Abdoullah Ba joined Sunderland on 31 August, 2022, with the club describing him as a ‘dynamic and forward-thinking midfielder’, and Ba himself saying:
I’m a midfielder, but I can play a lot of positions and I play with both feet – I like to have the ball to make passes and I also like to attack.
The message there is pretty unequivocal - Ba is a midfielder, someone who likes to attack, more than likely signed to play as a number ten or just behind. Simple, then - let’s just play him there!
Except, if it was that simple, we wouldn’t still be trying to work out how to see more of the mazy dribbling that set up Jack Clarke’s goal against Ipswich, and less gifting away of possession via tripping over himself or playing simple passes out of play. 51 league appearances into his Sunderland career, it’s become clear that Ba is not the central midfield player we were told when he signed. So what is he?
According to transfermarkt.com, Ba played the majority of his games last season in a central role, ranging from defensive midfield through to false nine. This season, however, he’s been deployed almost exclusively on the right wing.
The intermittent absences of Patrick Roberts have seen him deputise there, and even keep Roberts on the bench for a few games, and as a result he’s already nearly doubled his minutes played and has doubled his goal contributions compared to last season, despite making three fewer appearances and only being in January.
Why is this? Well, just watching Ba play, you can tell he’s a confident dribbler. Especially in a Sunderland side which relies heavily on its attacking midfielders to contribute in and around the box, having a player with the ability to take on and beat defenders 1v1 is a valuable asset, which we witnessed against Ipswich in the run that saw him set up Jack Clarke, as mentioned.
The biggest problem, though, is that Ba is not able to pick a pass in the way that others can, such as Alex Pritchard who’s tended to occupy one of those attacking midfield roles in recent weeks.
In fact, Ba’s passing is erratic, and it frequently looks like even he isn’t aware of what’s coming next - helpful for bamboozling defenders, but not so helpful for his teammates.
This is backed up by the stats, too. I won’t bore you with a massive breakdown, but to take the Ba-Pritchard comparison: where Pritchard makes 1.56 passes into the opposition box per 90, putting him above 87% of the league, Ba makes only 0.59 per 90, ranking him above just 16% of the league. Conversely, Ba carries the ball into the opponent’s box 1.64 times per 90, which is about five times as often as Pritchard.
So he’s a very talented player with the ball at his feet. We need to find a way to get the best returns from him when he has to actually release it. How do we do that?
It might sound quite harsh, but we almost need to simplify the game for him. He often looks like he’s a rabbit in the headlights as soon as he gets time and space with the ball - like he’s caught between too many thoughts of what to do next.
Again, the Ipswich defeat is the perfect distillation of Ba’s game; he spent the first twenty minutes giving the ball away in various simple positions, struggling to hold onto it for longer than a couple of seconds.
However, when the ball dropped to him outside the area on 26 minutes, he acted purely on instinct - dropped his shoulder, wriggled past a few defenders with no room to spare on the edge of the box, then when he looked up, he saw only Jack Clarke waiting to receive the ball. The decision was made for him!
To get the best out of his particular talents, we need to get the ball to him in areas where he can run directly at players, and force him into decision-making without floundering. He needs to be receiving the ball high up the pitch, to take advantage of his proclivity for dribbling into the box, where even the mere presence of attackers causes panic and indecision in opposition backlines.
He clearly needs to keep operating on the wing - Sunderland’s wingers are often our most advanced players anyway, so this would naturally lead to Ba influencing the game higher up the pitch.
Moreso than that, he needs teammates to help him. He’s young, inexperienced, and struggling for consistency. When Ba does break the lines and get in behind defences, he often struggles to find options to pass to because, well, there aren’t any. Jack Clarke barely gets any assists and he’s our best player by a mile - what chance does Ba have?
The central striker’s role, which we’re all sick of debating, holds the key to unlocking Ba’s potential in my view. Get him breaking into the box with players around to feed and bounce off, and I think we could have a real player on our hands. Patrick Roberts isn’t setting the world alight. There’s a spot there, waiting for somebody to grab it by the scruff of the neck.
Just please stop running down blind alleys, Abdoullah.
That makes it quite hard to go to bat for you.