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Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland have the best defence in League One - but can we still improve?

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Despite Sunderland’s impressive defensive record this season there still appears to be a debate among fans as to who should start the next game in the back line for Sunderland. Is it time to change things up?

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite Sunderland’s impressive defensive record this season, there still appears to be a debate among fans as to who should start the next game in the back line for Sunderland. In successful promotion campaigns from the past, the foundation is almost exclusively built on having a settled back line where the defence picks itself – this however does not seem to be the case during our second attempt at exiting League One.

During the previous three games to date: a routine victory over Bristol Rovers, a last-gasp draw with Fleetwood Town, followed by a defeat at Coventry City, we have started with Jon McLaughlin between the sticks and a back three of Jordan Willis, Alim Ozturk and Tom Flanagan.

This combination of central defenders was a result of an ankle injury suffered by Bailey Wright at Oxford United who was building some momentum in a run of three clean sheets - including the Oxford United game where Wright completed 84 minutes before his injury - alongside Willis and Flanagan.

There was much debate after the Oxford United game as to who would be the best person to replace Wright for the next game - in the same way as it was following our defeat by Portsmouth at the beginning of February when Joel Lynch suffered a rib injury combined with concussion. That debate in the lead up to the Bristol Rovers game centred around the choice between bringing Alim Ozturk back into the fold or throwing our new acquisition Tommy Smith into the fray.

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One
Alim Ozturk challenges against Fleetwood Town
Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Likely due to Smith’s lack of match fitness, and the fact he was signed the day prior to the game, Ozturk was given the nod. Since that day our back three has remained consistent with a fit-again Joel Lynch sharing duties with Tommy Smith to sit on the bench as cover. All of this highlights that although Phil Parkinson has emphasised that a consistent team is vital, especially in our defensive personnel, he does have options.

Considering our defensive record this season, where we have conceded only 28 goals with ten games remaining (for context only three other sides in League One has conceded fewer than 35 goals), can it be improved using the options available?

Most fans will agree that Alim Ozturk and Tom Flanagan have had off days in a Sunderland shirt and their recent form, although generally good, is scattered with moments that find Sunderland fans with their hearts in their mouths. The obvious example is the opening moments of our top of the table clash at St Andrew, which I for one won’t be trying to remember anytime soon.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Phil Parkinson
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Looking back 25 years ago, I remember being puzzled as to why Peter Reid not only loaned a young 19-year-old goalkeeper by the name of Shay Given, but why he threw him straight into the starting XI for the next game at Filbert Street against fellow promotion chasers Leicester City.

The man who he replaced was Alec Chamberlain who was ever-present up to that point and, although prone to an off-day, was having a decent season. In fact, the team in general were having a decent season as Peter Reid’s Sunderland found themselves in 7th position with four or even five games in hand over teams positioned in the top six. Shay Given went on to keep 12 clean sheets in the 17 Endsleigh League Division 1 games he played as Sunderland went on to win the league.

Anyone who has listened to a recent Roker Rapport Exiles podcast will have heard of heated debate on the current goalkeeper selection policy. The argument being that potentially Lee Burge is the more talented goalkeeper, but Jon McLaughlin was given the nod and now finds him first choice due to consistency and our current form as a team rather than the simple consideration that he is the more talented goalkeeper of the two.

There is potentially an element of truth in that argument but that would be a huge call from the manager at this stage of the season.

There is always a huge amount of risk with these changes, and they don’t always work out the way we’d like but there should always be an effort to improve. Consistency is also a good thing, but not when it’s for the sake of being consistent. Sticking with the same side has to produce the feeling that we couldn’t improve the side by making personnel changes, but the previous three games have shown that potentially we may benefit from utilising the depth we have in defensive positions.

Phil Parkinson has tough decisions to make in the final quarter of the season and I certainly won’t be the only interested observer when the team sheet is released ahead of Saturday’s tough test as Steve Evans Gillingham visit the Stadium of Light.