Sunderland boss discusses his key selection dilemma ahead of Sheffield United clash

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Alex Neil is weighing up how to set up his Sunderland defence in the absence of Dan Ballard.

The Sunderland head coach remains reluctant to put a timeframe on how long Ballard will be sidelined, with the 22-year-old set to undergo further scans and assessments on his fractured foot this week.

Neil has been dealt a further blow with Carl Winchester, one of his other options for the right side of a back three, set to miss the trip to Sheffield United due to a lower back problem.

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Winchester is due to see a specialist on Wednesday and could also be absent for an extended period.

Sunderland defender Bailey WrightSunderland defender Bailey Wright
Sunderland defender Bailey Wright

Neil sprung something of a surprise on Saturday afternoon when Ballard picked up his injury in the opening stages of the 2-2 with QPR, opting to bring on Luke O'Nien instead of Bailey Wright.

O'Nien looks to be the favourite to continue in that position at Bramall Lane should Neil stick with a 3-5-2 system. Given Sheffield United are expected to line up in a familiar shape, that seems likely.

Neil says Wright is a contender to play alongside Danny Batth and Dennis Cirkin, depending on the opposition and the profile of their strikers.

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“We’ve got Bailey, but I think Bailey’s best position is in the middle," Neil said.

"I thought him and Danny Batth did that role really well.

“It can be dependent on who you’re playing against. A lot of the time last season when I went with Bailey and Danny, it was against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday who had two big, physical strikers where we had to make sure we could go and win physical battles. "It wasn’t necessarily against wee, nippy strikers who run in behind all the time.

“When we’ve played with a three, those side centre-backs want to step out with the ball and play, but equally, they need to guard the spaces down the sides. On Saturday, we played against a front three with wide-attacking players, so I thought Luke arguably had the best tools to go and deal with that.”

Neil confirmed on Tuesday morning that he was hoping to sign a replacement for Ballard but said it would not be straightforward on the club's budget.