There is a regular debate amongst supporters regarding the ability and effectiveness of our current first choice full backs: Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien.
Sunderland have been blessed with some very good full backs over the years, such as Michael Gray, Patrick Van Aanholt, Phil Bardsley, Chris Makin and so on, alongside loan talents like Danny Rose, Marcos Alonso and Alan Hutton. In a nutshell, Sunderland fans know what a good full back looks like, and what qualities they should possess.
In order to analyse this I think two areas should be considered: the stats and attributes of Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien; and the performance of their counterparts from the two automatically promoted sides, Coventry and Rotherham. You could go further, and consider the other promotion chasing sides however I think these two will provide enough data for useful comparison, as well as having differing approaches to their tactics.
Firstly, let’s consider Denver Hume statistically. He played 32 games last season in either left full back or wing back, contributing 1 goal and 4 assists, as well as another 2 assists in 8 games in the 2018/19 campaign. Now those numbers don’t appear to be anything spectacular, however only one full back in League One has more assists for 2019/20, with 5 for Lewie Coyle of Fleetwood Town. You can argue that attacking wing backs should be involved more in terms of the contributing, and even scoring of goals, but it appears here that Hume is performing well for the division in this regard.
In terms of his playing style, Hume excels due to his pace and dribbling ability. He has youth on his side at 21, and can continue to improve. There have been question marks regarding his final ball, with particular regard to his crossing, and his physicality when defending.
It’s true that Hume can be bullied, and barely competes aerially but surely these things could be overcome by improving his physique? The defensive qualities of full backs are downplayed in the modern arena, however this can only be done when the rest of the team have the requisite ability and discipline to support it.
Flipping to the other side, let’s do the same for Luke O’Nien. He played in 35 games last season, with majority being at right back or wing back or occasionally centre midfield. He contributed 4 goals and 3 assists across these games. To my eyes, these are fairly commendable figures for a defender and also bearing in mind he scored 6 and assisted 5 in 2018/19, giving us 10 goals and 8 assists total - not bad for a full back.
O’Nien has shown great versatility in adapting to right back, displaying an intense work-rate alongside strong defensive qualities in the air and with his tackling. His crossing could use some work, but his general passing is good, and he has assists to show for it. He has also shown a keen eye for goal as the stats show. You do have to wonder however if his versatility is hampering Sunderland in an attacking sense - could he do a job further up the pitch amongst the midfield? His skills are transferable and you have to think his goal tally would get better.
Statistically the figures support the pairs inclusion in a promotion chasing side, where they have contributed to 24% of Sunderland’s goals in the 2019/20 season, alongside outscoring/assisting their counterparts at the two automatically promoted sides.
Comparing this to the two automatically promoted sides, makes for interesting reading.
Coventry favour a back five, with two wing backs, very similar to the way Phil Parkinson had us set up. Their first teamers last season were Sam McCallum on the left and Fankaty Dabo on the right. Combined they provided Coventry with 5 assists and just 2 goals, but despite this they are highly regarded and essential in the system they play in. Coventry play a high press where the full backs are massively important both when attacking and defending. Their lack of output is misleading - their pace and power allowed Coventry to thrive, whilst remaining responsible at the back.
Rotherham played a more traditional system, often with a flat back four. Joe Mattock was preferred on the left, with Matthew Olosunde on the right. Statistically, they provided 4 goals for their side with zero assists registered - again despite this, they are valued by the team. Rotherham’s approach is based upon solidity, as opposed to the more fluid style employed by Coventry. You can see this, as in a number of games, Rotherham’s centre backs have been used at full back (also Billy Jones, but let’s not go there). Starting strong from the back has allowed Rotherham’s goals to flow, being one of the division’s top scorers last season, spread amongst their team relatively evenly: 11 goals from defence; 22 midfield; and 39 forwards.
The full back conundrum comes down to one thing for - Sunderland don’t have a proper identity. Do we want to start at the back and be solid as per Rotherham, or be more free-flowing with the high press like Coventry?
The full backs are hard to assess, as they are directly affected by their teammates. You could argue that Hume and O’Nien are better suited to a high pressing side, provided they have quality centre backs and centre midfielders to work with - this is clear in Coventry’s success. Both players have strong stats for full backs in this league, including those in the promoted sides highlighted, yet are often pulled up as weak links - surround them with a better team, and they will come on leaps and bounds.
I think overall the full backs definitely need competition - no one is really pushing either player for their starting spot. If Parkinson wishes to pursue a back line complimented by wing backs, he should look towards the pace and power approach of Coventry. This approach has shown that you can be strong at the back and strong in attack, in equal measure. Both players could adapt to this system, with more work needed on the power side for Hume, though the importance of solid, dependable centre halves is paramount. Alongside this, the midfield and forwards must be improved as the whole is a sum of its parts.
All in all, the full backs could be replaced, with perhaps O’Nien going back into competing in midfield however I honestly feel they are not the greatest concern, and other positions desperately need attention first. Ultimately, Sunderland have shown they can defend with only 32 goals conceded last season, with Hume and O’Nien members of said defence - it is the business end where the work must happen.