Sunderland's defence last season was rickety to say the least. While the team only actually conceded 54 goals, a fairly credible total compared to the teams around them, this was largely down to the excellent goalkeeping of Simon Mignolet, who made more saves than any other in the Premier League. You always felt that we were likely to concede at least one goal in a game, and considering our woes at the other end of the pitch, one goal was often all that was needed.
It was therefore crucial that Paolo Di Canio and his team of merry Italians acted in the transfer market to improve the back four. Fortunately two centre halves came in almost immediately: Valetine Roberge and Modibo Diakite both signed on free transfers, joining John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar at the club. Furthermore, now that Wes Brown has miraculously recovered from his long-term injury, Sunderland look in far better shape at the back.
However, with very little known about Diakite and Roberge on Wearside, there remains the question of what the club's best centre half pairing is, and which two will start against Fulham on the 17th of August. John O'Shea and Wes Brown played the majority of the 80 minutes against Tottenham on Wednesday, but I wouldn't expect this to be the first choice pairing for most of the season. While both players are excellent readers of the game, they lack pace, something which could easily be exploited in the Premier League. The more likely option is that we'll see one of the former Man Utd veterans partnering one of the new signings.
Brown is probably the best defender Sunderland have on their books at the moment. His loss over the last 18 months has been a great one, and his surprise return to action is a huge boost. However, question marks will always remain over his fitness, and there'll always be a worry that Brown, who resembles children's TV 'claymation' character Morph, and who is only marginally less vulnerable to having his legs ripped off, is just one game away from another serious injury. On the other hand he's had no problems so far during Di Canio's punishing pre-season, so it's conceivable he's turned a corner.
Of course, despite Brown's return to fitness, you would not expect John O'Shea to spend a lot of time warming the bench next season. He is, after all, Di Canio's captain. It's true that the Irishman had a patchy 2012-2013, but this could partly be explained by his defensive partners, having to hold the hands of Titus Bramble, Carlos Cuellar and Matt Kilgallon throughout the season. With a better centre half alongside him, O'Shea would likely return to the consistently solid displays he produced during his first season in Sunderland colours. His leadership skills will prove vital for a team lacking in Premier League experience and, because of this, along with Brown's fitness issues, I would put O'Shea in ahead of his former Man Utd team mate.
The question now is which of Sunderland's new signings should partner O'Shea. Working on the assumption that best defensive partnerships are the ones who compliment each other: where ones limitations are balanced out by the partners strength (see Ferdinand/Vidic, Terry/Carvhalo), both Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite offer credible arguments.
Ex Maritimo man Roberge is unlike the majority of defenders in the club's recent history in that he can play with the ball at his feet a bit. Sunderland have lacked a player who can bring the ball out of defence, and the Frenchman offers the option of starting attacks from the back. He also offers a crucial component the team lacked last season, which was strength. Sunderland were notably lightweight all over the pitch, with players easily outfought by tougher opposition. We saw this in particular during the games at West Brom and Aston Villa, where Lukaku and Benteke battered the back four to pieces. Roberge is noted for being strong in the tackle, and hard to beat physically.
Diakite is also an imposing physical presence, standing at 6'4'', and provides a strong aeriel threat. However, perhaps the former Lazio man's most important quality is his pace, which Sunderland sorely lacked at the back last season. Diakite's speed will be a huge advantage for the team and, like Roberge, he also has an excellent reading of the game, and these qualities combined means the team can afford to play higher up the pitch with less risk.
Of course, Dikaite isn't perfect. While he's known for going on long runs forward with the ball, his distribution isn't terrific. He also has a reputation for occasionally losing focus, and being a little bit clumsy on the ball, as opposed to Roberge who is known for his calmness and composure. However Diakite still offers a lot of the attributes Sunderland have lacked in defensive positions recently. Furthermore, he has the qualities required to make an immediate impact in the Premier League, unlike Roberge, who Kristan Heneage argues should be allowed to make a slow transition into English football.
With his technical skill, Roberge could certainly offer a long-term option to Sunderland once he's fully adapted to the rigours of English football but, it's Diakite who, in the immediate, and injuries permitting, would appear to be the best man to compliment John O'Shea in defence. Regardless, the club now have more strength in depth, and have a group of defenders who can all slot in and do a more than adequate job. What can't be denied is that the current crop are one hell of an improvement over Matt Kilgallon and Titus Bramble.