Let me start by pointing out that I at no point during this piece want to indicate central midfield is our only issue. Far from it, but the answer to Paolo Di Canio’s cry for a creative midfielder seems to have arrived as Ki Sung-Yeung joins us on loan from Swansea City.
I’d be surprised if the need for a creative midfielder has been overlooked by any Sunderland fan, but let me underline the shortfall our current midfielders don’t seem capable of overcoming. The below image shows passes in the final third by Sebastian Larsson against Fulham, Craig Gardner against Southampton and David Vaughan against Crystal Palace. Successful passes in blue, unsuccessful passes in red.
As you can see, there were only two successful forward passes within 25 yards of the goal made by these players, both by Sebastian Larsson. Excluding Gardner’s short period at right back that is 233 minutes of midfield play with two successful forward passes within 25 yards of the goal. Zero in the box, zero anywhere near the by line, zero chances created. In fact, only one pass into the area was even attempted during these three performances. With Cabral being the only central midfielder to have shown any real attempt at something which could vaguely be construed as creative, against Fulham, only to now be dropped – it’s incredible just how ineffective our midfield is. I mean, we all knew there was a problem, but wow.
So, is Ki the key?
The answer – should be, possibly, maybe, hopefully and kind of. It is pretty clear that he is a fair few rungs up the ladder compared the players we have who will never be successfully shoehorned into the role. As far as an attacking presence is concerned, Ki’s time with Celtic especially and his performances for Swansea last season show considerable promise. I can pretend I know the ins and outs of him as a player, but let me leave that to someone who knows exactly what sort of player he is. We asked Jules from Swansea City’s best fan site SwansFC a few questions he was kind enough to answer;
WAW: We all have some knowledge on Ki and that he arrived from Celtic with an excellent reputation - can you tell us more about the type of midfielder he is?
Jules: In Scotland Ki was more of an attacking midfielder scoring some spectacular goals from outside the penalty area. He has repeated this style of play for the Korean National team too. However, at Swansea he has been used as a more defensive player, sitting just in front of the back four. Of course, during the Capital One Cup final in February, he was used as a central defender, which he did remarkably well, and in the meantime ousting the Captain Gary Monk for that position.
WAW: What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Jules: His strengths include being able to use both feet and able to retain the ball whilst holding off strong challenges. He is very aware of his teammates, and thus will pass the ball to create a goal (assist) rather than have a shot himself. Of course, this has been to the detriment of him not scoring a Premier League goal for the Swans, but we are under the impression he was just carrying out his manager's instructions.
He is someone who has never caused controversy and is a real ambassador for the club. His following from Korea and around the globe is phenomenal and Sunderland fans are sure to see an increase in the amount of Far Eastern supporters and sales through the club shop.
It could be argued that the Premier League is a little too quick for Ki. He is someone who likes to have time on the ball and think about a pass. On several occasions he has dwelled on the ball for to long and has been caught in possession. When on the edge of the opponents box, he's always look to spray the ball wide to a winger, when clearly he should have had an attempt on goal. Whether this is down to his confidence or not remains to be seen.
WAW: Should Sunderland fans be concerned that he couldn't hold down a place in Swansea's starting line up?
Jules: Not at all. Whilst some Swans fans are not bothered about his departure, the majority of posts on Facebook and Twitter suggest the majority are really sorry to see him leave. It could be argued he never had a long run as a starting player. He certainly isn't an 'impact' player so it makes sense for him to start. What Sunderland are gaining is a relatively tall player who has strength, vision and ability, which doesn't usually come as a package.
What Ki also brings is stability to a side. For example, in the Europa League game against FC Petrolul Ploiesti in Romania last week, Swansea midfielder Jonathan De Guzman was non-existent in the centre of the park and another midfielder Leon Britton was sent off. Thus the introduction of Ki was a positive one as he set up Lamah for the goal but more importantly the midfield immediately looked stronger and stopped some of the attacks coming through the middle of the park. Many Swans fans noted this on social media and couldn't understand why he didn't play a larger part in the game or even start.
WAW: Our central midfield is void of any real creativity or attacking intent - is Ki someone who could inject this into our side?
Jules: It will be interesting to see what position he starts in. I would like to see him play in a more attacking role as he definitely has goals in him. If Sunderland are lacking a certain amount of creativity then it makes sense why they have signed him. He is able to pass accurately at length which will bode well for your strikers and wingers. At one stage last season, he had the best pass completion ratio of any Swansea City player and third best in Europe, so he has quality. I hope for Sunderland fans, his shooting skills are encouraged, as this didn't seem to be the case at the Liberty Stadium
WAW: Would you be concerned about losing Ki on a more permanent basis?
Jules: In one word - Yes! I think a lot of Swansea fans will follow his progress this season to see how he compares to last year. Most Swans fans would agree he probably has around 6 goals a season in him, but it really does depend what position he is utilised in. Before Ki, the height of our midfield was relatively short, so to have someone taller added an advantage to our aerials duels.
WAW: Finally, do you think this is a good signing for Sunderland?
Jules: Sunderland have signed a well-respected, skillful and industrial player who has played many times for his National Team. I believe many Swans fans would like him to return whether he has a successful season at the Stadium of Light or not. Whilst this was a transfer nobody expected by both sets of fans, Ki should become an asset to Sunderland on the pitch and off it commercially.
Let's put it this way...he won't be another 'Danny Graham' signing for you!
I am surely we are breathing an enormous sigh of relief after that last point!
So as far as a midfield partnership is concerned, Ki and Cabral seem a match made in heaven – and perhaps they are. However, purely judging on PDC’s team selections so far this season, I am sceptical that this glaring opportunity will be overlooked.
Okay so let’s say Ki is the exact player we are missing in midfield and let’s also presume that Cabral resumes his place in the side to partner him – what difference would this make to our performances on the pitch?
Central midfield is such a huge area in modern football and the cornerstone of a good team. If your midfield struggles physically and struggles to force any creative influence – you lose to Fulham and Crystal Palace. In fact the only reason we did not lose to lower league opposition MK Dons is due to the quality around centre mid and nothing to do with the area itself. It is an area you simply cannot afford to be your weak link if you are to make any positive impression on the Premier League table. With a good central midfield, it brings the whole team together and enhances the potency of all attacking players.
There is one area of the squad I can confidently say we don’t lack top quality in and that is up front, providing Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher remain fit that is. These two are very technically gifted and are so versatile it should be relatively simple to create chances for them. Ki in midfield should allow us to finally follow suit with the teams who regularly occupy the top 10 spots in the league and take defences apart through the middle. We should have the capability to attack from all angles, with massive variation and unpredictability to the extent that most teams will find it difficult to cope with us. There are goals in this team, no doubt about that – the chances need to be created. Ki could be the man with to unlock the hidden attacking prowess that we need to get some points on this board and finally start enjoying watching Sunderland again.
If Ki is not the answer, and we sign nobody else – we will be facing yet another relegation battle…if we are too arrogant to admit that we already are.