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Reader’s Corner: Burge-oning talent – the case for Sunderland’s defence

RR reader Derek Gagnon wonders whether the more established defenders will slot back into the team upon their return – or should Lee Johnson stick with what’s working? Fancy writing? - send us an email!

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Since Lee Johnson took over as manager back on December 5th, what was previously a pretty good defence has sealed up tight to become the stingiest in League One.

This is despite the fact that Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis, Tom Flanagan, Arbenit Xhemajli, Denver Hume and Conor McLaughlin have missed time with injury. In fact, it’s easier to list off the Sunderland defenders (or makeshift defenders) who have stayed healthy during this time.

Lee Johnson’s current back line of (not by?) choice has seen captain Max Power lining up at right back, with Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien in the middle and Callum McFadzean on the left.

Two of those four weren’t even Sunderland players at the beginning of the year, with Sanderson joining on loan from Wolves in October and McFazdean joining on a free from Plymouth Argyle a short time later.

O’Nien hadn’t played at centre back professionally until the jack of all trades was pressed into the middle in October.

Crewe Alexandra v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
O’Nien is looking increasingly comfortable at centre back
Photo by Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yet, despite the injuries, and despite the players playing out of position, somehow, some way... the team improved.

Lee Burge has cemented himself as the starting keeper for the club, earning a league high 16 clean sheets while conceding a league low 0.7 goals per game. And the keeper hasn’t been terrifically busy either, as Sunderland give up 2.91 shots on target per game, the third least in League One behind only Blackpool and Hull City.

With players starting to return from injury, including Flanagan who made a substitute appearance on Tuesday, and Wright and McLaughlin who are back in training, what was previously a selection headache for Lee Johnson becomes one of a better flavour: who comes out, if anyone?

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Is Sanderson now undroppable?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The team has clean sheets in five of their last six games, and messing with that seems like it would be inviting disaster. We’ll get a preview of how it goes on the weekend, as Sanderson is cup-tied and is ineligible to play in the EFL Trophy Final against Tranmere Rovers.

Personally, I don’t want to see the flourishing dynamic duo of Sanderson and O’Nien broken up in the centre of defence until they stumble, so I’d rather see Flanagan out on the left (he’s played there before with Burton Albion) until Hume comes back. Jordan Willis has 47 career starts at right back, but it’s been a few years and he’s out for the season anyway, and Power has been more than adequate in that role.

So what do you think? Should Johnson and the Black Cats keep going with what’s working, or should the veterans slot back in?


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