STEVE Bruce believes the first piece of the jigsaw has finally slotted into place this season.
The Sunderland boss believes he has found his first-choice defence, which now has the consistently solid look about it that he set out to create in the close season.
The Black Cats bolstered their rearguard over the summer with Manchester United duo Wes Brown and John O’Shea bought for a combined fee of £6m and Republic of Ireland international keeper Keiren Westwood joining on a Bosman free transfer.
Those three, along with fit-again Michael Turner, consistent performer Kieran Richardson and last season’s player of the year Phil Bardsley, have all played important roles, despite injuries and suspensions forcing Bruce into chopping and changing his back line in the first dozen games of the campaign.
Bruce has used SEVEN different combinations so far but Sunderland still went into this afternoon’s game against Wigan with one of the best defensive records in the top flight.
And the manager himself feels that the defence is really beginning to take shape.
Sunderland’s clean sheet against Fulham last weekend was their fourth of the season, with only the Cottagers, Swansea and Manchester United racking up more shut-outs, and only Newcastle, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United have conceded fewer than the Black Cats’ tally of 13 goals so far.
And, with the season a third of the way through, on current form they are on course for a much better defensive record than last term, when they conceded an eyewatering 57 goals.
Bruce told the Echo: “Defensively, we needed to improve on last season. And I think that, with the addition of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, we have done that.
“Keiren has also been excellent after being pressed into action following the injury to Simon Mignolet. Defensively, we have looked very, very decent this season.
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“The back four virtually picks itself now. I like the look of us defensively – we’re big, strong and brave.”
Brown has played every game this season and, after effective centre-back pairings with Anton Ferdinand and Titus Bramble, has looked comfortable partnering Turner in the last six games since the latter returned from a knee injury.
O’Shea has been used at right-back, although he can play anywhere across the back line and is only now beginning to settle into the side after recovering from a hamstring injury he picked up on the club’s pre-season tour of Germany.
Richardson has been solid at left-back and good going forward but Bardsley has shown in the role with the competitiveness of his tackling and closing down.
Bruce said: “Wes has been absolutely terrific and Turner is also just getting back to where we expect him to be after a long time out through injury.
“John is also improving after a difficult start, which all stemmed from him picking up an injury in pre-season.
“As for Kieran and Phil, it has been a really tough decision to decide who to play at left-back. Phil has had a couple of suspensions, so Kieran had the chance to impress and has played the majority of games there.
“But the good thing about Phil is his versatility and reliability. I know I can call on him to play at right-back or left-back if there are injuries or if I want to change the team, and he will give his all for the cause.
“It’s good that things have come together for us defensively and I want to see us produce a consistency now throughout the season in that department.
“Now we look to work on other areas of the team, but again we have that feeling that things are slowly coming together.”