The sun is shining, the first signs of spring are here, the cherry blossoms are beginning to flower, the tide of this terrible pandemic that we have been experiencing for a year now appears to be turning in our favour and Albion have one of the most talented teams in its 120 year history. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find any optimism amongst Albion supporters after a frustrating 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.
It will have come as no surprise to most that Saturday saw yet another promising Brighton performance which saw plenty of scoring opportunities created, be again spoilt by poor finishing and poor defending from set pieces. Groundhog Day. Well, I did say it was the first signs of spring.
This has been a season built on the gutting and slicing up of Albion’s promotion winning side. Yes we’ve replaced those individuals who many saw as surplus to requirements, with a group of arguably higher quality players. But, have we built a team with the replacement parts? The fact Albion keep coming up short in games suggests not quite yet.
This is clearly a very well coached, talented group of players with a clear idea of how they want to play. But, that they keep getting found out in the key moments in matches suggests that as a collective there is still something missing.
One of the key attributes of the existing group of players that Potter inherited and has overseen a clear off of, was its unity and team spirit. A quality that was so consciously and carefully cultivated by his predecessor Chris Hughton.
Hughton held great stock in ensuring the team was full of the right types of personalities, or as Maty Ryan once famously put it – “no Dickheads”. So much so that there has been suggestions made that part of the reason Hughton was sacked was for his disagreements with others about transfer policy in order to protect the teams bond.
We have seen examples of it still existing at the club from this group of players. Most notably in the second half comeback at home against Wolves and the hard fought 1-0 win away to Leeds United. But this kind of collective performance has not been evident enough this season. Albion’s key players now need to step up and be counted.
Grit, stoicism, that intangible quality which comes largely from failing and having to pick yourself and go again, call it what you want. Hughton’s team had it by the bucketload. And no wonder after it had been to hell and back together both professionally in terms of the way it missed out on promotion in 2015/16, and in some cases personally, such as with Anthony Knockaert’s well documented personal issues. But in both cases they collective stood together and came out of those situations stronger because of it.
However, this team and set of players do not appear to have the same collective industry. The fact we’ve seen ex-players not be exactly complimentary about the club and existing ones use their agent to attempt to embarrass the club in order to get the right deal they want, is hardly the sign of a harmonious collective spirit.
Another example of this is its defending from set pieces, where we have regularly seen players find space in the gaps and score. This to a degree is an inherent problem with zonal marking when the ball drops between players ‘zones’, but man to man marking has its fallibilities too.
For me this isn’t about whether we use zonal or man to man marking, it’s about individuals taking person responsibility to stop the opposition scoring. Too often we’ve seen examples like Kyle Bartley’s goal on Saturday, where players run around one man and into a gap between two or three static Albion defenders to score.
Albion’s team is relatively young team and contains players who you’d somewhat expect lapses in focus and concentration throughout the season. This is where you need your players with more experience to be constantly communicating and reminding players of their jobs.
Brian Owen from the Argus stated earlier this season that “Adam Webster’s is one of the voices we hear quite clearly up in the stands during these behind-closed-doors matches (like Lallana and Ryan).” Three player not on the pitch at the time of the West Brom goal.
It’s not a surprise that Adam Webster’s absence, who is becoming a real leader of this team, saw an end to Albion’s clean sheet run. He’s been Albion best defender this season and talk of an extended absence is a really worry for Albion’s hope of turning this bad run around.
When it comes to spirit, it’s hard not to notice Neil Maupay’s is waning. Albion’s number nine started the season with 4 goals in 5 games, but his subsequent 3 goals in the last 22 tells its own story.
Clearly he’s lacking confidence, otherwise he’d have taken at least one of his recent chances, as well as possibly stepping up to take at least one of the penalties against West Brom. Especially when you consider he has an 80% penalty conversion rate at Albion and 3 of his 7 goals this season were penalties.
The football coach and analyst Harry Brooks spoke about the Maupay conundrum after the game on Twitter and stated that he believed “there’s a reason Brighton players keep missing these types of chances. They can’t take them. So therefore, Potter has to change the type of chances they create”.
And whilst I think we can all agree this is a harsh assessment and I don’t take his criticisms of Potter too seriously, the fact Albion have beaten teams like Leeds, Villa, Liverpool and Spurs this season when playing on the break with less possession and getting more runs in behind suggest that he’s got a point.
In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to their last three matches, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in its last 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was 38%, almost half!
Saturday’s defeat was the fourth time that Brighton have had over 60% possession in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four of those games, accumulating just 2 points. Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 3 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.
The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (9 times this season), they’ve won on 4 and occasions and picked up 14 points 1.56, an average of points per game.
The Premier League’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer also commented in a question and answer session for the Athletic this week about the team’s goalscoring problems. Saying that “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”
Going onto say “I’ve always said the time to worry is when you’re not creating chances. But when you’re missing as many as they are it has to be a concern. You have to look at the ability of players to be at this level.”
I’ve spoken as recently as last week about the importance of giving Graham Potter the time and patience to get it right and accepting that during this process, mistakes will happen and that very much stands. But, following these last two defeats I think that this is now far beyond a successions of individual mistakes and has become a real issue that the club has to overcome.
Patience goes both ways and Potter also has to accept that he needs to be patient in making these changes. I think some of the problems this season have come from the club trying to do too much too soon. Particularly in regards to some of the changes in personnel referenced earlier. However, it’s admittedly a tough balance and one most teams struggle with at this very competitive level.
Potter managed to get the balance right last season. A damming 1-0 defeat at home to Palace left the team one point above the drop zone with just ten to play and saw many drafting Potter’s managerial obituary. But he trusted his team, slightly switched the teams approach to a more back to basics style and Albion got the results they needed to get over the line to safety.
But regardless of your opinion on style, the players are the ones carrying out the work and need to repay Potter’s trust. Albion should have beaten Palace and West Brom this week, take those opportunities and no one is critical of Graham Potter.
Last week and frankly too often this season the players have let down Graham Potter and his coaching. And what some of the above criticism of him obviously doesn’t excuse is the two penalties that were missed on Saturday.
This is no longer Chris Hughton’s solid and reliable, if often unimaginative outfit. Graham Potter has successfully evolved this team into a very different outfit with a very different set of players. One that is arguably Albion’s most talented squad of players ever, and yet this is arguably the most perilous position of its time in the Premier League.
These are the moments that make or break a season. Where legends and villains are formed. It’s time for the current Albion team to show their spirit and earn their stripes.