Scott Sinclair’s clinical brace at Brentford took his goal tally to 6 in North End colours, meaning he has only scored more goals for 3 other clubs – Swansea, Villa and Celtic. That’s quite an astonishing statistic for somebody who has represented 14 clubs, but perhaps it highlights just how patchy his career has been.
Now 31, you could pin the blame of a patchy career on some pretty horrendous moves – not in terms of his bank balance, but in footballing terms. Joining Chelsea as a 16-year-old only to be farmed out on loan 6 times, joining Manchester City as a 22-year-old at a time when they were starting to dominate with European superstars, and then joining a sinking ship in Aston Villa in 2015, culminating in their relegation to the Championship. Arguably, Sinclair only really settled down when he joined Celtic in 2016 as a 27-year-old.
Whether he was badly advised, plain unlucky, or a bit of both, Sinclair’s earlier years were somewhat wasted. Now entering the latter part of his career, I believe that North End can really benefit from someone who is very “lightly raced” for a player of his age.
As per FBref, Sinclair’s 894 minutes for us last season made that the 7th busiest league campaign of his career. Perhaps surprising given he only signed in January and made just 11 starts. That shows us that he’s rarely put together seasons of consistent football. Only twice in his league career has he reached over 3,000 minutes (33 full league games) and only 3 times has he started 30+ league games. At Celtic, he made 30, 24 and 23 league starts in his 3 seasons there. So, despite being 31, he’s never been burnt out.
In fact, over his entire league career, Sinclair has featured in just 21,000 minutes – around 230 games, which for someone of his age, is very little. Andrew Hughes, 28, has featured in 23,500 league minutes – around 260 league games. Despite being 3 years older, Sinclair has less league minutes under his belt than Hughes. To further accentuate the point, Ben Davies, 25, already has 19,000 league minutes to his name, only 2,000 less than Sinclair. So, whilst you might assume that a player in his 30s is getting on, I think it’s fair to say there is still plenty of energy left in Sinclair’s legs, and PNE can benefit from his under usage early in his career.
Despite being lightly raced, Sinclair has represented huge clubs in Chelsea, Man City, Aston Villa and Celtic, as well as representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics. He has 15 starts in European competitions for Celtic, playing against the likes of PSG, Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig and Barcelona. Undoubtedly this is fantastic experience, and North End get the benefit of this experience without the burnout that you may expect. In terms of career experience and pedigree, he adds so much to our relatively young squad.
So, in Sinclair, we have someone of incredible footballing pedigree, who is probably at his peak years in terms of minutes played – too good to be true, right? Whilst it may have taken time for him to acclimatise to a move back to England (he’s spoken of it himself with LancsLive), there were glimpses of Sinclair’s quality last season and I now believe he’s becoming an integral member of Alex Neil’s side – and on his wage, you’d hope that to be the case.
I have split Sinclair’s time at North End into two parts – pre and post lockdown. Below I’ll take a look at his impact, his goals, his quality and what I expect from him this season.
Scott Sinclair signed for us on January 8th, and by his first appearance off the bench at Blackburn on January 11th, he already had his own song. Immediately, and somewhat understandably, there was pressure on his shoulders. Admittedly I have not watched much SPL football in recent years, but I was half expecting to see a lightning fast, tricky winger, akin to what I remembered for Swansea back in 2010/11. However, even during his 15-minute debut cameo at Ewood Park, it was clear to see that Sinclair wouldn’t be that.
In his 15 minutes on that pitch, on the left-wing, up against a makeshift right-back in Elliott Bennett, I was surprised with what I saw. Sinclair didn’t hug the touchline at all, he didn’t have that lightning pace to go outside his man, and he made only 2 passes. With the ball at his feet, he was quickly crowded out due to being so narrow, and he didn’t look to have much invention on the ball – very quick feet in terms of shifting the ball, but not a bag of tricks.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it was clear to me even after that cameo that we hadn’t signed an orthodox, rapid winger. Indeed, Sinclair looked something of a unit, a lot bulkier than I imagined. His game had clearly changed.
10 more appearances followed before lockdown, with just the 1 goal coming against his former side, Swansea. A fantastic solo goal on his weaker foot, shifting the ball to create a yard of space, showed us a glimpse of his quality. But those first 11 appearances were fairly underwhelming for someone who, fairly or not, came with massive expectation. He was dropped to the bench for the last 3 games before lockdown, and he was failing to really get involved in games.
I was slightly disappointed with what I’d seen, but perhaps I was misunderstanding what Sinclair actually offers. It’s abundantly clear now that he isn’t a tricky winger who’s going to excite the fans, hug the touchline and take players on, but he is a clinical finisher who will ghost into central positions from wide and take chances. He won’t be involved in large chunks of games, but he is going to be our match-winner on more than a few occasions. He is super clinical and has clever movement. A few months ago on the podcast, I referred to him as a “moments player”.
In his 11 pre-lockdown appearances, Sinclair mustered just 3 shots on target. Only 2 of those were from inside the box. Moreover, he completed just 6 dribbles in those 11 appearances, averaging just 20 touches per appearance. He wasn’t shooting, he wasn’t dribbling, and he just wasn’t having many touches. Alex Neil tried him off the left, tried him off the right, and he even tried him in a front two away at Barnsley.
Clearly, we were struggling to get the best out of him and he was dropped to the bench for the last 3 games before lockdown. It was clear that his North End career hadn’t yet taken off.
For me, we had failed to use him properly. Early on in those appearances, it felt like we were trying to find Sinclair at every opportunity, usually finding him outside the box, in close proximity of a couple of defenders. As we now know, Sinclair isn’t going to be a player who can take a man on from a standing start, so we usually saw him play a simple short bass back from where the ball came. We weren’t finding him close to goal, and he looked pretty ineffective. His strength appears to be ghosting into central positions with clever movement, using his quick feet to find a yard of space, and finishing clinically. We had to use his strengths better.
Below are a couple of screenshots showing Sinclair’s positioning pre lockdown – he is often seen too isolated from play – Alex Neil likes his ball far wingers to tuck into a really central position on attacking transition, and this is something I think Sinclair struggled with initially.
Here is an example of Sinclair being 10 yards too wide to impact the play as the attack peters out.
Here is another example of Sinclair being 10 yards too wide to impact a transition.
These seem like minor points, but there were similar issues with Callum Robinson in that position before it “clicked” for him.
One piece of Sinclair movement that always stayed in my mind came away at Wigan. When I saw it, I realised that he was a player of serious quality, and if we stuck at it, we’d get the best out of him.
I’ve no doubt that Alex Neil would’ve used the lockdown period to try and figure out a way to get Sinclair more involved in games, and importantly, closer to the opposition goal.
In our first game back at Luton, we saw subtle changes to Sinclair’s positioning, and he looked sharper to me in terms of his running ability. His goal, a clinical finish into the far corner on a transition, was a sign of things to come. His narrow position, more akin to a no. 10, in attacking transition, led to him driving into the box and finishing well on his right foot. Since football returned, Sinclair has 5 goals looks like a major threat every time he gets a chance. So, what’s changed?
The first caveat when talking about Sinclair’s form is to consider the fact that he barely kicked a ball for Celtic in the 6 months prior to joining PNE. Fitness, match sharpness, a tactical understanding and settling down off the pitch all must be considered – and as fans perhaps we expect too much, too soon. He has recently spoken about being settled down now, which is a massive plus for us. The personal lives of players can often be forgotten by fans, but it is a very real variable in the performance equation.
What we have seen since lockdown, and in particular so far in 2020/21, is an increased game understanding between Sinclair and his teammates. His positioning is now more like what Alex Neil wants from his false left player (an extra striker from crossing positions), and his teammates are now finding him, meaning his sharp movement isn’t going to waste. Perhaps he has more trust in the system and in his teammates now.
Below are some examples of Sinclair’s clever movement which creates space for himself and his teammates – North End weren’t taking advantage of this in his earlier days.
This routine against Derby is a typical no. 10/LW rotation. Rafferty finds Browne who with one touch finds Sinclair who enters the vacated space. Sinclair’s pace creates separation from Wisdom and he gets a shot off.
The key here is that Rafferty’s pass into Browne triggers Sinclair’s movement and these combinations improve over time. Good movement.
This pattern against Norwich shows Sinclair’s clever movement again. He’s rotated into a central area again, ghosting into a dangerous position on the edge of the box. As his defender’s vision has to be on the ball possessor (Ryan Ledson), Sinclair moves off the back of him of creates that separation again.
Ledson finds him with a very good vertical pass and Sinclair gets off a shot, leading to Fisher finishing the move. It’s so hard for a defender to concentrate both on the ball and the man, and due to the attacker’s natural “first-mover advantage”, Sinclair is so good at creating separation from a marker.
Sinclair’s first goal against Brentford. Again, he’s ghosted into a striker’s position from the left wing (something Neil demands of his wide players when a cross is coming in from the opposite flank). North End have an overload at the back post with Bauer peeling onto the RB, and Sinclair is marked by Jansson. We now see an example of how a defender’s natural gravity creates separation for Sinclair.
Defenders, whilst defending the box, have a natural tendency towards their goal line, rather than to engage with the man. Sinclair simply stands still, Jansson gravitates towards the goal, and Sinclair has created himself a couple of yards. He finishes clinically.
For Sinclair’s second, we see yet more intelligent movement. As the ball is initially cleared, Sinclair is still central and hangs off the back of Pinnock, on his blindside. Immediately, if the ball is turned over, Sinclair has a positional advantage as he is closer to the goal than Pinnock, and Pinnock has to respond to his movement – the attacker always has the first mover advantage in this respect.
Hughes wins the ball, which triggers a burst of acceleration from Sinclair, which creates that initial separation from Pinnock. Whilst staying onside, Sinclair gets between centre backs, controls, and finishes clinically on his weaker foot again. Top-quality.
Here, Sinclair moves inside again and plays a simple ball back to Ryan Ledson. Sinclair’s movement looks simple and it is, he carries on infield and in doing so, he rotates lanes with Potts. Sinclair drags Josh Dasilva away to clear the passing lane, which Ledson uses to fire the ball into Potts. Potts scores.
Without Sinclair’s movement there, as trivial as it looks, Potts doesn’t get the chance.
Here, Sinclair is doubled up on by 2 markers – something that is happening a lot as opponents know the threat he poses. With the knowledge that Rafferty is outside him, Sinclair drifts inside and plays a simple backwards pass. He carries on with gravity into the box which draws Wisdom with him and creates the space for Rafferty to receive in the vacated space. North End’s triangulation here is good and Rafferty crosses. Again, it looks simple but without Sinclair’s movement, Rafferty doesn’t get the crossing opportunity.
So, North End’s attacking play with Sinclair is improving. This has led to increased output from North End as a team and Sinclair himself. His off the ball movement, which is hard to quantify, is top quality and it creates chances and space for himself and others. He is exceptional at creating separation in dangerous areas.
Of his 6 goals, 5 have been in the penalty area. Here is a quick goal map I’ve made. Swansea goal aside, all of his goals come from within 12 yards where high-quality chances present themselves. He is so good at creating yards of space and shooting clinically off either foot. 3 of his goals have been left footed and 3 have been right-footed.
We can see evidence of Sinclair’s increased involvement with his shot data between seasons. This is per game shot data. Incredibly he has already racked up the same Expected Goals in 4 games this season as he did in all of last season.
Whilst only a small sample size, Sinclair is shooting a lot more, with a lot more high-quality chances. He is racking up 0.73 xG per game, compared to 0.11 xG per game last season. He is having more than twice as many shots and a lot more on target. He is clearly a lot more involved and this shot data shows that.
We can see that Sinclair is our most prominent attacking threat so far this season. 10 shots in 4 games, 6 shots on target. Only Dominic Solanke (7) and Adam Armstrong (12) have had more shots on target so far. He’s also completed 9 dribbles, with only Bright Osayi-Samuel (16) and Kadeem Harris (12) completing more. He is also averaging 0.2 xA per game which would give him around 9 expected assists come May.
Scott Sinclair is a major threat. North End are seeing the best of him now. He looks fit, sharp, he understands the system and his quality is coming through. PNE are benefitting from a high-quality 31-year-old who is arguably in his prime right now due to earlier misgivings, and I expect him to play a huge part this season. His movement is up there with anything I’ve seen in North End colours. Due to the way we play, 20 goals might be a stretch, but he should be aiming for 15+ at least.
In Scott Sinclair, North End have serious quality.
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