In the four Gospels of the Christian Bible, Jesus is said to have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And competing in the Premier League with one of the lowest budgets and least experienced squads against some of the behemoths of world football, can at times feel like Albion are attempting to repeat a similar sized feat.
Yes, the club are in the best financial position that they’ve ever been in and the amount of transfer money spent in recent years is at unprecedented level, and is expected to increase in the coming days. But as this is the same for every team in the topflight, any benefits that each individual club receives from the Premier League’s wealth tend to average out.
And it no wonder we are fighting against the tide, with the club 118 years old, it enters only its 7th season in the topflight. The club doesn’t have a historic right to claim a place in the top flight, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is here on merit after a long fought for promotion and two hard-fought survivals from relegation.
BBC’s Sussex’s Johnny Cantor said in his recent Brighton independent column that at the start of the new season “the slate is clean”. Whilst Davy Propper stated “At the moment, it is a kind of new start.” But at the same time with a new start comes many new challenges, just as Potter admitted himself in an interview with Tom Barclay of the Sun: “Whenever you start a new job, it’s always a bit daunting, the unknown.” And for Potter there are a number of unknowns that the Albion faithful will be hoping he has resolved come 3pm on Saturday 10th August.
In the Guardian 18-19 season preview Jacob Steinburg said: “Brighton look equipped to survive if they adopt the right mindset. Consolidation is the aim, with Bournemouth’s cosy mid-table life something to aspire to. Anything more will be a happy bonus.” But whilst this year the paper predicted relegation for the Albion, in many ways much the same could be said of the team a year on. And yet the amount of flux at the club since the end of the season coupled with the less than encouraging end to last season raises question marks over how well the team will manage all of this change whilst competing at the highest level with such relatively lowly resources.
First and foremost, the Albion need to address a lack of goals. In their two Premier League season’s so far they have scored just 69 goals in 76 games, with only Huddersfield scoring less over those two seasons in the topflight.
But Potter’s intention is to change this and bring in an attacking style of play that can please the eye. On his appointment he said that “We try and play football in a positive way.” Something the four-goal haul against Birmingham and the and five-goal haul against Liefering in pre-season demonstrated.
Andy Naylor said at the end of last season, “Albion cannot keep leaning so heavily on 35-year-old Glenn Murray to keep them afloat, admirable though he continues to be. The greatest need is more firepower.” And the pressure being taken off Murray’s shoulders will be mostly reliant on new signing Neal Maupay.
Maupay is exactly what the doctor ordered for Albion, a striker who has pace and scores goals, and is a player who played the central striker in Potter’s suggested formation of a 343 at Brentford.
Last season he scored 28 goals in 47 games, a record incredibly similar to Glenn Murray’s 25 in 48 in Brighton promotion season of 2016/17 and a record that won him Brentford’s player of the season. The question will be can he translate that form into the topflight as well as Murray has over the last two seasons.
But, we’ve been here before with Albion signing a new forward player for and big fee. The club’s transfer activity seeing all bar Knockaert of last season’s mostly misfiring attackers, suggests they feel the answers are more in Potter evolving the style of play and developing the players he has, much like he did at Swansea last season. And its early days yet, but new signing Leonardo Trossard’s statement that he was convinced to join the club after being enticed by Potter’s vision of attacking football is encouraging.
In addition to Knockaert leaving, another player whose been key in attack in recent season’s, Pascal Gross, appears to be looking at having a more diminished role. In part because it’s tough to see how Potter fits him into his favoured 343 formation. This is a real concern in my eyes given he’s the Albion player who we’ve been able to rely on to deliver the goods in attacking area whilst most others misfire. A fact that piles more pressure onto Trossard.
As well as Trossard, there could be some other new attacking players making the step up from the u23 team. One in particular is last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly who was picked out by the Guardian as the Albion ‘youngster who can shine on tour’. Unfortunately, despite impressing for Ireland at the Toulon tournament over the summer, he hasn’t made much of an impact, featuring only in a young Albion team that won 1-0 at Crawley via a Taylor Richard’s penalty.
The signing of Taylor Richards is intriguing, and whilst I didn’t cover it in my recent transfer window blog as he’s initially been signed as an u23 player, the signs are he is expected by the club to make some impact on the first team this season, rather than just being limited to the odd cup team appearance and u23 football. Richards said on signing, “I feel I’m at that stage now that I need to push on, I didn’t think playing 23s was helping me – I feel like I was stuck.”
As was pointed out by Andy Naylor in a recent Argus article, “before the start of the current transfer window fifteen of the 16 permanent outfield signings made for the Premier League (including the loaned-out Percy Tau and Alexis Mac Allister) have been foreign.” In contrast the signings of Richards, Clarke and Webster make it only one of four made this summer, but such a small sample doesn’t necessarily suggest a change in tact regarding transfer activity.
A potentially bigger issue to the success in Potter’s evolution in the Albion’s style will be the team’s poor ball retention. Not only did the Albion have the fourth lowest average possession in the league last season but also the fifth lowest passing accuracy. Whilst this was partly due to the team’s defensive and direct style under Hughton, they’re not statistics that suggest changing to a back-to-front, possession-based approach is suited. This could be the real area where Potter and his assistants coaching skills are truly tested.
But the most telling deficiency could be off the field, through the lack of Leadership and experience within the squad. Something increasingly evident since the retirement of last season’s Captain Bruno, the departure of Knockaert 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 last 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, unlike Brighton a team made up of players with plenty of topflight experience in Europe’s other topflight leagues.
As a result, the more experienced and long-serving players who remain at the club like Dunk, Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray will now be required to step up 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 around for much longer.
There were certainly signs of a lack of leadership during the three successive defeats at home to Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, a run that spelled the end for Hughton as manager. But in the subsequent run of four games the team showed evidence of all the previously missing qualities. And if it weren’t for a spectacular, if speculative late winner from Spurs the team would have gone unbeaten in that run. A run that showed that there is plenty for Potter to work with.
The second half of last season aside, the club’s home form has been its saving grace over the last two seasons. But its poor Away form has been a real concern, having picked up only 24 points on their travels over 38 games. However, if the draw away to Arsenal in the penultimate game of last season showed anything, it’s that given the attacking freedom, the team can take points away from home. Potter’s job will be to instil the level of confidence shown that day more consistently and a new attacking approach could allow for that. Even if the team’s home form isn’t as good as it was under Hughton, if they can average around a point a game away from home, they should still be in a position to improve on last season’s 17th place finish, assuming the home form doesn’t deteriorate as drastically as it did towards the end of last season.
As this is being written, the squad for the season is still to be finalised. In particular there is talk of a central midfielder being added, with u23 players like Alzate and Baluta fall back options if the targeted deals don’t get done in time. But overall our squad is not dissimilar to the one that saw Albion survive two seasons in a row, albeit narrowly last season.
The mathematical football predictions site Forebet has forecasted Brighton to finish 18th citing the need for more Premier League quality players in order to survive. But as we know, mathematical models often prove wrong and a good coach and an organised and well-drilled team can be far more valuable than talented individuals. A quality that appeared to be working well for the team for 18 months prior to last season’s slump.
As the Guardian current season preview stated, “Brighton’s lack of business suggests they trust Potter to nurture young blood and eke more out of a flatlining attack.” And unless there is a flurry of late transfer activity, it is likely that this is what Brighton’s season will come down to.
Some are more optimistic. Especially those at Fantraxhq.com, who unlike many stated that “Brighton shouldn’t have any relegation fears come the end of the season.” But anyone who was reassured after regularly reading the same before the beginning of last season will know that it is likely to be far from the reality of a season-long relegation dog-fight.
All this talk of new signings and new styles of play reminds me of last season. With the talk of record signings and plans from Hughton for a more combative, high-pressing style of play, neither of which materialised as planned. And after a mixed start to the season the team reverted to the deep-lying defensive style Hughton was best known for. Time will tell if in contrast Potter will succeed, but those expecting a revolution will likely have to settle for a slow evolution in style, such is the priority for pick up points to ensure survival over entertainment.
Potter alluded to this himself to the Telegraph in a recent interview. “We want our teams to be able to entertain the supporters… At the Amex they’ll be very important for us. So we’ll try and entertain. At the same time I know we’re in the results business. I’m not naive.” In the Premier League you don’t often get second chances, Brighton need to grasp theirs with both hands. Here’s hoping the team can overcome the issues of last season in order to do so.