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Have Sunderland found another gem in Aji Alese?

“I know it’s very early days, but I’m struggling to see any faults in his all-round game,” writes Mark Wood, who is a massive fan of young Sunderland defender Aji Alese!

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

It has been a pleasant surprise to see how well some of our summer recruits have adapted to life in the Championship this season.

The likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts showed glimpses of what they were capable of towards the end of last season as we finally climbed out of League One.

Those two have kicked on this season, with Roberts signed up on an extension of his contract and Clarke joining the ranks full time, but while they get the headlines it has been another summer recruit who caught my eye - and in my opinion, could be the signing of the season, and certainly the buy of the season at a reported £500,000.

Step forward, Aji Alese.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Although he featured in the flat team performance in the League Cup defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, he first caught the eye when he played from the start against Reading.

Early in the game when facing a Reading attack I noticed how close he got to his man when they were running with the ball. Then, in another attack a few minutes later he got a winning tackle in without diving in with his feet and calmly strolled away with the ball before coolly playing a short pass to a team-mate.

Well-timed interceptions and playing a short pass to the midfield have been a feature of his game ever since he came into the team, and he looks every inch the classy ball playing centre back that any team that likes to play from the back needs.

In many ways he reminds me of Dion Sanderson, who Sunderland had on a season long loan from Wolves in the 2020-21 season.

Dion if you remember didn’t really come into the team until January, and while his defensive colleagues dropped out one by one due to injury as the season wore on, Dion stepped up and became the leader at the back.

Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The man making the last man vital interceptions and tackles, while not least helping guide his central defensive stand-in partner - Luke O’Nien - through every game.

While the similarities between the two are evident, you can argue that Aji is the better of the two... although we would be arguing about who is the better of two very good players.

Aji is tall and strong, has rarely been beaten in the air, has pace and tackles well. He has excellent positional awareness and reads the game well enabling him to have that knack of being in the right place at the right time. Everything you would want from a central defensive partnership, never mind one player.

He has only started six games for Sunderland but has looked as good if not better than any Sunderland player on the pitch in at least half of them.

I know it’s very early days, but I’m struggling to see any faults in his all-round game.

You look at him and feel like we may have a real player on our hands, someone who would be quite comfortable in the Premier League - hopefully with Sunderland. West Ham fans according to reports, were gutted to see him go when he joined us in the summer and since he came into the first team you can see why they were so reluctant to lose him.

I winced when I saw the close ups of the challenge he was on the receiving end of at Blackburn, which came in just as he was trying to put his foot through the ball - and the reports are that he will not be back until after the World Cup.

When he does, we can look forward to having one of the best young centre backs in the Championship back in our ranks. And when Dan Ballard comes back, we could have two...

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