In the 2018-19 season we were fortunate to have an international quality left-back in Bryan Oviedo, but were forced to convert Luke O’Nien to fill in on the right – a role that he fulfilled with enthusiasm and commitment.
Denver Hume’s injury record has meant that, since the costly departure of the Costa Rican, we have looked weak and under-resourced defensively on both sides of the pitch.
I don’t fully subscribe to the “round pegs in square holes” analysis of how Ross, Parkinson and Johnson have sought to deal practically with the inability of the club to attract the three or four players we’ve long needed at fullback – many of the attributes of the modern full-back overlap to a significant degree with that of the tenacious central midfielder.
Both roles require defensive and attacking capabilities; both involve much covering for colleagues and the propensity to pop up with a goal or five a season, and this explains why O’Nien, Max Power, Carl Winchester and latterly Dan Neil have been deployed there in a four-man defence, as well as Lynden Gooch and Jack Diamond’s cameos as wing-backs in a 3-5-2.
These players are capable of “doing a job”, as the cliche goes, and we shouldn’t deny the importance of having flexible, all-rounders but players in this mould are always a compromise.
Nevertheless, that shouldn’t discount the costs of these compromises – we’ve been missing out on Luke O’Nien’s energy in the centre of the park for almost the entirety of his first contract at the club, for a start.
He has been caught out on occasions, costing us a few points along the way but probably gaining us a good few more through his flexibility and commitment.
Callum McFadzean was another compromise – a wing-back of lower-league quality brought in during the takeover as Hume’s recovery faltered and our options began to run out. The insight that a team is only as good as its weakest player is, I have concluded, why we’ve ultimately failed to gain promotion back to the Championship in our last three attempts.
This season was meant to be different and, until Cirkin’s arrival, many supporters have rightly feared that covering at left-back would blunt Neil’s creative talents (although it is much to his credit that he’s still managed to demonstrate his vision and beautiful weight of pass from there).
Anxiety over our lack of “natural” options at full-back is entirely…err.. natural. In the modern, possession-based game, those playing on either side of a back four or five arguably play the most important roles on the football pitch. This makes intuitive sense to many observers, but let’s consider precisely why are fullbacks are so vital, and hence why the signing of Cirkin should be considered as the marquee acquisition of the summer so far.
In Johnson’s football philosophy, which owes much to the influence of the twenty-first-century version of total football pioneered by Pep Guardiola and the high-fitness, high-intensity pressing game of Marcello Bielsa, the full-back is the key position. And it’s not all about bombing on, overlapping and getting the ball into the mixer (although this is obviously important in any system, particularly in English football).
If we’re playing out from the back against teams that are willing to sit deep and play for a point, the ball is generally distributed out to either flank, and the man there has the space and time to dictate the play, initiate forward movements, and create overloads on the wings that the likes of Gooch and McGeady thrive upon.
This requires vision, confidence and quality of mid-range passing; the decision-making abilities that allow the forwards ahead of them to receive the ball to feet with the space needed to run at defences and create high-quality chances in those positions of maximum opportunity either side of the penalty spot.
A full-back’s counterpart on the opposite side then becomes vital when the ball is recycled backward or as play is switched to the vacant space as the opponent shuts down the initial advance.
On offensive set pieces, they’re the intelligent and pacey last-man-back whose ability to anticipate danger, react, ensure counter-attacks are neutralised, and get the ball back into dangerous areas when our centre-backs are in advanced positions, can be the difference between winning and losing.
If we want to maintain this philosophy and avoid lumping it down the channels when we are pressed high up the park – what Johnson has referred to as players “reverting to type” – then the technical ability, touch, short-passing speed of thought and action of the full-backs become the central attributes needed to avoid being caught in possession.
From Brandon Feeley’s fantastic tactical analysis of the Wigan game, we’ve learned how our central defenders and midfielders are not passing between themselves – they’re distributing the ball wide in order to create those fabled triangles and the space for balls between the lines in order to advance us up the field of play. We also see the difference between an inexperienced player doing a job - Dan Neil - and a wiser head who grew up at right-back - Carl Winchester - in their respective pass success stats.
Everything we’ve seen and heard about Dennis Cirkin suggests his signing is motivated by these particular requirements and the need to ensure we have the right players performing at full-back for the long-term.
By waiting patiently to secure the services of an England youth player who was tipped for a rapid ascent to the very top of the game not 12 months ago, Johnson, Speakman and the recruitment team are laying down a marker of their determination to implement good football and raise the level of players available throughout the squad.
With a three-year deal signed, it’s absolutely clear that the ex-Tottenham man will be at the forefront of the revolution in how Sunderland play football, whether teams choose to match our high press or hope to break on us from deep. Now we just need to sort out the recruitment of someone of equal pedigree at right-back.