Our defensive performances have been the source of much scrutiny this season, and it was a familiar story after the Burton game. Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan, though widely acknowledged as the best centre-back partnership at the club, put in a performance full of heart-stopping moments. Though Flanagan’s own goal was a complete fluke, it seemed to deal a heavy blow to his confidence for the rest of the game, which was arguably his worst in a Sunderland shirt. Though Baldwin pulled us level, he was guilty of surrendering possession on several occasions and did little to cover for his partner.
Whilst all five centre-backs have come in for criticism this campaign, it can be hard to judge them in Jack Ross’ system. By playing so openly, the defence is regularly exposed. Burton sought to exploit this by pressing heavily for much of the game, from which they did create chances. Given the decent standard of recruitment across the team, I refuse to believe that the scouting department has signed five duds at centre back. The system can make or break a player, and in the same way, defensively-minded managers can make the most average defender look world class. It is easy to forget that Wes Morgan, an ageing player who had spent most of his career in the football league, was ever present as Leicester won the Premier League title under Claudio Ranieri’s stewardship. It is something which needs to be taken into consideration when assessing our options in this area.
Dropping either on the basis of one shaky performance would be harsh, but with the fixtures piling up, rotating the squad when possible becomes a necessity. Perhaps then it is time to look more extensively at our options and consider a recall for Alim Öztürk. Jimmy Dunne is maybe a more obvious choice; he has played more recently than his Turkish counterpart and is seemingly higher in the pecking order. However, Stewart Donald has admitted that securing his signature permanently is unlikely. As Öztürk is contracted to the club until the end of next season, he is worth taking another look at. At worst, it puts him in the shop window in time to be moved on in the summer transfer window. At best, he provides a desperately needed option for Jack Ross at centre back, with Glenn Loovens having not reappeared since going for an early bath at Fratton Park in December.
Of course, the jury is still out on Öztürk, which doesn’t bode well given the length of time he has been at the club. He arrived unknown but was quickly introduced to fans through footage of him scoring an injury time equaliser from 40 yards for Hearts against Hibs. He failed to convince on his debut against Charlton and allowed his fellow summer signings to make their claim for a first team berth. This is something he hasn’t recovered from. Öztürk’s last appearance came as an enforced substitute in the 3-1 defeat at Portsmouth, which was one of only five league appearances he has made this season. Despite this, Öztürk was ever present up until the semi-finals of the EFL Trophy, as part of a back line which only conceded one goal in these games, albeit against some poor opposition.
There are obviously massive risks in throwing a player who hasn’t started a league game since early September. On the other hand, he would be nothing if not fresh to face a schedule which sees us play twice a week for the rest of the season. There are obvious question marks over his ability, especially given that his best performances have come against academy sides and teams in lower divisions. It would be a huge risk, and any minutes he was given would most certainly represent his last chance in a Sunderland shirt. At the very least, his presence would allow our first-choice options some rest, which on the basis of their most recent performance, seems much needed.