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“Sunderland’s defence is too leaky & error prone - sorting that out has to be our #1 priority!”

Sunderland’s defence wasn’t tough enough, wasn’t ruthless enough and wasn’t spiteful enough last season - and that needs to be immediately addressed.

Danny Roberts

An analysis that most football fans have offered at one stage or another but, in the case of Sunderland and our well-documented issues at the back that hindered our promotion push last season, it is perhaps the most appropriate summary of one of our most glaring deficiencies.

Post-Wembley, I read a tweet from a fan who claimed that defensively we must be ‘nastier’ next season. He caveated it by saying that he wasn’t advocating foul play, but that we needed to stand stronger, and not allow the opposition to bully us.

His point was valid: many stone-thighed defenders have passed this way over the years, but the current crop of defenders simply aren’t cut from the same cloth. That is not meant as a criticism, merely as an observation.

There is a consensus, among most fans, that next season we need to be more attack-minded and to harness the momentum that an early goal can bring, but we also need compliment that by being as a drum at the back. Disciplined, too.

On too many occasions last season our defenders found themselves being pulled out of position, and then left flailing and scrambling to plug the gaps that appeared. With Jon McLaughlin between the sticks (assuming he stays), we’ve got a goalkeeper of exceptional quality, and who can be relied upon, but more protection is needed. Next season our defence needs at least one out-and-out organiser - someone who can cajole, marshal, and keep things under control, particularly if we find ourselves up against it.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Kevin Ball
Imagine what someone in the mould of Bally could do in this Sunderland side?
Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Assuming we can sign the two no-nonsense central defenders that most fans seem to agree we need, men who are unlikely to be outmuscled and can defend their goal and protect the keeper as if their life depends upon it, that ticks a huge box.

How many times last season did you watch a game and feel your heart-rate increase whenever the ball was played deep into our half? Simply put, we need calmness where last season there was panic, and solidity where there was weakness.

As to the importance of defenders doing ‘the basics’ well, Doncaster at home on Good Friday was a prime example. The selection of Alim Ozturk - a player who has taken his fair share of criticism - filled a lot of us with anxiety, but during that game he did nothing flash and nothing extravagant. He hoofed it when it needed to be hoofed, headed it when it needed to be headed, and generally went about his business with the minimum of fuss.

Playing out from the back is in fashion right now, and you can understand why. Keep the ball, pass it around, make time and space for yourself, and run the opposition off their feet.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet League One Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s great in theory, but League One - as we discovered last season - doesn’t afford you the time and space to do that week in and week out.If a good old-fashioned punt out of defence is needed, we needn’t think twice about it.

It might not look beautiful, and purists may cry foul, but given the alternative of attempting Cruyff turns on the edge of our own box, a-lá Nyron Nosworthy, it doesn’t make for a hard choice.

I also believe that our mental approach to defending needs to improve significantly next season. Do we defend spitefully enough?

Do we say to the opposition, ‘you’re not coming through us, and you’re certainly not coming past us’? Let’s try and get a little more edgier and a lot more ‘in your face’. If the opposition are going to beat us, let’s make them earn it, rather than folding too easily.

It was once said of Kevin Ball that when the weather was horrible, and the opposition had come for a battle, rather than a game of football, his presence was enough to lift everyone.

If with some good recruitment and some good coaching we can replicate that mentality heading into the new season, we will be in far better shape to launch a sustained promotion challenge.

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