Luke O’Nien and Dan Ballard have started every game they’ve been available for this season at the heart of the Sunderland backline.
Before Birmingham at home, where both missed out through suspension, Jenson Seelt had the most minutes of any other centre half - 5 against Sheff Wed, and 60 out of position against a rampant Middlesbrough. Nectar Triantis hadn’t seen a senior pitch, while Aji Alese remains unavailable following a bad injury last season.
This paints a fairly clear picture - Mowbray knows his first choice pair, and is loath to tinker with an established and successful partnership. However, Triantis and Seelt started together against Birmingham, and though they had shaky moments, we won the game 3-1 and Triantis played a big role in Dion Sanderson’s own goal, showing commendable willingness to go in where it hurts.
Not to mention the fact that both arrived for money this summer, Seelt from a Champions League club in PSV and Triantis after making the A-League Team of the Season in Australia. They aren’t here to warm the bench indefinitely.
Then you have to factor in Alese, who impressed last season following his move from West Ham. While he deputised for the oft-sidelined Dennis Cirkin at left back in many of his appearances, Alese is known as a central defender by trade, and most certainly possesses the physical stature and power usually desired in that position.
With Niall Huggins flourishing at left back this season, it looks increasingly like Alese could be considered one of five centre backs now in the senior squad, and one who, again, won’t be eager to watch from the bench.
So, five players desperate to play football, all competing for two spots which, until just now, have been locked down by O’Nien and Ballard. How does Tony Mowbray keep everybody happy, and what’s the plan past this season? Let’s look at some of the key considerations.
Keep it quiet in case the big boys are listening, but Dan Ballard is a Premier League footballer in waiting. He’s an absolute Rolls-Royce of a defender - so composed and assured with and without the ball, dominant in the air, and generally two or three steps ahead of nearly any forward in this division at all times.
The reasons Mowbray picks him every game are obvious to anyone with eyes, and equally obvious is that he will start every game this season while fit.
However, what can’t be guaranteed is that nobody else will take notice of what a talent he is. While it makes perfect sense that one half of the centre back partnership will read ‘Ballard’ for the foreseeable future, I fear the worst if we don’t get promoted this season.
He signed a new multi-year deal recently, of course, but in modern football that just adds a few million onto his transfer fee if, say, a Brentford or West Ham wave some cash in our direction come July.
If and when he eventually moves on, there’ll be a sizable hole to fill. I don’t believe Mowbray should be picking anyone in his place in preparation for that, but certainly we need the others to have plenty of football under their belts, should the time come.
Luke O’Nien, jack of all trades
O’Nien has played in virtually every position since signing for Sunderland, so it’s easy to forget he joined as a dynamic box-to-box midfielder all those years ago!
I don’t think anybody would argue the position changes have harmed him - in fact, he’s looked at home basically anywhere - but he seems to have found his niche in the current system.
His first touch and passing abilities, which have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, allow him to comfortably step out of defence with the ball and occupy midfield space in the press, a versatility with which ‘natural’ centre backs aren’t often blessed.
With that in mind, I wonder if now might be the time to start pushing O’Nien forward, back into his original position in midfield. He has shown this season that he’s technically capable of operating in that area at this level, something plenty - myself included - would have doubted this time last year.
When one, or both, of Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah don’t play, we look noticeably weaker as a unit, most ruthlessly exposed against Middlesbrough when - though down a man - we had literally no other option to use when Neil left the field.
If Luke becomes another option in there, I feel he’s got the nous to be able to marshal the defence in tough periods, and crucially give Mowbray the chance to rest and rotate Neil and Ekwah more than he can right now (which is, not at all).
Are Triantis & Seelt ready?
This is something asked all the time, of nearly every new signing, at every club in the world. Is he ready yet? I have a simple outlook on it: play him! How else will he adapt?
Now, that’s obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I do think you can be over-cautious when trying to integrate new signings. Central defence is a tough role to come into as a young, inexperienced player, no doubt, but the club must have seen something in both Triantis and Seelt or they wouldn’t have been signed. Triantis made 25 appearances in Australia’s top-flight last season. Are we really going to argue he needs more U-21 Premier League games under his belt before he’s ready for senior football here?
Both men have now proven they can cope with a Championship game start-to-finish, which is a major plus for both them and for Tony Mowbray, who now has more players proving their worth in the squad.
Competition for places is a good thing, so while I don’t expect that partnership to last beyond Birmingham, I do think it’s a positive that we’ve shown we can cope without the established pair.
As I alluded to above, Ballard won’t necessarily be here forever, and the only way we’ll groom one (or both) of these two into a capable successor is by playing them.
They have to be the future - or why are they here?
Aji Alese - full back or centre back?
This one is very interesting. Alese played very well at left back last season, it has to be said.
But Dennis Cirkin is the undisputed #1 when fit, and with Trai Hume and Timothée Pembélé competing on the other side, Niall Huggins has been promoted to understudy left back.
This leaves Alese slightly in limbo - he’s competing with two players for one spot if he wants to operate at full back.
On the other hand, should either O’Nien shift forward or Triantis drop down to the U-21s again, he’s suddenly able to compete with three other players for two spots, if we consider him to be a centre back.
Standing at 6’4”, he’d bring plenty of height which we lack at times in our squad, he’s pretty quick - especially for a centre back - and he shares the calmness on the ball that Mowbray so clearly looks for in his defenders.
Between Alese, Triantis and Seelt, I think we have plenty of cover for the centre back position in the squad, and I suspect as the season progresses we’ll see one or two of them given a few chances to stake their claim to partner Dan Ballard - he’s not getting dislodged til he leaves or gets injured.
From next season, I’d imagine we’ll see Luke O’Nien gradually start fewer games there, if it hasn’t already happened by then, as after a year here, I would suspect Jenson Seelt and Nectar Triantis will be demanding football, rather than asking politely.