Much like his predecessor Chis Hughton, did before him, Graham Potter has done a fantastic job in keeping the club in the Premier League for another season, particularly amongst all the flux of last summer.
But the task he has now of taking the club to the next stage of its development and pushing it up the league ladder from its current home for the last three years of somewhere between 15th and 17th place is a more difficult task altogether.
There is much optimism at the club at the moment that this will be achieved. With the introduction of some exciting young talent throughout last season, and the prospect of more to follow from the clubs successful youth academy being a large part of that. As well as what was a very good end to the season for the team being coupled with some good early business in the summer transfer window.
But we shouldn’t get too carried away. Our time in the Premier League shows us that high profile signings don’t always come off and form tends to too and fro sharply. The longer term trends are a better idea of success.
This considered, I don’t think we should take as much optimism from the success over the “restart” period as some have suggested. After all, prior to the pause in the season Brighton were on a severe slump, only 2 wins in 18 games and with defeats to Bournemouth in January and Palace in February left the club dangerously close to the relegation zone.
The circumstances of the season were far from normal, but Potter clearly used the break to his advantage. Utilising the extra preparation time he had with his players to get his ideas across more fully, and it showed in a greater conviction in the team’s performances over the final group of fixtures than we had seen in 2020 up to that point. But there was a distinct change in tact from much of the football being played prior to the halt in the season.
In particular in possession, where Albion had more possession than their opponents in 20 of the 27 games pre restart and just once in the 9 post restart (at home to Newcastle, a team that averaged the third least possession away from home in the league all season). More Hughton like football than Potterball, but needs must.
In the long term, with the two experienced signings already made and the prospect of more additions to the squad in the coming weeks likely, the sale of other experienced members of squad seems inevitable. And as many have recognised it may be time for some of the more established players to move aside in order for the club to meet its loftier ambitions. Three seasons and two managers in this level producing very similar finishing positions suggests these players have found their level. Becoming an established top half team will clearly require higher quality personnel.
This is going to be a tough balancing act for Potter. Much of the success in recent years was built on the team spirit created by this core group of players like Duffy, Stephens, Murray, and March. All of whom it has been suggested could leave, but it would be dangerous to see that squad ripped apart in one summer, especially such a truncated one. The gap between relegation this season may have been 7 points, but the reality is it was closer than many had hoped it would be amongst the early season optimism.
In Andy Naylor’s season end review for the Athletic he said that “Fashioning and taking more of the chances they create is the key to the extra three or four wins required to make the transformation.” However its more complex than that. As Hughton found out in Albion’s second Premier League season, to even retain your existing status you need to be constantly progressing. For Hughton all it really took was for a few signings in key areas that didn’t work out and the momentum seemed to suddenly halt.
As time passes, the teams slump in the second half of his second Premier League season in charge can be more attributed to the personnel available. As established players like Knockaert and March’s form varied greatly, the new signings bought to progress the team in forward areas like Andone, Locadia and Jahanbakhsh all floundered. In comparison this season, Potter’s new additions in this area included the all relatively successful Mooy, Maupay and Trossard, as well as the more recent addition of Mac Allistar who was unable to get a work permit during Hughton’s time.
Then there is Aaron Connolly, it’s true Hughton didn’t give the u23s much of a chance during his time and Connolly is held up as an example of that. But could this simply be that the youngsters weren’t ready? For example, Connolly has been fantastic at times this season. As well as his goals, he’s made some brilliant impact sub appearances, most notably in the comeback from behind draw at home with Chelsea. But he’s also had many games where he’s looked out of place, he’s young and still learning so that can be forgiven, but it suggests that last season may have been too soon for him. Something backed up by the very few appearances he made on loan that season at Luton, admittedly in part limited due to injury.
Connolly and Alzate are in reality the anomalies of this process, many of the others who could have been brought in were left in the development squad or sent out on loan. And whilst we’ve been told some of the players from development team will be given a chance in pre-season to prove themselves, don’t expect a youth revolution next season, more a continued trickle of talent into the first team.
The club will be conscious that Brighton can’t afford to stand still this summer, but at the same time the balance between changing too much too soon is just as much of a risk. And to have such a pivotal summer in terms of progression in such a truncated one, is unfortunate.
Just as Watford and Bournemouth showed us last season, as well as Swansea, Stoke and West Brom before them in our first Premier League season, attaching the phrase “established” to a club in the Premier League doesn’t mean what it would in most industries. Sustaining a place in the topflight is a constant battle and one of balancing short term objectives with longer term goals.
Many may wish to see the increased blooding of younger players like White, Molumby, Taylor-Richards and Gyokeres next season. But to be able to do this those player need a settled and established platform to be given the chance to thrive. The balancing the introduction of younger talent with the inevitable changes in experienced and proven squad members of the squad will be key to enabling this process. And if the general job security within football management tells us anything it’s that alongside all these long term progression, you still need to be looking to achieve results in the short term. A bad start to next season would throw all this optimism and progress into chaos.
The reality is that Graham Potter’s long term evolution was somewhat put on ice as the seasons short term goals were sought to be achieved. But it appears the continued evolution in style will be very much the mindset that the club will begin next season with. And if the first two thirds of the season is anything to go by, then next season might be a lot tougher than many are currently predicting.