Will Sunderland make a free agent move? All of Lee Johnson's options assessed amid injury crisis at full back

It’s not the number of injuries that’s the issue, Lee Johnson said.

Monday, 22nd November 2021, 5:39 pm

It’s that since he took charge, he’s had the misfortune of seemingly getting them all in one unit.

Last season he was forced to rip up his philosophy amid a chronic shortage of centre-backs, and now he is facing up to the prospect of playing for six weeks without a recognised full back.

It’s a major test of his management, and will have a significant impact on the promotion push.

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Luke O'Nien in action at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon

So what are his realistic options?

We take a closer look….

THE IDEAL SOLUTION

Though Sunderland have looked to give him a prolonged run in midfield this season, Saturday’s win was a reminder not just of Luke O’Nien’s versatility, but his genuine attributes as a full back.

He is good in the air, energetic and strong in 1-v-1 situations.

All of this was on show against Ipswich, as he by and large kept Sone Aluko quiet before snatching a vital goal for his side at the back post.

For him to play on the left side is not ideal, but manageable, and he showed that with an excellent first-half cross for Ross Stewart on that weaker foot.

That O’Nien could do the job well for the six-week period until the January window is not in doubt.

The issues (or potential issues) are two-fold.

One is that the schedule between now and then is hugely demanding, and expecting O’Nien and Carl Winchester to play every minute is in all likelihood a step too far.

Second is that O’Nien continues to struggle with a shoulder problem that has caused regular dislocations within games.

After another incident on Saturday Johnson admitted that the club would need to seek a second opinion, with it expected that surgery will be required somewhere along the line.

If that was to be sooner rather than later, Johnson would need other options up his sleeve.

THE INTERNAL SOLUTIONS

Switching to a back five is something that has at least been at the back of Johnson’s mind for a little while.

It was one of his potential solutions as he weighed up how his side could better handle the direct approach some opponents were deploying against his XI to great effect.

In particular, opponents playing with two powerful centre-forwards, and wing-backs able to supply them from the wide areas.

It’s a move that would play to the strengths of the current squad, through the very obvious fact that what Johnson does have is centre-backs and wide players.

Tom Flanagan was left out on Saturday but had an excellent start to the campaign, and Frederik Alves has fared well in the cups even though his manager clearly feels he has more to offer.

Ollie Younger has always acquitted himself well when called into the senior environment, and though it is still a while off yet there is the prospect of Arbenit Xhemajli returning to the fold in the medium term.

In the wing back roles, Lynden Gooch would be the most obvious option, given that he has done the role with some success in the past.

The issue perhaps is where you fit in some of his more offensive wingers, such as Aiden McGeady and Leon Dajaku.

They could, particularly in McGeady’s case, perhaps move infield but that would then mean losing a natural playmaker.

It’s a fine balance to strike, and when Johnson spoke about making this move after the game he said his biggest concern was about finding the training time to coach the changes in the pressing game it necessitates.

One clear advantage it has is that clears the way for Nathan Broadhead and Ross Stewart to play together, a partnership of real promise.

If Johnson wants to stick with the back four, another internal solution would be to move Flanagan (or perhaps Younger) out to the full back role.

He has done it in the past for Burton, and though it would mean losing some attacking threat, it would give the side physicality.

Dan Neil is another who now has some experience at left back, but right now it would be losing far too much from Sunderland’s midfield were he to be shifted, particularly if O’Nien was to be absent at any stage.

THE U23 SOLUTION

There are some U23 options for Johnson to consider, though it does not look the likeliest avenue at this stage.

Cieran Dunne can play there and has done in the Papa John’s Trophy previously, but is only just returning from injury.

Nathan Newall can play anywhere down the left, but is yet to real cement his U23 place since arriving.

The strongest option at this stage is Tyrese Dyce, who has made solid progress since signing from West Brom in the summer.

He scored in the Papa John’s win over Manchester United U21s, and played a lot of football in pre-season and so understands Johnson’s tactical demands well.

Probably stronger going forward (and he is a real threat), he has often played on the left wing, rather than at left back, for the U23s this season.

As such, Johnson may well feel it is still a little early to expose him to regular senior football.

Realistically, though, he is one injury away from having his hand forced.

THE EXTERNAL SOLUTION

Johnson hinted that the club would explore the free agent market in search of a solution.

The clear issue here is one of match fitness.

If Sunderland were to sign a player over the next couple of weeks, they will in all likelihood have not played competitively for six months.

It will take them a number of weeks to get anywhere close to full match fitness, by which point the January window will be close and senior players will be nearing a return.

Finding a player of the quality and experience to make an impact at League One level will also be a challenge.

Right now this feels like a last-resort option.

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