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Where does a fully-fit Dan Ballard slot into Sunderland’s defence?

With Luke O’Nien and Danny Batth having formed a reliable partnership at the back, we asked our writers whether Ballard comes straight back into the team when he’s match ready

Photo by Will Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Matthew Crichton says…

Initially I expected Ballard to slot straight in, given how well he started on Wearside. However, I think Tony Mowbray has to tell him that he’s got to earn his place in the side.

In my opinion, the Northern Irishman has a huge future at Sunderland, but right now it’s simply impossible to change our central defensive pairing.

Danny Batth has been Sunderland’s player of the season so far and is arguably our most consistent centre back since Lamine Kone’s brilliant spell under Sam Allardyce.

Then you have ‘Mr Versatile’: the man who fills in fantastically when Sunderland need cover.

On Saturday, Luke O’Nien was tremendous against an aerially tough and physical Millwall team. He won his first contacts, was strong in the tackle and he just looked so comfortable.

What also placed O’Nien ahead of Bailey Wright is his ability to distribute the ball at speed. He’s excellent at stepping in and playing progressive ground passes, something which the likes of Batth and Wright struggle with.

Eventually, I do believe Ballard will return to the starting XI, but it must be earned.

His competitors are currently doing an excellent job, and I think that sets a fantastic example to the squad that if you break into the side and play well, you’ll keep your place.

Sunderland v Burnley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Andrew Smithson says…

Dan Ballard looks to be a quality player and I’ll be over the moon to have him available, but I don’t think there’s a desperate need for him to come straight back into the starting XI- unless one of those ahead of him has a problem.

Changing a defensive unit unless it’s absolutely necessary is always a big risk, and I don’t think either Luke O’Nien or Danny Batth deserves to be dropped.

They’ve both been in unreal form of late and were outstanding against a very physical Millwall side, but it’s not just them you have to consider.

Whoever plays in central defence needs to forge understandings with their full-backs and goalkeeper, and chopping and changing can complicate the process. Three of the lads who started on Saturday had missed the previous match and did well to get through the game, but that won’t always happen if teammates are unfamiliar or have to second-guess in an instant.

You also have to consider whether Ballard is match ready. Throwing him in from the start in such a crucial part of the pitch will be a tough ask, and although I’ve got plenty of faith in him, it’s not as if we’re desperate.

As with a lot of returning players this season, we can afford to take it easy and bed them in slowly, especially as the performances of others in their absence have been good.

From what we’ve seen, Ballard could become a key man for Sunderland in the next couple of seasons. It was a shame that he got injured when he did, but his time will come.

Sunderland v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Will Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says…

Although O’Nien has done extremely well to cover for half of the positions on the pitch, including a run at centre back, my view is that Ballard walks straight back in as soon as he’s ready.

He’s one of the best defenders in this division; we are incredibly lucky to have him, and also incredibly unlucky to have lost him to injury for so long. Once he is fit to start he should, and I think he will.

He may only play for sixty minutes initially and gradually build up to more, but the difference in defensive output between Ballard and pretty much anyone in the Championship is huge. That’s not meant disrespectfully to O’Nien or anyone else- it’s just a fact.

I fully expect Ballard to resume his service alongside another of the best defenders in this league in Danny Batth and once he does, we’re going to be very hard to beat, and a lot of our set piece worries will be a lesser concern.

O’Nien and others have a lot of qualities that will come in handy in other positions, and having him as a utility option is a massive asset, but I say let’s get ‘Double Dan’ out there as soon as we’re able to, as I think the improvements at the back will be significant.

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