Where Manchester City and West Ham loanees fit into Sunderland's centre-back situation
During the start of pre-season there were some serious concerns about Sunderland’s lack of defensive options.
As it became clear that Dion Sanderson wouldn’t be re-signing for the club following his loan spell from Wolves, there were also reports linking Bailey Wright with a move away from Wearside.
Without Wright, Tom Flanagan would have been Sunderland’s only available senior centre-back, and while Callum Doyle arrived on loan from Manchester City – there were question marks about how good a 17-year-old could really be.
Yet fast forward a few months and the picture looks very different.
Doyle and Flanagan have performed well in Sunderland’s first five league games, Wright has stayed put and impressed when called upon, and the signing of Frederik Alves on loan from West Ham has provided another option.
Of course, with the relentless League One schedule and cup fixtures to come, there will be opportunities to rotate the squad – but what will be Sunderland’s first-choice centre-back partnership moving forward?
We take a closer look at the candidates.
Despite the hype, it was hard to imagine the teenager would be quite this good.
When you watch the defender play, it’s easy to forget his age and lack of experience, given his developed frame and composure in possession.
The 17-year-old has started every league game as Sunderland’s left-sided centre-back so far this season, and the fact he’s left footed helps bring balance to the side.
Doyle has formed a strong partnership with Flanagan, which started in pre-season, with the latter showing his leadership qualities to keep his younger team-mate in check.
Yet, out of the two, Doyle is clearly the one who is more comfortable with the ball at his feet, which helps the side play out from the back and implement Johnson’s prefered style of play.
The defender’s range of passing has also been impressive, with figure one showing Doyle’s attempted passes against AFC Wimbledon, which includes switches of play to the right and passes down the left channel.
Given his age, there will be concerns about the teenager’s durability and there have been times when he has rushed into challenges and left space in behind.
Still, the early signs have been extremely impressive and Doyle looks set to be a key player for Sunderland this season.
Another encouraging aspect of the Flanagan-Doyle partnership, is just how solid the Northern Irishman has been.
Flanagan missed large parts of last season through injury, and it appeared many fans had lost patience with the defender following his three years at the club.
Yet the 29-year-old has stepped up at the start of this season and been an ideal partner for Doyle.
Flanagan may not have the same passing range as his younger defensive team-mate but has often kept things simple, registering a pass completion rate of 78.9 per cent in League One so far this season.
But it’s the centre-back’s improved defensive contributions that have stood out in recent weeks, with Flanagan regularly putting his body on the line.
The Sunderland man is sixth in League One when it comes to average blocks per 90 minutes, while he’s also gone up against some physical forwards in Wigan’s Charlie Wyke, Wimbledon’s Ollie Palmer and Wycombe’s Sam Vokes.
Flanagan has done an admirable job keeping the aforementioned frontman quiet, with Sunderland conceding just four goals in five league games so far.
Johnson made it quite clear a week before the end of the transfer window that he didn't want to lose Wright, despite interest from Wigan.
The Sunderland boss has described Wright as a ‘real warrior’ but did admit over the summer the club’s new owners haven’t seen the best of the 29-year-old.
It didn’t help that Wright had only just returned from an injury last term, and struggled to re-adjust to the rigours of League One football.
The Australian international is a tough centre-back who is good in the air and can position himself well to stop crosses coming into the box.
Yet there is a realisation that Sunderland have other centre-back options who are quicker and more mobile than Wright, qualities which can prove valuable when the team wants to press from the front and play with a high defensive line.
Wright has played as a right and left-sided centre-back this season so is adaptable, while he’s also a recognised leader in an inexperienced group.
The West Ham loanee appears to have all the attributes to be a top player, yet it’s hard to see how he can break into the side right now.
Alves’ Sunderland debut at Blackpool in the Carabao Cup was a little unconvincing at first, as he was caught out of position on a couple of occasions in an end-to-end contest.
The Danish defender did improve as the match went on, though, winning some important headers in the second half when his side were under the cosh.
Alves’ biggest asset compared to Sunderland’s other centre-backs is his pace, which allows him to recover quickly when the side plays with a high line.
With a 6 ft 2 athletic frame, he is also effective in the air, which could be useful in both boxes.
Alves’ passes against Blackpool (figure two) were often directed sideways to a defensive partner, yet it would be harsh to draw too many conclusions from a single appearance.
Given their performances so far, it’s hard to argue against Johnson sticking with Flanagan and Doyle in the short term.
Wright and Alves clearly have other qualities and can come into the side if needed, or even allow Johnson to switch to a back three depending on the opposition.
Both players will hope to become regular starters later in the season, and it’s a positive the Black Cats have capable cover.