Let’s be honest, our backline has probably been the most disappointing thing about the side this season. The stats hint at this problem but don’t explain it in full. Having conceded twelve goals - meaning we’ve conceded less than Peterborough who sit in second - paired with the fact we’ve notched twenty-two goals so far this season, an outsider would be forgiven for thinking that things are hunky dory. But they’re not.
Our defence has been at fault for a number of important goals this season, and has cost us valuable points. For instance against Peterborough, it was Baldwin’s loose touch that cost us the first goal. Against Coventry a lack of communication between Flanagan and Matthews allowed Coventry far too much space and time to find the back of the net. And, although it didn’t cost us points, Baldwin’s stumble against Rochdale cost us a clean sheet.
All of these errors were preventable. We did not concede these goals because we were outplayed, or because we were unorganised, but because of individual errors. All of these errors happened when the tempo was high, as the opposition raced into space and put our defence under pressure.
So what’s the solution? First, let’s try and work with what we’ve got. In my opinion, the nature of the mistakes made by our centre-backs hint at overexposure. In most cases, their mistakes are not related to being poor footballers, mentally or technically.
Even the best centre-back in the world, if asked to clear a bouncing ball one hundred times continuously, would start missing one or two. Therefore, to rectify the issue we have to stop frequently putting our defenders in that position.
A lot of pressure seems to come down our right side. Adam Matthews and Donald Love, two players with ample experience in higher leagues, have been disappointing, and whilst a right-back should be a priority for January, we have to think about the present.
A team who concedes a steady flow of goals due to an overexposed defence will rarely gain promotion. So the fix? Perhaps the most fruitful selection has been our three-man defence, consisting of Baldwin - Loovens - Flanagan, but unfortunately that requires all of our centre-backs to be on the field, bar Ozturk who doesn’t seem to be able to get a look in right now. Frequent injuries to Loovens, who at 35 simply can’t play every game, suggests that this is not sustainable if we are looking for a settled backline.
On top of that, Loovens is slow. As we saw with John O’Shea in both the Premier League and the Championship, a slow defensive leader and organiser requires the whole side to sit deeper, or run the risk of being done for pace on every counter attack. This deep backline invites pressure, and contributes to our defence’s levels of exposure, and, in turn, leads to individual errors.
So what else do we have? In my opinion, the answer at least in the short term is to use our left-backs as inverted right-backs. Young Denver Hume has been very impressive this season, and new boy Reece James has also had his good games, albeit alongside a few bad ones. Both have at some point featured on the right, and in fact haven’t done too badly, and surely can’t offer less than what Love and Matthews have so far.
This would allow us to pair Baldwin and Flanagan together at centre-back. Whilst they aren’t the quickest pair, they’re also not slow. And with the pace of Hume or James, and Oviedo flanking them, it means our defensive line could sit a lot further up the field allowing us to dictate possession in the opposition’s half whilst not leaving our centre-backs unnecessarily exposed.
In the long term, there are a couple of fixes that I hope our recruitment team are exploring. Most obviously of course is the need for a new right-back. Our current crop simply can’t cut it, and it’s a glaring weakness. Based on Ross’ team selections, I’d suggest he is aware of this and hopefully has a few names on a list.
Another undisputed weakness is in the centre of our defence. If Ozturk is not trusted - as seems to be the case - then we need at least one more centre-back. And if Ross wants to continue playing three there, we will most likely need two new additions in the January window.
The attributes we should be looking for are height, strength and pace. Whilst Baldwin looks excellent, he and Flanagan could do with more bulk and a little more height to deal with the more physical sides in the division. Someone in the mold of Ozturk perhaps, but with ability.
But I don’t think the problem is limited to our defence. For years, myself and other Sunderland fans have bemoaned the lack of a physical presence in midfield. All too often we see ourselves bossed by a more physical opposition in the middle of the park.
Obviously, ability is important, but so too is physicality and we need a balance. It is my opinion that if we solve this issue by bringing in an energetic, tall, strong centre-midfielder, capable of using his stature to dominate the opposition midfield, then that would alleviate the pressure on our defence; as such, this would reduce the number of errors being made defensively.
Furthermore, this season we’ve also had an obvious weakness from set pieces. Of the twelve goals we have conceded so far, six have come from set pieces, and that is alarming.
Whilst basic positional training is obviously needed, we could also look to reduce the number of fouls we concede around our area. How? By playing a higher line. Too many times we have conceded a free kick in a dangerous place because of being under too much pressure in our defensive third.
In short, we need a way of keeping the ball out of that area to alleviate that pressure. Once again this comes back to that elusive physical midfield presence. Someone who will win the midfield battle for us higher up the park, and not allow the ball to enter dangerous positions. Not only that, it would also benefit our attack, by allowing our more creative midfielders, such as Power and McGeouch, more freedom to roam, find and exploit space and cause problems.
In short, there are a number of ways in which we can plug our leaky defence. Hume and James - both of whom seem to be solid players - are surely desperate for their chance to nail down a regular starting spot (even with Hume’s recent injury). The use of one of these in the right-back slot would give our defence far more pace and reliability, allowing us to play a higher line, and consequently reduce the persistent pressure on our centre-halves.
In the long run, I’m certain Ross and co are very much aware of the need to strengthen our defence. A right-back and at least one centre-back is of high importance, but as mentioned I would argue a physical presence, and some height in the midfield is vital for our long-term success.
Winning the midfield battle means less defence exposure, a higher defensive line and more possession, as well as hopefully reducing the number of fouls we give away around our area. We have conceded twelve goals, at least nine of which could have been prevented if not for our set piece woes and the aforementioned individual errors.
It would be a huge ask, but with these three additions, it is my opinion that our defence would be almost airtight, and the league would be ours.