As Brighton pass the halfway point of their 2020/21 Premier League season, it comes with a fair amount of frustration despite the great promise shown so far. But it’s a feeling of frustration which has a much more positive glow to it after an important 1-0 win away to Leeds United on Saturday.
Brighton went into Saturday’s game on the back of no wins and just 5 points taken from their last 9 league games, a run which means despite Saturday’s victory means they end the first half of the season on their lowest halfway Premier League points total of 17.
Nonetheless, Albion find themselves in their usual position just above the bottom three but not quite engaging with the battle for mid table positions in the Premier League. And with many of the teams around them having games in hand and recently making gains on them in terms of points, Saturday’s win by no means expunges all of the anxiety.
But it’s still been a season of great promise from Graham Potter’s side, as his project to turn Chris Hughton’s robust and solid Albion team into a free flowing attacking side continues to progress.
But the team have often flattered to deceive. Despite plenty of good approach play and plenty of dominating performances it’s not led to improvements at either end of the pitch. Whilst Brighton have now accumulated more expected goals (xG) than their opponents on twelve occasions this season, of those 12 games Saturday was only their second win.
Going forward Albion’s style of play has seen them gain plenty of plaudits, but in terms of goals scored, their total to date of 22 is the same total scored after 19 games last season and only one better than in the first 19 games the season before.
Offensively Albion’s play has probably been typified by Leandro Trossard. Who has hit the woodwork on 5 occasions this season, the equal most in the division along with Chelsea’s misfiring striker Timo Werner. Trossard is a very gifted footballer, arguably Albion’s most talented attacker, but his shooting leaves much to be desired.
At times it’s his decision making that has let him down. As was pointed out by Jon Manuel this week in an article for Stats Perform “With just 0.06 xG per shot it is clear he is a fan of a more speculative effort and, having taken the second-most shots of anyone in the team, it may be worth asking whether it is sometimes better to pass than shoot.” It’s this habit of going for the shot when there is often a better option available that led to some excessive criticism from Percy Tau’s South African faithful after his debut in Brighton’s win over Newport in the FA Cup.
But if Trossard can improve his decision making in the final third he has almost everything required to be a top class player, as evidenced by his continued selection for the Belgian national team squad alongside the likes of Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. His one-two with Alexis Mac Allister for Brighton’s goal against Leeds is just one of a number of examples of that talent and if he can make more of the opportunities he creates and less so often go for the speculative shot, expect Albion to start turning far more of thier draws into wins.
In fact it’s been 8 draws this season for Albion, the most in the division so far. And most of them have felt like two points dropped rather than a point gained. In comparison, in Chris Hughton’s last season 2018/19, Albion drew just 9 games all season
Trossard’s place in the team may come under threat from the presence of Percy Tau. Whose impressive performances in his first two appearances for the club since being recalled from loan gives Potter even more options to tinker with in attack. What is clear though is that it is most likely to be a place alongside Maupay who Potter tends to select if available come what may.
Along with Trossard, Albion’s top scorer Maupay has been criticised for not taking enough of his chances, but the faith Potter places in him by regularly selecting him despite these lapses in front of goal shows he adds so much more to the team. No Albion player has been involved in more goals this season (8), with Albion’s nearest other players Gross and Trossard on just 4 each. Maupay may miss the odd chance, but he creates more than enough through his movement and interplay with those around him to compensate.
A positive Albion can take from the first half of the season is that aside from a couple of occasions, away to Leicester and Everton, they have always been in games, losing 5 of their 8 defeats by just 1 goal and drawing a further 8.
But their relatively young and inexperienced squad is proving to cost them in the key moments in games. For example, Ben White, who has rightly been lauded for some impressive displays in his first Premier League season, has been one of a few notable players caught out too often when Albion have been defending set pieces.
Indeed, it’s not all been about not taking chances. Albion’s defending is a clear issue too that has limited the figure in its win column.
There have been 12 points dropped from winning positions so far, the most in the Premier League. But if the team put in more defensive displays as they did against Leeds, where they defended their one-goal lead for 73 minutes, then that should become a much less common occurrence.
But despite Saturday’s clean sheet Albion’s naive defending, particularly when in the lead, has not gone away. Even on Saturday when the defensive display was much improved, Dan Burn still got caught in possession whilst overplaying in his own half and let in Leeds, but fortunately for Albion on that occasion it came to nothing.
Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 21, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.
From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 13 of their goals in that manner, the equal 7th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that have led to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore recently against Wolves, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.
Then there’s Albion’s struggles in goal, which have no doubt contributed to its defensive issues. Albion’s number one since promotion Maty Ryan lost his place after a period of widely discussed bad form. In his place came the young Robert Sanchez who only has experience of playing in England’s lower divisions. Left in reserve are Jason Steele and Christian Walton, whose experience also comes mostly from outside of the Premier League.
Whilst Sanchez has impressed since coming into the side, question marks still remain and it may prove to be too early for the young ‘keeper. With Ryan having been told by Potter that he should take a good offer to leave if he gets one this month, if Albion are to reinforce any area of the pitch this month, a new goalkeeper should be its number one priority.
If the action in both boxes is its weakness, Albion strength is most definitely in its approach play and in the midfield. On the wings Lamptey and March have been consistently dangerous going forward whilst the signing of central midfielder Adam Lallana has proved a shrewd piece of business despite his injury problems. The continued improvement of Alzate and Bissouma has only made Albion stronger in that area of the pitch, whilst Pascal Gross has been revitalised in a slightly deeper area of the pitch as a back up for Lallana.
When it comes to business in the January transfer window, Potter has said on numerous occasions that he is happy to work with what he has. This willingness to do so will no doubt have been part of the reason he was given the job in the first place. In contrast it is fairly well-known that Hughton did have disagreements about recruitment with other senior members of staff at Albion during the end of his tenure.
And given we don’t expect this team to be given any significant reinforcements, it’s a good thing too that there is this willingness from Potter. If the team are going to start turning their dominance in games into victories, they will be relying on some of their younger talents like Trossard, White and Maupay to cut out the errors, be more clinical and repay the faith Potter has placed in them more consistently.
But given this Albion squad is relatively young, we should forgive them for their individual mistakes. However, they will need to learn from their lessons quickly and execute Potter’s plan more effectively in the second half of the season if Albion are to avoid relegation for a fourth consecutive season.