When Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Jordan Willis were all ruled out with injuries, Sunderland supporters would surely have been fearing the worst.
With the club looking to ramp up their promotion efforts, losing three centre-halves wasn’t the best news. However, in their place, Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien have been exceptional.
They have kept three clean sheets in their last four outings and with it, Lee Johnson’s men are moving up the League One ladder.
After defeating Swindon 1-0 on Tuesday, they are now in fourth place. Johnson has engineered some tremendous form and is getting the best from a number of players.
One of those happens to be O’Nien. The former Wycombe man missed the first month of the new manager’s tenure through a dislocated shoulder but since his return, he has been nothing short of exceptional.
He’s featured in central midfield for Johnson but despite finding a home at full-back under Phil Parkinson, he has now proven himself to be a capable centre-back.
The 26-year-old isn’t the tallest of players but that doesn’t seem to matter. With Johnson at the helm, he has been as consistent as anyone in the side. Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady have been the main influencers in attack, but defensively, it’s O’Nien who has been first-class.
Against Swindon he showed as much. The Hemel-Hempstead born defender won a total of nine duels; that tally was only bettered by Wyke out of all players to take the field at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday.
O’Nien was also comfortable on the ball, playing out from the back on a regular basis. He succeeded with 11 of his 14 long balls and finished the match with a pass success rate of 92%. Again, that was the highest of any player yesterday evening. His 97 touches, meanwhile, was only bettered by Max Power.
This performance has become a regularity for the Sunderland man. Under Johnson, he is very quickly becoming one of his key men.
Only last week, the boss admitted: “I think he could be the best utility player I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson added: “I’ve still not see him at right-back, but he’s been outstanding at centre-half and was very good in an attacking midfield role.”
That’s very fine praise indeed. With Wright, Flanagan and Willis out, he has stepped up to the plate admirably. O’Nien’s performances have defied expectation by some margin.