Over the past two years, Shane Duffy has grown to become one of, if not, the most vital player for both his club, Brighton and his country, Ireland.
A towering and dominant centre-half, Duffy has excelled in his two seasons in the Premier League with Brighton and has stepped up at international level, making himself one of the first names on the Irish team-sheet.
Yet this summer as the centre-half merry-go-round saw David Luiz head to the Emirates, Harry Maguire eventually become the answer to United’s defensive woes and the likes of James Tarkowski, Nathan Aké and even Lewis Dunk tipped to move on, Duffy’s name was rarely mentioned.
The Derry man’s natural progression in the game and perceived stand-out defensive qualities would seemingly make him a suitable candidate to step up a level, but he finds himself at the Amex for another season.
Duffy’s qualities are evident and, on the surface, it’s easy to see why he stands out on the field. If this was the late 90s or early 2000s for example, the 27-year old would be in high demand.
But what Duffy lacks or rather can improve on, is the exact area modern managers scrutinise now more than they ever have; his ability on the ball.
Former Ireland defender Richard Dunne feels that Duffy has time on his side and is capable of playing at a higher level, but that his ability to take the ball out from the back isn’t yet up to the standard of top-class defenders in the Premier League.
“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.”
Dunne also made the point that he believes, should Duffy make the step up in level, then playing with better players will improve his game by design.
“Also I think you’ll find the higher he goes and the better players he plays with, it will improve him.
“If he gets the opportunity to move to a team who are challenging for Europe then I think that will improve him again and take him to the next level but I think before he is to go into the top four he probably has to go up to a level above where he is currently at.”
The idea that Duffy isn’t a ball-playing centre-half is an interesting idea to explore. For Brighton and Ireland, he has stood out so much that often his weaknesses are masked.
The systems he has played in over the past couple of seasons have been a case of extenuating the positives and hiding the negatives.
Gary Breen feels that although he has been “brilliant” for both club and country if he played in a defence with space around him then he may struggle.
“In terms of Shane Duffy, if you’re talking about what he’s done for Ireland, it’s been brilliant. In terms of for Brighton as well, they camp on the 18-yard box and are difficult to beat.
“Now 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.”
The former West Ham and Sunderland defender was keen to stress that he is “massive fan” of how Duffy plays, but believes his weaknesses with the ball at his feet higher up the pitch are the reason why he has not yet signed with a bigger club
“I can understand people saying, ‘well why are people not courting him to play for the big clubs?’ but I think that’s the reason. I don’t think he’s particularly good if he’s high up the pitch, that’s not his strength.
“There’s very few centre halves that can do it all. But in terms of watching Duffy play, I’m a massive fan.”
Both Dunne and Breen bring up important points worth exploring.
Duffy has unquestionably been brilliant in the pure defensive statistics over his past two seasons in the Premier League, but, unfortunately, that is no longer enough.
In the 2018/2019 season he averaged 6.9 clearances per game, which was the 3rd most in the division – the season before that it was a whopping 8.8, the highest in the league.
For a team that so frequently came under pressure and rarely dominated games, Duffy’s ability to get the ball out of dangerous areas was vital.
He also averaged 1.2 blocks per game, the second-most in the Premier League, with his body on the line style an attribute that has defined him from early in his career.
Despite this though, Duffy cannot be seen as being a reckless defender. Although his clearances and blocks are high, his foul rate last season was very low only averaging 0.6 per game.
From a defensive point of view, he is dominant, winning 5.3 aerial duels per game, but if we take a closer look at his play on the ball, it gives a clearer picture as to why some top teams may not fancy him.
His passing percentage last season was 75.2% which although not being terrible, is far lower than most comparable top six centre-halves. John Stones, for example, averaged 94.2% while Victor Lindelof had an 89.2%.
Duffy also averaged just 37.3 passes per game and 0.2 key passes throughout the last campaign.
It is, of course, important to remember that the 27 -year old is a product of his environment at Brighton, who would never have been mistaken for Barcelona under Chris Hughton, but even his centre-half partner Lewis Dunk averaged 41.4 passes per game with an 82.8 success rate.
Perhaps that’s the reason the likes of Leicester reportedly looked to him as a Maguire replacement as opposed to Duffy.
The thoughts of Dunne and Breen, as well as the less than favourable passing stats, are far from a damning indictment of Duffy as a player.
They are simply the answer to a question many Irish fans will surely have been asking. How has Shane Duffy not moved to a top-six club yet?
Duffy though is still young for a centre-half and very much has time on his side to improve certain areas of his game, with the implementation of Graham Potter’s free-flowing, easy on the eye style of play sure to help.
The early signs are already there, with Duffy making 50 passes with a 74% success rate in the victory over Watford on Saturday.
If the 27-year old can continue in this vein, and iron out the kinks in his game, then it won’t be long before a top club coming knocking.
* All stats courtesy of WhoScored.com.