Mike Dodds' Sunderland defensive options without Dan Ballard - including Timothee Pembele opportunities

Sunderland could be without both Dan Ballard and Luke O'Nien for Saturday's Championship fixture against QPR.
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Sunderland are preparing for Saturday’s Championship fixture against QPR and may be without their first-choice centre-back pairing.

Luke O’Nien will definitely miss the match as he serves the second of his two-game suspension for picking up 10 yellow cards, while Dan Ballard is an early injury doubt after being forced off against Southampton on Saturday. "He's come off with a hamstring injury, which isn't great,” said Sunderland’s interim boss Mike Dodds when asked about Ballard after the match. “I don't want to comment at the moment whether it is minor or major because he'll come in and be assessed on Monday.”

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Losing the 24-year-old would be another blow for Sunderland’s injury-hit squad, but how would they manage without both Ballard and O’Nien - who have started 33 of 37 league games together this season? Here are Dodds’ likely options.

The back four which finished the Southampton game

Ballard was replaced by Callum Styles in the closing stages of the Southampton fixture, with Leo Hjelde moving to centre-back alongside Jenson Seelt, and Trai Hume staying at right-back. 

It was clear the quartet hadn’t played together as a back four before, with Hjelde and Styles only joining the club in January. As a result, Sunderland’s rearguard became extremely disjointed in the closing stages at St Mary’s, with Saints substitute Joe Rothwell scoring twice in the final 13 minutes to make it 4-2.

Hjelde has previously said he prefers playing as a centre-back, which seems a likely outcome if Ballard is unavailable. It will help that Sunderland have a full week to prepare for the QPR fixture, and their defence will have to be a lot tighter than in the closing stages against Southampton.

Bring Timothee Pembele into the side

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Since joining Sunderland from PSG in the summer, Timothee Pembele has made just five Championship appearances and is yet to start a game for the Black Cats. That is partly because the 20-year-old was recovering from a long-term injury when he moved to England, while Trai Hume has made the right-back position his own at the Stadium of Light.

Yet if Hjelde is moved into a centre-back position, Hume may switch to the left side of defence, providing an opportunity for Pembele to start on the right. The Frenchman has been available since December and looked bright as an attacking outlet while playing for Sunderland’s under-21s side.

Switch to a back three

After being named interim boss until the end of the season, Dodds said he wasn’t afraid to make bold decisions. The coach’s call to switch to a back three against Swansea clearly didn’t work, yet he hasn’t ruled out playing a similar system again.

Last season Hume did operate as a right-sided centre-back in a back three, meaning he could line up alongside Seelt and Hjelde. Pembele and Styles could then operate as wing-backs if Sunderland change their shape. Whatever option Dodds chooses, he will need some of his less experienced players to step up fast at a challenging stage of the season.