“Happy New Year, I guess”.
Pierre Ekwah was in typically nonchalant mood as he took in the adulation of the Stadium of Light crowd after Monday’s win over Preston. The Frenchman had starred for the Lads in a second victory in a week as he made his 19th senior appearance of 2023/24 - the most he’s made in one season since turning pro.
His light-hearted sense of humour, which seems to single-handedly turn the Club’s content mill at times, can also seem to be reflected in his performances on the ball as well as his antics off it.
Critics might call it laziness or absent-mindedness, and the 21 year old will definitely need to bring greater consistency to his game if he’s to maximise his undoubtedly significant potential in the years to come. Nonetheless, I genuinely think he’s got as much upside as almost any player in this Sunderland squad which is bursting with talent.
In the Preston game, as he has shown away to Hull, at home to Southampton and in several other games this season, Ekwah was a key presence in Sunderland’s midfield. He can be tough in the tackle, reads danger excellently, and has a great range of passing for such a youthful player at this level. He complements Dan Neil really well, adding some sheer physicality and covering for his teammate’s more attacking instincts - this latter point is particularly important in a team where almost all the midfielders and several defenders seem happiest charging forwards rather than back.
That said, there are several other moments that spring to mind this season where, in the heat of the moment, I’ve been tempted to write Ekwah off, such can be the frustration of watching him fail to deliver these qualities week in, week out.
Many have pointed to Coventry’s third goal in Michael Beale’s first game in charge, where Ekwah seems to simply give up and let the opposition shoot into an almost empty net to seal a humiliating home defeat for the Lads. This sums up a certain strand of criticism which fans often level at Ekwah on his off days, that he just doesn’t care enough. For all his laughs and jokes around the training ground and dressing room, sometimes it seems like he can’t concentrate for the duration of games and that this costs us dearly at times.
Although these barbs are valid, I think they are quite unfair. As mentioned at the top of this article, Ekwah has never played anything like the number of games he has this season before. Like Jobe, and probably even to a lesser extent Dan Neil, in an ideal world we’d have been able to rotate Ekwah in and out of the team much more than has been the case so far due to injuries or a lack of squad depth in midfield - but also because of how integral he has become to our coherence as a team.
It is hardly surprising then if, like the rest of the team, he looks off the pace occasionally.
I suspect the areas where Ekwah can and will improve are more subtle than just focussing or improving his work rate. By continuing to work on his starting positions, for example, Ekwah can economise his running and do more with less. He should also naturally start to adapt to the workload of being a regular starter in an EFL midfield, as happened with Neil.
It can be easy to forget that even by the time we were promoted from League One in May 2022, Alex Neil still preferred Luke O’Nien in defensive midfield to Dan Neil, a man now being linked with top Premier League sides such is his quality. If we think of how impressive Ekwah can be at a similar stage of his development, at a higher echelon of football, then his potential becomes even scarier.
With this technical and physical development, I believe the mental side will follow. I for one massively warm to Pierre’s demeanour - his arch, bashful persona is endearing and funny, and makes him a real asset to the Club. Rather than being lazy or unbothered, I reckon that this smirking shyness is most visible on the pitch in an occasional lack of confidence.
When he’s in his groove, like against Preston, Ekwah plays with an imperious sense of abandon, roving about the pitch taking on all comers and moving the ball with aplomb. Where this can go wrong is when the team is under pressure and he starts to overthink things. One recent example etched in my mind also comes from the Coventry game, when he seemed to stand with the ball at his feet for an eternity on the edge of our own box before being robbed, very nearly leading us to concede in a similar fashion to how we did minutes later on the stroke of half time.
A lack of concentration? Perhaps. I also think it speaks to a lack of self-assurance to use his undoubted qualities in tricky situations like his midfield partner Neil does more and more often these days. This is definitely something he should work on, and something which Michael Beale can hopefully use his long experience of working with promising young players to address.
Beale has also said he’s keen for us to be more direct, especially with regards to shooting, and this seems like something Ekwah can and will improve upon. Since a stunning brace against Southampton, I can barely remember Ekwah having a decent shot on target - like the rest of his game, this is clearly an area where he has the ability, but just needs the belief to try and succeed more consistently.
All of this is to say that I think those who are quick to write off Pierre Ekwah will be proven wrong in time. He absolutely has his flaws, but so does every player at this level. He’ll drive you mad - but who doesn’t some days?
The Frenchman only made his full senior debut in January 2023, so to have come so far so quickly is a testament to his talent and commitment. Who knows where he, or Sunderland, will be in another year’s time. On the back of a great start against Preston, though, I say happy new year, Pierre - I think 2024 could be your breakout year.