The evolution of Lewis Dunk: Get yourself a defender who can do it all, Gareth…

John Nicholson
Lewis Dunk in action for Brighton.
Lewis Dunk has been pivotal in Brighton's ascent under Roberto De Zerbi.

Lewis Dunk is back in the England squad, better than ever, and better than almost every other centre-back in Europe, according to his boss. Johnny Nic concurs…

 

Who’s this then?
Lewis Carl Dunk is a 31-year-old, 6’4” Brighton-born defender who plays for his home team and has been called up for England’s games against Ukraine and Scotland.

He started his youth career at Wimbledon in 2003, then moving on to the Seagulls for seven years in the underage squads, despite being offered a deal with Crystal Palace, captaining the team.

In April 2010 he signed his first professional contract and made his debut in the third tier but not securing a regular place until 2011-12 in the Championship when he played 36 times and was nominated for the Football League Young Player of the Year

However, the next two seasons were difficult, he didn’t get much game time, only making 20 appearances across two campaigns, even going to Bristol City on loan for a month and three games at one point.

In 2014-15 he signed a new four-year deal. It was at this point his career really got going and he became a first team regular, playing over 40 games for the next three seasons and gaining Premier League promotion in 2016-17.

He was Brighton’s Players’ Player of the Season 2018–19 and 2020–21, and Brighton Player of the Year: 2019–20.

In 2018 he earned his only cap for England playing in Wayne Rooney’s final international game, a 3-0 win over USA.

He’s now played 420 games and scored 27 times for Brighton.

 

Why the love?
He’s called Dunk. Is there another Dunk? I’ve never heard of one. Hopefully his nickname is ‘Biscuit’ or ‘Donuts’.

A one-club man playing for his hometown team is a rare thing and something all fans of the club love and fans of other clubs admire. However, there’s a lot more to Lewis’ story than such romantic notions. His story arc is a remarkable one going from a John Terry-inspired throw-your-body-at-the-ball physical player to ball-playing, possession-based defender providing the base for Roberto De Zerbi’s fantastic team.

I mean, he’s a seriously massive unit, and a seriously massive unit in English football is traditionally a brutal central defender, so to see him passing it around his own penalty area instead of booting it long into the channels induces some kind of cognitive dissonance in long term Dunk watchers.

When he was that physical defender he was playing under Chris Hughton and tasked with defending the box first, foremost and only. Under Graham Potter he was handed more freedom to play with the ball and latterly under De Zerbi this has blossomed into a fully-formed style. And Dunk is fantastic at it, though initially struggled to quite understand what was being asked of him, so radical and different was it from the game he was brought up to play.

But he quickly took to it like the proverbial duck to water to such an extent that his manager now says he’s one of the top five central defenders in Europe. That’s no small thing and has led to Gareth Southgate calling him up for the next internationals. He’d initially called him up in June but Dunk picked up an injury so couldn’t make it.

It is still slightly odd in a Bambi-on-ice sort of way to see a 6’4” defender doing Cruyff turns in his own box and playing searching forward passes. And the man himself knows this all too well. “The style probably looks scary to the fans, especially at home games, when we pass around the six-yard box. It sounds crazy. But we know the idea of the pass or what we are gaining from it. We are doing it to score at the other end, to get Mitoma and Solly March in one-v-one positions.

“There is a method behind the madness. We rehearse it every day and now I know every position on the pitch, where they should be, the time they should move and what angles they should give. One presses from this angle, one presses from that angle. We know where the ball should go to reach past the pressure.”

This illustrates just how intellectual and thoughtful Brighton’s football is but also what it demands from players. The days of knocking long into the channels for runners just seems so one-dimensional in comparison.

Three great moments
This shows he can still do the old school defending when required as well as doing all that passy-passy business.

This explains how his game as been transformed…

The way Antony bounces of our man is very funny…

Future days?
His contract at Brighton runs until 2026. It is very unusual to play one game for your country, wait five years and then play again, even more unusual to do so aged 31. But there’s nothing typical about Lewis Dunk. His rebirth as a defender is entirely down to how his last two managers have wanted to play and he is a tremendous example of how a footballer can change their game even into the last third of their career. Too often players get set in their ways or typecast as a certain type of performer. It is greatly to Dunk’s credit that he has transformed his career in this fashion and it seems likely that he will work very well in how Southgate wants England to play. He’s said that he now sees football in an entirely different way. “The idea of what I did before… I thought it made sense. But when you learn something completely different, you believe in it and this makes sense. You think: ‘Why didn’t I know this?”

And that may also reflect the transformation of England’s football style under Southgate. Lewis Dunk is a really interesting and unusual star of English football, walking a new path carved out for him by his club manager and as such he deserves every bit of success he achieves.