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Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship

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Sunderland have some interesting defensive questions ahead of Saturday

The suspensions of Dan Ballard and Luke O’Nien will open the door for others for the visit of Birmingham City, and how we adapt will be interesting.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Luke O’Nien went full-on WWE on Saturday afternoon, grappling with Swansea City’s Liam Cullen in the penalty area and conceding an avoidable and frankly infuriating spot kick, it was one of those ‘oh no’ moments that you always fear when a game is tight and a key decision could potentially swing it one way or the other.

Of course, it could’ve happened to any defender during any game, anywhere in the country, but the fact that it was O’Nien and it came at what could’ve been a pivotal moment meant that the spotlight was even more intense than usual.

Swansea City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Fortunately, it didn’t cost us on this occasion but the skipper had his goalkeeper to thank for that, as Anthony Patterson burnished his already impressive record when facing penalties and denied Jamal Lowe what could’ve been a key goal.

That moment was an unnecessary blot on an otherwise solid enough afternoon for O’Nien, but along with Dan Ballard, the encounter with Swansea was their last action in red and white for at least one game.

Yellow cards for both players have ruled them out of this weekend’s clash with Birmingham City, and Ballard’s absence in particular is likely to be felt most acutely, so key has he been for us this season. The former Arsenal prodigy has been a rock at the back for much of the campaign, with his skill on the ball and defensive nous coming to the fore on multiple occasions.

Yes, the ongoing argument about O’Nien ‘not being a central defender’ isn’t going away anytime soon, but we’ve had plenty of defensive liabilities at this club over the years- even in fairly recent times during our spell in League One- and he’s not one of them.

Unless you’re already in the ‘I don’t like O’Nien and I never will’ camp, he’s objectively no more mistake-prone or shaky at the back than countless other defenders throughout the league, but perhaps he can use this enforced break as a chance to recharge his batteries after a heavy recent schedule.

So, as we turn to the visit of Wayne Rooney’s Blues and the threat of (among others) the lively Jay Stansfield, Tony Mowbray faces something of a dilemma as he attempts to reshuffle our backline without losing too much cohesion. We’ll also be on the lookout for a stand-in skipper, and in my view, that person should be none other than Dan Neil- and what a story that would be.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jenson Seelt is almost certain to feature but whether that’ll be as part of a back four or a back three (the latter of which I’d personally prefer, not least to afford the young Dutchman more protection, possibly with Dennis Cirkin and Trai Hume either side of him) is sure to be interesting.

Seelt is still new to English football and hasn’t featured a great deal in the league, but at some stage, we’ll need to see what he can offer and this feels like as good a time as any. As Mowbray is fond of saying, absences open the door for others, and this could be a big chance for the summer signing to prove his worth.

Yes, a system featuring wing backs isn’t something we’ve seen all too often recently, but it might be a case of needs must, unless Mowbray sticks with a back four and opts to pair Seelt up with the equally unproven Nectar Triantis, which would surely be a gamble too far.

Another point of contention in the wake of this double suspension is whether we should've allowed Danny Batth to leave during the summer.

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

Without going too much over old ground, the fact that Batth, as brilliant as he was for us, can’t get into Norwich City’s starting eleven ahead of Shane Duffy, who had a nightmare against the Lads recently and wasn’t much better against Blackburn on Sunday, is telling.

Yes, his experience was a key asset, but it feels as though the club thought that Batth had lost something during the summer, and with defenders who are comfortable on the ball very much the order of the day, they went all-in on the Ballard/O’Nien partnership, and by and large, it’s worked quite well.

Defensive reshuffles are often a byword for anxiety and nerves ahead of a game, but in this case, I really do believe we have the personnel and the quality to cope.

There’ll be further obstacles of this nature as the season unfolds and suspensions and injuries occur and subside, but it’s up to the lads who are chosen to prove that they’re not just here to make up the numbers, and that they’re genuinely capable of competing and hopefully thriving at Championship level.


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