Lee Johnson on why Dion Sanderson's long-term future lies at the heart of defence
Lee Johnson says Dion Sanderson's fine form shows his long-future is as a centre-half.
Sanderson has thrived in the Sunderland side of late after initially struggling for game time following his arrival on Wearside.
The Wolves loanee made a strong impression playing as a right-back at Cardiff City last year but Johnson has always said since his arrival that while the 21-year-old's versatility is an asset, his best football will be played at the heart of defence.
Sanderson's excellent form in that position during a strong run for the Black Cats has underlined that.
"He's a centre-half and at his age level he is an absolute Rolls-Royce," Johnson said.
"Obviously he is stepping up to men's football and when you do that you come up against different challenges, as Dion did yesterday and he came through that.
"In the Championship when he was on loan at Cardiff he played at right-back, which suited the style they were playing at that point, quite a direct style, when he had Sean Morrison next to him.
"He has competence on the ball as a right-back, he's very good on the ball as a centre-half, and obviously he has still got a bit of physical maturation still to come."
Sanderson's form is clearly attracting attention, with Sheffield United the latest club to be linked with a summer move for the youngster.
Johnson has said that Sunderland would 'of course' be interested in a deal, but has some doubts over Wolves' willingness to sell at this stage given the player's clear promise.
Sanderson himself has said earlier this season that his goal remains representing his hometown club in the Premier League.
Johnson has praised the youngster for his leadership in the Sunderland defence while a number of his senior options in that positon have been sidelined with injury.
Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Jordan Willis are all currently absent but Sanderson has stepped up as the leader of a reshuffled and inexperienced backline.
"I've been very impressed with him, he's really stepped up," Johnson said.
"He's recognised that Bailey Wright is out, and that he needs to up it another five or six percent and talk to the players around him.
"He has got a really good attitude, and it's consistent with his personality.
"I thought he did alright against Crewe, to be honest.
"He was the one that was kind of a shining light in terms of the defensive performance.
"That can be clouded sometimes by the team [performance] because individually he has done alright," he added.
"I think that's where it starts for all of us - make sure you are a leader for at least two people.
"If you're playing at centre-back, then look after a central midfielder, the other centre-half, and maybe the right-back. If you look after those, it switches you on and helps you to focus and concentrate."
Johnson will be dependent on his reshuffled backline until at least next week, with Flanagan suffering a setback in his return as he struggles with his hip flexor.