When it comes to Sunderland's transfer priorities this summer, centre-back may be quite a way down the list despite the club's disappointing finish of 16th in the Championship.

Sunderland endured a number of issues last season but defensively was not necessarily one of those as they registered the fifth best defence in the division behind Leicester City, Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Bristol City, with only three teams earning more clean sheets than Sunderland's 13.

Integral to that were centre-back duo Dan Ballard and Luke O'Nien who seem likely to continue in their roles under the club's new head coach, Régis Le Bris.

Le Bris will be conducting a thorough assessment of his squad in all departments, including the centre of defence, to identify who is best suited to carry out his philosophy. The Frenchman puts plenty of emphasis on his defenders in being comfortable receiving and retaining possession in order to lure opposition teams higher up the field before quickly exploiting space in behind. 


READ MORE: Régis Le Bris: The tactical transition and academy success that led him to Sunderland


When in charge of Lorient, Le Bris' team were ranked No.1 for touches inside their own defensive penalty area across both seasons in Ligue 1, while also ranking third and first in those two seasons for touches in their own defensive third. In contrast, Sunderland were ranked 19th in the Championship last season for touches inside their own penalty area and 11th for touches inside their own defensive third. 


SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE: Win a 2024/25 Sunderland home shirt


But does that mean Sunderland will need to recruit another centre-back this summer? What of the current options at the Stadium of Light? 

This week, we will be taking you through a different area of the squad, looking at their individual contract situations and assessing where Le Bris needs to strengthen. We'll even throw in a few suggestions of potential names they could look at, just for fun!

In part three we're taking a look at the centre-back position.




Luke O'Nien and Dan Ballard

As suggested, both O'Nien and Ballard are likely to remain Sunderland's No.1 partnership in the centre of defence next season, owing to their success last year. The pair started 43 of the club's 46 games, only missing through suspension at various stages of the campaign - something which was a particular boost for Ballard given his injury problems in 2022-23. 

Arriving as one of the club's key summer signings in 2022 from Arsenal, Ballard suffered a broken foot in the opening day draw with Coventry City on his debut which kept him out for a number of months before hamstring issues meant his season was also cut short. O'Nien, on the other hand, has missed just eight of the 92 league games back in the Championship while, predominantly, being a mainstay in the Sunderland squad since his arrival from Wycombe Wanderers in 2018 - the exception coming in 2022 when missing a large chunk of the campaign with a shoulder injury. 

Luke O'Nien and Dan Ballard Fbref radarsLuke O'Nien and Dan Ballard Fbref radars (Image: Fbref)

Both O'Nien and Ballard have shown they can operate as part of a back three or a back four, both of which Le Bris has utilised throughout his time in France with Lorient, and with five goals between them, the pair offered a little relief on Jack Clarke when it comes to goal contributions from around the squad.

Ballard's impressive 2023-24 season led to him being named Northern Ireland captain during the international break earlier this summer while O'Nien could be in line to be named the club's first team captain following Corry Evans' exit. 

Both Ballard and O'Nien are contracted until 2027, given the club's option on O'Nien, which means there is the potential for Le Bris to build a foundation with those two in defence, if he feels both are capable of carrying out his approach.


READ MORE: Dan Ballard survives battle of The Hawthorns and continues to knock on Premier League door


Aji Alese

The onus will be on other members of the squad to try and wrestle one of those two centre-back spots away from O'Nien and Ballard, or establish themselves as the next best option should Le Bris opt for a back three, tactically. 

Should that be the case, Aji Alese is largely considered best-placed for the role as the left-sided centre-back. If Le Bris were to favour this approach, a trio of Alese, Ballard and O'Nien would offer balance and increasing experience having all been at Sunderland for a number of years now. 

Alese has endured a challenging 12 months on Wearside after being rushed back from injury to compete in the 2022-23 play-off campaign against Luton Town - a decision which resulted in a number of setbacks for the 23-year-old over the last year. As such, Alese made just eight appearances as last season wore down, with most of those coming at left-back owing to the club's injury concerns in that area of the field.

Alese's versatility in being able to cover at left-back is a plus for Le Bris and he is a player the club hierarchy clearly value having offered the former West Ham United academy prospect a new contract, despite his injuries, until 2027. 

If Le Bris is to favour a back three, Alese is likely to be a strong contender for the third centre-back spot, but he is a player who will be expected to have a strong pre-season in order to prove both his fitness and merit to the Frenchman heading into the new campaign. 

Aji Alese has struggled with injury over the last 12 months for SunderlandAji Alese has struggled with injury over the last 12 months for Sunderland (Image: Ian Horrocks)


Leo Hjelde

Norwegian defender Leo Hjelde is another player who will provide Le Bris food for thought if he is to favour three centre-backs, also owing to the balance he would bring to that set-up as a natural left-footer. 

Hjelde, signed from Leeds in January for a reported £2million, was, perhaps, thrown into the starting line-up a little sooner than would have been anticipated by the club thanks to the injuries throughout the squad in defence. The 20-year-old made his debut in the Tees-Wear derby with Middlesbrough and went on to make 11 appearances in total in the second half of the campaign before finding himself out of the team upon Alese’s return.

That alone would suggest Hjelde has work to do if he is to establish himself in Le Bris’ squad, but the one thing a new head coach does bring is a clean slate for the entire squad.


Sunderland's minutes played by age in the 2023-24 Championship seasonSunderland's minutes played by age in the 2023-24 Championship season (Image: StatsBomb)

At 20-years-old, Hjelde certainly has time on his side to develop into the potential the club clearly see in him, having also featured for Celtic and Rosenborg prior to his move to Elland Road.

Hjelde represents the kind of recruitment Sunderland are wedded to in bringing in younger players with a high potential ceiling, having also handed him a deal until 2028, and the Norwegian is likely to play a part this season at the very least as a squad player for Le Bris.


READ MORE: Sunderland's new 'ball playing defender' and what he can offer


Jenson Seelt

Hjelde’s position in the squad will be boosted by the unfortunate injury setback of Jenson Seelt, with the Dutch defender set to miss the first half of the new season through injury.

Seelt arrived last summer from PSV Eindhoven and was another earmarked for the future as a potential understudy to the likes of Ballard and O’Nien. Seelt, however, was thrust into the thick of things a little sooner than anticipated due to injuries in defence and particularly excelled over the Christmas period – even operating as a right-back.

Seelt was one player who received regular praise from previous head coach Michael Beale, even when left out of the starting line-up, before interim boss Mike Dodds made him a regular when taking over in late February.

Seelt was utilised as a centre-back in a variety of systems under Dodds before picking up an ACL injury in the 4-2 defeat to Southampton in March – an injury which is set to keep the 21-year-old sidelined until the end of the year and, a result of which, is likely to hinder his opportunities this season.


Jenson Seelt's defensive pressure map shows his areas of activity having featured at both centre-back and right-back during the 2023-24 seasonJenson Seelt's defensive pressure map shows his areas of activity having featured at both centre-back and right-back during the 2023-24 season (Image: StatsBomb)

READ MORE: Jenson Seelt return shows why Sunderland swooped for Burnley transfer target


Depending on how Le Bris’ side have fared over the first half of the season, coupled with Seelt’s rehabilitation, may determine what the best outcome is for the defender and whether a potential loan move in the second half of the season becomes an option in order to regain his match sharpness.

Sunderland fought off interest from Burnley, then managed by Vincent Kompany, to land Seelt and is another handed a long-term deal until 2028 which shows a great deal of faith instilled by the club.


Nectarios Triantis

Signed from Central Coast Mariners last summer, Nectarios Triantis was limited to just three appearances for Sunderland last season before being moved out on loan to the Scottish Premiership with Hibernian where he would go on to endure an indifferent period, at least as a centre-back.

Triantis, 21, like most of Sunderland’s recruitment strategy last summer, was a signing made with an eye firmly focused on the future after arriving from Australia as an A-League champion under Nick Montgomery. And after making his first start in the Championship as cover for the suspended O’Nien against Birmingham City, Triantis had just one other appearance before Montgomery returned to take the defender on loan to Easter Road.

The Australian made 14 appearances for Hibs, but only a select few of those came as a centre-back after making a less than impressive start in a 3-0 defeat to St. Mirren.

“To give it a bit of context, he was thrown in at the deep end” Liam Bryce of the Hibs Observer explained to We Are Sunderland. “He was put in alongside Will Fish – two very young centre-backs – so you can argue there were some mitigating circumstances because the game against St Mirren was probably, collectively, Hibs’ worst performance of the entire season. It was awful and Triantis gave away a penalty and I think he lost his man for the second or third goal.

“The Celtic game was a few days later and he gave away another penalty but he bounced back and had a decent game, because it would have been easy for him to completely go under after conceding a second penalty in as many games.”


Nectarios Triantis StatsBomb centre-back radar (StatsBomb)

After a disappointing start in the heart of defence, Montgomery moved Triantis further up the field into defensive midfield where he found a little more joy.

"Look, he's really versatile," Montgomery told the Hibs Observer. "He can play centre-back, he can play six and if you are a deep-lying six, a defensive midfielder, it's a similar position. He's technically very good on the ball.

"He's still young and he's had success in his relatively short career. But he went six months, really, without playing after he moved to Sunderland, which is a big move for a young player.”

Bryce added to We Are Sunderland on Triantis’ transition into midfield: “You could see that he was good on the ball, that was the thing that stood out. You could tell he could handle the ball and had a range of passing.

“It was almost bizarre how natural he looked in that position compared to centre-half. The way he was receiving the ball, collecting the ball and his pass selection [was natural]. He looked quite cultured and certainly for a few weeks he looked the part playing there.

“I wouldn’t write him off as a centre-half based on that period, because he wasn’t the only one who was under performing, but it was a difficult few weeks for him.”

Based on his time with Hibs, it will be of interest as to where Le Bris and the rest of the coaching staff see Triantis best suited when returning to Wearside this season. Sunderland, arguably, have deficiencies in the defensive midfield role purely based on natural numbers available to them which means Triantis could be seen as an option further forward, meaning his use at centre-back could be limited.

Le Bris’ emphasis on receiving possession in tight areas of a team’s own defensive third mean those ‘ball collecting’ and ‘pass selection’ attributed may prove beneficial, and is an avenue the player himself may be keen to explore given the competition for places in defence.


WATCH: Is Nectar Triantis the answer to Sunderland's holding midfield problems?


Joe Anderson

Sunderland are yet to see much of 23-year-old defender Joe Anderson since completing his move from Everton in January 2023.

Anderson was highly regarded at Finch Farm and Sunderland, it’s understood, beat plenty of competition to secure his signature – another who was brought in to be refined and developed.

Anderson made four substitute appearances under Tony Mowbray in the second half of the 2022-23 campaign before being loaned out to Shrewsbury Town last season where he established himself as a regular under Matt Taylor before struggling to find a regular spot when Taylor was replaced by Paul Hurst. Nevertheless, Anderson still made 30 appearances for the League One side – experience which will undoubtedly benefit him upon his return to Wearside.

Described by Mowbray as a ‘long-term asset’ to the club, Anderson may be reaching the point of trying to force himself into the club’s first team plans this pre-season if he is to make a name for himself at the Stadium of Light as he heads into the final two years of his contract.

When arriving in 2023, Anderson was also described as a ‘rarity’ given his left-footed, left-sided defensive profile but Sunderland, suddenly, find themselves well-stocked in those attributes with both Alese and Hjelde on the books.

Another loan move may not be out of the question for Anderson by the end of the transfer window but it seems likely he will be given his chance to prove himself in pre-season and force his way into Le Bris’ thinking.


Options who can fill in

Le Bris is quite blessed with the number of centre-backs on the books at Sunderland, regardless of varying experience levels. What’s key, however, is how many of those options are deemed suitable for stepping up and applying the Frenchman’s controlled style of play from the back?

Sunderland were hit with several injuries in defence last season which meant there was a heavy burden on Ballard and O’Nien to remain robust as the club’s first choice pairing. On occasion, Trai Hume has been drafted into a third centre-back role during his time with the club but that is something Le Bris will be keen to avoid, given Hume’s ability in a wider defensive area.

Ultimately, Sunderland shouldn’t need to revert to as many square pegs in round holes this season, owing to the number of players returning to full fitness and those loanees returning to the club this summer.


Academy alternatives

On top of that, Le Bris also has a number of options within the club’s academy who will undoubtedly get their chance to impress among the first team environment this summer.

Sunderland’s under-21s reached the Premier League 2 play-off final with all areas of Graeme Murty’s team playing their part, including defence.

Tom Lavery and Luke Bell have this week secured their first professional contracts with the club and both featured heavily last season for Murty’s side along with Henry Fieldson. Murty’s philosophy ties in with what we can likely expect from Le Bris in playing out with a structure from the back – Murty thorough in his messaging of embracing any mistakes made at development level.

That style, coupled with last season’s success, means there are one or two of those academy defenders likely to be involved in the first team squad’s pre-season training camp in Spain where they will be afforded the opportunity of putting themselves in the thoughts of Le Bris, should the club struggle with injuries as we saw last season.

And yet it’s returning academy defender, Zak Johnson, who is likely to be best placed to make the jump into the first team having spent last season on two separate loan deals in senior football.

Zak Johnson spent the 2023-24 season out on loan in senior football with Hartlepool United and DundalkZak Johnson spent the 2023-24 season out on loan in senior football with Hartlepool United and Dundalk (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Johnson spent three months on loan in the National League with Hartlepool United in the early part of the season before moving to Irish Premier League side Dundalk in 2024. Johnson recently helped Dundalk to a club record eighth-consecutive home clean sheet and became an integral part of the back four, picking up a club player of the month award in March.

“The key message was to play as many games as possible,” he said.

“The lessons in maturity and self-development have been so valuable, they will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am now ready to come back and continue my journey with Sunderland.”

Johnson has been on the periphery of the first team in the past and will be hoping his experiences in senior football over the last year will stand him in good stead under Le Bris.

Ben Crompton is another option within the club’s academy in defence but after picking up a significant injury in the second half of last season the club are likely to be keen to monitor his return to action.


READ MORE: Inside Sunderland's Premier League 2 play-off final and a season of growth


Potential transfer targets

Should Sunderland’s current options not be of Le Bris’ taste, the alternative will be for the club to turn to the transfer market over the coming weeks to add to the squad in the centre-back area.

Again, much may depend on whether Le Bris will favour a back three or a back four as to the necessity of adding further depth and alternatives in this area of the field but, aligned with Le Bris’ comments made during his first press conference as head coach regarding the club adding further experience to the squad this summer, one player who could fit that bill is John Egan.

The Republic of Ireland international is a free agent after being released by Sheffield United this summer following their relegation from the Premier League where he featured just six times owing to an achilles injury.

The 31-year-old made well over 200 appearances at Bramall Lane as well as boasting significant Football League experience elsewhere with the likes of Gillingham, Brentford and Southend United. Speaking prior to his Sheffield United exit last month, Egan told The Irish Post how his focus for some time has been on returning to full fitness for pre-season, irrespective of what his club future looks like.

"Where I stand, I suppose, is making sure I’m fully fit for pre-season," he said.

“Talks are going on in the background; they are above my head. For the last few months, I’ve just been gearing myself towards getting fully fit for pre-season.”

Reports have linked Egan with a move to Nottingham Forest which would likely blow any potential move from Sunderland out of the water owing to the lure of remaining in the Premier League as well as the finances that would entail. But Sunderland do hold an ace up their sleeve in that Egan began his early career in England with Sunderland back in 2009.

Egan spent six-years at the Stadium of Light without making a senior appearance but would be more than familiar with the surroundings on Wearside having formed part of the first team squad across a number of pre-season campaigns.

Egan was part of the Sheffield United side promoted to the Premier League in both 2019 and 2023 and formed part of Chris Wilder’s overlapping centre-back approach which brought great success even in the Premier League.

At 31, a fully fit Egan would bring a wealth of Championship winning experience to Sunderland’s young squad and would likely be an important influence on the likes of Ballard and Alese in particular who remain in the early stages of their career and would represent significant intent from the club’s hierarchy and their flexibility towards the current model.

John Egan is a free agent after being released by Sheffield UnitedJohn Egan is a free agent after being released by Sheffield United

Another free agent option of experience Sunderland could consider, and another former player, is Paddy McNair. The Northern Ireland international was released by Middlesbrough this summer despite having made 25 appearances for Michael Carrick’s side last season.

McNair spent six years at the Riverside after leaving Sunderland in 2018 where he had two unsuccessful seasons having joined from Manchester United as both ended in relegation, before the 28-year-old kickstarted his career with Middlesbrough.

McNair made over 200 appearances on Teesside and, if he were to return back up the A19 to the Stadium of Light, would bring that much-needed ‘Championship experience’ which has been referenced a number of times by key members of staff at Sunderland in recent months. Beyond that, McNair would bring leadership qualities which may have left the dressing room over the course of the last 12 months with likes of Danny Batth, Lynden Gooch, Alex Pritchard and Evans all departing.

Wages may be a stumbling block for Sunderland for a player of McNair’s ability in the Championship, but the Northern Irishman would help bolster the club’s defensive line across several positions if he were to return.

Northern Ireland defender Paddy McNair is available on a free transfer after leaving Middlesbrough this summerNorthern Ireland defender Paddy McNair is available on a free transfer after leaving Middlesbrough this summer

If we look at last year’s Championship and simply narrow it down to pass completion percentage – in correlation with what Le Bris may expect – both Ballard and O’Nien were ranked among the top 16 defenders in the division when it came to their passing success rate. Over half of those ranked above them will be playing in the Premier League next season following Southampton and Leicester’s promotions while Leeds also have a number of defenders ranked highly in that regard.

Swansea City’s Nathan Wood, along with Ballard and O’Nien, is the obvious player outside of last season’s play-off contention and, given his North East roots, may have represented a possible option for Sunderland to consider had the former Middlesbrough man not emerged as a leading target for Russell Martin’s Southampton ahead of their return to the Premier League.

Alternatively, Le Bris may wish to turn back to his time in France with Lorient and consider the centre-back options available to him in Brittany.

Across Le Bris’ two seasons, Julien Laporte was a mainstay with over 40 appearances to his name as well as Montassar Talbi. But despite last season ending in relegation, Souleymane Touré is the player whose profile may tick more boxes at the Stadium of Light.

At 20-years-old, Touré already has almost 50 senior Ligue 1 appearances under his belt having featured for the likes of Le Havre – where Sunderland have previous when signing Abdoullah Ba – Marseilles and Auxerre, and has been capped at French youth level.


Souleymane Toure's Fbref radar in comparison to Julien Laporte at Lorient Souleymane Toure's Fbref radar in comparison to Julien Laporte at Lorient (Image: Fbref)

As per Fbref, Touré bettered Laporte, 30, in all but two categories last season and undoubtedly has the potential to grow. Sunderland have tested the French market frequently over the last 12 months and Touré would be an easy go-to for Le Bris given his connections with Lorient and experience with the player.

Touré’s contract expires in 2028, as per Transfermarkt, which means there may be a significant transfer fee involved, despite Lorient’s relegation from Ligue 1 last season, if Sunderland were to be interested. But, although Sunderland may consider themselves to be well-stocked at centre-back, signing a player like Touré fits the mould of the club in looking towards the future and is someone Le Bris would feel as though he could , perhaps, rely on.