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Where is Luke O’Nien best suited to playing?

As fans continue to debate which position suits Luke O’Nien most, self-confessed detractor Tom Albrighton looks at where he feels the 26-year-old can be best utilised in Lee Johnson’s Sunderland team going forward.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Luke O’Nien has become somewhat of a controversial figure amongst the Sunderland faithful, being the centre of what can be described at times as vitriolic debate. It feels for some weeks O’Nien has been in a steady decline, especially since his move into his preferred centre of the park.

Signed in the summer of the 2018/19 season, O’Nien was one of 17 faces through the door during a summer of upheaval at the Stadium of Light - fast forward to today, and O’Nien’s latest contract has somehow coincided with another summer of upheaval.

Over the course of his stay, O’Nien has found himself being utilised in various roles and positions under three different managers, with his career here finally coming full circle - as his move into the centre of midfield eventually saw him unceremoniously hooked at half time at Rotherham, the same fate he suffered upon his first start at Sunderland.

Over time O’Nien admirably worked his way back into the hearts of Sunderland fans, working through his early disappointment to become a regular fixture thanks to a mix of squad limitations and a series of good performances, deputising in a series of positions away from his preferred central role, so much so that eventually O’Nien was seen as Sunderlands first choice right back, prompting concern from many fans over a potential departure at the end of last season and the season before that.

In this more defensive role, O’Nien seemed more than adept.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy - Final 2021 - Wembley Stadium Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

Since his move into the centre of the pitch, O’Nien has started to really divide opinion, winning his fair share of critics as well as his fans.

Whilst his work rate can rarely be brought into question, many queried the decision that was seemingly made at the start of the season by which he was to be moved into centre midfield - an area where Sunderland have a series of options and moved away from an area where the only recognised, full time right back at the club has been Niall Huggins who has subsequently spent a large portion of this season injured.

As Sunderland's form has declined rapidly in recent weeks, it would be unfair to suggest O’Nien’s form is the only problem Lee Johnson is faced with, with many players playing well below a standard expected by both the fans and the club itself - however, it is O’Nien’s continued selection that is starting to concern me.

In a new data-driven Sunderland, it seemed logical that the first place to start was to look at his statistics compared to his fellow midfielders at the club, to see if there was perhaps an underlying reason behind his continual selection despite his clear struggles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to some, the first glaring issue is O’Nien’s passing success rate, or therein lack of - according to WhoScored, Luke sits at 10th in the squad rankings for completed passes with 75.7% - that’s less than Hoffmann, Neil and Embleton, as well as his replacement at right-back, Carl Winchester.

What's more, O’Nien sits 3rd in our long ball stats (discounting keepers) with an average of 3.6 per game - this feels like a potential issue, considering the style of football Sunderland are attempting to play under Johnson, with Neil, Evans and Embleton playing 2.1, 2 and 0.3 long balls per match respectively. It seems on the surface of things, with the ball at his feet, that O’Nien is not playing to the same style and efficiency as his counterparts.

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

Next, it felt logical to look at his attacking output - and the most obvious area of focus when looking at attacking output is goals and assists. In direct comparison to both Neil and Embleton (two players given greater license to advance up the pitch than players such as Evans), O’Nien again lacks.

Whilst goals in midfield haven’t been in mass supply, O’Nien again trails behind his counterparts with 1 goal, 0 assists in the league to date - in direct comparison Neil has 1G, 5A with Embleton contributing 2G, 3A with both players securing these statistics in fewer league minutes. The same can also be said for Key Passes per game, whereby O’Nien again lags behind both Neil and Embleton, securing 0.8 key passes per game compared to 1.1 and 1.7 respectively. Where O’Nien redeems himself in an attacking aspect is his high rankings in the columns for being fouled, being dispossessed and unsecured touches - 2.4, 0.1 and 0.6 per game, ranking him amongst the top performers in the squad for these stats. It seems then, that whilst on the face of things O’Nien is secure with the ball at his feet, it is his output that severely lacks in comparison to his fellow midfielders.

So, last but not least in this stats-heavy section is O’Nien’s defensive capability and with it, perhaps some of the reasoning behind his continued selection.

In a defensive capacity, Luke manages to hold himself within the top performers within the side and regularly outclasses his midfield counterparts in a series of areas.

Ranking joint 1st for tackles per game alongside Carl Winchester and an impressive 4th for interceptions (2.1 tackles, 1.4 interceptions for you stat lovers), it seems Luke is far better suited to disrupting play than being a lynchpin of which to start attacks. With more blocks and more clearances than any other midfielder too, all the data starts to point towards where O’Nien’s strengths lay.

This perhaps then leads us to more pertinent questions to be asked, especially as the collective form of the squad has dipped.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Over the weeks we have seen the role of O’Nien subtly change from game to game, something which has seen teams target him specifically under the aerial ball (this is interesting on the basis his aerial success rate is high, however, until recently it must be noted his aerial duals were mainly against other midfielders).

As his role has changed, Luke has certainly seen more of the ball and played higher than his defensive counterparts, which seems to be a counterintuitive approach given his attacking shortcomings and defensive forthcomings. Far be it from me to ever suggest a manager is using a player incorrectly, but looking at these stats and overlaying them with what many are seeing from Luke, this last week specifically, would suggest that perhaps either too much is being expected of a player in terms of his own limits in ability, or that his own endeavour to become more involved in the game is coming detriment to the side itself.

The only people who will know the answer to that question are the coaches and O’Nien himself, and they are the only people who have it within their power to solve to the conundrum that he has become over this season.

Given his defensive ability and contrasted against Carl Winchester’s impressive attacking statistics (as well as some curious performances at right back the last week or so) there is a legitimate and not unfair case for moving O’Nien back to a position which both earned him plaudits, Championship interest and a new contract.

Changes are bound to be afoot in the coming weeks, and it will certainly be of interest to see where the future of O’Nien lays, and whether taking him out of the firing line will allow him time to reset. That aside, it could allow the coaching staff a means to emphasise his seemingly impressive defensive statistics.

Until then, O’Nien will remain a contentious issue amongst fans and debate will no doubt rage on for the many weeks until our next league game, one which all players and staff must be feeling the pinch for.

Until then we must wait, hypothesise and hope that amongst a raft of potential changes a positive solution can be found for both the club's sake and O’Nien’s.

Nobody wants to see a player struggle as much as he has in recent weeks, and hopefully O’Nien finds his better form sooner rather than later.

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