Sunderland’s centre-back options ahead of Coventry as ex-Arsenal man Daniel Ballard makes positive impression
Alex Neil now has the four centre-backs he required heading into the upcoming Championship campaign – with each defender offering different qualities in the side’s backline.
The arrival of Aji Alese means the Black Cats have a natural left-footed option, who also offers more pace and confidence stepping out with the ball, while Danny Batth and Bailey Wright formed a robust partnership at the end of last season.
Yet, after his performances in pre-season, it would be a big surprise if new signing Daniel Ballard didn’t start Sunderland’s Championship opener against Coventry at the Stadium of Light. The early signs have been encouraging from the 22-year-old.
Ballard has started three of Sunderland’s five friendly matches this summer, against Rangers, Dundee United and Accrington Stanley, and impressed in all of them.
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The former Arsenal man also has Championship experience after making 31 league appearances on loan at Millwall last season. He has shown he is comfortable at this level.
It was interesting against Accrington that Ballard started as the left-sided centre-back alongside Wright. The former often played on the right of a back three for Millwall last term.
Ballard was still able to show his qualities both in and out of possession, though, with Sunderland appearing in control up until the 63rd minute, when a costly error from Wright allowed the hosts to draw level from the penalty spot.
While positioning himself effectively at the back, Ballard was also progressive with his passing as he looked to feed the ball out to Jack Clarke, who won Sunderland’s first-half penalty, and Dennis Cirkin on the left.
There was also a moment when the centre-back almost scored a brilliant and rare goal, after a neat one-two with Roberts, before curling a low shot wide inside the Accrington box.
It will be a concern for Neil that his side’s defending became frantic and disorganised following Accrington’s equaliser, with the team looking a little vulnerable from long throw-ins and set-pieces.
At that stage Ballard appeared to be troubled by a knock on his knee, yet it wasn’t serious enough for him to be withdrawn.
Still, whether in a back four or a back three, the defender looks set to start against Coventry. The question for Neil, it seems, is who should start alongside him?