Last season, central defence was one of several areas in which Sunderland had little luck in terms of injuries.
We started the campaign with Danny Batth and Dan Ballard as our first choice pairing, but they would only play three matches together before Ballard suffered an injury which would see him sidelined until December.
He returned to action off the bench to replace- you guessed it- an injured Batth in the 1-1 draw at Hull City, and having them unavailable for large parts of the season was one of many frustrations.
The position was plagued by injuries during 2022/2023, and we eventually finished with Trai Hume and Luke O’Nien as the square pegs in round holes.
This was in spite of having Joe Anderson, who wasn’t deemed good enough to be handed a chance in the Championship run-in, and also the absence of Aji Alese, meaning the defence which went to Luton Town for the playoff semi-final second leg was about as patched up as it could get.
The first week of 2023/2024 has seen some of the problems of last year still haunting us, albeit with further additions to the squad.
Jensen Seelt has arrived from one of Europe’s best academy sides but remains sidelined following an injury suffered in pre-season, and Alese still occupies a spot in the treatment room.
We do look much stronger in the middle of our defence in terms of depth, but due to these restrictions, I don’t believe Tony Mowbray has had the chance to name his strongest backline.
O’Nien is a great professional but for me, central defence is not where he should be playing, and the question of who should be alongside Ballard rests seemingly on who Mowbray thinks is capable, as well as the situation with Batth.
In my opinion, our strongest defence when everyone is fit would be made up of Dennis Cirkin at left back, Ballard paired with Batth or potentially Aji Alese in the middle, and Trai Hume at right back,
Alese’s place moving forward could and should be in the middle and if Batth continues to be sidelined or moves on during this window, the ex-West Ham man should be in contention to nail down a first team spot.
We currently have Batth, Ballard, Seelt, Alese, Nectar Triantis, O’Nien and possibly Cirkin who would play as part of a duo or trio of centre backs.
When they’re all fit and available, choosing two or even three (if we were ever to switch to a wing back system) would be an extremely difficult decision for any manager to make.
We’re a matter of weeks away from having such depth in a position in which we struggled last season, and building a strong backline will do us the world of good after our frustrating start to the campaign.