This year I thankfully managed to watch the majority of Sunderland’s pre-season action, something which helped me to not only run the rule over the new manager and the style of football he was looking to implement but also the majority of our new signings.
One of the most impressive players throughout that spell was Tom Flanagan, who was a consistent performer regardless of the position he was asked to play on the pitch.
Left back, right back, centre back, central midfield - at one stage or another the former MK Dons man was asked to play just about everywhere bar in goal whilst the team was reshuffled during our warm-up games, and not once did he look out of place.
That is why, of course, Flanagan was signed by Jack Ross.
Before you even take into account he’s already achieved four promotions in his short career and was deemed worthy of international recognition in 2017, the Northern Irishman was mostly used as a utility player during his time under Nigel Clough at Burton - and its that ability to fill in where needed that will make him such a valuable commodity to Sunderland this season.
During pre-season this was best displayed in the final game against Middlesbrough, where a move into midfield due to an injury sustained by Dylan McGeouch early in the first half allowed Flanagan to show just how adjustable he actually is.
Up against an experienced, quality central midfield duo of Paddy McNair and Adam Clayton, Flanagan shone and comfortably looked the best player on the park.
Had he not suffered an injury in the aftermath of that game I have no doubt that he’d have started ahead of Luke O’Nien in that position when we took on Charlton Athletic in the season’s opener on the following weekend.
The slight issue right now, however, is that there are players closing off positions in the team and quite where Flanagan fits if he wants a regular run of games needs to become more clearly defined now that he’s recovered fully from his knee issues.
It’s obvious after seven games that Jack Ross has a preferred central defence pairing in Jack Baldwin and Glenn Loovens, whilst the fact we have three senior left backs means it’s unlikely that Flanagan will ever be needed to play in what was his preferred position for Burton in the Championship last season. In midfield we are fairly well stocked, and the return to fitness of Dylan McGeouch in that pivotal defensive midfield role means that whilst Flanagan’s versatility could be useful during games, he’s unlikely to be a regular starter in any of those positions unless injury means he’s required.
Taking all of that into consideration, then, it’s perhaps slightly fortunate for Flanagan that our right backs have been so inexplicably bad so far this season.
If Jack Ross felt that he needed a legitimate reason to consider Flanagan for selection on the right-hand side of his defence against Burton, the performance of Adam Matthews last Saturday will have only given him more to think about ahead of this coming weekend.
Poor marking from the ex-Celtic defender allowed Paddy Madden the opportunity to nod past Jon Mclaughlin to give Fleetwood the lead, and then with the game tied at one-all he made a terribly mistimed tackle in the box which gifted Joey Barton’s side an undeserved chance to put themselves ahead from the penalty spot - a shot which, to the delight of Matthews, was brilliantly saved by Jon McLaughlin.
Matthews is obviously a capable player but his poor form and frustrating injury record makes him expendable in this team. Likewise, Donald Love has shown no signs of improvement during his time at the club over the last two years and, without sounding overly-critical, most supporters that regularly watch the team would concede that he’s shown absolutely nothing in the way of improvement throughout the duration of our plummet down to the third tier.
This, you’d imagine, presents an opportunity to Tom Flanagan ahead of this weekend’s trip to Burton Albion. We improved both defensively and on our attacking set pieces with him on the pitch in the second half on Saturday, and now you have to imagine he’s a serious contender to start the game at the weekend against his old club.
My fellow Roker Reporter Connor Bromley did a fine job yesterday of explaining why Sunderland need players like Flanagan on the pitch as they attempt to fix their very obvious issue with conceding cheap goals from set pieces, but this is just one of the many things that would benefit Sunderland should we opt to put Flanagan in at right back from the start of a game.
Aside from that, it’s also important to note that in the majority of games this season, Ross has required his right back to play more like a right-sided centre half in a back three.
Sunderland’s shape is often very fluid and, when in possession, the way that the team moves changes in order to get the best out of every player - every player, that is, except the right back.
Donald Love and Adam Matthews are not good enough to play like ball-playing central defenders, and it has shown in their performances so far this season. They lack the positional awareness and discipline required to properly fulfill the role and, as such, they’ve suffered.
Flanagan’s adaptability, pace, technique and strength make him an absolutely perfect fit for the job that Ross wants his right backs to perform in his preferred system - to me, it seems a matter of time before we see him give the 26-year old a chance in that position from the start of a league game.
I believe that the solution to Sunderland’s very obvious right back problem is right under our noses, and against a team Flanagan knows very well it would make perfect sense to not only improve ourselves in a position that appears to be letting us down, week after week, but also bring someone into the team that we know is capable of performing in a formation that requires the players to be adaptable and fluid.