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Roker Roundtable: With Dan Ballard sidelined, how can Sunderland regain their defensive solidity?

The former Arsenal and Millwall defender has been ruled out with a fractured foot, in a blow to Alex Neil’s plans. We asked our panel how Sunderland might address the issue of his absence

Photo by Will Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Tom Albrighton says...

It’s a tough one to take, as Ballard has looked a level above in his handful of appearances so far, and his injury has come at an important time of the season.

Aji Alese won’t thank himself for his performance, or therein lack of one, against Sheffield Wednesday, because an assured display may well have had allayed some fears about his ability to step up and fill the void left by Ballard.

If we are to trust the recruitment which have had far more successes than failures to their name, one would hope that Alese will make the step up with aplomb and show why West Ham perhaps should have kept him.

If Sunderland are to dip back into the market, however, you would presume it would be for a loan deal, and therefore if we can target a player who can play in both midfield and defence, there is a chance that Sunderland could turn this perceived weakness into a strength by killing two birds with one stone.

Ethan Ampadu, anyone?

Hartlepool v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Michael Driver /MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Kingsley Reavley says...

Losing Ballard is a huge blow.

He is one of the few players with Championship experience, he plays at a level beyond his years, and he has formed a formidable partnership with Danny Batth. Hopefully, his rehabilitation is relatively quick and doesn’t take the projected two to three months.

It’s possibly a risky move, but I would say stick with the existing team and utilise the squad.

If we consider that Luke O’Nien and Dennis Cirkin can both play as centre-backs, then we also have Bailey Wright, Batth, Aji Alese and even Carl Winchester if required. In that sense, we are reasonably well-stocked.

O’Nien has generally played well in central defence, and it might even be considered his best position.

He enjoys the dirty side of the game and wins a lot in the air for a player of his size. Wright had an excellent second half of last season and has experience at this level, whereas Alese has good pedigree and is not a kid anymore, so now could be the perfect time for him.

The fact that we are out of one of the main cups naturally means fewer games, so the squad isn’t going to be stretched as much.

How many experienced Championship level centre backs are readily available that fit within the clubs recruitment strategy? I can’t imagine that there are many.

If we were to sign a young Premier League defender on loan, there would likely be an expectation from his parent club that he would be an automatic selection, which we couldn’t necessarily cater for.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Carabao Cup - First Round - Hillsborough Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

Mark Carrick says...

I’d have hoped the recruitment team were already targeting a centre-half and a right-back.

Clearly, Aji Alese needs time to settle and neither Luke O’Nien nor Carl Winchester are Championship standard centre halves. Therefore, with the loss of Ballard, the need becomes even greater, even if Bailey Wright can step back into the fold.

With the club arguably needing a right-back and defensive midfielder to allow Hume and Matete gain regular playing time via the loan system, Championship-quality defenders are a must if we are to turn our ability to score goals into a run of three points.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Carabao Cup - First Round - Hillsborough Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

Paddy Hayes says…

Removing Ellis Simms’ goals from the equation, Ballard has arguably been not just our standout signing, but our outstanding player thus far.

Defensive instability was a key contributory factor to our four years in League One, especially under last season. Ballard has provided a sturdy and composed foundation alongside Danny Batth, which in turn has allowed our attacking players to flourish.

With Bailey Wright’s questionable injury record, we are a knock away from another defensive injury crisis, and it is far too early in the season to rely on an untried and untested (at this level) Luke O’Nien to deputise competently.

While experimentation is almost a sure-fire way to drop points in this league, I think casting Aji Alese off as simply unprepared for the demands of this level is a little premature.

Given that we have four central defenders on the books, I fully expect us to bring any reinforcements in via the loan market. Do I think we will? Yes, especially if lessons have been learnt from January’s misdealings.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gary Engel says…

This is similar to when Peter Reid was forced to break the bank in order to sign Emerson Thome twenty two years ago.

Back then, we had brought in the huge Stan Varga, who enjoyed a perfect debut against Arsenal but he suffered an injury at Manchester City shortly thereafter in a match that saw Steve Bould also make his final appearance for Sunderland.

The swift and decisive signing of Thome was by far Reidy’s best ‘panic buy’ when forced into a corner.

In the aftermath of Saturday, we now know the extent of Ballard’s unfortunate injury, and Alex Neil and Kristjaan Speakman have their work cut out finding another colossus of a defender required to help plug any gaps in our leaky backline in Ballard’s absence.

Personally, I would be looking for a new version of Jan Kirchhoff, a versatile centre back who can also play in front of the backline. That could come in handy when our full defence is available, and when they require that extra bit of protection in the final part of matches.

Emerson Thome


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