Since the beginning of the season, there’s been a lot of debate about ‘Mr Sunderland’ and his best position in a fully fit side after his outstanding versatility in the face of injuries last season.
Luke O’Nien has been selected by Tony Mowbray to start all in three of our Championship games so far and it’s divided the opinion of fans, with his inclusion relegating 2022/2023’s player of the season Danny Batth to the substitutes’ bench.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that Mowbray has commented on the need to have one of his centre backs acting as a progressive ball carrier and passer.
It’s vital to the way we build from the back in possession and therefore having someone who’s comfortable in that role is essential. There’s no question that O’Nien fits the bill perfectly, especially when compared to Batth.
With Dan Ballard fresh from signing a new contract and asserting himself as the ‘enforcer’ of the two, O’Nien is given the freedom to progress the ball into midfield and keep us on the front foot.
We’ve moved away from the counter attacking transition play from last season and instead we’re now looking to rack up overwhelming possession figures and ‘control’ games much more, aiming to break down defences through intricate passing and steady build up play.
This suits O’Nien due to his natural position as a midfielder, meaning he has the vision and passing range to operate as an additional sweeper in the centre of the park at times.
Our 2-1 win over Rotherham at the weekend was a perfect case study to illustrate O’Nien’s role in the team, and we’ll break down some of the advanced statistics from the game to showcase why.
Looking at the individual stats from O’Nien’s performance, we can see that he completed 94/98 passes against Rotherham. Despite playing almost everywhere for Sunderland since 2018, that was the highest number of passes he’d completed in a single game during his entire career.
As the passing map below demonstrates, he provided a range of outlets from long diagonals to simply keeping the ball moving through attacking rotations.
Having a defender capable of confidently distributing the ball and connecting defence to midfield and attack is crucial to controlling games and it means that O’Nien effectively acts as a ‘quarterback’- being able to break pressing lines and dictate the tempo from way out of the firing line.
Interestingly, O’Nien completed eighteen passes to Pierre Ekwah throughout the game which was the joint-most frequently made pass.
With O’Nien showing the confidence to stride into midfield and drop the ball into our more progressive players, he’s able to beat the first line of pressing and give players such as Ekwah & Dan Neil the ball on the half turn, enabling them to drive forward and advance us into the final third with ease.
Passing stats aside, O’Nien is still a highly capable defender in a central position, winning 2/2 of his tackles alongside 10/13 duels at the back. Despite his shorter stature, he also completed 3/3 aerial duels against Rotherham at the weekend.
Fans are already aware of his tenacity and hunger whenever he puts on a Sunderland shirt, and these are traits that compliment his game perfectly when operating as a central defender.
Meanwhile, how does O’Nien compare to his competition at the back?
Looking at the evidence above and comparing the relative strengths of both players, it’s easy to make a case for Batth being the more capable ‘out and out’ central defender, but that comes with some caveats.
O’Nien can offer much more in terms of his athleticism and passing attributes, and with Batth looking for more regular first team football at his age, I can’t blame him for possibly wanting to part ways with the club.
However, we shouldn’t be worried about O’Nien being a defensive downgrade.
With our switch to a more possession and control heavy style of play this season, O’Nien may be the perfect partner for Ballard in order to suit the way we’re looking to play moving forward.
So, despite some fans wondering exactly where O’Nien’s place would be this season, ‘Mr Sunderland’ has once again managed to find himself as one of the first names on Mowbray’s team sheet, and for good reason.
All match data taken from:
FOTMOB Sunderland v Rotherham