Despite an expansive transfer policy this summer with a wealth of exciting new talent choosing to join Steve Bruce’s Sunderland, familiar grunts and moans of frustration greeted the team sheet for the friendly match against Arminia Bielefeld. Even though he won player of the 2010-11 season Phil Bardsley’s continued selection at left back is seen as a square peg in a round hole by many Sunderland fans. Supporters value his commitment and full-blooded approach but are beginning to hanker for a more attacking defender with the natural left foot which would give width and balance to a Sunderland side short on attacking thrust from fullback. Yet are fans simply put-off by his lack of flair, so much so to detract from the good attacking work that he actually contributes? Comparison time:
To really understand what Bardsley does let’s look at his statistical contribution to Sunderland alongside a few other left backs who had good seasons (Baines and Enrique) and one who had a less good season (Clichy). Leighton Baines was a favourite of fantasy football managers last season with his eye for goals and assists whereas Enrique’s form has encouraged him to look for a move to a bigger club. Clichy on the other hand has been losing fans rapidly at the Emirates with his inconsistency and he surely hopes a move to Man City will see an upturn in his form. So how does Bardsley measure up at left back to other premier league defenders?
Even at a cursory glance it is clear that Bardsley is a defender first and foremost. With more clearances, goal-line clearances and last man tackles (an astonishing 4 more than the other three players put together) than any other player, the statistics reinforce his reputation as a no-nonsense footballer who wins fans by putting his head in places others may not. This may be indicative of a Sunderland defence perhaps less composed than other teams leading to more frantic goal line activity, however it does demonstrate Bardsley’s willingness and skill to make successful last ditch challenges and to have the positional sense to be in the right place at the right time. He also won the most individual duels with a 61% success rate, closely followed by Clichy. Perhaps surprisingly Gael Clichy made the highest number of successful tackles in the season, with 90 at a rate of one every 33 minutes. Enrique trails far behind winning a tackle only every 61 minutes whilst Phil Bardsley fell in between the two.
One criticism often leveled at Bardsley is his tendency to get caught on the ball, however this only happened 16 times this last season, far fewer times than Enrique who was much more liable to a loss of touch, getting caught on the ball 34 times. Similarly Baines seems to lose out here with 30 lapses of concentration throughout the season whereas Clichy, painted as the worst performer here, was relatively consistent only getting caught on the ball 13 times. Statistically Bardsley appears a consistent defender who holds his own with the other well-performing left backs in the league.
Unfortunately that’s where the positives trail off as attacking statistics come into play. Bardsley made fewer forward passes and crosses than any of the players compared here. Although Clichy made only 12 more crosses than Bardsley, he contributed an extra 504 forward passes, a product of Arsenal’s shorter passing game. Enrique and Baines both contribute more here with Baines sending in an astonishing 249 crosses during the season, whilst Enrique holds his own both in terms of attacking passes and crosses. This is where the argument swings against Bardsley as, although his defensive abilities are unquestionable, his attacking capabilities are seriously lacking in comparison to other left backs. In contrast, players like Baines and Enrique may not have the defensive steel that Bardsley does, yet they are not bad defenders making similar numbers of successful tackles and clearances. More importantly they offer a more complete package to the manager, contributing more offensively throughout the season. One area where Bardsley did excel last term was through goalscoring, bagging three goals, two by cutting in from the flank and another with a sweetly struck free kick. However the cynics would argue that it is this willingness to cut in that hampers Sunderland’s creativity on the left and resulted in only 76 crosses last season from Bardsley.
I like Bardsley as a player. I like his commitment and love to see his passion and crunching tackles, particularly in hard-fought clashes where those traits are even more valuable. However, part of Sunderland’s problem last season was finding an attacking fluency, particularly down the left side. Bardsley definitely has a role to play this season, however if Steve Bruce is to balance his team he must find an adventurous left footed alternative at full back.
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