How Daniel Ballard could fit in at Sunderland after Arsenal switch and what he will offer Alex Neil's side

The arrival of defender Daniel Ballard at Sunderland appears to tick a lot of boxes.

Sunday, 3rd July 2022, 8:20 am

As head coach Alex Neil put it, the 22-year-old centre-back, who has also been capped 10 times by Northern Ireland, is a ‘young, up and coming player who also has Championship experience.’

The move aligns nicely with the club’s recruitment policy over the last 12 months, and should, at the very least, give Sunderland some much-needed defensive cover.

Ballard has left Premier League side Arsenal to sign a three-year contract on Wearside, with a club option of a further year, while he made 31 Championship appearances on loan at Millwall last season.

Daniel Ballard playing for Millwall.

So where will he fit in?

Bailey Wright and Danny Batth formed a robust centre-back partnership at the end of last season, as Neil reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation for Sunderland’s League One play-off fixtures – the system he predominately used at former clubs Norwich and Preston.

Neil also set his side up to play with a back three and wing-backs a few weeks after arriving at the Stadium of Light in February.

While some players were playing out of their natural positions, it was a formula which worked as Sunderland went on a 16-match unbeaten run to win promotion.

Daniel Ballard's heatmap during his 31 Championship appearances for Millwall during the 2021/22 season.

A back three would suit Ballard, who regularly played as a right-sided centre-back for Millwall in a similar system.

That allowed the defender to step out of defence and be progressive with his passing, as shown by the player’s heatmap (figure one) from last season.

He also operated on the right of a back four, which may allow Sunderland to change formations within games.

Ballard will certainly add more mobility in the Black Cats’ backline, which will be beneficial in both offensive and defensive phases.

Daniel Ballard playing for Millwall. (Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images)

According to Wyscout, Ballard averaged 1.33 progressive runs per 90 minutes in the league last season, compared to Wright (0.17) and Batth (0.57)

The 22-year-old also averaged 8.18 passes into the final third, with 54.3% accuracy, during the last campaign, which was more than both Batth (5, with 49.2% accuracy) and Wright (7.07, with 54% accuracy).

Interestingly, though, Wright did average more forward passes in total (25.02 per 90 minutes, with 71.8% accuracy) compared to Ballard’s (20.01 per 90 minutes with 68.9% accuracy).

While the Australian may look a little ungainly in possession at times, his ability in possession is perhaps underrated.

Despite Ballard’s arrival, Sunderland remain short of a left-footed centre-back, yet their new arrival has operated as a left-sided centre-back while on loan at Blackpool two seasons ago.

Wright and Batth also took on the same role at Sunderland last term, so it seems plausible one of them could be paired with Ballard.

Yet while the latter has been described as a ‘a tough-tackling defender’, he may still need a more physical and experienced figure alongside him.

Despite being 6 ft 2, Ballard won just 57.5% of his aerial duels in the league last season, compared to Wright (66.5%) and Batth (66.3%) – albeit both were playing at a lower level.

Wright (76.4%) and Batth (78.6%) also won more of their overall defensive duels than Ballard (66.8%).

Still, Sunderland’s new signing appears to be a shrewd piece of business, with the Black Cats looking to step up to the Championship while also building for the future.