View from behind the pillar: how to solve a problem like Mark Duffy?
This is not an obituary before the body is cold. The reports that Mark Duffy has been told he can leave Sheffield United Football Club have prompted me to question how on earth we'd survive without him.
In all sports – in all activities where groups of people can cheer from the sidelines or the television – fans have their favourites. Becoming a favourite is an imprecise but straightforward recipe, like Yorkshire pudding batter or a lager top.
Simply mix equal parts:
• A fair amount of time spent at the club
• A signature style of play
• To be part of a team that isn’t a total failure
• (Optional) Be involved in a moment of history
That’s the route to be a favourite – and Mark Duffy is mine. There is one pulse-thumping reason to love him, and I will return to that at the end of this article. For now, I want to outline the reasons eliciting my fanboyism...
It's because he's the fulcrum. The cog around which everything else swings. The nerve-centre of the hivemind that allows Jack O’Connell the time to overlap down the left, or Basham on the right. Everything he does feels like it is taking place on a knife-edge. He tantalises opponents - the ball is there, and then it's not.
My love for Mark Duffy’s football is bound up in preferring a deft jink to a tackle, a drag-back to a shoulder barge and tippy-tappy triangles to a forty-yard pass.
What is the situation?
Whether you believe that the player has been told to leave or you believe the player has been told he is free to go, it is abundantly clear that Duffy will be hard-pressed to get into a Blades eleven this season. And this all feels a little cold.
We've barely finished the celebration party, hardly had the time to let it sink in. It was only months ago when Chris Wilder was barking “Prescot Cables” in interviews, referring to Duffy’s rise from the non-league to the top, and now he’s not getting his chance at the top. Or is he?
The passing of time will enable us to see this situation more clearly. It might be the case – and I do hope it is – that Duffy has been told he is free to fight for a place. Within the opportunity to leave, there could yet be an opportunity to stay and prove his worth. He’s done it before, after all.
First with Samir Carruthers, then Ricky Holmes, Ben Woodburn and Kieran Dowell. All have been brought in to provide competition, all have been found wanting. Don’t forget, also, that David Brooks was unable to offer the prerequisite intelligence and hold-up play that Duffy offered. The Welsh U21 and senior player of the year mostly played in an unfamiliar striking role. Presumably, the gaffer made that call because Mark Duffy had made the position his own, and only he was trusted to play in such a free role.
Too tough to replace?
It is that free role, the number ten position that is up for discussion. The ‘trequartista’, as it is known in techy football circles (and to ‘Football Manager fans), is usually defined as a technical, advanced playmaker whose position is not determined but fluid. Sounds just like Duff, eh?
But Duffy didn’t always play in that position. It was Alan Knill at Scunthorpe who steered the Liverpudlian on a path towards the middle.
“I used to be an out and out winger. Trying to beat my man down there. Knilly took me to one side and told me, when they couldn’t get the ball wide, it was like being a man down. So he dragged me inside, worked on my positioning, and everything went from there.” (Source: Sheffield Star.)
By the time Duffy to came to the Lane, he was a more complete player, and as Chris Wilder transitioned into the 3-4-1-2 formation that we are so accustomed to today, he became indispensable. From League One to our first season in the Championship, Duff has schooled opposition defenders and been the go-to man when it comes to assisting assists and providing assists.
Last season, Duffy played 36 games. Of those games, the Blades won 22. Conversely, in the games where Duffy has not featured, the Blades have won 4 in 10. I think it is correct to be cautious about stats; they should not be treated as a cast-iron buttress for hunch or opinion. In this instance, we are talking about one season, 36 games played, 10 games not played. This is a small sample size, and we know, correlation and causation are ill-suited bedfellows.
Nevertheless, to crunch those numbers: when Duffy played last season, we won 61.1% of games. When he did not play, we only won 40% of the games. And this leaves me with a question: how do you replace a man like Mark Duffy?
Tactical tweak or like for like replacement?
It strikes me that there are two considerations here. The first is tactical, and the second is recruitment.
(In terms of tactics, I shall plead the fifth. What can I know of tactics that only football managers and analysts know? This blog is called 'View from behind the pillar.' It is so named because the opinions fleshed-out here are biased. I'm blinded by my petty grudges against some players and my baseless adoration of others. With that in mind, here's a brief thought on tactics...)
You'll remember the 3-5-2 tried and tested season, where John Lundstram, Lee Evans and John Fleck played in a flat midfield three. Well...let's not revert to that. We were far too easily pinned deep, and we lost momentum further up the pitch. (It should not go unsaid that one of Duffy's best traits is keeping the ball in the final third of the pitch - some call it dallying; I don't.)
Should Duffy leave, we could move to a more dynamic 3-4-3. With more pace and power up top - a lot of that down to new signings - we could tweak the system to make the best use of individual brilliance and mid-distance shooting. It is, after all, a fair criticism that Duffy's has not brought quite enough goals.
This brings me on to consideration number two: recruitment.
I can't really speak about tactics without talking about signings. With a fair chunk of recruitment having already taken place, I think it likely that the 3-4-3 becomes our new Plan B. At least, only at the point when Plan A is less fruitful.
Record signing Lys Mousset, former-PNE striker Callum Robinson and the big, beautiful question mark that is Ravel Morrison could all fit in that 3-4-3 model. They have the pace and power and trickery to run at the opposition (and to run the channels too!). This could mean quicker transitions, a deeper midfield line and perhaps, a more vigorous counter-attack - you'd think we'll need that in the Premier League. But that is, speculatively, my Plan B.
As I see it, our new Plan A will be much the same. But instead of relying on Mark Duffy, we will turn to new-signing Luke Freeman. From what I've watched of 'Freezy' at Stevenage, Bristol and QPR, he has the close control and the dribbling and the passing and the vision to make himself the most feared player on the pitch. Unlike Duffy, he has more of a goal threat too. And this is probably why this whole situation has arisen - we need more of a threat.
Where Duffy has been perfect for a Blades team who dominate for long spells of the game, it seems to be a sober and pragmatic decision by Chris Wilder to 'mix it up' now that we're facing Premier League opposition, opposition who'll have much more of the ball that we're used to. We can no longer fall back on creating 15+ chances per game and a slow, steady build-up. We need a spark. Speed. A shot from 20 yards. A turn on the ball. Goals!
By adding this to the side, we inevitably lose somebody. It looks like that 'somebody' will be my (joint) favourite player of the Wilder era. And, as with Paul Coutts, the moment feels right, if a little too soon. Football always changes and always stays the same. But, as always, in Wilder, we trust.
Whether Duffy stays or goes, the only question remaining now, is how he'll be remembered.
Many footballers will play more games for Sheffield United than Mark Duffy will - many footballers have. Strikers will score more, midfielders will pass more and more accurately, defenders will throw their body on the line more times and keepers will win us more points than ever he has. Very few - and I mean, very few at all - will ever create a moment like he has.
Football can feel cyclical at times. It can turn dour. It can be utterly forgettable. But those 'where were you? moments' are rare. Rare and impossibly sweet. They are memories that you pass down, like the stories my Dad passed down to me about Keith Edwards or my Grandad about Doc Pace. It depends on your generation, but mine is...
...the mad Dean Saunders' strike;
...that Dellas Volley;
...Jagz against Leeds;
...Tonge's brace against Liverpool;
...Pesch against Forest
...when Mark Duffy stopped them bouncing.
When I shut my eyes I can still see that turn, then another, and then BANG. Inside and out, Mark Duffy will always be a Sheffield United legend.