Patrick van Aanholt has signed a new contract with Sunderland, keeping him at the club until 2020. It is a just reward for his effort and performances in the second half of this season.
At the start of the season, he was dismal. His performances against Norwich and Bournemouth in the first few games were particularly shocking. He held onto his position by virtue of being the only recognized left-back in the team, and even that wasn't enough to save him from a spell training with the under-21 side in October.
As Dick Advocaat's Sunderland made an atrocious start to the campaign, van Aanholt was one of the main players singled out by fans for poor performances. He was too slow, he drifted out of position way too much, and he was far too slow to ever make it in the Premier League.
Sam Allardyce doesn't permit his players to give anything less than 100%, and the Dutchman soon found himself out of favour. Evidently, though, he soon persuaded the manager to give him another chance, and he snatched at that opportunity. Crucial goals against Stoke and Aston Villa soon after his return to favour helped convince Big Sam that he'd made the right decision. Later on, he scored the opening goal against Everton as we secured survival for another season, further cementing his role in this year's version of the Great Escape.
Allardyce has made van Aanholt into a more disciplined player. He no longer backs out of challenges that he should be making, nor does he leave a gaping hole in our defence. He's a smarter player than he was in August, and clearly has a lot more tactical knowledge. Allardyce has to be given a lot of credit for inspiring van Aanholt to improve his style of play, but the player himself has to be commended for knuckling down and putting the effort in.
Van Aanholt's resurgence has also paid off for him at international level. He's been brought back into the Dutch team, and although they're absent from Euro 2016, he played the entirety of their last match, a friendly win over Austria on Friday. If he continues his current level of performance, he may have a shot at the World Cup in Russia in two years.
It's a smart move to tie him down to a long term contract now. With two years left to run on his previous contract, a number of Premier League clubs, reportedly including Crystal Palace, had been sniffing around the defender. Van Aanholt still has a number of improvements that could be made to his game, but we couldn't afford to lose him to another Premier League team, especially without another left-back on the books.
Ethan Robson put in a decent performance against Watford, but that was on the last day of the season when neither side had anything to play for. We certainly need another left-back, one who can challenge for a first team spot on a regular basis. Van Aanholt has come a long way since the ignominy of playing in the under-21 league, but he should be left under no impressions that he's automatically entitled to that starting place. Even if he manages to make the first team place his for good, it would be foolish to go into the new season without a player who can easily slot into the same position.