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Sunderland boss Jack Ross has a selection headache - what does he do with his defence?

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With the incredibly highly-rated Jimmy Dunne now on board, Sunderland manager Jack Ross has a defensive selection dilemma to preside over. What should he do? Here are his options...

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Three at the back

An extra centre back could see Ross switch to a formation which adapts to a three in defence - new recruit, Republic of Ireland defender Jimmy Dunne, could be slipped in alongside Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan with relative ease.

Some of the criticism levelled at our defence this season has been regarding their inability to deal with physical forwards, but with the addition of Dunne you can imagine a more cohesive unit which not only has presence, but also the pace and ball-playing ability of Flanagan and Baldwin. Going forward this would free up our full backs, who would essentially be playing as attacking wing-backs, to push forward in support of their midfielders.

Three settled, experienced centre backs should be enough to prevent any side in this division being able to score on the counter against us.

These three at the heart of our defence with two attacking wing-backs flanking them, sat just in front of Jon McLaughlin, is certainly plausible and something you can imagine Jack Ross would be keen to re-explore, having toyed with the idea of a ‘lopsided’ back three earlier in the season.

Sunderland AFC

Dropping Flanagan for Dunne

We’ve seen all our senior centre backs play in the first half of the season.

We started off with Glenn Loovens and Alim Ozturk in the season’s opener against Charlton Athletic, but thankfully this wasn’t the case for too long. Technically Tom Flanagan was signed as a utility man - a defender who had spent a large portion of last season playing at left back for Burton Albion in the Championship, someone proficient at the heart of defence but also as a midfielder, but not considered an expert in any position.

You can imagine that, when drawing up his plans for the season, Jack Ross had probably hoped that one of Loovens or Ozturk would have ended up being able to play alongside Jack Baldwin as his regular partner - but unfortunately both both men that just hasn’t been the case, and where they’ve fallen down it’d be fair to say that Tom Flanagan (initially at least) stepped it up.

That said, Flanagan could be moved aside for Dunne if Ross wants to freshen things up but wants to keep a straight four at the back. If this was the case, then the Northern Ireland international would be consigned to a place on the bench, as no matter how good of a full back he may be, its hard to see him getting in ahead of either Luke O’Nien or Reece James at the minute.

Flanagan doesn’t deserve to be dropped, but out of him and Baldwin I can only see one being cut to allow Dunne a place in the side.


Keeping things as they are

The alternative to these two possibilities is to simply keep things as they are.

Dunne could just be put on the sidelines until he’s needed, and if Ross is keen on keeping his defence as it is - therefore showing he still has faith in Baldwin and Flanagan - then he may instead prefer to do things ‘fairly’, and wait until the time is right to give Dunne a chance.

There is, after all, a cup game next Tuesday with Manchester City which allows Ross a chance to freshen up his side and rest anyone that has been playing through injury in league games recently.

The argument for keeping Dunne out of the side, at least for the time being, would be that he isn’t our own player. However, we’ve signed him to make a difference and the only way we can do this is by affording him minutes on the pitch.

Neither of our current central defenders necessarily deserve to be dropped, and it’s not as though we’ve conceded a great deal of goals recently. As the saying goes, ‘if it aint broken, don’t fix it’.

Good selection headaches do exist and the issue of who to play in the centre of our defence and how to play them falls into that category. With fixtures coming up against sides down the wrong end of the table who will be looking to catch us on the break, it seems logical for Ross to try the three in defence formation, perhaps in the game against Manchester City U21s where you can maybe afford to be more experimental.

We’d have plenty of cover at the back whilst enabling our full backs to push forward more freely - perhaps even bringing the more attack-minded Bryan Oviedo back into the fold.

Teams like Oxford and AFC Wimbledon will spend long periods of matches shutting up shop, meaning that we’ll need all hands-on deck to break them down. We’ve kept in touch with the sides above us without playing that well - reshaping the back four, as well as bringing on board a new striker, could give us the boost to break into the top two and, most importantly, stay there.