Throughout the season and throughout the club’s occupation of the Premier League, Brighton’s form has fluctuated, but one constant has been the teams pretty dependable defensive record.
155 goals conceded in 107 games may not sounds impressive, but when you consider many relegated teams in recent years have conceded at an average of around 2 goals per game or sometimes more, and that Albion’s record equates to less than 1.5 per game, it starts to look far more impressive.
Moreover, despite the team’s much spoken about increased emphasis on attack under new manager Graham Potter, the defensive record this season is currently better at 1.32 goals conceded per game compared to both last season at 1.57 pg or the season before at 1.42 pg.
It can’t be ignored that since promotion this defensive record has been the club’s saving grace. With the team also scoring an average of less than a goal a game in both of the last two seasons, it’s that dependable defensive record that has enabled the team to pick up some all-important draws which helped it retain its topflight status over that time.
But this season has been different in that regard, with Potter’s Albion already being one goal off matching its best scoring record since promotion and that’s with 7 games still left to play. Whilst this hasn’t led to an increased rate of wins (7 so far compared to 9 in both the last two seasons), the defeats column totalling just 12 compared to a whopping 20 last season, (which no matter what won’t now be matched), indicates progress.
Statistics can be misleading though if not analyses properly and comparing this seasons stats when we aren’t yet finished to previously completed seasons could be just that. In particular the club’s tough run in should be considered. Especially if Albion concede 4 or more at home to Manchester City and Liverpool in future games as they have in recent seasons, some of those statistics could look far more comparable to last season or even worse.
But the fact that Albion would have to concede at about 3 goals per game between now and the end of the season to even match last season’s goals conceded record, (more than double its current season pg conceding average) shows just how good a defensive job the team have done so far this season whilst also improving its attacking record.
One of the key factors in that success has been the teams improved ball retention and at the heart of that has been Brighton’s captain Lewis Dunk. He was a lynchpin in Chris Hughton’s Albion side alongside Shane Duffy and has since flourished under Potter’s less direct style of play, which has seen him move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram to a key figure in the starting point for much of the teams new found attacking possession based style.
Whilst Dunk has added consistency between the leaderships, one key change that has enabled Potter to enact this evolution in style so effectively has been Adam Webster. His arrival in the summer left many assuming Dunk would be on his way to Leicester, but it has instead seen last season’s Albion player of the season Shane Duffy spend much of the season on the bench.
It is true however that Webster has struggled at times, particularly early on when the sides use of a back three and an overemphasis on playing out from the back left him very exposed. Amongst Potter’s tactical fluidity, the move to a more regular use of a back four and a slightly more risk adverse approach to building out from the back has definitely helped him and the team improve its defensive stability.
Another player who like Dunk has had to similarly adjust to a very different style is Brighton’s goalkeeper Maty Ryan. A player who was equally important under Hughton and has equally flourished under Potter’s passing style. With the statistical swing of his distribution changing significantly from mostly kicking the ball long beyond the halfway line to mostly passing the ball out to one of Albion’s centre backs, he has arguably had to adjust the most.
I wrote earlier in the season that I’d like to have seen Duffy brought back into the team to give the club more defensive stability. And whilst he has come in and played well in some more recent games, blaming Webster individually for Brighton’s problems earlier in the season is too simple, the team’s risky approach simply left Webster often as the fall guy.
The tide really began to turn against this approach at home to Sheffield United in November, a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in. That day saw the AMEX faithful frustrated with the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and make little progress going forward, with Webster in particular receiving heavy criticism.
This was one of many examples of course. Albion’s 2-0 defeat at home to Leicester in November saw Ryan achieve similar passing stats and Webster receive similar criticism after conceding the penalty for Leicester’s second. A penalty that unsurprisingly came after Ryan made a short pass to Pröpper in the teams own third despite him being under severe pressure from the opposition. It was the definition of a “hospital pass” which saw him promptly dispossessed by the opposition and a subsequent hasty challenge from Webster lead to the penalty for Leicester to score their second.
Compare that to the most recent games against Arsenal or Leicester, which saw Ryan achieve lower figures more comparable to last season under Hughton of 37 and 36 touches respectively and a lower passing accuracy of 68% and 63% as the team moved to a more direct style accepting less possession of the ball and taking less risks at the back. This has knock of effects of course, particularly on possession which has been severely reduced. Whilst this was in part dictated by the nature of the opposition, for most of the season Brighton have had more possession than the opposition, averaging 53%, the leagues seventh highest average. But in recent games this has significantly reduced with 41% against Arsenal and 34% against Leicester.
After the defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly groaning at the teams risky and frustrating possession based approach, Graham Potter said in his programme notes for the next home game against Bournemouth in December that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And whilst the subsequent win that day supported his claim, the recent change to a more risk adverse approach of playing out from the back may suggest the fans did still have a point. And although Maty Ryan’s spot of bother against Leicester shows you can’t remove all risk, moments like this have been less common in recent games.
Funnily enough in this regard, the 3-1 defeat away to Bournemouth in January in particular seems like a turning point in style. And after initial teething problems in the subsequent 3-3 draw against West Ham, the team have conceded only 4 goals in the last 6 games. Including away trips to Wolves, Sheff Utd and Leicester and home matches against Arsenal and Palace. All of whom currently sit in the top half.
Much of the recent talk on social media about Brighton’s defence has been about the future of Brighton’s loaned out youngster Ben White. But with Dunk, Webster and Duffy all playing well and the global transfer market likely to be significantly diminished by the ongoing global pandemic, there is no certainty he’d even be in Potter’s first choice eleven next season with the other options he has available. Add Dan Burn to the mix too, who whilst having played mostly at left back this season is more commonly thought of as centre back, and you have a lot of competition for places. And that ignores the likes of fellow loaned out youngsters Leo Ostigard and Matt Clarke, all making for increased competition in defence at the club.
Brighton’s end of season slump in both the previous two seasons and tough upcoming fixture list will hopefully ensure there is no complacency and that all minds are fully focused on the games ahead. But the recent improvement in its defensive record since the horror show away to Bournemouth along with Potter’s shift to a less idealistic style of play, gives rise to a certain amount of optimism for the Seagulls ahead of the final 7 game run-in.