Shane Duffy – back to his best?

After a year on loan with Glasgow giants Celtic, towering centre back Shane Duffy is back with Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League.

The Derry man has started his side’s first four games and impressed in all three including a goal against Watford. He then went into the international break with the Republic of Ireland where he started all three of their matches too which also included a goal for the 29-year-old.

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Duffy is now a regular starter for Brighton, something he has not been since the 2018/29 season. In the years between then and now, he has struggled to start for Brighton and spent a season north of the border in Scotland where he struggled.

His time at Celtic featured multiple mistakes and contributed to Celtic’s poor season where fierce rivals Rangers claimed their first title since 2011. He admitted that he has hit “rock bottom” at Celtic. It looked like there would be no way back for him at Brighton as he seemed to be out of Graham Potter’s plans and it looked like an exit was likely.

At the start of the 2020/21 season, progressive Brighton manager Graham Potter, who likes his side to keep possession, preferred Ben White and Adam Webster alongside Lewis Dunk as the three centre backs due to their proficiency with the ball at their feet. An area of the game that Duffy has been criticised for.

It was the 2019/20 season, Potter’s first in charge of Brighton, where Duffy started to have less game time for Brighton. He only made 12 starts for Brighton this season compared to 37 and 35 in 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectably.

Under Chris Hughton, Brighton played very different football compared to now. They were much more defensive and similar to other sides that you would find towards the bottom of the Premier League. This required Duffy to have less responsibility of bringing the ball out of defence compared to under Potter.

In the 2017/18 season, Duffy only attempted 36 passes per 90 minutes compared to this season where he has attempted 61.8 passes per 90, a staggering difference which shows the sheer change in what he has been asked to do under Hughton and Potter. In the 2019/20 season, where he was first expected to have the ball more, Duffy had the lowest pass completion percentage (84%) out of his competitors, Lewis Dunk (87.3%), Adam Webster (84.8%) and Ben White who was at Leeds United this season (84.8). Duffy clearly struggled slightly more than the other central defenders to adapt to playing more with the ball.

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This season, Duffy has looked much more assured with the ball and appears to be much more comfortable with the ball at his feet. As mentioned previously, he now completes 61.8 passes per 90 with an completion percentage of 93.9%, the highest out of any Brighton player who has played more than 90 minutes in the Premier League this season and staggeringly, the sixth highest out of any player in the Premier League.

Not only is Duffy back to his best in this particular area, he seems to have surpassed what he has previously done and is, statistically at least, one of the most accurate passers in the league. Glowing praise when you look at the quality of central defenders the league has to offer.

Arguably, Duffy’s time at Celtic may have contributed to how much he has improved on the ball. In the Scottish Premiership, he completed 61.9 passes per 90 with an completion of 82.9%. He completed more passes per game than this season at Brighton yet with a lower completion rate. Duffy had the same responsibility of playing out from the back as at Brighton yet with more time on the ball in a lower quality league may have allowed him to improve his passing which has allowed him thrive now that he is back at Brighton.

Despite his clear improvement with the ball at his feet, Duffy’s greatest strength is undoubtedly his defensive qualities. Duffy is an outstanding, real old school defender. Someone who isn’t afraid to throw themselves in front of a shot or put their heard where other players wouldn’t think of putting their foot. Duffy has had the most shots blocked per 90 for Brighton in each of their Premier League seasons where Duffy has been a regular starter. 1.61 in 2017/18, 1.46 in 2018/19 and this season so far, 1.25. In the first season he struggled, this number was only 0.58. Indicating some kind of deficiency in this particular season. However, Duffy has looked like he has returned to his former self with his admirable bravery.

Clearances are also a strong area of Duffy’s game. In the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Duffy had 10.1 and 9.1 clearances per 90 respectably. The most out of any Brighton player who played more than a single game. Duffy also completed the most total clearances in each of the seasons with 680 across the two seasons. In the 2019/20 season, only completed 8.41 clearances per 90 but this season, this has jumped back up to 8.75 after his first four games.

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The towering centre-back is also hugely dominant in the air. Aided no doubt by his 193cm frame. He wins a massive amount of aerial duels. This season, he has won 5.75 aerial duels per 90 and only Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke and Burnley’s Ben Mee have won more total aerial duels. Duffy won the third most aerial duels in the Premier League in 2017/18 and the sixth most in 2018/19 with his per 90 stats for aerial duels won sitting at 6.34 and 4.93 respectably. His aerials duels won per 90 were only 4.57.  Still the highest out of any Brighton player but lower than his other seasons.

Another strength in Duffy’s game, which Irish fans will attest to, is his threat in the opposition’s box. His prowess in aerial duels allows him to get goal scoring opportunities almost every game from set pieces. His most prolific season in front of goal came in the 2018/19 season where he was Brighton’s second top goal scorer with five goals. These five goals came off of an xG (expected goals) of just 2.5. In the 2019/20 season, Duffy only managed one goal off of 1.5 xG. However, his game time was severely diminished so less goals would be expected however, it is still a big drop off. This season then, he has already managed one goal, a stunning header against Watford.

He is also a big goal threat for his country. In the most recent international break, he scored a late equalizer for the Republic of Ireland against Azerbaijan and was heavily involved in Serbia’s comical own goal in Dublin which gave the boys in green a well deserved draw. He won Ireland a point in Copenhagen against Denmark in the Euro 2020 qualifiers with a super downwards header and he scored Ireland’s only goal in their infamous heavy defeat at home in their World Cup play-off against Denmark.

Shane Duffy has endured a rough time over the past couple of years with a drop off in both playing time and performances. However, based off of his start to this season, he looks to have regained his form from previous season and also developed into a more ball playing defender since that time too. Something that will definitely impress the forward thinking Graham Potter.

The Author

David Fenton

Republic of Ireland and Tottenham supporter.

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