STEVE Bruce admits his first-choice back four is already taking shape in his mind.
But the Sunderland boss will not allow himself to be swayed by his pre-conceived ideas after seeing how injury disrupted Sunderland’s defence last season.
The arrival of Wes Brown and John O’Shea has created fierce competition for places in Sunderland’s back line, with both equally capable of lining up at either centre-half or full-back.
With Titus Bramble and Michael Turner gradually making their way back to full fitness, the emergence of fellow centre-half Louis Laing and Phil Bardsley, Anton Ferdinand and Kieran Richardson all at Bruce’s disposal, the Sunderland boss is not short of options.
But Bruce knows from last season how his best-laid plans went to waste, with injury restricting first-choice central defensive duo Bramble and Turner to just eight games in tandem.
Bruce told the Echo: “In my mind, I’ve got an idea what my first choice back four will be, but it’s too early yet.
“For me, you learn in management that the first XI in your mind never quite works out like that.
“The fact Bramble and Turner only played together eight times shows you the problems we had. Of course, you’d love a stick-on XI. But now I’ve got competition in a lot of areas and it’s my job to pick a team. If I don’t get a result, then I’ve picked the wrong team.
“If we’ve got Bramble or Turner missing, I can play John O’Shea and Wes Brown.
“If those two are fit, I could play them at full-back as can Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson.
“I’ve got a few options now, both defensively, in midfield and up front.”
Bramble and Turner have started three of Sunderland’s pre-season outings together, with both still looking rusty after missing large parts of the second half of last year with knee injuries.
But ex-Manchester United duo O’Shea and Brown have been hampered by injury so far this summer – potentially reducing Bruce’s selection dilemma for the opening day encounter at Liverpool on August 13.
O’Shea is expected to be out for another week with a hamstring strain while Brown has been limited to light training for much of pre-season due to a knock to his hip.
Ex-England international Brown is expected to feature at Kilmarnock tomorrow night, though, along with Asamoah Gyan and Keiren Westwood, who will also be making their first appearances of pre-season.