Replacing Alim Ozturk
With four centre backs departing the club, At least three will need to be brought in to make sure Sunderland have enough depth in arguably the most important position in the side.
Bailey Wright appears certain to take up one of those spots, which leaves Alim Ozturk and Joel Lynch as the players from last season who need to be replaced.
Ozturk should be fairly straightforward to replace given that he is a stereotypical League One defender. As long as they can win battles in the air and are strong in the tackle then Ozturk’s replacement is well suited to the middle of Parkinson’s back three - or indeed to playing alongside Willis or Flanagan in a back four.
The above graph includes every centre back in Sunderland’s likely scouting range to have played over 900 minutes last season, and organises them based on their ability in the air.
Sunderland’s target for that middle centre back role should be in the top right of this graph - competing in a lot of aerial duels with a high success rate.
The table in the second image ranks the 92 players in that top-right quadrant based on both metrics - with Christophe Berra of Dundee the standout when it comes to defenders who are good in the air.
Whilst the main attribute for Sunderland’s defensive enforcer should be their aerial ability - especially if Parkinson sticks with a back three next season - it is important that we also look at players who are strong in ground tackles, and defensive duels more generally to ensure they’re a real upgrade on Alim Ozturk.
Looking at a similar graph to the one used for aerial duels, 64 players appear in the top-right quadrant which shows above average number of duels and success rate. From this we can see that Rob Delaney of Bolton is the standout candidate, along with Leeds’ Ben White, Crawley Town’s Jordan Tunnicliffe and Ipswich’s Aristote Nsiala (who spent last year at Bolton).
The ranking list of these players has highlighted those which were also in the top right of the graph for aerial duels, and so performed above average for both aerial duels and defensive duels.
Some of these players can be written off immediately due to Sunderland’s limited budget. Liam Cooper will be a Premier League player next season, and all players with over a year on their contracts are out of Sunderland’s reach unless they are transfer listed by their clubs - this rules out Jon Guthrie from Livingstone, who ranks 15th for aerial duels and 12th for defensive duels.
However, more achievable targets would be Crawley Town’s 26 year old Jordan Tunnicliffe (20th for aerial duels and 3rd for defensive duels) who has a year left on his contract, Aristote Nsiala (46th for aerial duels and 6th for defensive duels) who has a year left on his Ipswich contract and is likely to be up for sale or loan since he was away from the club last season.
If Sunderland are to look at the loan market for a new recruit, the standout candidate would be Harry Souttar, who has spent the last two seasons at Fleetwood Town from Stoke City (38th for aerial duels and 50th for defensive duels). His experience at this level perhaps gives him the advantage over Tunnicliffe, whilst his ability to improve due to age would give him the edge over Nsiala, especially if the latter is to cost a fee.
Replacing Joel Lynch
With Alim Ozturk acting as a good style guide to the type of player needed for the middle of Sunderland’s back three, Joel Lynch is a slightly different type of player than is required for the left side of the defence. In fact, the former QPR defender is probably more suited to the central role occupied by Ozturk, something backed up by his greater success in aerial duels compared to defensive duels.
Tom Flanagan is probably a better example of what Sunderland should be looking for in this player - aerial ability is less important, but ball progression - through passes and dribbling - is more important than when playing in the middle of a back three. However, the advantage Lynch had over Flanagan was the fact that he was left-footed, something which it would be good to replace, especially if Sunderland is to run a squad with five central defenders in it next year.
The above graph measures a defenders ball progression, the top right corner includes player who play lots of progressive passes and make lots of progressive runs. Unsurprisingly, many of the players on this graph are from teams playing at a higher level than Sunderland - Celtic’s Nir Bitton and Kristoff Ajer are more likely to sign for a team in the Premiership than in League One.
However, a couple of left-footed players do stand out when looking at defenders who are both good on the ball and strong defensively. Jamie McCart features in the top-right quadrant in all three graphs and would almost certainly improve Sunderland’s defence - unfortunately since he just signed for St Johnstone in January it seems unlikely he’d come within Sunderland’s budget.
South of the border, Forest Green’s Liam Kitching scores highly for defensive duels and progressive passing, and at 20 years old is the exact profile which Sunderland should be aiming to sign if they want to avoid changing half of their squad every two seasons. Although he does have two years left on the three year contract he signed when signing from Leeds last summer, it would be disappointing if Sunderland were unable to spend enough money to bring a promising young player to the club from League Two.
Furthermore, defenders who are good on the ball and free are hard to find meaning this position is a good one for Sunderland to decide to spend money on. Another option from League Two which may be cheaper than Kitching is Tom Parkes from Exeter City. At 28 years old, he would be a more experienced option and is likely to be open to a move after Exeter failed to gain promotion through the play-offs.
All Stats from Wyscout