Lee Johnson makes honest admission as he discusses Luke O'Nien's long-term Sunderland position
Lee Johnson admits he is 'back to square one' in identifying what Luke O'Nien's best position in the long term will be.
The Sunderland head coach says that is a positive for the club, though, and will allow him to manage a smaller squad moving forward.
O'Nien's return to a midfield role came at the start of Sunderland's unbeaten run in a 3-1 win over Doncaster Rovers, following a long run at wing-back under Phil Parkinson.
Injuries forced the popular 26-year-old back into the centre of defence and alongside Wolves loanee Dion Sanderson, he has produced a string of superb performances.
O'Nien's form saw him nominated for the League One player of the month award, which was subsequently handed to Gillingham striker Vadaine Oliver.
With Bailey Wright set to return from injury next week, Johnson has a difficult decision looming.
The head coach says the versatility of O'Nien and Lynden Gooch will be crucial moving forward.
"It's a really difficult question and I feel like I'm back to square one if I'm honest," Johnson said.
"I just like him, to be honest. He's a good lad, honest as the day is long, mad as a box of frogs but in a nice way.He causes us a load of problems but in the best way possible because he never wants to come off the training ground and we're trying to get him to rest up. I'd much rather that than the other way round.
"It's the energy, commitment and that all-action style that makes him a valid option for any of those positions really, whether it be right-back, central midfield or left sided centre-half.
"It's important to have players like him and Goochy in your squad, who can move around and don't grumble, it's a real positive because moving forward it might allow you to reduce your squad by one.
"That's what you want because it can help build that tight-knit squad where everyone feels very close to the first team."
O'Nien's energy and eye for goal have long meant that many see his future further up the pitch.
That win over Doncaster Rovers offered ample evidence for that argument, but his composure in possession has also been a key part of Sunderland's strong defensive record of late.
Johnson says there are areas for improvement in his defensive game but highlighted the extra work that has already produced results for his team.
"He's certainly committed aerially," Johnson said.
"At times his enthusiasm can cause us a problem, there were a couple of times Peterborough got in behind us as he came out of his slot but that's something we can coach.
"In a three, from that left side he's comfortable with both feet. He hit a couple of worldie diagonals with his left foot in that Oxford game and that's the chicken and the egg really, that's the bit he works on in his extra training when I'm trying to send him in."
Wright is set to make his comeback in an U23 game on Monday, potentially bringing him into contention for the trip to Blackpool next weekend.