It’s been a season like no other and one that the players deserve a great deal of credit for their perseverance in such difficult and uncertain circumstances. So here I’ve picked out a few of the best and worst moments from the season just gone.
The Guy Butters Award for defying initial judgements – Dan Burn
Dan continues to defy the expectations of him as well as the at times inane derision put his way in equally emphatic measure. His winning goal against City, whilst scrappy, was just rewards for the frequency of his forward runs and upfield impact that he has had in the second half of the season since coming into the team after injuries to both Tariq Lamptey and Solly March.
Burn also played a huge part in the other highlight of Albion’s season, their 1-0 win away to Liverpool. That night Graham Potter described him as “incredible”. Going onto say about his detractors: “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football, ultimately, I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me. Dan just gives his best every day.”
Many of his critics will reference his performances against Leicester away in late December and Wolves at home in early January, which drew much criticism. TalkSPORT described his performance in the draw with Wolves as “a night to forget” whilst the Guardian described him as “helpless”.
However, it’s hard to find an Albion player who hasn’t had a few bad games this season. Even my pick for player of the season Lewis Dunk has had his moments, including that recent red card which ultimately cost Albion all three points in Albion’s return match with Wolves.
Nonetheless, so bad were a couple of Burn’s performances that many questioned his suitability on the left or even in the topflight entirely. Whilst his selection in the Albion team continues to draw a huge amount of confusion and contention despite his consistent dependability in numerous positions.
But he’s been hugely important for Albion throughout the season, which is a testament to him and his mental resilience. His importance to the team, despite not being in many Albion fans first eleven, is demonstrated by the fact that he has still been involved in 27 of Albion’s Premier League games this season and 10 of Albion’s 12 victories in all competitions, only Pascal Gross with 11 has played in more.
The Mark McCammon Award for most cringeworthy moment of the season – Albion fans booing Man City onto the pitch for their guard of honour.
We’ve been here before, back in 2019 Kyle Walker was booed whilst receiving his Premier League winners medal, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Albion have their fair share of petty supporters willing to spoil another teams moment of joy.
The irony that after a season which saw the near crumbling of the competitive structures of the game as we know it, and with it the integrity of the competition, that the team who won the league fair and square were then booed during a guard of honour held to congratulate them on their victory, shouldn’t be lost on us.
Evidence of petty and pathetic behaviour like this is racking up from the AMEX faithful and it isn’t a good look.
The Award for the most irritating and most repeated line of Albion punditry – “Neal Maupay embodies Brighton problems in front of goal”
Some will be surprised by this one, but I’m a huge supporter of Maupay and think Albion are far worse off without him.
Anyone who has watched Albion without Maupay this season should recognise that the team has struggled offensively without him. The bluntness of the attack on the final day defeat to Arsenal was telling of how he offers so much more than just scoring goals.
Albion’s recent win over Man City is the exception to this, but City were down to 10 men for most of the game, which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from. The other four games that Albion played without Maupay this season (Fulham away, Spurs away, West Ham home & Arsenal away) saw the team struggle going forward. In all those 4 games the team created less shots (average across those 4 games was 7.5 shots pg) than the season average shots per game (12.8), scoring just twice (half their average goals per game rate).
As a part of their end of season reviews the Guardian were quite typical in the national press’ distain towards Albion’s top scorer. Going in hard on Neal Maupay by naming him as one of the “Flops of the season”.
Yes, he has missed big chances and should have scored more goals. But it is worth noting that he’s scored 22% (18) of Albion’s goals over the past 2 seasons, whilst taking 18% of their shots. Maupay isn’t blameless, but Albion’s problems in front of goal don’t just lie with him.
In fact, it doesn’t make sense to blame a teams lack of goals on the player actually scoring a significant proportion of its goals. Instead we should look at others. For example the likes of Gross, Lallana, Jahanbakhsh and Trossard who should all have scored more this season too, between them have only matched Maupay’s 8 goals.
The idea of Albion needing to sign a 20-goal a season striker is a huge red herring, the only two who actually scored that many in the Premier League this season were Harry Kane and Mohammed Salah, players unattainable for the Albion. If we look at two teams Albion have been competing with in previous seasons that managed to lift themselves up the division this season, Aston Villa and West Ham, neither had one player on 15 goals, let’s alone 20.
Instead, both teams had a number of players with multiple goals. West Ham’s top scorer was Antonio on 10, but they had three other players on 8 goals or more. Admittedly Villa’s top scorer was Watkins 14, but they also had El Ghazi on 10 and Traore on 7. In contrast, aside from Neil Maupay, over the past two season no Albion player has matched Danny Welbeck’s 6 goals in the a single season.
The only player to do that in their four Premier League seasons is Pascal Gross in 2017/18 with 8. But his more recent goalscoring form in particular is a concern. Since moving into a slightly deeper role he has scored just 8 across the next three season, only 2 of which from open play. Whilst still crucial to Albion’s play, he’s become far less effective in front of goal under Potter.
I don’t think anyone in the squad this season, maybe Connolly aside, shows the same kind of instinct to get in the box like Maupay does. So in that sense, compared to the too often goalshy likes of Trossard, Gross, Lallana and Jahanbakhsh, he’s the antithesis of Albion’s problems in front of goal. If Albion had more players with his mindset to get in the six yard box and take a risk then Albion would have turned far more of those many draws into wins.
At the start of the season I said an improvement from Albion would be partly contingent on Maupay showing the kind of second season improvement in his goal tally as he did at Brentford in the Championship, but that hasn’t happened. In fact he’s scored 2 less than last season’s tally of 10. So just as his goalscoring rate has largely stood still, so have Albion finishing 16th compared to last season’s 15th placed finish.
Much like at Brentford he’s been asked to play a role that is the focal point of the attack, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the team always plays to his strengths. At Brentford you’d often see him getting on the end of crosses or picking up second balls, but he doesn’t really get much of that kind of delivery at Albion and is often expected to deal with short sharp balls to feat, which has often seen him get his feet in a muddle and miss the chance.
I think to get the best out of Maupay next season Albion need to add a bit more variety to the balls going into the box. They need to be a little more direct from wide areas, and/or find a taller striker for Maupay to play off and pick up the scraps from. But whether Graham Potter would want to forgo an element of the teams slick and sharp forward play that has drawn so much admiration from pundits and caused opposition defences such concern but not yet seen the deserved improvement in the goals and points tally to go with it, is yet to be seen
The Billy Sharp Award for best opposition player performance at the AMEX – Reece James
Reece James progression as one of the most exciting young players in Europe continues somewhat under the radar because of the prominence of so many other top class English right-backs. But in his first full season as an established first team player at Chelsea, he started as he meant to go on with a match-winning performance for Chelsea in their 3-1 win over Albion at the AMEX.
Even on this night, he was somewhat overshadowed by his former Chelsea teammate Tariq Lamptey’s impressive performance at right back for Albion that actually earned Albion’s right back the BBC’s man of the match award.
But given it was James who with the game tied at 1-1 grabbed it by the throat and won it for the visitors, he should ultimately take the plaudits. Firstly he was given a bit of space on the edge of the box and took no hesitation in rifling the ball home into the top corner of the net. Chelsea’s third then came from his attack down the right hand side winning a corner off Solly March, whom he had tormented all night, then sending in the corner towards Zouma, who turned it home to make it 3-1 and put Chelsea out of sight.
Whilst in the second half of the season his success was somewhat curtailed by injury and a change of management, his impressive first half of the season shows the potential and ability that he has. So good was he that he was named by Alan Shearer in his Premier League half-way team of the season and was involved in two of England’s qualifiers back in March including the crucial 2-1 win at home to Poland.
That night at the AMEX the Guardian’s Barney Ronay described Brighton’s performance as “impressively slick and a little unlucky”. Start as you mean to go on as they say. However unlike on many occasions this season where it has been Albion’s poor finishing or sloppy defending when ahead that has cost them points, on this occasions it was largely down to an impressive performance from arguably England’s best right back.
The Scott McGleish villain of the season – Maty Ryan
What a difference a year makes. This time last year Maty Ryan was Albion’s number one and considered pretty untouchable in that position. A year later he has lost his place, been loaned out and found himself as the unfortunate figure of hate from a significant portion of Albion’s social media supporters.
In Albion’s second Premier League season Ryan was deemed so important to Albion that his absence for a short period to appear in the Asia cup for his native Australia was one of that season’s regular narratives of concern. As it turned out Albion would manage ok without him, but he was still instantly reinstated on his return.
However the improvement of the young Robert Sanchez, who started the season as Albion’s 4th choice goalkeeper after returning from loan at League One Rochdale and ended it by being named in his national team Span’s European Championships squad, alongside a run of bad form for Ryan that stretched back to the end of the previous season, saw Ryan quickly replaced as Albion’s number one.
Maybe links last summer between Albion and Emiliano Martínez, who would ultimately sign and star for Aston Villa, should have given a hint that Ryan’s days at Albion were numbered. But when he was initially dropped away to Spurs and then again for Albion’s trip to relegation rivals Fulham, there was a great deal of shock, but Sanchez has quickly proved his worth and no one has looked back since.
Ryan was completely isolated from Albion’s Matchday squads and loaned to Arsenal after becoming a figure of blame for Albion’s woes from some on social media. But his subsequently interview with Australian broadcaster Optus Sport only served to increase the animosity.
In that interview Ryan went into detail about his private conversations with Albion manager Graham Potter about being dropped, before going onto describe his move to Arsenal as a step up and revealing that he viewed Brighton as a stepping stone to a bigger club. Comments that I think just described the situation honestly and frankly, but that appear to have upset the more sensitive and insecure members of Albion’s support.
Furthermore, Albion’s current transfer model is just that, to become a stepping stone to bigger clubs for young and talented players like the often praised Yves Bissouma. Maty Ryan’s comments show a level of ambition the club should expect of its players and is an attitude the supporters are going to have to accept as the new normal, even from players they don’t rate as highly as Bissouma.
Despite this and Albion’s Chief Executive Paul Barber defended Maty Ryan, saying he felt his comments had been misinterpreted, but some Albion fans still seem keen to stick the knife into Maty Ryan at every opportunity.
But he is person who represented the club with such distinction for three and a bit years both on and off the pitch. Yes, substandard performance meant he was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements and he was possibly naive and tasteless in the honesty of his comments in this now infamous interview, but that doesn’t diminish his previous three seasons of commendable service to the club, a period where he was a hero to many.
And yet because some have taken exception to something he said in an interview they will continue to abuse him at every opportunity. Franky, they need to grow up.