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Rocking all over League One: Sunderland MUST play Luke O’Nien in midfield - and here’s why...

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“Sunderland need someone to step up and become the second striker to support an isolated Will Grigg in the coming games” writes Dan Parker, who argues that Luke O’Nien is the perfect solution in George Honeyman’s absence.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

With Chris Maguire out until late April, George Honeyman suspended in the league and Duncan Watmore ruled out for the remainder of the season, Sunderland need someone to become the ‘link man’ behind the striker to bridge the gap between our midfield and attack.

We bought Will Grigg to score goals and fire us to promotion but at the moment he cuts a frustrated, isolated figure as our centre-backs take it in turns to launch aimless balls up to him. He doesn’t have enough support around him to be at his effective best in this league.

McGeady has been our most dangerous player in recent games but his game is built around close dribbling and crossing - not energy and dynamism. He cannot be expected to provide both our creativity on the wing and our link-play with Grigg.

In truth, we don’t have many players in our squad who are capable of boundless energy and dynamism. With Watmore and Maguire both stuck on the treatment table, Lynden Gooch is the only player in our squad to have been utilised as a second striker regularly by Jack Ross.

However, he is a player desperately out of form and his lack of confidence in the final third was exposed under the lights at Oakwell on Tuesday night. Until he regains the confidence he had at the start of the season, Gooch cannot provide the spark we need to turn these draws into much-needed wins.

What if the answer to our problems is right in front of our nose?

Sunderland AFC

Luke O’Nien has become a cult legend at the club in a short space of time due to his Duracell Bunny energy and his undeniable passion for the club.

You love him, your mates love him, your Mum loves him, and your girlfriend secretly prefers him to you. Alongside McLaughlin, he has been our best signing this season and that’s particularly incredible seeing as he’s played most of his games in a position he’s not used to playing.

When he was asked to fill in for us at right-back, a position he was not used to, he got on with his job and made that position his own. He regularly stays late to train and often turns up on his days off, such is his passion for the academy environment. He has the best stamina and natural fitness I’ve ever seen in a Sunderland player – I’m pretty confident that he could lap N’Golo Kanté in a marathon and then play 90 minutes of football straight after.

He’s performed admirably in that role but the Barnsley game showed me that he’s been wasted at right-back. As we move into the business end of the season, better teams will expose his lack of experience playing there and target him just as Barnsley did.

It’s time O’Nien was given a chance to show what he can do in an attacking role.

Sunderland AFC

If we play Matthews at right-back and either Hume or James at left-back we will free up O’Nien to utilise his strengths elsewhere. Playing him as a second striker to bridge the gap between midfield and attack will guarantee we will have the energy to press higher up the pitch and win the ball back in the attacking third.

This is something we were doing to great success at the start of the season – preying on opposition mistakes and turning turnovers into goals.

O’Nien has the energy to both win the ball back for us in the attacking third and also provide extra bodies in the box. One of the most frustrating things I noticed at the Wycombe game was the lack of attackers we had filling the box from crosses. If our midfield couldn’t find the pinpoint pass to Grigg then it would become a wasted cross. With O’Nien stotting around in the attacking third, we will win far more second balls and have more targets to hit when in attacking positions. He’d also free up more space for Will Grigg by occupying opposition defenders.

If Jack Ross gives Luke O’Nien an opportunity to play higher up the pitch in the coming games, he might just make the difference between playoffs and automatic promotion. And then we will truly be “rocking all over League One”.