How ex-West Ham and Tottenham men have given Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray a welcome defensive dilemma

While Sunderland’s lack of natural strikers was always going to require tactical adjustments and positional changes – there were some scenarios that few will have expected.

The sight of defender Aji Alese being the Black Cats’ most advanced player probably fell into that category, yet there were multiple occasions when that was the case during Saturday's goalless draw with Preston.

Following an injury to Dennis Cirkin, Alese has started three consecutive Championship games on the left of defence and visibly grown in confidence with more first-team exposure.

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While the 21-year-old predominantly played as a centre-back when he came through the ranks at West Ham, he has been deployed as an attacking full-back in Sunderland’s last two fixtures, performing well in draws against Preston and Watford.

Aji Alese vs Preston

A look at Alese’s heatmap (Figure one) shows how often he advanced over the halfway line against Preston, while he also made six successful progressive runs in possession (according to Wyscout).

There were also times when Alese followed his forward pass or ran beyond winger Jack Clarke to find himself in the opposition’s penalty area. His side-footed cross on the half-hour mark was just out of reach for Elliot Embleton.

Understandably, Alese did occasionally lack a bit of composure in the final third. A scuffed shot in the second half perhaps highlighted a lack of familiarity at the top end of the pitch.

Still, the defender’s use of the ball was generally astute, as Alese completed 21 out of his 24 forward passes, and seven out of eight into the final third.

Figure One: Aji Alese's heatmap vs Preston.

And what about the defensive side of his game?

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Clearly Sunderland will come up against tougher attacking opponents than a Preston side which have scored just three goals in 11 league games this season, while Sunderland recorded 62 per cent of possession.

Still, Alese made seven clearances to help keep the visitors at bay, including one acrobatic goal-line intervention from a North End corner.

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Figure Two: Aji Alese crosses the ball for Elliot Embleton.
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The former West Ham man has also demonstrated pace and strength when defending one-on-one situations in his last three appearances.

Aleses’s performances will certainly present an interesting decision for head coach Tony Mowbray when Cirkin is available again, after the former Tottenham man returned to training this week following a hamstring issue.

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It’s certainly a dilemma that should be welcomed.