Lewis Dunk can seem an unlikely figure to be in the vanguard of a footballing revolution. He is a centre back with roots in the lower leagues, tree-trunk thighs and a host of tattoos. Ask him his regrets and he will cite being suspended at Middlesbrough after, “like an idiot”, he collected one of his nine career red cards. It would be easy to pigeonhole him as a traditional British stopper; indeed, that used to be his job description.
Not now, however. The Brighton captain has earned an England recall, almost five years since his last cap, due to his nerveless excellence at Roberto De Zerbi’s ultra-bold style of football, inviting forward players to close him down yards from his own goal, then passing the ball past them.
“To the fans, especially at home games, it probably looks scary when we pass around the six-yard box – sounds crazy – but we know the idea of the pass or what we are gaining from it,” Dunk said. “We are not doing it to look good, we are doing it to score at the other end, and we are doing it to get [Kaoru] Mitoma and Solly March in one-vs-one positions. So, there is a method behind the madness.”
‘Method behind the madness’ may serve as a motto for De Zerbi’s football. What looks high-risk is highly organised, not chaos but ultra-attacking strategy being put into practice. His appointment proved a culture shock to Dunk, and not merely because of the confusion about whether to listen to the Italian or his interpreter.
“A carnage two weeks,” Dunk recalled. “They were baffling.” Brighton had played passing football under Graham Potter, but De Zerbi’s ethos was something radically different. At 31, Dunk is the old dog who was taught new tricks. He speaks with the evangelism of a convert and the Zen calm of a man accustomed to passing under pressure in a part of the pitch where the mantra for defenders long used to be ‘if in doubt, boot it out’. A thoughtful, quietly-spoken figure described it as an eye-opener.
“Since the new manager at Brighton has come in, I see football in a completely different way, I picture it in a different way,” he explained. “Football is not what I thought it was. Just how we play now… 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, ‘Why didn’t I do this before?’”
And if one answer is because most assumed it was too difficult to implement without it backfiring, Dunk confirmed it is not improvised. “It’s rehearsed, don’t worry about that,” he said. “I now know every position on the pitch and where they should be. The time they should move and what angles they should give. We practise it that much that we know every scenario. We know where the ball should go to reach past the pressure. We know it inside out. The details Roberto has put in now are incredible.”
It has meant Dunk’s role has been transformed. In his first season in the Premier League, under Chris Hughton, his pass completion rate was 77.8 per cent. Last season, it was 90.3. He played 377 short passes in 2017/18 and 1066 last season. He had the second most touches of any outfield player in his own box last season; except that was not a product of rearguard actions, but of building attacks from the back. Remarkably, the player to complete the most passes in the Premier League in 2022/23 was Dunk. The numbers are proof of a technical ability that was long camouflaged.
“With Chris, I had a great time and loved him, but we were on a different part of the journey at Brighton, and we had to defend our box,” he said. “I had to show those attributes and didn’t get the chance to play [football].” But as he has, a player Gareth Southgate picked in 2018 but then discarded has illustrated his suitability for England’s style of play.
In March, De Zerbi described him as one of the five best centre halves in Europe. That could confer pressure. “It’s more gratifying,” Dunk said. “It makes you proud.” For years, however, it seemed as though Southgate did not consider him one of the five best in England. Perhaps Dunk concurs. “I have improved as a player, and I am coming here as a better player than I was before.”
His experience of wearing an England shirt stretches beyond his one appearance against the United States in 2018, however. Dunk has a picture of himself and his friends on holiday in Portugal during Euro 2012, celebrating England’s win over Sweden in full kit. Danny Welbeck scored that day and Welbeck is now a Brighton teammate. “I have told him the story,” Dunk admitted.
Southgate recalled him in the summer, but injury ruled him out. Now Dunk is hoping to leave the group of one-cap wonders; the second half of his debut came in front of goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, who very much remains in that club. Dunk lined up that day with Fabian Delph and Harry Winks, names from another era for England. Dunk’s might have been another. He said: “It comes to a time when you probably think: ‘Ah, I might not be back in here.’” But he has returned after being reinvented.