So after the somewhat abrupt sacking of Chris Hughton, the club have appointed Graham Potter as first team head coach. After spending eight years in Sweden managing Östersunds, Potter then spent the last season managing Swansea in the Championship, steering them to a mid-table finish. He now finds himself making another step up, this time hoping he can pick Brighton up after a disappointing end to last season.
Like all Brighton fans I’m very impressed with what I’ve read about Graham Potter and as a result I’m excited for the season ahead. In his press conference he said all the right things too, praising his predecessor whilst sharing the owner Tony Bloom’s ambition to achieve progress on the pitch. But as Brighton fans we’ve heard a lot of the right things being said in recent months and yet had little to cheer on the pitch. So I think it’s time for some realism: It will be another tough season ahead for the Albion.
Yes, it will be a tough season in a tough league amongst an environment of growing expectation and ambition for Brighton. As such Graham Potter has shown brave ambition to take this job and at the same time leave a fairly secure post at Swansea in the league below where he is much admired. This feels like a risky step forward for both parties.
It does say a lot about the progress of the club in recent years and the ambition of the board that the club achieving its 3rd and then 4th highest ever league finish in the last two seasons is deemed not good enough by so many. But whether with this move the club have bitten off more than it can chew is a question that won’t be answered until next May.
For Potter to ensure the team match the growing expectations with the relatively limited resources he has available, then he will have to be as good as he sounds, and he will need some luck. So I for one don’t envy him. No more so than because he inherits a team damaged from a poor showing in the second half of last season.
The current squad of players he is inheriting is one that, Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross aside, lacks evidence of consistent and reliable quality in attacking areas. And is in particular short of creativity and pace. This was desperately demonstrated by only scoring 14 goals in the league in the second half of the season and scoring the 4th lowest amount of goals in the league all season, with only the three relegated teams scoring less. A situation in part caused by the injuries to the 2017/18 club player of the season, Pascal Gross.
This issue was exacerbated by the attacking options added to the squad in the last two seasons either being injured or not performing to the required standard. A lot has been made of this, but frankly this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Albion’s problems.
The squad is also one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of the season showed. Brighton’s squad cumulative experience was the fifth lowest in the Premier League, totaling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated with the only other side Wolves, who unlike Brighton are a team made up of players with plenty of top flight experience in Europe’s other top flight leagues.
That relative inexperience will be increased next season after the retirement of captain Bruno, who along with other leaders like the also now retired Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell were all a huge part of the “good group of lads” that Hughton moulded first into a promotion winning side, and then into a Premier League side which will soon enter its third straight season in the top flight.
One element in Hughton’s relationship with owner Tony Bloom that reportedly caused conflict was the transfer policy, as discussed by Barry Glendenning on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast. And with the recent appointment of Dan Ashworth as Technical Director along with Graham Potter being given the job title of First Team “Head Coach” rather than “Manager”, it suggests a change in approach in this regard. The club will be hoping this leads to more success in this area next season to overcome the issues highlighted in recent months.
But the prospect of drastically improving on what Potter has available to him by dipping into the transfer market is likely to be on the same constrained level relative to the competition as in previous seasons. As Paul Barber has signalled the fiscally responsible approach shown in previous years won’t be changed, and rightly so.
You may have recently seen criticism of the club’s transfer activity, some of which is valid, but it is done whilst ignoring the financial reality that the club is competing within. Brighton have one of the lowest wage bills in the league, in the 17/18 season, the most recent that we have figures for, Brighton had the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league with only Huddersfield’s being lower. And whilst the club’s gross transfer spend in 18/19 season was estimated as the 9th highest in the country, it was done so whilst bringing in a whopping 15 players, making the average transfer fee per player estimated around only £5/6m, which doesn’t buy much at this level.
And whilst the club’s net spend since promotion was the 6th highest in the Premier League this is also exaggerated by the fact that unlike much of the competition the club didn’t have Premier League assets to sell to offset against their spending. In fact the club’s total estimated transfer revenue was only £12m, half that of the league’s estimated average. On top of that the squad required strengthening to meet the standards required to make the step up to the top tier, which as Fulham have shown, even if you splash lots of cash it doesn’t assure success.
This all means the quality of players available to Potter is on average lower in comparison to its competitors, making his job all the more difficult. And this will likely make the prospect of Graham Potter transferring his expansive, possession based approach at the club all the more difficult.
Under Chris Hughton, Brighton’s success was built on stability and consistently, something that has gone missing for large parts of 2019. In response the club’s decision to appoint a manager who will aim to revamp the club’s approach comes with added risk of going against that mould. Especially considering Brighton don’t appear suited to it when you look at the stats. For example, they had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the league last season.
Some will reference the drastic change in style of play that Gus Poyet achieved at the club after his arrival in 2009 as a worthy comparison here. And whilst that’s true and that was also with a team that had narrowly avoided relegation the season before, that he went on to lead to win the league the following season, this was in a very different environment. He arrived when the club were underachieving, whilst the same cannot be said of now, especially considering last season was the club’s fourth highest ever league finish. Moreover when Poyet took charge the club were competing in a far less competitive league where playing such a style made them an outlier in contrast to the Premier League of today where possession is very much king.
Potter will be expected by many to hit the ground running from the start. As Hughton found to his cost the expectations at the club are probably higher than ever and if he doesn’t achieve a more comfortable survival from relegation whilst playing more attacking football, the nature of his arrive coming at the cost of Hughton in such dramatic fashion will mean he will likely be seen by some to have failed to a degree.
Potter’s problem in keeping fans on side may also be that unlike Hughton and many of his top flight contemporaries, he has neither the experience nor the credit in the bank with the fans at his club to fall back on if he comes up against a run of bad results. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of last season in the first game of the coming one could spark a beginning of mounting pressure, that could considerably negatively affect such an inexperienced and relatively weak squad of players. A squad who have shown a lack of confidence across most of the second half of the last season.
Once the Euphoria of his appointment and the excitement and optimism that comes with a new season subsides, Potter will be required to show why Tony Bloom has placed his trust in him. If we’ve learnt anything from last season, it’s that whilst it’s great to be optimistic, it only gets you so far. We all remember how excited we were when the club signed both Locadia and Jahanbakhsh, neither of whom have met those early euphoric expectations.
Over the course of a season, a team’s quality, experience and depth will tell in its final league position, much as it did for Brighton in the season just gone. And realistically another 17th placed finish would be a success for the club. To achieve the sort of transformation in style of play at Brighton many envisage Graham Potter has been brought in to do, he will need time and I hope he gets it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither can we expect instant results. Changing the style of play won’t be instant and at this level will prove harder than when Poyet did so in third tier or as Potter did at Swansea in the second tier. It may even take in relegation, but if we are to go down this road I hope then Potter is afforded that time and the odd bump in the road given the limitations he has counting against him.
Of course, given the way Chris Hughton was treated by sections of the fanbase, possibly the most successful manager in the club’s history, it’s far more likely that a bad run of results will tell for Potter before he is given the chance to do that. This is far more likely than those who said they’d rather see Brighton play attacking football and get relegated than play Chris Hughton’s more defence-minded style and stay up stick to their word when it is tested.
I’m all for optimism and at halfway last season genuinely thought Brighton could match or better its best ever finish of 13th in the top flight. And whilst a terrible second half of the season in the league ended those ambitions, to blame Hughton entirely is naive. Whilst his sacking was arguably justified the problems outlined above still remain and explain much of the team’s shortcomings.
It’s not going to be easy for Potter. In my eyes equaling Hughton’s achievements of Premier League survival would amount to a very good season. My concern is whether it will be deemed enough by others.