The performances in many games this season from Sunderland’s central defenders are really nothing new to supporters. From John O’Shea’s painful lack of pace to Jake Clarke-Salter’s inability to do anything remotely of use, Sunderland have been a team defined by their defensive limitations for almost as long as I can remember.
Ok - that’s not strictly true. If I try hard enough, glimpses of organised, effective Sunderland defences flash through my mind. Names like John Mensah and Johnny Evans make my assertion feel misguided. But in reality, they were Sunderland players a long time ago, and our defence has been on a slippery slope since.
As such, after years of below mediocre centre-halves, Sunderland fans can be forgiven for forgetting those relative “good times”.
The importance of good, reliable centre-backs cannot be underestimated.
The backline helps give the team its shape. A high backline allows a team to control a game, while sitting deep invites pressure and usually limits a team’s ability to really get at the opposition by isolating their attacking danger men.
In this we can see one of the many reasons Sunderland have been unable to be an effective, attack-minded, dominant outfit in recent years. Big Sam’s short tenure at here provided a wonderful, although very short-lived, lull from our defensive woes. Kone and Kaboul were a cracking partnership; big, strong, decently quick, and the latter’s ability to organise his defensive teammates gave Sunderland a great base.
Of course it didn’t last long. But in his short time here, Sam recognised Sunderland’s main defensive flaw - O’Shea’s severe lack of pace. John O’Shea had become a mainstay in the heart of our defence since joining from Manchester United, but time was not on his side.
He seemed to be losing at least a yard of pace per season, and although mentally he was still a great player, physically he was not.
Because O’Shea could hardly run the whole team was required to sit deep, which as mentioned, invited waves and waves of pressure. Not only did that make conceding goals inevitable, but it also inhibited any chance of an effective attacking move.
Then came Moyes and the subsequent departure of Kaboul, and also seemingly of Kone’s ability. In came Djilobodji - one of the worst all-round footballers we’ve ever witnessed - and the consequential return of John O’Shea to the lineup. We were back to square one.
I have a great deal of sympathy for John O’Shea. Every year I’m sure he thought the time had come for him to take a backseat, and be a bit-part player, featuring only when injuries dictated all the while being a terrific role-model and leader off the field.
Yet, every season, when his poorly-scouted “done-on-the-cheap” replacements showed themselves to be useless, he was ushered back in as a vital part of our starting eleven.
This was the case even in the Championship the following season. Cheap loans arrived, such as Browning and Jake Clarke-Salter. Kone strolled around like a petulant child, neglecting his duties or pretending to be injured. O’Shea was once again our best defender.
And so even in the Championship, Sunderland were required to sit deep to accommodate their inadequacies. As many thought at the time, that Sunderland team should not have been relegated from the Championship - but our attacking outlets were nullified by our own limitations.
McGeady, McManaman, Grabban - although they were far from outstanding, they should have been decent Championship-level players. But they could only feed on scraps as Sunderland were unable to control games. We just sat deep, in the knowledge that if we pressed the opposition with a higher line, a mere ball over the top could see them through on goal.
This is not a criticism of O’Shea. I’m sure he was as aware of his shortcomings as anyone else. In fact, it’s a credit to him that he stepped up every time he was required and despite his age, played with the same passion and commitment that he has shown for the entirety of his career.
Last summer, he was moved on but not replaced.
Once again we brought in poor replacements and this season Jack Ross has struggled to create an attacking, creative team while also ensuring his inadequate defenders have sufficient cover.
Essentially we were once again forced to sit deeper than we would have liked, not because of a lack of pace, but this time simply due to a lack of ability. Who knows, if O’Shea had of stuck around he might of found himself in the starting line-up once again.
Investment in our defence is obviously a must this summer. We need to finally rid ourselves of this problem which has dogged us for years. No more inexperienced loans, and no more castoffs. Sure - if we had young players capable of stepping up then great, but right now we do not.
Centre-backs are hugely important to a team. If we want to become an attacking, dominant outfit we need to lay the foundations for that by having a defence that can support itself, and good centre-halves are vital to that. As such we need to address that position with care and respect, and with both now and the future in mind.