LEE JOHNSON has confirmed he may have to delve into the free transfer market as injuries continue to wreak havoc with his defensive options.

In the wake of his side's weekend win over Ipswich, the Sunderland head coach revealed that Dennis Cirkin will be out of action until the new year after suffering a hernia injury that will require surgery.

That means the former Tottenham youngster will join fellow full-backs Denver Hume and Niall Huggins in the treatment room until the early part of 2022.

Carl Winchester and the ever-versatile Luke O’Nien were pressed into action at full-back at the weekend - although the latter continues to be troubled by a partially dislocated shoulder.

Both players performed well against the lively Sone Aluko and Kyle Edwards, with O’Nien also showing his prowess in the attacking third as he grabbed a late goal to set his side on their way to a crucial win.

The former Wycombe Wanderers star drew praise from Johnson as the Black Cats boss assesses the options available to him in the midst of mounting injury problems.

He said: “He’s such a great lad, the busiest man in history, and I say that with all the love in the world. He loves that challenge of having a really important job and he did really well.

“He’s a top player. We did feel his fitness and energy might catch them out, but in the end it was his bravery to get on one at the far post.

“It’s difficult because we need to get a second opinion on that shoulder, because we’re not sure if it popped out again today. We may have to look into the open market again for defenders.”

Johnson revealed he may have to take a “horses for courses” approach over the coming weeks as his side face a hectic pre-Christmas schedule that includes key home clashes with promotion rivals Oxford United and Plymouth Argyle.

“I’ve got to take each game on its merits and I have to be uber-flexible," he said. "I had seven wingers fit who could have played today.

"We might have to go five at the back and two up top, but that really needs three or four weeks' work because the pressing is different. 

"But, we’ve got fit centre-backs and wide players who could play wing-back.

“We’ll have to take it horses for courses, but there may be times when we might look a bit disjointed to get our best players on the pitch.”