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Statistically Speaking

Michael Bradley Could Be a Savior at Sunderland

There are myriad reasons why Michael Bradley should turn his back on Sunderland’s reported interest in the midfielder. But if he did make the move, it could instantly transform the Black Cats squad.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
August 29, 2013
11:40 AM
YOU'VE HEARD THE Michael Bradley-to-Sunderland rumors, right? We’ve heard them, too. We don’t get it either.

Why would Bradley uproot his family and leave a top-six Serie A club in one of the world’s most vibrant cities to play for a relegation-threatened side in northeast England? Unless he’s being offered Clint Dempsey money, there are few logical reasons to consider the move.

That said, if Bradley does join the Black Cats, he will find himself on a team that he can immediately transform, a team that he can make his own from the very beginning. From a statistical standpoint, Michael Bradley to Sunderland is like Landon Donovan to Cambodia—a match made in soccer heaven.

Consider the current state of Sunderland’s central midfield.

Cabral, Sunderland’s one-named summer signing from Cape Verde, has already been benched because he is not “aggressive” enough in manager Paolo Di Canio’s eyes. The former FC Basel player has some quality on the ball but can be overrun by more powerful midfielders. He has also never competed at a level above the Swiss League.

In the opening day home defeat to Fulham, Cabral completed an admirable 87% of his passes.

But note how few forward passes he completed, especially near the final third. Without any impetus from the heart of midfield, Sunderland suffered a 1-0 home defeat to a very negative Fulham side.

And then there’s Sebastian Larsson. The 28-year-old Swede is a right winger masquerading as a central midfielder due to Sunderland’s current lack of options. He is a serviceable passer (84% last term) but is physically ill equipped to play in the middle in the Premier League.

Di Canio recently described him similarly to Cabral, saying Larsson “is working hard but is not that sort of ‘nasty’ player you need.”

Larsson is also far more comfortable shooting from distance than playing incisive balls into the box.

And Craig Gardner—for all of his tough tackling—is a major hindrance to Sunderland’s attack due to his errant distribution. He completed just 74% of his passes last season, leaving him only 2% away from the dubious distinction of most inaccurate central midfielder in the Premier League. Like Larsson, he loves a crack from long distance in lieu of a pass into a waiting striker’s feet. Here is Gardner’s passing map from Saturday’s game at Southampton.

Despite playing all 90 minutes, Gardner somehow only made 11 successful passes. That’s a shockingly low number.

As a central midfield duo, Gardner and Larsson combined for just 33 completed passes with 70% accuracy in the 1-1 draw. Limited by the poor performance in the middle of the field, the Black Cats maintained only 35% of the possession and were quite lucky to escape St. Mary’s with a point.

We’re only two games in but Sunderland looks destined for a long, difficult season.

Step right up, Michael Sheehan Bradley.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see just how superior Bradley is to any of Sunderland’s current central midfield options.

For starters, he completed 89% of his passes for Roma last year. By point of comparison, the ageless Italian genius Andrea Pirlo completed 87% for Juventus.

Of course, comparing players in different games in different leagues has an element of apples to oranges. Still, look at the passing map from Bradley’s lone Serie A match this season in comparison to Cabral’s and Gardner’s.

It reflects the type of masterful performance we’ve come to expect from the No. 1-ranked player in the ASN 100. Bradley completed a sterling 95% of his passes against Livorno, and his final third map is even more impressive.

The three light blue lines represent chances created. Incredibly, Bradley created more chances than errant passes in the final third.

Oh, he can unlock a defense with one ball over the top, too.

And his offensive game is not limited to just passing. Even casual observers of the U.S. men’s national team are well aware of Bradley’s ability to make penetrating runs from the center of midfield—a trait that none of Sunderland’s central midfielders offer. Here's a recent example.

And here's another.

Bradley’s defensive work is worthy of acclaim as well. His stamina and reading of the game have always been strong suits. And as the 26-year-old matures, he has stamped the once-problematic yellow and red cards out of his game. Bradley was booked just five times last year for Roma. (Craig Gardner picked up 10 yellows and a red for Sunderland in the 2012-13 season.)

The one advantage Sunderland’s current crop of central midfielders may have over Bradley is in the goal-scoring department. Larsson and Gardner have chipped in with eight and nine goals for Sunderland over the last two years, respectively. Bradley has scored as many as 18 in one European season, but he managed just one in Serie A for Roma last year and one for Chievo Verona the year before.

That said, Sunderland is not lacking goal scorers at other positions. Steven Fletcher, Emanuele Giaccherini, Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon, and Jozy Altidore can all score in bunches.

That quintet of talented attackers can provide more than enough goals for a successful Premier League campaign. But starved of possession and quality service from central midfield—as they have been for the two games this year and 38 last year—the Black Cat attack force becomes far less effective. Sunderland scored a cringe-worthy 41 league goals last year and could be on their way to a similar return this year unless changes are made.

Sunderland simply does not need a goal scoring central midfielder. It needs a possession-maintaining, chance-facilitating, defensively solid player who can bring the best out of their attacking options.

Sunderland needs Michael Bradley.

With the transfer window set to slam shut on September 2, Sunderland would be wise to meet Roma’s rumored £10 million valuation. Whether or not it does could be the decisive factor between a nine-month flirtation with the drop zone and a comfortable mid-table finish.

If the offer comes, do you think Bradley should leave Roma for Sunderland? Would you?

Blake Thomsen is ASN’s resident statistician. Statistics courtesy of Opta, Squawka, and FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone app.

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