Alex McLeish has now named his squad for Scotland’s games early in September, where the…
There were concerns Hearts couldn’t maintain their impressive start to the season after they lost Kyle Lafferty to Rangers and captain Christophe Berra through injury. The Northern Ireland striker may have been talismanic for the Gorgie outfit last term, but their new and improved attack has meant they’ve replaced his goals; so far at least. Berra was arguably the bigger loss. A defensive man-mountain and a hugely influential player who would be a significant miss for Levein’s side.
However, Hearts have managed just fine. John Souttar has taken like a duck to water in the captain’s role. The newly-capped Scotland star deserves an immense amount of credit, but so does his defensive partner Jimmy Dunne. The young Irishman has stepped up and replaced Berra at the heart of the Jambos defence. He’s had big boots to fill but so far hasn’t looked out of place and has been a solid addition to Hearts backline.
Arguably Berra’s main strength is his aerial prowess. He’s never been considered a defender who’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and can pick a pass. No, Berra is an old-school stopper who likes to dominate in the air and do the dirty work. This was, and still is, a vital part of Levein’s team. Having a solid defensive unit let them off the hook on numerous occasion last campaign. Having a strong backline this season coupled with an improved attack has allowed Hearts to really kick on and become a team that can seemingly beat anyone on their day.
Four players have partaken in more aerial duels than Dunne this season (55). Conversely, when we take a look at aerial duels per 90 minutes we get a better idea of the 20-year-old’s performance in this category. He averages 12.99 aerial duels which is only bettered by, you guessed it, Christophe Berra with 15.73. That’s an impressive level from Dunne and is more than Souttar (9.23). Moreover, it’s not as if the Irishman’s taking part in these aerial duels and coming off second best. No, he’s winning 60% of them which is just shy of Souttar’s success rate of 62.2%. Again Berra’s aerial quality is on display for all to see as he wins 84% of his duels.
Simply put, Dunne perhaps isn’t as effective as Berra in the air, but nobody in this Hearts team is. What he’s shown is that he is an able deputy and can more than hold his own in the air at this level. He’s performing just as well as Souttar and has been important in ensuring Hearts’ backline is difficult to break through.
It’s not just aerial battles where Dunne has shown his worth. He’s difficult to beat and can win the ball and be in the right place at the right time. It’d be easy to forget that he and Souttar are both still in the early part of their senior careers. The pair doesn’t look fazed by the job on hand and they have all the attributes needed to be top defenders.
Let’s not beat around the bush. No player has averaged more interceptions per 90 for Hearts this season than Dunne (6.14). To be fair, Souttar isn’t far behind (6.10) but it’s an impressive stat nonetheless. It means that in just four league appearances this season Dunne has made 26 interceptions overall. For some context, Souttar has made 39 and Peter Haring 37. Furthermore, only 13 players in the whole of the Premiership average more interceptions per 90 than the 20-year-old.
Again, due to him playing less game time the best way to rate Dunne’s performance in the defensive duels metric is to look at his average per 90. His overall of 29 is still decent and is actually more than Souttar’s (28). However, when it comes to defensive duels/90 Dunne (6.85) is ahead of both Berra (6.29) and Souttar (4.38). That does mean that the on-loan Burnley defender is putting himself about and constantly battling. Conversely, his success rate in this metric isn’t as impressive and he wins 27.5% of these duels. Souttar (46.43%) and Berra (40%) are both more effective in this regard.
Dunne, like Berra, is considered more of a no-nonsense, old-fashioned defender. His stats highlight that; he’s good in the air and is effective at intercepting the ball. That said, he’s shown that his passing and distribution isn’t too shabby. He’s played 200 passes overall this season and 80% of those have found a teammate. Only three players in a maroon top (Souttar, Haring and Naismith) have played more. Similarly, when it comes to passes per 90 no player in all of the Hearts squad averages more than the Irish international (47.24).
The bottom line is Dunne has stepped into Berra’s shoes almost seamlessly. Sure he’s not the influential character that the veteran is, but he’s not expected to be. Souttar has stepped up in that regard and has been excellent since donning the captain’s armband. Dunne has done everything that’s expected of him and more. If Hearts had started to look suspect at the back in Berra’s absence it’d be understandable. Souttar has been praised for his performances, and rightly so, but it’s a testament to Dunne that nobody has noticed a decline in Hearts’ defence. He’s now a vital part of their ongoing success.