Jordan Pickford’s stunning form on loan at Preston North End has given Sam Allardyce a major headache ahead of the New Year.
Should the Black Cats boss recall the youngster to increase the competition/pressure on No 1 Costel Pantilimon?
Or leave him to enjoy the rest of his loan spell at Deepdale, were the impressive England Under-21 stopper is guaranteed a start?
Pickford, 21, has kept 12 clean sheets for Preston, including a record equaling number of consecutive clean sheets.
Despite being at fault for Birmingham’s opener on Tuesday night, he showed his worth with a superb second-half display to win the plaudits of Preston boss Simon Grayson.
Grayson said: “The lad’s got a bright future wherever he’s going to be. We’re just happy to have him and help with his development.”
Is it time for him to return to the Stadium of Light though?
Sunderland writers Chris Young and Richard Mennear debate the hot topic.
Richard Mennear: Pickford should remain at Preston North End - and return as No 1 in the summer:
Jordan Pickford is a contender for Sunderland’s player of the year. Shame he is on loan at Preston North End!
Or is it? Pickford has been in superb form for the Championship side, who he joined in the summer on a season-long loan.
He has excelled, which has led to weekly plaudits, while he has also attracted attention from Premier League rivals, with several top flight sides scouting him this season.
So why bring him back?
A season on loan, playing regular first team football in a very competitive league will surely benefit him and the Black Cats more – both in the short and long term – than coming back to sit on the Sunderland bench for the rest of this season.
It is unlikely he would be thrown straight into the first team, with Costel Pantilimon in command of the gloves.
Yes, the Romanian has been responsible for a few gaffes this season but he has also kept Sunderland in some games. Victories over Newcastle United and Stoke City spring to mind, immediately.
He remains a very reliable Premier League stopper.
There is no doubt Pickford would push Pantilimon hard, providing more competition than current No 2 Vito Mannone - who is far from happy sitting on the bench every week.
But I believe Pickford – and Sunderland – would be far better off if the highly-rated gloveman stays put at Preston until the summer.
Then come back even better after a full season of first team football and become Sunderland’s No 1 next year.
And England’s too, one day.
Chris Young: Bring Pickford back to boost Pantilimon’s competition:
Costel Pantilimon’s position appeared unassailable at the start of the season after his maiden campaign on Wearside had earned plenty of plaudits.
Pantilimon looked destined to follow in the footsteps of Simon Mignolet in eventually earning a big-money move to one of Europe’s heavyweights.
Yet he’s shown several notable moments of either culpability or indecision in the opening half of this campaign, and perhaps now, he needs greater competition for his starting spot.
For all Vito Mannone produced some stunning heroics in 2013-14, his subsequent performances have indicated a player desperately short on confidence and a possible January exit might be the best thing for the Italian, amidst rumoured interest from Serie A outfit Verona.
Unlike Mannone, Jordan Pickford is bursting with self-belief after catching the eye of a host of Premier League scouts with his performances for Preston and England Under-21s.
Yes, perhaps a relegation battle is an area for experienced heads, yet Pickford has a similar temperament to fellow academy product Jordan Henderson – a boyhood Sunderland fan who has an unwavering focus on his football.
Pickford has shown his shot-stopping capabilities with some stunning saves for Preston, while he would arguably immediately boast the best distribution in the Premier League. It’s that good.
Even if Pickford returns to Sunderland and is only used sparingly in the second half of the season, he will get a first-hand glimpse of how his game will need to develop in the Premier League.
Plus of course, it would give Sunderland the licence to offload Mannone and save a chunk of wages.
Pickford wouldn’t sit back and accept being No 2 though. He has the credentials to be Sunderland’s first-choice stopper and for a long, long time.