After all the talk and excitement, the new Premier League season finally arrived, and how! Last season Brighton travelled to Watford on the opening day where they lost 2-0 putting in one of the worst performances of the season. By contrast this season’s opener saw the Albion’s equal-biggest away win since promotion as they ran-out 3-0 winners at Vicarage Road.
One of the big question marks over whether Potter’s methods would be successful was that this squad was of questionable qualities in offensive areas and when in possession of the ball, could they play his style of football. But yesterday showed this team were capable of stepping up. And with a starting eleven made up entirely of players Hughton managed last season, the passing accuracy was up 5% on last season’s average, the possession up 8% on last season’s average and the % of short passes up 2% on last season.
But this wasn’t a case of Tika-taka style possession-based football, or completely dominating the opposition, but being braver and more offensive-minded when the opportunities arose.
As expected, Potter’s Brighton lined up with a 343, but unexpectedly all the new signings were on the bench and probably the biggest surprise was that Gross started, which is odd given how key he has been over last two seasons. But the fact it was a surprise just demonstrated the flux the team had experienced since the end of last season.
The use of the 343 and the extra centre back allowed the midfield 4 to push up and support the front three in attacks which overloaded the Watford defence and led to most of Albion’s chance creation. Something Alan Shearer highlighted well on Match of the Day.
And it was the two rocks in the middle of the pitch over the last two years, Davy Propper and Dale Stephens, who excelled and pushed forward the play when required, being involved in attacks far more than either had generally been seen previously.
Generally Propper went forward with Stephens providing defensive cover, but at times Stephens would add additional support in attack too. For example with the first goal where after intercepting the ball on halfway he pushed forward to the edge of the box and chipped the ball to Gross at the far post whose cross was turned into the net by Watford’s Doucoure.
But as well as the added attacking impetus from central midfield there was a keen focus down the right through Martin Montoya, who was playing in a less familiar right midfield/wingback role. The focus of the team toward the right-hand side was in part no doubt, targeting Watford’s left back Jose Holebas, notorious for his indiscipline and attack minded style of play. There will be days where the play is instead focused down the left or more evenly but on this occasion, Montoya excelled getting forward whenever possible.
But if you followed my blog last season, you’ll know Hughton’s side did have many good days, even in the much derided second-half of the season. But this was about taking chances. For example when these sides met at the AMEX back in February Brighton had 55% possession and 21 shots, but only 4 hit the target, failing to score in a nil-nil draw.
This in contrast was a performance of clinical attacking that was out of character with last season’s slump. Whilst there wasn’t a huge amount of chances created by the team, registering only 5 shots, almost half that of last season’s average of 9.8 per game. And just under four less than the away game average of 8.7. With of course the own goal not counting towards yesterday’s shot tally.
This wasn’t a team playing as the attacking behemoth that has in places been suggested, but one that took their chances and took advantage of opposition errors. So much of last two season has been about the reliance on Glenn Murray for goals and the lack of chances being taken by others. Yesterday two of the other strikers, Florin Andone who struggled with injuries last season and new signing Neal Maupay who scored one each to show the pressure on Murray’s shoulders could be much less this year.
Can Maupay make the step up and be clinical enough to score the goals in the topflight that Albion require? Paul Merson questioned whether he had the ability to take enough of the limited amount of chances compared to the Championship. But after coming on in the 64th minute for Locadia, he scored from his only shot of the game, clinical indeed.
But there will be days when those chances are missed and when Brighton don’t get lucky by going 1-0 up via an own goal. And don’t manage to block two goal-bound shots in the 6-yard box.
There will be tougher days ahead, and the previously discussed lack of experience and questions over the squads leadership qualities will then be tested, but this was a great day for the club after all the flux and uncertainty over the summer and a day that should rightly be revelled in.
But whilst the club sat 3rd in the table at the end of Match of the Day on Saturday night, memories of an opening day win away to Burnley from 2002 come to mind. An equally glorious win that was followed by a injury to star player Zamora, a run of 13-games without another win and ultimately relegation.
Those were very different days at the club and the fact last season’s star signing Jahanbakhsh didn’t even make the bench and that the summer before’s star signing Izquierdo missed the game through injury, just goes to demonstrate the strength in depth that the team now has.
A quality that is a legacy of the continuous strengthening of the squad over the past five transfer windows since promotion. The very transfer policy continuously criticised over the past year.
But this was more than a Potter-ball revolution, this was a victory built on the foundations of the Hughton era. Amongst all the talk of what Potter could get this team to do with the ball, the team had to spend long periods without the ball seeing off some heavy Watford pressure. Particularly in the second half with the game at 1-0.
Both Dunk and Duffy made blocks in the six-yard box to keep Albion 1-0 ahead, and with the imperious pair playing alongside the impressive Dan Burn and with £20m defender Adam Webster sat on the bench the defensive foundations of the team built by Hughton and added to over the summer give this team a basis and confidence to be able to attack with Potter’s new approach.
Unlike in the Hughton era, Potter made two attacking subs and the team showed more bravery to attack when the opportunities arose despite being under lots of pressure from their opponents Watford. Yes this was a defensive performance built on the foundations of the Hughton era, but with extra attacking intent and added clinical finishing in front of goal that everyone had hoped for.
When Potter was questioned about his quest to change the style of play and resolve the issues of last season in his interview on BBCs Match of the Day with presenter Gary Lineker, he instead spoke about how he inherited a team where “a fantastic foundation had been laid, a lot of good work [had gone before]”. And then admitted despite the good result that “we haven’t found the answers today but it’s a nice start for us.”
The most striking thing here is the humbleness of Potter. After weeks of anticipation and no doubt plenty of stress, as most of the media wrote his new team off as certainties for relegation, his work had paid off. And straight afterward he’d have every right to go on national television and be smug and self-congratulating. But instead he plays the situation down and praises his predecessor. And as soon as he answered Gary Lineker’s question in this way I instantly knew this was the person I want managing our club.
Potters continued referral to the foundations laid by Hughton and the fact he’s spoken about not wanting to change too much too soon is equally encouraging. Many would like to see all the good of the last two years thrown out with the bad and for him to start again, but Potter is showing himself to be more pragmatic than many expected.
A good start yes, but he will be more conscious than anyone that with 37 games still to play and 111 points still available to play for, there is a long way to go. But I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.
Thanks Chris and welcome Graham