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Five central defenders Sunderland should look to sign for next season

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With Sunderland left with only one central defender contracted to the club for 2020-21, Matthew Crichton looks at some of the options available to Phil Parkinson this summer.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Bailey Wright Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland recently published their retained list, where they released three central defenders in Alim Ozturk, Joel Lynch and Jack Baldwin. That decision has left Phil Parkinson with Jordan Willis as the only recognised senior centre-back contracted to the club beyond the end of the month, with Tom Flanagan yet to respond to his new contract offer.

Filling this position effectively has arguably been the most problematic within the Donald era, with the likes of Glenn Loovens and Jimmy Dunne also failing to impress during spells. If Parkinson wants to persist with a back-three system, it is imperative his new signings are of promotion standard. Below are five options who I believe the club should look into signing.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off: Second Leg
Alim Ozturk was a highly debated figure amongst Sunderland fans throughout his two-year spell.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Bailey Wright - free from Bristol City

First and foremost, the number one target on Phil Parkinson’s defensive target list should be Bailey Wright. In the five league games the Australian international played in, Sunderland won four and kept four clean sheets. He was a complete class above the man he replaced in Alim Ozturk, starting in the centre of the back-three.

Wright was the commanding presence Sunderland’s defence was lacking, a real fearless leader who battled passionately for every header and tackle. He was a reliable figure, comfortable on the ball, possessing the aggressiveness and aerial ability which League One defenders thrive on. He would be the ideal figure to play the central role in a back-three with more athletic players around him such as Jordan Willis to add pace.

The 27-year-old possesses experience at League One level having won promotion with Preston in 2015 and impressed in the Championship as captain of Bristol City, before injuries led to him losing his place. Bristol City are yet to announce a decision on Wright’s future but it is highly likely he will be released.

It was rumoured that the Aussie moved his family to the North East in January when he joined Sunderland on loan, the only sticking point that will arise will be how much of a wage cut he is willing to take to join Parkinson’s squad.

Tranmere Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Cameron John - loan from Wolves

As I stated within my previous article discussing potential new goalkeepers Sunderland could sign, it has been highlighted that the club are not utilising the loan market effectively. It is clear the club are reluctant to spend substantial money on players following the Grigg debacle, so why not identify young up and coming players from Premier League clubs who require exposure in senior first-team football?

The reason I believe John would be an effective signing for Sunderland is because he fits the back-three system perfectly and would be cheap to loan financially. He is left-footed which is a big factor, Tom Flanagan was often shoehorned into the left centre-back position through our failure to recruit a credible left-footed central defender.

The 20-year-old was recently rewarded with a new deal at Wolves following his good form on loan at Doncaster and is likely be loaned out again to continue his development. He would be a brilliant option at left centre-back in Parkinson’s system and could provide cover for Denver Hume at left wing-back.

Paul Goodwin, writer for Doncaster Free Press, said:

I‘d have no hesitation in recommending Cameron John to Sunderland - or fellow centre back Tom Anderson for that matter. John arrived on loan at Doncaster as a largely unknown and untried youngster but left with plenty of new admirers and a very promising career in front of him.

The 20-year-old threw himself into the challenge and, along with Wolves teammate Niall Ennis, visibly enjoyed his time at the Keepmoat Stadium and benefited enormously from it. He started the season on the bench but grabbed an early opportunity with both hands and formed a superb understanding with Anderson before injury somewhat disrupted his progress, returning to the team at left back where he was less comfortable.

While Anderson is more of an old-school defender, John is more dynamic and comfortable in possession. He isn’t particularly built like a centre half but he has pace, athleticism and a good spring, while his defensive positioning and awareness belie his tender years. Off the pitch he comes across as a very unassuming lad who is eager to learn and carry on improving.

Playing for Sunderland brings its own pressures and that would present John with a different challenge but he looks like someone who would take it all in his stride.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One
John started in the Doncaster defence which kept a clean sheet against Sunderland last season at the Stadium of Light.
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ben Heneghan - free from Sheffield United

Throughout the past few transfer windows Heneghan has been strongly linked with joining Sunderland, which makes this move appear fairly realistic. Sunderland will need at least three new centre backs this summer to provide competition, At 26, the Englishman is at the peak of his career, he is experienced at this level and is almost certain to be released by Premier League side Sheffield United.

At six feet two, the former England C international is a brilliant aerial threat and has proved during his two-year loan spell at Blackpool that he can perform at this level. He would be a credible option for the central role of the back three and with Wright’s injury record the club need to ensure they have depth. Picking up Heneghan on a free transfer would be a sensible piece of business.

Tony Wilkinson, Deputy Chairman of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, said:

Ben Heneghan has made 66 appearances for Blackpool on loan from Sheffield United and has been an improving player throughout his two-year spell. He is always in the thick of the action as a centre back who will put himself about to make that crucial block when the team is under pressure from the opposition.

He has a great physical presence with good heading ability which he utilises well in defence and will be in the opposition box also for attacking corners. He is a very capable player at League 1 level and despite some occasional mistakes would be welcomed back at Blackpool by most supporters next season. At 26 years of age there are still a number of good seasons to come from Ben.

Blackpool v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One
Heneghan was frequently selected by ex-Sunderland manager Simon Grayson before he was sacked.
Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

Aaron Pierre - from Shrewsbury Town

Now for the wildcard as Pierre is the only selection from this list who would command a fee, however in terms of being effective in Parkinson’s three-back system he is an excellent option.

Tall, physical, effective in the air, left-footed and experienced at League One/Two level, Aaron Pierre may not be a big name or anything exciting, but he fits the role of left centre-back in Sunderland’s system very well. Will Grigg is a perfect example of Sunderland’s past failure of buying the name instead of someone who fits into the style of play.

The Granada international captain was part of a solid Shrewsbury defence last season who reached the fourth round of the FA Cup where they lost to Liverpool. If there is money available within Sunderland’s transfer budget, Pierre may just be worth spending on to help enhance Parkinson’s defence.

Gabriel Sutton, EFL pundit, said:

Pierre has proved himself as one of the most reliable defenders below the Championship over the last seven years.

He was a key part of Wycombe Wanderers’ promotion pushes in League Two between 2014 and 2017, inspiring a strong defensive unit.

Although he was relegated with Northampton in 2017-18, he won their Player of the Year the following season and, as an outsider, I’d say he’s been Shrewsbury Town’s most consistent performer this season.

Salop have kept 11 clean sheets in the 30 games Pierre has played, which shows how key an influence he is on Sam Ricketts’ side with his aerial prowess – statistically he’s among the top 10 centre-backs in League One based on aerial duels.

That is particularly impressive considering that, compared with other defenders alongside him, Pierre is much quicker and, at 27, he’s just coming into his peak years.

While the Grenadian prides himself primarily on his mastery of the defensive basics, there’s also the occasional spontaneous moment on which he can produce the odd bit of unexpected skill in the opposing half – he may be better on the ball than is widely recognised.

Their manager, Sam Ricketts, has a similar stylistic outlook to Phil Parkinson and likes his teams to be compact with adequate protection for centre-backs, so if Parky stays with your lot – and I know some of you aren’t hoping for that eventuality as such but that’s another matter – I imagine Pierre would settle in smoothly.

He’s got another two years on his contract though so would command a fee, which could prove a sticking point – but I do think he’d massively enhance your squad and increase your chances of promotion.

Liverpool FC v Shrewsbury Town - FA Cup Fourth Round: Replay
Pierre played on the left of Shrewsbury’s back three last season under Sam Ricketts.
Photo by Visionhaus

Richard Nartey - free from Chelsea

Despite many of the above options being mentioned for their experience, Sunderland should ensure that out of their probable three new centre-backs they do not avoid signing a younger option with potential to grow with the club. I have spoke previously about Sunderland’s failure to recruit players who can return a profit and an interesting option available is 21-year-old defender Richard Nartey, who is set to be released by Chelsea.

Chelsea possess arguably the best academy within England and have produced an endless list of quality players. Nartey was a regular in Chelsea’s under-23 squad and also enjoyed a brilliant loan spell at Sunderland’s League One rivals Burton Albion last year. If the club are strapped for cash, signing a young upcoming player on low wages, who has proved he can perform at League One level, would make sense for both footballing and financial reasons.

If the club want to successfully rebuild, signing more young players who have the potential to play at higher levels (such as Luke O’Nien) would be a step in the right direction.

Edward Walker, Co-Host of the D3D4 football podcast, said:

When Richard Nartey has been available to play for Burton Albion this season, he has looked an absolute gem. He has all the qualities you look for in a modern centre-back. If you want him to be part of a possession-based team, he has the composure and intelligence to play accurate, sensible passes over a short or medium range. If there is space in front of him, he is also comfortably carrying the ball into the opposing half and will look to break lines with penetrative passes if the opportunity arises.

Defensively, he excels at stepping out of the backline and intercepting forward passes. If the opposition play direct, he has the athleticism to challenge and win the ball in the air, whilst also possessing an impressive level of speed and agility. It’s because of this that Nigel Clough occasionally utilised Nartey as a right-back, but he is truly at his best when playing in the centre of defence.

Nartey has had a very successful loan spell at Burton Albion, his first taste of senior professional football, and at just 21 years old, there’s plenty more to come from the defender yet. I know for certain I’d love to see him wearing Burton yellow again when the new campaign gets underway!

Burton Albion v Sheffield United - Pre-Season Friendly
Nartey started in the Burton side which beat Sunderland 2-1 at the Stadium of Light last season.
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images