The exceptional Sunderland performance that reignited an old debate and left Lee Johnson with much to ponder

We probably did not need a reminder that Luke O’Nien is a very, very good League One full back.

Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 12:30 pm

But he picked the perfect moment to underline it.

Lee Johnson had delivered an upbeat press conference on Friday afternoon, insisting that his team were sharper for their two-week break and ready to deliver a much improved performance and result.

Largely that was true, the likes of Ross Stewart clearly benefiting from a chance to recuperate away from the rigours of playing twice a week.

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That confidence slightly betrayed the one big concern growing behind the scenes, though.

With Dennis Cirkin ruled out until January with a hernia problem, the head coach was left without a senior fit full back as he tried to plot a way past one of the division’s in-form teams and undoubtedly one of its most expensively-assembled squads.

On the right, Carl Winchester was back to his tenacious best against a dangerous opponent on Kyle Edwards.

When the teamsheets dropped there was some confusion, and it is fair to say concern, as to who would be lining up on the opposite flank.

Given Johnson’s clear desire to give O’Nien a sustained run in central midfield, the initial though was that perhaps Dan Neil would reprise the unfamiliar role he had just about come through on the opening day of the campaign.

It was a source of much reassurance to many when O’Nien lined up alongside Callum Doyle for the defensive drills in the warm up, signalling his return to the defence for the first time this season.

In the end, the strength of his performance was summed up by how few major issues Sunderland had down that side.

In the first half there were one or two moments, yes, when Ipswich Town found too much space.

Thorben Hoffmann’s double save from Bersant Celina was perhaps the defining moment of the game, coming after Sunderland had been caught too narrow on O’Nien’s flank.

For the most part, though, this was an assured display that underlined the qualities which first left Jack Ross and his coaching staff wondering whether a full back role was a viable long-term option.

It had been something of an emergency solution to begin with, getting bodies in jerseys to get through a Papa John’s Trophy fixture, but a lot of positive attributes quickly became clear.

The energy to get up and down the flank, the large number of aerial duels often won, and the surprisingly robust 1-v-1 defending.

There was some good forward play, too, one excellent cross on O’Nien’s weaker foot creating an opportunity from which the again excellent Stewart perhaps could have done better.

The goal that snatched three precious points was a very welcome bonus, underlining a strong return to form.

A timely one, too, given that Cirkin’s injury means that the 27-year-old will now almost certainly have to continue in the role.

His shoulder continues to be a cause of significant concern, with Johnson conceding after the game that a second opinion will have to be sought as the Black Cats look to establish whether surgery is required.

If it is, it will leave Johnson with two major gaps in his squad, given that O’Nien was slated to be a central midfielder across the campaign as a whole.

His performance also brought back into focus the debate over where he will produce his best football for Sunderland in the long run.

The early season form that Johnson’s side produced made the return to central midfield look a sound call.

Neil spoke of the importance of having O’Nien’s physicality alongside him, giving him the platform to show off his technical skills.

O’Nien perhaps was not as big a threat going forward as Sunderland might have liked, given that he as long been considered a dangerous and instinctive finisher (see that finish against Cheltenham, for example), but that probably spoke as much to the system as anything else.

O’Nien’s role was increasingly more about off-ball work, given Neil’s sudden rise and threat in the final third.

What is undeniably true is that the midfielder’s form dipped considerably alongside that of his team-mates.

And perhaps most notably, it is also apparent that the 27-year-old looks a more dangerous player in possession from the back four, where he has more time and space to either pick his pass or drive forward.

His return to midfield was the subject of long discussions with Johnson over the summer, the pair spending hours on zoom talking through the head coach’s plans for the player.

It was not that O’Nien was demanding a midfield place, per se.

But there were Championship offers on the table and so it made sense to get a broad understanding of exactly what the future held, in order to make the best-informed decision on whether to stay or whether to leave.

Such a clearly defined role and a chance to make it his own appealed, while Johnson also wanted that clarity as best as possible.

He wanted O’Nien’s relentless energy further up the pitch as he pivoted to a pressing game, and also felt that to unlock his full potential a settled position as much as possible.

Both knew, though, that an afternoon like this one may come along.

The head coach praised his unselfish performance afterwards, saying that he had relished the responsibility of being handed an important role for his team.

It was a reminder of just how big an asset this most versatile and committed of players is in the push for promotion.

It will have given Johnson food for thought, too.

On this evidence, it is hard not to wonder whether his highest ceiling is in the full back role.

As Sunderland weigh up their January options, it may be that recruiting another central midfielder will in turn unlock another asset in paving the way for a longer-term return.

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