inside forward.
Whilst his chance creation is mediocre (one xA every 5 games is just better than average), a ranking of 26th for successful dribbles and an xG of a goal every three games and a standard conversion rate means he is likely to continue to score goals from out wide next season. At 22 years old and with one more year on his contract, maybe he should be scoring those goals at Sunderland.
All Stats from Wyscout