In a season where there have been plenty of breakout stars, from the Toure brothers in Adelaide to Jerry Skotadis at Western United, there is a case building that Cameron Devlin is the A-League’s most improved player.
Having played a miserly 78 minutes in seven appearances last season for champions Sydney FC, Devlin has taken his opportunity at Ufuk Tulay’s Wellington Phoenix with both hands, playing 1072 minutes with nine games still to play.
Devlin’s impact in Wellington’s midfield has been so great that Alex Rufer, a constant in their side for some time, has been pushed out from his regular starting berth. Devlin and Ville Matti Steinmann are now clearly Talay’s preferred anchors in the middle of the park.
The former Sydney midfielder’s greatest strength is how effectively he shields his back four. Phoenix have only conceded 22 goals largely because opponents struggle to penetrate the area behind the midfield thanks to Devlin’s active approach to defending.
The 21-year-old has the most successful defensive actions (13.18) per 90 minutes compared to all A-League central midfielders, emphasising just how busy he is. His energy is especially crucial for Talay as his team can often be caught on the counter-attack, so Devlin’s awareness and stamina to get into the right areas ensures they don’t concede in transition.
While defensive numbers can sometimes be a bit misleading – a team that makes a lot of tackles might not be good at defending, they might just be required to make a lot because of poor positioning, for example – Devlin is nonetheless one of the better defensive midfielders in the league.
Although his defensive attributes make him a good holding midfielder, it’s his calmness on the ball to build up possession quickly and safely which makes him a great one. As well as topping the charts defensively, he also completes the most passes in the midfielder category with an accuracy rate of 90.26 per cent.
It’s not that his passes are sideways or backwards either. The Wellington man has very strong numbers when it comes to passes entering the final third (7.14 per 90 mins) as well as progressing the ball from deep as well.
While speaking to the A-League, Devlin simply and accurately depicted his role within the team.
“I feel very comfortable on the ball, getting the ball, moving the ball and starting the play.
“In defence I kind of just like ratting around and being a bit of a menace.”
Devlin also has that sort of attitude where he will never give up on a ball, no matter how hopeless it might be. While that is not a particularly tactical observation or one that can be backed up by stats, it is certainly an attribute that any manager would be desperate to have in their own team.
Although Devlin has only recorded one assist so far this season, he has, in flashes, shown that he could potentially operate as a more attack-minded midfielder as he continues to gain experience.
The midfielder clearly has the creativity to beat the last lines of opposition defences as well as the first in earlier phases of possession, which might make him a great candidate to become a number 10 or a ‘free 8′ midfielder in the future.
If there is an area where Devlin needs to improve, it is in the attacking third where he has only taken three shots all season. While he has a brilliant forward line-up ahead of him, including Mexican star Ulises Davila and former Celtic striker Gary Hooper, he needs to grow a bit more courage to take a shot when he has no pressure from defenders.
Devlin’s growth was rewarded as he won the December player of the month, however it’s still not certain whether his performances have been enough to convince Graham Arnold that he should play for the Olyroos at the Olympics.
Domestically, Devlin will play an important part in the rest of Wellington’s season, and if they are to have a genuine chance of winning the championship, it could come down to whether he continues to improve to make him not only the most improved player in the competition, but one of the A-League’s best as well.