Chris Young: Seb Larsson derby snub raises questions over Sunderland man’s future

Seb Larsson. Picture by FRANK REID

Seb Larsson. Picture by FRANK REID

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Seb Larsson’s face did little to mask his dejection as he bridged the gauntlet of abuse between the team bus and the entrance foyer at St James’s Park.

Larsson contributed to all six of Sunderland’s consecutive victories over Newcastle, but he was to play no part in the bid for a seventh after being left out of the squad entirely.

As Larsson approaches the final year of his Sunderland contract, where does that leave him?

It was a shock to see Larsson completely omitted for the derby, particularly as some supporters had understandably tipped him as an outside bet for a start in the central midfield trio, due to the industry he brings to proceedings. The showdown at St James’s was always going to be one where graft was as important as guile.

Sam Allardyce’s decision to keep faith with 10 of the line-up from the Southampton draw two weeks earlier was understandable, yet Ola Toivonen getting the nod ahead of his fellow Swede did raise an eyebrow.

Judging by Larsson’s participation in the post-match warm-down, plus his inclusion in the Sweden squad for a pair of international friendlies, his omission was not due to any injury issue.

It’s been one of those campaigns for last season’s Player of the Year though; left out by Dick Advocaat who thought he wasn’t quick enough, injured just as he regained his place under Sam Allardyce and now confined to the fringes after returning to full fitness.

Some continue to bleat that the likes of Larsson, Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Wes Brown are the common denominator in Sunderland’s annual struggles.

But they have been the ones holding the place together amidst the conveyor belt of managers. The club’s problems stem from their pleas for a helping hand of quality falling on deaf ears, prior to the last January transfer window.

The likes of Jan Kirchhoff and Yann M’Vila have undoubtedly injected more panache into Sunderland’s midfield though; testified by how comfortably Allardyce’s men controlled proceedings for the opening hour on Tyneside.

As Larsson approaches the final year of his Sunderland contract, where does that leave him?

Without question, the ex-Arsenal man’s future is likely to revolve around which division Sunderland are in. He will immediately become one of the better midfielders in the Championship if the Black Cats lose out in the survival battle.

Experience, character and grit are key attributes in the kick-and-rush scrap to get back into the Premier League and Larsson possesses all of them in spades. Just look at how Newcastle were able to claw their way out of the second tier six years ago with the likes of seasoned combatants Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton.

But if Sunderland do stay up, you just wonder whether the 30-year-old could be one of those deemed surplus to requirements.

Certainly, Allardyce has already shown his ruthlessness in offloading those who he doesn’t believe are key contributors; Danny Graham, Jordi Gomez, Steven Fletcher and Sebastian Coates were ousted without ceremony in the January window.

And even with another nail-biting two months of this season to run, there already look to be several inevitable departures for the summer - loanees Toivonen and DeAndre Yedlin, plus out-of-contract Wes Brown.

Larsson is not in that category, but he is one of a handful with a large question mark facing him. Billy Jones and Jeremain Lens are two who probably fall into the same category.

Then, of course, there’s those who will be cherry-picked if Sunderland are in the Championship - Jermain Defoe, Fabio Borini, Yann M’Vila (who might not end up back at the Stadium of Light anyway) and probably at least one of the January signings.

But whatever division Sunderland are in, there won’t necessarily be another supermarket sweep of the transfer market, where the arrivals and departures both top double figures.

When Allardyce took charge of relegated West Ham in 2011, he faced a dramatic overhaul where 12 players left and 13 came in to replace them. He realised it was far too many and pledged never to conduct such wholesale changes again.

Ideally, he’ll want no more than half a dozen fresh faces at Sunderland this summer. Evolution, rather than revolution will be the watch-word. But while loanees will make up a decent proportion of those that leave the Stadium of Light in the close season, there will have to be some of the fixtures and fittings who depart too.