Sunderland star’s big turnaround

Seb Larsson

Seb Larsson

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SEB LARSSON? Player of the Season?

A little over a year ago, that idea would not quite have been laughed out of court, yet eyebrows would certainly have been raised.

It was a prudent piece of business from Sunderland to extend Larsson’s contract when survival was eventually assured, particularly as the squad was ravaged by the departures of 16 players.

By his own admission, Larsson had spent the best part of two campaigns struggling to come to grips with his new surroundings of central midfield after being shifted there from his orthodox right wing role under Martin O’Neill’s tenure.

Even O’Neill privately raised question marks over whether Larsson had the attributes to succeed there, before the now Republic of Ireland boss was given the chop at the Stadium of Light.

Both Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet persisted with Larsson’s industry in the middle of the park, yet supporters remained unconvinced.

The Swedish international covered the miles, but lacked the nous of how to channel his energy effectively in a central position and struggled to give Sunderland an element of midfield control.

With Larsson’s contract ebbing away, no talks over a fresh deal and Sunderland heading for the Championship, it looked a formality that he would depart at the end of the season.

Even as late in the campaign as April 2014, Larsson’s future seemed destined to be away from Wearside.

Speaking to his agent back then, he was happy to chat about the interest from overseas and Larsson’s frustration at not being able to line up in his favoured right-sided role.

But after coming back into the side at Manchester City, following a five-game absence, something clicked for Larsson at the start of the Great Escape.

Whether it was a determination to avoid another relegation on his CV (following his 2011 experience at Birmingham) or a Eureka moment over how to make the most of his energy as a central midfielder, Larsson was an immense ingredient in Sunderland’s survival.

He looked a couple of yards quicker for one thing.

It was a prudent piece of business from Sunderland to extend Larsson’s contract when survival was eventually assured, particularly as the squad was ravaged by the departures of 16 players.

And the 29-year-old has grasped the opportunity from that prolonged stay to demonstrate that his contribution to beating the drop last year was just the start of an upturn in his performance levels.

In a campaign where Sunderland have mastered the art of false dawns, Larsson has been one of the few consistent figures in red and white.

He has played the best football of his four years at the Stadium of Light.

Just look at how Sunderland missed his presence in the middle of the park during his two-game suspension last month.

Larsson is the one who sets the tone in Sunderland’s pressing and harrying of the opposition, and has learned how to avoid wasted yards in his Duracell Bunny charges around the park.

Sunderland fans have justifiably recognised those efforts in voting him Player of the Season.

In fairness, after yet another year of toil at the wrong end of the table, there weren’t a host of contenders to rival Larsson.

But Larsson’s midfield partner Lee Cattermole, plus Costel Pantilimon, could both put forward strong cases to be aggrieved at not taking the prize.

Cattermole, in particular, continues to be a huge influence on this Sunderland side and they are simply a better outfit when he is in the team.

Statistics released by the Premier League last week which showed Sunderland register almost twice as many points when Cattermole is playing, have only reinforced that point.

Had Cattermole and Larsson been complemented by a thriving playmaker in the middle of the park this season - rather than the odd good game from Jack Rodwell or Jordi Gomez - then the pair would have taken far more plaudits.

Pantilimon deserves a shout too after going close to becoming the third successive goalkeeper to lift the Player of the Season prize.

The giant Romanian faced a daunting challenge to disperse last year’s winner Vito Mannone from the starting XI after moving to the Stadium of Light on a free transfer.

But Pantilimon’s brave decision to swap life on Manchester City’s bench for first-team football at Sunderland has paid off.

He’s made a string of superb saves during the second half of the season, while he makes the most of his frame to dominate his area. Crucially, those in front of Pantilimon have faith in him.

In the Young Player of the Season category, Connor Wickham and Patrick van Aanholt were the only real contenders.

But while Wickham frequently receives criticism for his languid air, he has been the pick of Sunderland’s attacking options this season.

A modest return of six goals has not been overwhelming on the back of Wickham’s heroics towards last season’s Great Escape.

Yet it has to be remembered that Wickham has spent much of this season as a makeshift left winger.

Equally, this is the £8million frontman’s first full campaign as a Premier League regular after three bit-part (at best) previous years at Sunderland.

Wickham is still only 22. There’s plenty more to come from him.

It would be refreshing to see him challenging to succeed Larsson for the main award in 12 months’ time.