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Tom Flanagan & Sunderland’s Defensive Dilemma

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“There must be a spiteful attitude to defending adopted next season, and this will be the foundation upon which a promotion bid can be laid” writes Phil West.

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

Positive news emanating from Sunderland is, at this moment in time, exceedingly rare. Recently, there’s been the confirmation of a new sponsorship deal with Great Annual Savings group, not to mention countless takeover rumours of questionable substance, but what of the playing squad? Are we any nearer to fulfilling Phil Parkinson’s stated aim of bringing seven to eight new players to the club?

On Friday, shortly after the start date for the new season was confirmed, it was announced that Tom Flanagan has signed a new deal and will be remaining at the club for another two years. OK, it might not be the kind of ‘hold the front page’ announcement that got us jumping for joy, but during a summer when our defence has been rendered perilously shallow, at least we know that another player has opted to stick around and try to play their part in next season’s mission of promotion-at-all-costs.

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

As we all know, 2020/2021 will be a slog, of that there is no doubt. The league fixtures (which in my opinion should be prioritised above all else, despite the inevitable arguments about possible cup runs) will come thick and fast, and squad depth will be absolutely key. With that in mind, Flanagan can certainly offer good cover at centre-back. He is a solid if unspectacular defender who isn’t terribly mistake-prone and will generally give you an honest effort when called upon. I see the fact that he is staying as a genuine positive.

On the back of Flanagan renewing his deal, and hopefully more defensive reinforcements to come, the big question, for me, is what kind of defensive system we will deploy next season. Last summer, Jack Ross began experimenting with what initially seemed like a very daring 3-5-2 system, deploying Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien as wing-backs and giving them license to roam forward and provide the option of overlaps down the flanks. Had it clicked instantly, the entertaining football that many demanded might well have been delivered on a more regular basis. Alas, it didn’t, and after stuttering our way through the opening games, Ross promptly found himself out of a job.

This system, which Phil Parkinson has persisted with, with varying levels of success, has its undeniable merits, as well as major weaknesses. Occasionally, as we saw against Wycombe at home, it all falls into place and you can hit the opposition with some wonderful attacking football, but when it goes wrong, both Hume and O’Nien, neither of whom are the best at tracking back, found themselves brutally exposed as glaring gaps appeared, teams got in behind and exploited our lack of pace and positional awareness.

For the 2020/2021 season, therefore, could Parkinson potentially switch to a solid, if brutally unfashionable, back four? It might not offer us as great an attacking outlet from defence, but with some training-ground practice and a higher level of discipline, it might just enable us to weed out the mistakes that led to the concession of goals last season. A back four may also also signify a shift to a no-nonsense mentality. Simplify, perfect, and put into practice. It might be seen by some as negative, but once again, if the end justifies the means, few will complain.

Last summer, I wrote about the need for a Paul Butler-esque enforcer who could marshal the defence, be vocal when needed, and ensure things are kept tight. In true Sunderland style, we didn’t sign that player, and the problem has not gone away. Jordan Willis is physically robust but not exactly intimidating, and Bailey Wright (assuming he rejoins, and I hope he does) will need to quell doubts about his fitness if he is to make a significant impression over the course of the season. If we do stick with the 3-5-2 system, two rugged CBs alongside a ball-playing defender might prove be a winning combination. Whether we will also sign another orthodox full-back, and allow O’Nien to possibly move into his ‘natural’ position as a utility midfielder is also up for debate.

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

Under Parkinson, we have rarely looked defensively porous, but we are still error-prone, and liable to concede annoyingly simple goals. Given the amount of pressure everyone will be under when the new season begins, there must be a spiteful attitude to defending adopted next season, and this will be the foundation upon which a promotion bid can be laid.