How Sunderland’s Luke O'Nien justified his positional change in Ipswich Town win and could solve Lee Johnson’s big dilemma

When the Sunderland team sheet was released at 2pm – there was some confusion as to how the Black Cats would line up.

Sunday, 21st November 2021, 4:00 pm

Dennis Cirkin’s absence from the matchday squad against Ipswich Town – which we later learned was due to a hernia injury that will keep the defender sidelined until January – gave Lee Johnson a serious defensive dilemma.

Initially it looked like Dan Neil would drop back to full-back, a position he has played before but doesn’t yield the best from attributes in possession.

Yet as the warm-up progressed, it became clear Luke O’Nien would instead start on the left of a back four.

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O’Nien’s passion and commitment have been clear ever since his move to Sunderland in 2018, yet his performances in central midfield have been mixed this campaign.

The 27-year-old isn’t as composed on the ball as Neil or Corry Evans, even if he does bring more physicality in the engine room.

O’Nien played in defence for significant spells last term, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise he performed well there against Ipswich.

Not only did he pop up at the back post to head home Sunderland’s opener five minutes from time – O’Nien won all four of his aerial duels according to football database Wyscout – but he also defended admirably.

Luke O'Nien celebrates his goal against Ipswich Town.

With Cirkin set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines, Johnson needs a player he can rely on.

Up against Ipswich forward Sone Aluko, O’Nien was rarely beaten when he was defending one-on-one, while the defender also made four interceptions to stop the ball going into Sunderland’s box.

There were times when the hosts were almost caught out by offensive full-back Janoi Donacien, most notably in the first half when the defender’s low cross picked out Bersant Celina, who forced Sunderland goalkeeper Thorben Hoffmann to make two sharp saves.

That came just after the hosts had changed their shape and Nathan Broadhead had moved to the left flank.

Luke O'Nien's heat map vs Ipswich (

While O’Nien was never likely to make as many forays forward as Cirkin, as shown by the players heatmap, his defensive awareness was important as Sunderland were forced to soak up pressure in the second half.

Then there was the crucial late goal five minutes from time – a just reward after an assured display.

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