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Is the ‘old fashioned’ centre back at Sunderland a thing of the past?

Old school ‘kick it and head it’ type central defenders are becoming a thing of the past - so, have Sunderland left that type of player behind for good?

Photo by Stephen White - CameraSport via Getty Images


The role of the centre back has taken on new meaning in the modern game. The days of the big brutes who were there to simply get the ball clear, no matter what, are all but gone.

Instead, players who can play the ball out to the midfielders are seen as just as or even more important depending on the style a manager wishes to play.

Sunderland are at this point too, and the debate over central defensive positions began hotting up back in the summer when it became clear Danny Batth was on his way out.

Now, I was a big fan of Batth. He held the side together in both League One and during our step up to the Championship, but his position in the starting eleven looked under doubt months ago.

When he did leave, there were more than a few eyebrows raised especially given he was our player of the year last season. A solid and reliable defender, Batth was clearly seen as someone who would not be used in the next phase of developing the club.

The decision to let him go looked to make further sense when he went weeks without barely getting a kick for a poor Norwich City side.

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

Back on Wearside, our central defensive pairing has been pretty much set other than our last outing against Birmingham. Dan Ballard is seen as the main defensive man, and he blends together the old and the new when it comes to being a centre half. He has the strength and height of the ‘classic centre back’ but has developed a good ability to carry the ball out and get us on the front foot.

His defensive partner, Luke O’Nien, is a makeshift centre back no more. Tony Mowbray obviously likes what Luke brings to the position, but it will be interesting to see if this changes when Alese, Triantis and Seelt are all up to speed. Luke is one of the best ball carriers in our side, but it's no secret he can cause us all stress when in his own penalty area.

There’s nothing wrong with his footballing ability, but the penalty he gave away at Swansea is one which you feel has been coming for a while. You can’t hold onto players in the box like that in the modern game and expect to keep getting away with it, especially with the standard of refereeing in this division.

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

That aside, I think O’Nien and Ballard make a good defensive pair.

They are about as far away from the ‘typical centre halves’ we’ve ever been in terms of being good ball playing defenders but so far, it’s working well.

I get the calls to have two of your more stereotypical centre backs in that position but the truth is the game has moved forward, and Sunderland are not being left behind.

The most important advancement on this season from last in the centre back department is that we have depth.

We were down to our bare bones at points last year, but with Triantis and Seelt finding their feet, Ballard and O’Nien coming along well, Alese nearing a return and full backs who can play in the centre, we’re looking good for the remainder of the season.

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