With ten games to go, the Albion’s season has changed from one of aspiring to achieve a record high league finish into a nerve-wracking battle to earn another season in the Premier League. However, with a record high finish currently being 13th, the line between those two scenarios is marginal at best.
As the season reaches its crescendo, the confidence that was in place at the halfway point has been well and truly tested. In my last instalment, I discussed how Brighton were a team that were starting to be considered a forgettable mid-table side but have since, fittingly almost unnoticed, become engulfed in a scrap for top flight survival, alongside a promising FA cup run. A scenario that has a concerning likenesses to 1983.
Here we will jump to the Summary but to read the long version click here.
So with four home games against bottom half sides still to come there is plenty of optimism that the team can pick up the required points to keep ahead of Cardiff at least, if not aspire to match or better the clubs record high league finish of 13th from 1981/82.
It was a run of games that many thought would be defined by the lack of Albion’s number one goalkeeper, but was instead defined by a number of defensive mistakes made by players in front of him as well as the much continued focus on the mid-season formation change. But putting this run into perspective it added a further eight crucial points to the tally. And whilst this was the toughest period of the season so far, in the same league fixtures last season Brighton picked up just 9 points, if you swap Fulham as the lowest ranked promoted side with last seasons bottom club West Brom.
Tactically the move to a 433 was cemented in this run of games and appeared to look like the natural progression of the team from the more conservative 451/4411 that had been used almost wholesale previously. It allowed the team to creates more chances and opportunities and Fulham aside, control the game more, conceding less goalscoring opportunities to their opponents. Given this change in formation and the importance to Brighton’s of the compact organisation it creates out of possession, it’s understandable that you get the odd freak performance like of the second-half away to Fulham, especially when under such pressure from the opponents.
It’s a change that will ease criticism of negative tactics and the added expansiveness has given the team a better ability of ball retention and meant the team has created more chances. Whilst they still have the second lowest shots taken per game (10.4), and the third highest shots conceded per game (14.9), they have both improved significantly since the change in formation.
The ball retention statistics are the most striking, the average possession stats of 44.7% being improved on in this period, with the team managing more possession than their opponents in the last four games, 10-15% up on their season average. In fact, the last four games were the only four times the team achieved more possession in all bar one game this season in the Premier League when the opposition kept all 11 men on the pitch. Our passing accuracy has improved greatly over the same four games too. Whilst the team had a season average of 74.5%, it was 77% against Watford, 79% against Burnley, 81% against Leicester and 80% against Huddersfield. Ball retention has been a real issue at times this season, particularly away from home but the vast improvement has been diminished by some individual mistakes.
It’s a change that has allowed the team to control games better and bring the best out of Davy Propper, who has for me been the Albion’s best player for this period of games. Whilst it in contrast initially diminished Gross’s effect on the team whilst he adapted to his new deeper central midfielder role he has continued to look more like the Gross of last season. Time will tell if Gross recaptures his form of last season entirely, but with Yves Bissouma in reserve he may not get much more opportunities to prove he is capable in this new role.
Another benefit is the improvement of Locadia and the return of Jahanbakhsh, allowing them to play in a more natural role as a wide forward off a main striker, rather than in the main striker role or as a wide midfielder. But let’s be honest for all its attacking benefits, the system change has at times been overshadowed by defensive fragility. Particularly in games against Burnley, Fulham and West Ham where the shape was more offensive and easily exposed. Propper & Gross in the midfield three pushed up higher, leaving a huge gap between defence & attack occupied at times only by Stephens. The two Centre backs and the defensive midfielder then either push up & leave gaps in behind, or sit back & leave gaps in front. Either of which would leave space for opponents to exploit as shown in these games.
How much of these failings were down to individual errors whilst adjusting to the change and how much was down to the systems structural failings is yet to be seen. Nonetheless I’m a fan of the 4-3-3 in general and believe the openness against Burnley was in part a symptom of the game and the opponents we were facing and if we are hoping to progress and establish ourselves in this division, I see it as a possible route to progress towards that.
With ten games to go last season we were 12th, 4 points clear of the bottom three, compared to our current 5-point gap sitting 15th. Despite the bad run, our fate is still in our hands, we still have a good run of fixtures, so there is no reason to panic. Let’s be realistic, all the teams above us in the league should be there given they have significantly higher budgets. We are and always were in a relegation battle, and whilst the situation may have become more severe, we are still in a good position. Finishing 17th would be a good season, anything else is a bonus. In all the excitement of the first half of the season and the recent cup run, it’s been easy forget that.
Of course, it’s not all about money. An analysis Sky Sports produced at the start of this season showed how relatively inexperienced the Brighton squad is compared to the rest of the Premier League. Brighton’s squad experience was the fifth lowest, totalling 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle.
These limited resources, both financially and otherwise, limits what Hughton has to work with and is in turn what he is being criticised for, including the squad depth available, the substitution options, the first eleven selection and tactical rotation ability. This area of the team has been particularly exposed in this run as a combination of suspension, injuries and the addition of the cup games stretched resources. With the obvious example of Andone’s suspension meaning the lack of a natural front-man replacement from the bench for Murray in the defeats to both Burnley and Leicester.
The reality is that whilst my analysis at the start of the season found no significant evidence of Second Season Sydndrome, there is evidence that the club has reached a crossroads with an opportunity to develop a more expansive approach, or to double down on the defensive organisation.
Whilst the 1983 comparison has worried some and the cup is much maligned, without it we would have had to wait for a win from Everton in December to Huddersfield in late February. What felt like an age, would have felt like an eternity.
Furthermore, whilst some people complain when others point out we should be grateful to be here based on where we were 20 or so years ago. Brighton are a relatively small team compared to rest of the division and we should be grateful to be here, as well as accepting that bad games and indeed bad runs will happen.
In fact, forget about 20 years ago:
• 10 years ago, we were a game away from relegation to league 2
• 8 years ago, we were still playing at the Withdean
• 6 years ago, (the season we lost to Palace in playoffs) Poyet said it was “now or never” regarding promotion to the top tier due to FFP
• 4 years ago, we were close to a return to League one, only for Chris Hughton to come in and turn our fortunes around
• 2 years ago, we were competing again for (and ultimately won) automatic promotion after missing out on goal difference the season before & losing in playoffs, despite many then writing us off.
• Last season, we avoided relegation from the top division for only the fourth time in our history. Reaching only our third ever FA Cup quarter final.
Whatever this season brings it will not be a surprise, and it will not be a disaster. Brighton have one of the smallest budgets and limited squads in the division and therefore we should expect to be competing at the bottom end of the table.
And it’s this expectation management that we have spoken about before that is really going to be tested as the run-in materialises. There will be low points but a dose of realism might be required for some of the more critical supporters. When we judge the team on a single poor performance we are ignoring the bigger picture and the fact this team continues to defy the odds. And my optimism remains that with this team under Hughton’s leadership, they will continue to do so.