John Lundstram, John Fleck and Dean Henderson have been showered with compliments. Contrary to DPL king Lundstram and Fleck, the centre-back has not been racking up Fantasy Premier League points. And, unlike Henderson, he will not be returning to Manchester United to place pressure on David de Gea following season.
But that is not to discredit the 25-year-old Liverpudlian. He’s one of Chris Wilder’s now-famous overlapping centre-backs and part of this second-meanest defence in the Premier League, having surrendered only 23 times this year. Clearly someone has been taking note.
That somebody is Tottenham Hotspur boss José Mourinho. Based on reports, O’Connell has been lined up as a replacement for out-of-contract defender Jan Vertonghen.
Unlike defensive partner Toby Alderweireld, the Belgian is yet to sign an extension with the North Londoners, meaning that he could come to a pre-contract arrangement with a foreign club and leave Spurs for nothing come the summertime.
Blades boss Wilder is all-too-aware his squad might be ripe for picking by bigger clubs but expects to hang onto one of the celebrities of United’s remarkable season. “It is always a moving economy,” he said.
“Players will be coming in and I can not sit here and say none of my players will proceed — ones we do not need to proceed.
“That’s how football is and you always need to be prepared and quickly respond to any company that occurs ins or outs.”
O’Connell has signed a contract extension at Brammall Lane this year, taking him through to 2023. So whatever happens, he will not be prised off cheaply. Not least because he’s a rather specialist centre-back, recruited for and then moulded to play Wilder’s back five.
They create two-v-one situations out broad or let wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens to push inside and flooding the central regions of the pitch.
Because of this, O’Connell has tried the second-most crosses per 90 of any centre-back from the Premier League this year with 1.29.
O’Connell finishes 0.17 spans per 90, the sixth-most of any Premier League guardian to have played at least 20 percent of available minutes this term. Becoming confident carrying out the ball is another significant part of the former Rochdale and Blackburn Rovers defender’s function, and O’Connell completes 0.25 of the 0.54 dribbles he tries per 90.
Brian Barry-Murphy, O’Connell’s director at Rochdale, isn’t surprised by his former charge’s meteoric rise. “We just could not hold him back,” Barry-Murphy told The Sportsman. “He was only going beyond what a normal centre-half would do.”
He’s a powerful, competitive, no-nonsense defender who reads the game well. O’Connell only tries 0.85 tackles per 90 but wins more than 50 percent (0.58) in addition to recording 1.38 interceptions.
The question now is if he’s about to make the step-up into a side hoping to make the top four on a regular basis. Sheffield United’s #1million acquisition of Nottingham Forest left-sided defender Jack Robinson — that can play indoors at centre-back indicates Wilder might already be planning to shed one of his most important players, be it in January or the summer.
Assessing O’Connell’s numbers straight to Vertongthen’s is moot. Both play for teams with unique aspirations that, despite competing for European soccer against all odds, play entirely different systems practising different styles of play.
One thing that’s worth considering, however, is the way Mourinho would feel about one of his centre-halves galavanting field to support the assault. The Portuguese is famous for his defense-first mentality and strategic rigidity.
His best teams are constructed around the likes of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. The notion of O’Connell coming to Tottenham and enjoying the way he’s done for the Blades seems fanciful at best.
O’Connell has flourished in a system built for a protector of his near-unique specifications.