On this season’s performances, it’s clear to see that the central defensive duo of Jordan Willis and Alim Ozturk are looking like Sunderland’s best bet moving forward. The pace and tenacity of Willis coupled with the aggressive, no-nonsense approach adopted by Ozturk has thus far looked relatively solid.
Of course, there have been some hairy moments, not least the goal conceded against Portsmouth last weekend; however, by and large the combination of Ozturk and Willis looks like one that is allowing those around them to flourish.
The opening two league games of the season, whereby Ozturk was left out of Ross’s side, saw a shaky Sunderland defence struggle to contain their opponents. But, just like the tail end of last season, Ozturk’s introduction into the back line has seemingly solidified Sunderland’s defensive woes.
Part of that could well be down to a change in tactical approach, but Ozturk’s inclusion has seen a marked improvement in Sunderland’s defensive tenacity. Why?
Well, simply put, Ozturk is a more effective defender than his main competitor Tom Flanagan. It’s a really simplistic statement to make, but it’s true according to instat. Alim Ozturk’s no-nonsense approach could well be breeding confidence into his teammates - allowing them to play to their strengths rather than worrying about a shaky defence behind them.
The limited sample size of appearances points to the fact that Flanagan is fundamentally a weaker defender than Ozturk.
Flanagan has managed to win a total of forty percent of his attempted tackles in the two games he has featured in so far this season whereas Ozturk has managed almost sixty percent.
Ozturk’s defensive fundamentals are simply better. Players trust his ability to defend... a shocking requirement of being a central defender, I know.
Furthermore, Ozturk wins more challenges on average and his passing is more accurate even though he attempts less than Flanagan. He is just a more simplistic, effective defender. And that’s exactly what Sunderland have needed.
Part of Sunderland’s problem could stem from the fact that League One doesn’t demand its defenders to be technically gifted ball-playing defenders. Of course, that would be amazing, but that kind of defender either costs a small fortune, or doesn’t really stick around in the third-tier of English football for long.
Instead, League One defenders simply need to be strong and imposing or quick with decent positional sense. Jordan Willis is quick and has also showed signs of being an astute defender, Ozturk is strong and dependable.
On the other hand, however, the case could be made that Flanagan is neither pacey nor particularly dominant in defence. Flanagan is a committed player who gives his all, but ultimately he struggles to impose himself as a central defender - and that hurts Sunderland.
Sunderland’s switch to a back four with Willis and Ozturk in the middle, has provided stability, and bred confidence throughout the rest of the team. Ozturk might not be an elegant player, but he does the basics well and that’s all Sunderland need right now.