When it comes to the current Celtic squad there are few, if any players you’d class as poor. Well not in comparison to some if you were watching Celtic prior to Celtic’s new stadium being opened.
I won’t name names but for those of a certain vintage you could choose your own and we could look back and laugh now, though it would have been through gritted teeth at the time. Yet there is always a victim, a temporary target for the ire of a frustrated support. At this present time – and somewhat unfairly – that particular mantle appears to have been handed to Shane Duffy.
Anyone looking back will probably see enough evidence to suggest I was far from enamoured with the signing of Duffy, I certainly won’t pretend any differently now. I pointed to the fact the club who deemed him surplus to requirements had done so as they intended to be more expansive, to play from the back, to bring the ball out and link the defensive lines to the midfield, even break those lines with the defender carrying the ball themselves.
Duffy’s rudimentary approach to football didn’t fit the needs of Brighton manager Graham Potter so why would it suit a Celtic side expecting the same from their defenders? The last line of defence is all well and good, when you’re also expected to be the first line of attack, well that’s a debatable purchase when you choose Shane Duffy.
Yet when others turn on a sixpence from their original decision it would be easy to say I told you so, instead I’m warming to the guy. Especially so if Celtic – and I pray they do – revert to a back four against Aberdeen today.
Despite the public perception Duffy is not alien to playing in a back three, he’s done so on many occasions at club and international level as he hits the peak years of his career at 28 years old. Has he done it at a high-profile club, one who shine a torch on every move, every error and who allow little time to settle in a new environment? No, he hasn’t.
Despite his age his time with Blackburn, Brighton and even the Irish national team Duffy has been seen as player regularly playing on the defensive and where a draw away from home is met with a high five rather than an explosion of derision from the support.
Shane Duffy reminds me a lot of Alan Stubbs. Stubbs arrived with a reputation for being a big fish in a small pond. He signed from Bolton and history will tell you he was a fine Celtic signing. Tommy Burns saw a player who could dominate the backline, organise and cajole. The reputation went before him and Stubbs initially struggled to adapt. History will tell you Stubbs overcame those early problems, the weight of the expectation and fears he may not cut it, but cut it he did and then some.
Shane Duffy needs time to adapt and needs to be afforded a settled backline in which he can perform. Initially Duffy hit the ground running, early goals and pressure in the opposition box endeared himself initially to a support who now question his first team place, when really Duffy is a victim of that early success and a backline hit by injury and changing more often than Elton John in a Las Vegas residency.
Shane Duffy initially looked like a defensive line with Kris Ajer and Chris Jullien suited him fine, in particular with Jullien there seemed a tandem approach where each player could cover the others inadequacies and an equilibrium could be found.
Since then Duffy has played with Jullien, Ajer, Stephen Welsh, Nir Bitton and Hatem abd Elhamed and the permutations of all those players has been plenty. In recent weeks Duffy has looked far from settled, particularly since Jullien’s injury and errors have entered his play. Yet little leeway has been given, probably as he was signed on a hefty wage with a reputation of ‘getting what it means’ mainly by way of the geography of his birth.
Recent errors don’t mean Duffy doesn’t get it, it just means he needs time to settle, preferably with a settled back four. It’s worth remembering that central defensive partners’ aside Duffy has played with Frimpong and Elhamed as wing backs, and on the other side Taylor and Laxalt too as well as an ever-changing midfield in front of him.
If as expected Neil Lennon has learned the lessons from a much improved second half against AC Milan and reverts to a back four, there should be a natural symmetry between Shane Duffy and Kris Ajer. One is a ball winner, a defensive organiser who will block with every last stretch of sinew, while the other can bring the ball from the back, break the lines and link with midfield and even attack.
In a back four Duffy has a nailed-on position, he doesn’t have to worry about shifting one along to cover his partner, moving to full back to cover advancing wing backs or dropping into midfield while Scott Brown pushes forward. In a back four he has one position and one job. He’s the out and out defender while Ajer plays the Hollywood link man.
Shane Duffy, much like Celtic’s performances of late have dropped quicker than a stone in water but there have been reasons for both. A loss of players, indeed a decimation of the squad, particularly in defensive areas has played its part, but so has the perseverance, despite those injuries, by a manager determined to play a defensive three.
Today common sense may prevail, Celtic can and should revert to a back four. With it Celtic should show the balance they evidenced in the second half against AC Milan, while for Shane Duffy there will lie an opportunity to show what he does best. Defend his box and attack the opposition’s while his partner plays the football.
Shane Duffy is better than I thought prior to him signing on at Celtic, today at Pittodrie I’ve a feeling he’ll show just what he’s made of and silence his newfound critics.