For the second game this Premier League season, Irish defender Shane Duffy found himself as an unused substitute for his club Brighton.
Against Manchester City last month, Duffy was named on the Brighton bench, the first time the defender had ever been dropped for a league game since his arrival at the Amex from Blackburn in August of 2016.
Graham Potter, the ambitious young manager who replaced Chris Hughton in the summer, said after the City game that Duffy “will play a big part in the season” and that he felt that particular test was the right time to try out another option at the back.
Duffy was his usual solid self for Ireland in their draw against Switzerland and upon his return to the South Coast found himself restored to the Brighton starting XI for their game against Burnley.
The 27-year-old has been one of Brighton’s most outstanding players since their promotion to the Premier League, winning the club’s Player of the Year last season, but after finding himself among the subs once again in their draw against Newcastle, it appears that for the first time in his Seagulls career he is now out of favour.
Brighton spent big during the summer and one of their standout recruits was central defender Adam Webster who joined from Bristol City for an eyebrow raising £20 million – an rather unusual move when you consider the solidity of their defensive pairing of Lewis Dunk and Duffy over the last few years.
Potter though, tore up the script Hughton had spent four and a half years writing and immediately decided that his new free-flowing, football-playing side would be using three at the back, with defender Dan Burn also finding himself back in first team plans.
After conceding four on his first start against City, Webster looked much more composed against Burnley and he starred again in Brighton’s 0-0 draw with Newcastle, in the position Duffy would usually occupy on the right of the three with Burn, a clear favourite of the manager, moving back to his usual role at the in the defence.
Webster was a monster in the air, winning 10 aerial duels throughout the game against a physical Newcastle side – more than double that of any other player on the pitch.
That’s a worrying stat from his perspective given that arguably Duffy’s greatest strength is in the air.
Perhaps more crucial though was Webster’s performance with the ball at his feet. The former Bristol City man had the lowest passing accuracy of the back-three but still managed an 83% success rate.
Duffy on the other hand has an average pass success rate of 76.3% this season, with the Burnley game seeing him complete just 73% of his passes.
The way in which Brighton now play the game under Potter means their passing from the back is crucial in building attacks but unfortunately for Duffy that’s never been his strength.
As a leader he is brilliant and in the aerial duels and clearances department he is among the leagues elite, but with the ball at his feet he can often struggle.
Speaking to Pundit Arena last month, former Irish defender Gary Breen identified that hole in Duffy’s game as a potential reason why he hasn’t made that jump to a top-six team and now it may be the reason behind his exclusion from the Brighton starting XI.
“If you ask me can Duffy go to one of the top teams where their centre-halves go to the half-way line then I think he’s going to be in a little bit of trouble. If you think about space in and around Shane Duffy it’s difficult.
“He’s not the quickest, he’s good when he gets going, it’s difficult.
“Ultimately you’re looking at a centre-half to play to your strengths and I think under Chris Hughton at Brighton they did that and under Mick McCarthy and Martin O’Neill they did that with Shane Duffy to the point where he’s comfortably our best player.”
Curiously, Richard Dunne was also drawn to a weakness in bringing the ball out from the back when discussing Duffy’s all-round game.
“He’s still reasonably young for a centre-back,” Dunne told Pundit Arena.
“He’s still got time to progress and to improve, but he’s certainly capable of playing at a higher level than he is at the moment.
“I think he’d bring a lot of attributes to a lot of good teams. Maybe bringing the ball out from the back which is what all the top six teams seem to be doing at the moment is probably not something he’s excelled at yet but he still has time to improve it.”
It may only be two games, but given Webster and the rest of the Brighton defence’s strong display against Newcastle, it’s difficult to see Duffy being brought back into the starting XI for their league game against Spurs next weekend.
The 27-year-old seemingly falling out of favour is also worrying for Mick McCarthy and Irish fans when you consider how crucial Duffy has been as of late for the national team.
He will continue to be the first name on the team sheet for the Boys in Green ahead of their crucial qualifiers but a lack of game time will be an issue for McCarthy’s “players must play” philosophy.
The Irish boss already has an issue with the likes of Conor Hourihane and, up until this weekend, Jeff Hendrick failing to really get quality minutes in the league this season, the last thing McCarthy needs is arguably his best player not featuring for his club.
It’s a long season and injuries and rotation will likely still see him given some game time but its a far cry from the almost irreplaceable role he had held at the club over the past few seasons.
For the first time in his Brighton career, he’s in a real fight for his starting spot.