With a new season and the closing of the transfer window two weeks away new signings are a topic on almost every Brighton fans lips. The transfer window is something that has often been kind to Brighton fans over the last decade but with growing status comes growing expectations and in recent seasons the reception of the club’s transfer dealings has been mixed. As such this summer feels like a big one, but what has this summer brought the club so far?
Albion’s first summer signing was Matt Clarke, a centre back from League One Portsmouth. But with a heavy heart their 17/18 player of the season showed a keenness to make the step up to the top flight when he told The Portsmouth News: “As a boy, you dream of playing in the Premier League, and maybe it is time to give myself a new challenge… And unfortunately, with Pompey not getting promoted and me needing to take a step up, that was also a factor.”
It was a move that some suggested would instigate the sale of Lewis Dunk who is reported to have attracted strong interest from Leicester, but that transfer seems to have gone cold for now since talk of the Albion putting a £45m price tag on his head.
Nonetheless with Clarke now on the books along with other centre backs Dan Burn, Ben White (who is spending the season on loan at Leeds) and Nigerian international Leon Balogun the club have a plethora of readymade replacements if any rumoured moves for Dunk or his partner Duffy come to fruition in the near future.
The next new signing to join the club was the young Belgian international winger Leandro Trossard who was signed from Belgium League champions Genk. Trossard, who is the Albion sixth ever signing with an eight figure transfer fee, played 35 times scoring 15 goals last season as Genk won the Belgian title and was even given the captains armband towards the end of the season.
Trossard is a highly rated young talent in his native Belgium, which is evidenced best by him having played at youth level for the U16s, U17s, U18s, U19s and U21s. He has also been called up to the senior team squad on multiple occasions, but had yet to receive his first cap, which considering the competition is hardly a surprise.
But the signing of Trossard was not just a signing of a player of notable talent but one that signalled the sale of one of the current wingers at the club, which we will come to later.
But one key question on many Albion fans lips is can we trust the signing of Trossard to succeed given the club’s recent record in the transfer market? Well overall the club record is actually quite good despite what some might say.
Brighton have one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier 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 during the 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 at around only £5/6m, which is a level of spending that doesn’t buy much in the current market at this level.
And whilst the club’s net spend since promotion to the topflight 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 needed strengthening to meet the standards required to make the step up to the top tier. And as Fulham showed last season, even if you splash lots of cash it doesn’t ensure success.
It should also be considered that many of the players signed, like Billy Arce, Alexis Mac Allister and Percy Tau, wouldn’t have been signed with first team appearances last season in mind so their signatures should really bare no judgment on last season’s performance.
I, like many others, have been full of praise for Paul Winstanley and his recruitment team in recent years, and I’m not continuing to support them just to save face. This is praise that has been commonplace for a significant amount of time and I stand by my comments. In particular, the signings of Pascal Gross, Maty Ryan, Jose Izquierdo and Davy Pröpper, who were all crucial in our survival in our first Premier League season and that our top-flight status is continuing into next season.
As were many of the following summers signings such as Martin Montoya, Bernardo and Yves Bissouma who were all crucial during the last seasons relegation fight. Go as far back as 2015 and pre the appointment of Chris Hughton as manager, the Brighton Argus were already praising the appointment of Paul Winstanley, and it’s been largely plain sailing even since aside from the odd blemish.
Of course, there will always be signings that don’t work out, that is part of the competitive market we are working within. And it doesn’t help if that outlier is your record signing. But to say Brighton’s transfer activity has been poor is short-sighted and lazy punditry. And gives no reason for us to believe Trossard will not be a success.
One element in former manager Chris Hughton’s relationship with owner Tony Bloom that reportedly caused conflict was the club’s transfer policy, which is something that was discussed by Barry Glendenning on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast after Hughton’s sacking. 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 may now have its ducks in a row. And let’s hope so, as expectations are now higher than ever
One of the key elements to the summer that the club does needs to address in one way or another is the retirement of Captain Bruno and the resultant decreased amount of topflight experience and leaders that remain at the club.
The squad is one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of the season showed. Brighton’s squad started last season with cumulatively the fifth lowest in terms of Premier League experience, totalling 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 last season with the only other side Wolves, who unlike Brighton are a team made up of players with plenty of topflight experience in Europe’s other topflight leagues.
That relative inexperience has been increased since the retirement of Bruno, who along with other leaders in the dressing room like the also now departed 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.
As a result, the more experienced and long-serving players who remain at the club like the previously mentioned Dunk and Duffy, as well as players like Ryan, Stephens and Murray will now be required to step and fill this void. It was clear morale nosedived significantly towards the end of last season during the club’s poor form, leadership will be important to ensure the feelings of frustration and negativity that remain at the club do not hang over the club for much longer.
Furthermore, the club’s transfer policy clearly has filling this void of leaders left behind in mind, with both Clarke and Trossard having captained their previous club sides.
But what about the practical element of Bruno’s departure and the cover at Right back? Well, Montoya has already in many people’s eyes established himself as the number one choice having made 25 league appearances last season to Bruno’s 14. As for back up, there is Bernardo, who whilst primarily a left back, can play on either flank or Leon Balogun, who again while not primarily a right back has played there prior to signing for the Albion. There’s is also potential for a return to Albion first team action for Ezequiel Schelotto, who after not being included in last season’s league squad has returned to the club after a loan spell at Chievo.
Another possibility in all areas where signings are deemed to be required, (and if you believe certain Brighton fans on social media there is a long list) is that some of Simon Rusk’s successful u23 team could step up to fill the gaps. Well those that haven’t been sent on loan that is.
But that isn’t the only first team departure. With the signing of Trossard it was inevitable that someone would make way and it turned out to be Anthony Knockaert. Firstly, let it be stated that like most Albion fans I’m devastated. When it comes to entertainment there have been few players who’ve worn the blue and white stripes in my twenty years of following the club who’ve provided so many bums off seats moments. But at the same time, I agree that the club have probably made the right decision to part ways and feel it will work best for both parties.
In team sports like football, teams need to choose the collective over an individual and too often over the last two seasons Knockaert’s own individual motivation has left the collective poorer as a result. Too often he’s chosen the wrong option in attacking areas, and at times seemed to be trying overly hard to impress as an individual over doing what is best for the team. You can tell after everything Knockaert has been through it meant a lot to him to repay the support he’d received from the club and the supporters, and at times this seemed to overspill into indiscipline and a sense of a very self-centred motivation.
Let’s take Palace away as an example. Yes, it was a game which saw possibly his finest moment in an Albion shirt, but were it not for an overly-lenient referee and an off-colour Palace, Knockaert could have easily cost the team victory well before that famous goal sailed into the top corner.
During this game almost every decision he made seemed rushed, lacking composure and it appeared inevitable that he would be replaced. In fact, Solly March was on the side lines ready to come in in his place as he stepped inside and scored the goal that won Albion a famous three point.
One of the notable trends last season is how few times Knockaert and March played together, since the beginning of October they started the same game only five times in all competitions. A remarkable fact considering they are two of Brighton’s most creative players in attack. They’re statistically very similar too and it begs the question can they play together? And so, it’s no surprise the club backed the younger and more disciplined March, especially considering the Home-Grown Player rules.
It’s always sad to end such a fruitful and enjoyable relationship, and Knockaert will go down as an Albion great. But, it’s probably the right time for both parties to part ways. The collective must always be valued above an individual and that is what is the case here.
Overall, it’s too early to make too many conclusions from the transfer window until it closes, especially as we are entering the period of most activity. But many of the question marks that were raised during the second half of last season remain. And it appears more and more that the club are hoping that at least some of the answers to those questions will already exist at the club, either with the players signed in recent transfer windows or the successful u23 team.
Whatever happens with those already brought in and the new Potter era more generally. The team and the new faces need to be given the space and time to fail before they can then thrive and progress. Change isn’t easy and is often correlated with growing pains and as such a tough season lies ahead, where patience will be required. But hopefully the club can find enough satisfactory answers to the questions that leaves the club matching its first two seasons of Premier League survival once again.