For many, a new football season represents a new opportunity. And for many at the Albion this season it represents the opportunity of a coming of age, where a continuing changing of the guard has been taking place amongst its first team squad.
The summer has seen many bid farewell to the club, former 2016/17 Championship player of the season Anthony Knockaert made his loan move to Fulham permanent whilst 2018/19 Albion player of the season Shane Duffy along with the club’s record goalscorer Glenn Murray were both sent out on season-long loans that will likely instigate a permanent end to their playing days with the club. And with talk of other exits possibly to follow, it may be a very different Albion we are watching this season.
That said, the transfer business was becoming an inevitable outcome as last season progressed. Despite both Murray and Duffy starting last season’s opening day 3-0 win away to Watford, Murray only started a further 6 of the remaining 37 league games compared to Duffy’s 11. Instead, last summer’s new signings Adam Webster and Neil Maupay established themselves as regulars, starting 31 and 30 league games respectively.
Albion’s strong and largely reliable defensive unit continues to evolve under Potter. Albion’s greatest strength and asset since promotion has been its defensive record and with the return of Ben White after his success at Leeds as well as the signature of Dutch international Joel Veltman, it will be hoped that they can inspire that to further improve. Particularly in games against last season’s top 5, against whom Albion conceded nearly half of their goals (25) in just over a quarter of their fixtures.
In the past Propper and Stephens have been the backbone of Albion’s midfield. But, if Albion are going to improve their record in games against the better teams in the division, how they retain and use the ball in the midfield will be key given Potter’s will to control possession and build up play patiently out from the back. As such the progression of Bissouma and Alzate will be key here. Particularly in games against teams willing to press Albion high, both Stephens and Pröpper at times struggled to retain and recycle the ball sufficiently, an attribute that Bissouma and Alzate appear more accustomed to.
But if you watched Albion across the entirety of last season, you’ll know that discussions such as these in areas of relatives strength are just splitting hairs compared to the big problem area – Goals.
Part way through the season, after a run of bad results that culminated in a home defeat to Palace and with Brighton struggling to score goals, many including myself called for Duffy and Murray to be reinstated. But Potter stuck to his guns and stood by Webster and Maupay and was repaid as both showed arguably their best form following the season’s restart.
Despite a lack of goals at the club generally, Albion’s main striker Maupay did have a good first season at the club. The step up to the topflight is tough but he adapted well and his double figure goal record is impressive. But it wasn’t a season without its issues. As with his predecessor Murray, the team are very reliant on his goals and it’s no coincidence that when he went ten appearances without scoring over the winter period, this near-coincided with a run of as many games without a win for the club.
It’s not just about taking chances though, it’s also about creating more and better chances. In Albion’s first two Premier league season’s much of the creativity required to create goalscoring chances fell on Pascal Gross’s shoulders to link the team’s fairly direct style of play. But the signing Trossard has meant the former player of the season has found himself often starting on the bench and the signature of Adam Lallana and the progression of the likes of Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister will only see the chances of that increasing.
Creating better chances and taking those which are created will be incredibly important to enable the team to convert some of the draws they had last season into wins. No team in the topflight registered more stalemates (14) last season. It’s a testament to the club’s reliable defensive record that this was the case too and some of those draws didn’t become losses, making the club’s survival from relegation much less comfortable.
It’s also a sign of how much some of Albion’s previously mentioned attacking options have flattered to deceive. Many are young and have scope to improve, but are also likely to have further dips in form as the season progresses, so the experience of the likes of Gross and Lallana will be crucial in these moments and determining whether the team can convert their combined talent into more consistent performances on the pitch.
It might be that further new signings are made to bolster the squad and aid this progression, but as the club’s constant failed pursuits for added depth in attack shows, we can’t count on it. There’s talk of both a new striker and left back in the clubs recruitment plans, but given they has stated before that they won’t panic into buying just anyone, we may have to settle with the talent that we have.
There will be a continuing trend of change as Graham Potter puts more of his stamp on the club. It’s crass to say we don’t need the players that are leaving, after all many have been key to Brighton achieving and maintaining its topflight status, but it’s a judgement call of which players have the attributes that make them best placed to implement Potter’s very different tactical ideas.
The two games against Palace defined last season in many ways. The lack of cutting edge despite such impressive dominance of possession and chances created, yielding just one point, was frustrating and gave promise and concern over what was to come in equal measure. And the manner in which safety was achieved last season following the defeat at home to Palace in February, via a very much back to basics less possession-based style approach, demonstrated that change won’t be easy nor without its bumps in the road.
That the club continues to initially loan out forsaken squad members like Duffy and Murray rather than sell them permanently, suggests they’re only tentatively optimistic of the future and lingering concerns of relegation remain. Something we must accept is always a realistic possibility for the Albion in the topflight, especially if performances like those against rivals Palace last season are regularly repeated.
But as Ed Aarons said in the Guardian’s Brighton season preview “Potter has assembled an exciting squad full of potential that looks equipped to take the next step – the question is are they capable of fulfilling that promise?” I would also add to that how much time will Potter get to meet the ever-rising expectations at the club?
Sacking Chris Hughton last season and replacing him with Graham Potter was a bold decision by Tony Bloom. The exits and diminishing playing time of some of the club’s more established players during his tenure shows that Graham Potter also isn’t afraid to make bold decisions. With Potter’s first season as manager now under his belt and the transition of the club towards his approach reaching fruition, this season will begin to tell us whether those bold decision are leading the club towards the progression which we all crave and many have begun to expect.