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Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light

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Sunderland have had many talented full backs over the years - and that’s the case in 2023!

With Aji Alese and Dennis Cirkin potentially vying for a starting role, it offers us two exciting and slightly different options. As Joseph Tulip writes, it also gives Tony Mowbray a positive selection dilemma

Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

The subject of left backs is something that will whet the appetite of Sunderland fans right across the age spectrum.

The modern era has seen almost one cultured left-sided full-back after another play in the red and white stripes, from Martin Scott, Michael Gray and Julio Arca to Danny Rose, Marcos Alonso and Patrick Van Aanholt – with notable contributions from the likes of George McCartney, Danny Collins and Denver Hume.

Going back even further, the likes of Len Ashurst, Joe Bolton, Arthur Hudgell, Martin Harvey and Ron Guthrie will always be held in high esteem.

In 2023, we’re blessed with two highly promising players in Dennis Cirkin and Aji Alese, but are they competing for the same position or are they part of a bigger picture of versatility and squad rotation at the Stadium of Light?

It says a lot about both players that the term ‘left back’ doesn’t really do them justice, and the same applies for many of those mentioned above.

Cirkin and Alese can both operate as conventional full-backs, as wing-backs, on the left side of a back three, and if needed, as conventional centre backs.

Alese showed us another strength on Saturday when he was deployed by Tony Mowbray as a left-sided striker as we sought to overcome a stubborn Reading side.

It was an unexpected move but one that succeeded in adding some much-needed height and physical presence.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Initially, it seemed as though the former West Ham player was the more defensive of the pair.

He started the season on the sidelines and was introduced when Cirkin suffered an injury early in the campaign, before being used predominantly at left back and on the left side of a back three as we experimented with formations as part of our settling-in process.

Since then, the pair have dovetailed with each other.

Both Cirkin and Alese have endured time out with injury but fortunately, generally not at the same time, which has enabled them to provide quality cover for each other.

Alese began to show his attacking credentials with a fine assist for Jack Clarke in the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Fulham, bursting forward on the overlap to provide a killer pass, following a fine move involving Alex Pritchard.

It’s great to have Alese fit and making his mark, and it’s also very pleasing to have Cirkin available after his brave-headed goal against Millwall was met with a sharp blow to the head.

Millwall v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Den Photo by Ben Whitley/PA Images via Getty Images

The former Tottenham player initially joined the club to compete with the homegrown Denver Hume, but he won that battle despite Hume’s attacking credentials, which most fans enjoyed and appreciated.

Cirkin always seemed a better fit defensively, but he’s also demonstrated his own ability to get forward with a couple of goals and an assist to his name this season.

In truth, both players have come from Premier League clubs.

They’re young at twenty and twenty one respectively and their development is aligned with the club’s ambition to make a return to the top flight.

Personally, I don’t see Cirkin and Alese as rivals for the same position. Both can play in different areas and bring quality, while also covering for each other when required.

Let’s enjoy the latest incumbents as they make their own history in red and white, just like so many others have done before them.


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