In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of this tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles.
In particular he’s since spoken about the trend of the demise of the traditional goalscoring striker. A trend evident at Brighton this season since Potter’s arrival with his significantly lower utilisation of Glenn Murray. That said, Murray’s success of the previous two seasons does somewhat challenge this hypothesis, but that’s another story.
In Murray’s place has come Neal Maupay, who whilst similarly a penalty box goalscorer, is so much more besides. You won’t see it in his highlights reels, but his movement and energy when leading the line allows for more options and versatility in Albion’s build up play than we otherwise see. Something the goal against Norwich demonstrated as Maupay dropped deep to receive the ball, allowing space for others to run into and set the move on its way.
Part of the purpose for this was spoken about by JJ Bull after Potter’s first game in charge, a 3-1 win away to Watford last August. He outlined how when in possession the outfield players are tasked with “forming diamonds all over the pitch, with players fluidly moving into the appropriate positions depending on the phase of play and where the ball is.” This leaves Brighton’s current de facto centre forward Neal Maupay often moving out of position to enable this pattern of play. Going back to the goal on Saturday against Norwich, Maupay actually formed the deepest point in that particular diamond, passing to Mooy in an advanced position on Albion’s right wing, with Connolly and eventual goalscorer Trossard forming the other two points in the diamond.
One aspect of the demise of the traditional centre forward Jonathan Wilson spoke about was their potentially increased use as a “super-sub” when their team was looking for a goal. Something we’ve seen in Potter’s use of Murray this season, but to little effect. It’s seemingly a role he’s less familiar/suited to than he was starting games as the teams attacking focal point under Hughton, which his 14 substitute appearances generating no goals scored attest to.
Before the restart it appeared that Murray may be seeing a renaissance under Potter, with his only goal of the season coming in a start against West Ham in February, which lead to two further starts before he was dropped for the home defeat to Palace later that month. But one short substitute appearance post restart has suggested his marginal role in the team going forward continues to intensify, to my personal disappointment. Put the understandable tactical reasons to one side, I just love watching Glenn Murray lead the line in those Blue and White stripes.
Another huge part of Potter’s management this season has been the adaptability of his squad. In particular Steven Alzate, promoted this season from the U23 team and traditionally a central midfielder, has been asked to play in a number of positions. Starting with his debut where he found himself on the left side of the attack, Alzate’s played in most areas of the pitch, at one point playing a run of games at right back.
Then there’s a man traditionally thought of as a centre back, 6″7 Dan Burn, who’s spent most of the season playing aptly at left back. And it’s not been just the less established members of the squad who’ve been at it, with Murray starting the season being asked to play on the left wing before his prolonged absence from the starting eleven. In fact it was his injury that saw Steven Alzate get his debut away to Newcastle.
And it’s not just players starting positions that have been adaptable. It’s the roles they’ve played within those positions too. In particular Maty Ryan and Lewis Dunk who have had to evolve the most since Potter replaced Hughton last summer.
The change in style from a quite direct team who were happy out of possession, to one more comfortable in possession and better at retaining it, has seen Lewis Dunk move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram, to a key figure in the starting point for much of the team’s attacks. And you only have to look at his involvement in the game this season to see that. Having averaged around 55 touches a game over the last two seasons, he’s now averaging around 79 per game, and with it his highest season average passing accuracy too at 87%.
A large reason for this is the nature of Maty Ryan’s distribution. Who is being asked to mostly play the ball out short to the centre backs, rather than long over the halfway line to the forwards. Subsequently being asked to offer a passing option to his centre backs when they then have possession of the ball.
This has meant Ryan has also seen an increase in his involvement in the game, particularly in games like the win over Norwich on Saturday that saw him have 56 touches. Around 20 more than his per game average under Hughton.
But this isn’t always the case. Like Potter’s ever changing team selections and use of formations, more recently Ryan has often been asked to play far more longer-balls up the pitch in order to relieve pressure from the opposition. Particularly against Leicester where he racked up a whopping 24 long passes, compared to his season average of 6 per game.
Like a lot of things about recent Albion performances, it’s been about doing what is required to get the points needed to avoid relegation. Potter’s seen his side collect 7 point from the 4 games since the restart, an upturn in results. Something required to ease the threat of relegation after a pre lockdown slump of just 6 points collected from the previous 9 games since the turn of the year.
If we compare Potter’s first season in charge to Hughton’s last, little has changed in comparison to results and league position overall. But the nature of how Albion has got there certainly has.
Whilst I personally don’t agree with a lot of the criticism he got, Hughton’s downfall was ultimately his perceived inability to evolve the team tactically into a more effective attacking side. With his much maligned experiment with a 433 unable to solve his problems. In contrast, this season Brighton are an effective, if often wasteful attacking outfit, now combined with the defensive robustness of the Hughton years that is still in place. If it weren’t for that wastefulness in the final third, Brighton may well be competing much higher in the Premier League table.
Graham Potter’s issues at the club were primarily balancing its short term goals of retaining its topflight status with its longer term objectives of improving the teams style of play and even loftier ambitions of establishing itself as a top half Premier League Club.
Getting through this first season with that topflight status intact and with the fanbase having bought into his management was always going to be key to enable the longer term success to materialise. With the prospect of further evolution of the team under Potter in the topflight next season, it’s a testament to him that those longer term objectives which felt quite speculative a year ago when they were announced, now seem more achievable.