Why Celtic defender Shane Duffy isn't a bad player, but a bad signing

The hands immediately went to the head. Ferociously moved back and forth on the scalp before being chucked down by his sides. Shane Duffy knew he was partly culpable as Aberdeen went back ahead at Pittodrie on Sunday afternoon.

The Republic of Ireland international has had a very tough time of it since moving on loan to his boyhood heroes from Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion. And it only got tougher on Sunday as his side gave up another three goals in the 3-3 draw.

A simple ball was played down the channel. Despite having Scott Wright hot on his heels, Duffy was in control. He had four options: 1) Knock the ball out for a throw-in, 2) attempt to pass the bouncing ball back to Scott Bain, 3) bring the ball under control and assess his next options; 4) try and hook the ball deftly over the Aberdeen attacker.

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Options one and two are default for defenders. Number three may have been attempted by his centre-back partner Kristoffer Ajer, but number four is a no-no. Doing so warrants the hoisting of red flags. Yet, that was the one chosen by Duffy.

What made it so egregious is that it was so un-Duffy like and only added fuel to the bonfire of gifs, memes, social media clips and laughter since the 28-year-old moved to Celtic.

Premier League Duffy

The 38-time international was a key transfer target for Neil Lennon in the summer as he sought to strengthen the defence and replace the departed Jozo Simunovic.

Following the announcement of the signing, the Celtic boss said: "He is a leader and a warrior – someone with real ability and who will also give us that great physical presence.”

Shane Duffy has looked out of place in the Celtic team since signing. Picture: SNSShane Duffy has looked out of place in the Celtic team since signing. Picture: SNS
Shane Duffy has looked out of place in the Celtic team since signing. Picture: SNS

The battle parlance is often uttered when it comes to defenders. They are the ones ‘putting their bodies on the line’ as such and Lennon wasn’t wrong. Duffy is a leader having worn the armband while playing for Blackburn, Brighton and with Ireland, and there was no question he would add physical presence.

Putting his time for Brighton, where he made 130 appearances, under the microscope, it is clear to see what he excelled at and what kind of defender he is.

In the Seagulls’ first two seasons in the Premier League, he played 72 of 76 matches.

Under Chris Hughton, Brighton were amongst the lower echelons of teams when it came to ball possession, and even more so with pressing. In essence, they were a reactive rather than proactive team and that suited Duffy's 'warrior’-like qualities.

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Across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Duffy blocked the third most shots in the Premier League. No player made more interceptions. And when it came to aerial duels he topped the charts for those in his own penalty area. In 2018/19 only Virgil van Dijk was more successful competing for headers in his own box.

Shane Duffy is a defender who is very good at defending in a particular style. Deep, in a team without the ball, on the edge of or inside the box and backs to the wall.

Therefore it is little surprise that he was fazed out under manager Graham Potter last season, making 19 appearances in the league, starting just 12 times.

Potter sought to make Brighton a more proactive side, their possession share in the Premier League rising to 51.7 per cent in the season he took over from 44.1 per cent the previous campaign under Hughton.

The Celtic dilemma

The issue arises when you take a second to consider what is required of Duffy in a Celtic top. Something you’d have expected Lennon, head of football operations Nicky Hammond and the recruitment team at Parkhead to consider.

Celtic don’t defend deep, they leave space in behind, they have a lot of the ball, defenders can act as de facto midfielders and concentration has to be on point because they need to be ready if a team counters.

What is being asked of Duffy is almost the opposite of what he is best suited for.

As far back as his debut against Ross County there were slight concerns with simple balls being played over the top of the defence and making Duffy turn. That was even more noticeable in the 3-0 win over Hibs. Twice he was caught out by Kevin Nisbet leading to good chances for the Easter Road side to score, the centre-back looking like he was trying to run on ice.

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In the 2-0 defeat to Rangers, Duffy's possession play was shown up. During his two seasons under Hughton at Brighton in the Premier League he averaged 32 passes per game. So far at Celtic, that figure is more than 70. His passing in the Old Firm game was erratic at best.

Now, it is basic defensive errors that are being made.

Turn it around

"Personally my form has not been good at the minute,” Duffy said prior to the Aberdeen draw. “But I've been here before, I've just got to get my head around it, and get back to playing what I'm used to.

"I've had two bad games [Rangers and Milan] where it's not been to my standard, and I'm my biggest critic so I know it's not good enough.

"I've just got to keep working hard, keep going, keep believing in it and I know I can get back to the form I'm capable of."

Yes, his form hasn’t been anywhere near good enough. But bigger picture, Celtic’s decision to sign a defender who is adept in a particular style but looks out of depth and uncomfortable in the one Celtic play in.

Duffy isn’t a bad player but he is a bad signing – perhaps a vanity one – and it points to bad recruitment on Celtic’s part. An expensive loan signing who hasn’t improved the team and one which lacks vision and isn’t part of a longer strategy.