2020 ends but adversity persists

2020 ends but adversity persists

The end of one year into next is usually a good point at which to take a step back & consider the state of affairs.

It’s been a turbulent year for many and for Albion manager Graham Potter it’s been no different. Having lost his mother in July 2019, his father passed away in January of this year. These are trying and defining moments in anyone’s life, but for him they were moments that have coincided with possibly the defining period of his professional career to date.

Professionally, 2020 started badly too. After Albion earned an impressive draw at home to Chelsea and looked to have started the 2020 in a promising manner, Graham Potter’s Albion side failed to win any of the next ten games that preceded the national lockdown following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK in March. And many assumed relegation would follow upon resumption.

But the lockdown gave everyone a chance to stop and reassess. And when the Premier League restarted his side looked revitalised, picking up three wins and accumulating 15 points in their final nine games to achieve the club’s highest Premier League points total and match the club’s highest Premier League season ending league position.

So when subsequent 2020/21 season began in September, it was with much promise and optimism of carrying on the good run of form from the previous season. But Albion’s failure to capitalise on their dominance in matches has left the club in that familiar position of struggling for goals and hovering just above the relegation zone.

However, I’m still of the view that Graham Potter has done a good job in very difficult circumstances. Yes, recent results have been disappointing, but patience is required for Potter, who I believe has demonstrated he’s still best placed to help Albion progress at this time.

As I said before the start of the 2020/21 season, if the first two thirds of last season is anything to go by then this season would be a lot tougher than most predictions, and so it has proven. The good form after the restart may have lulled some into a false sense of status, but Albion were always likely to struggle to progress as some expected.

Expectations management is key for any organisation, especially one of such public interest as Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. And if we are honest Potter has been dealt a very difficult hand by the club’s ambitions statements over wanting to becoming an established top-half side in the Premier League.

And the huge squad churn over the summer which preceded the 2020/21 season has made things even more difficult. In losing the likes of Duffy, Murray, Stephens and Mooy, the club’s transfer policy has subsequently left development team players like White, Molumby, Alzate and Connolly needing to step up and fill some of the gaps. This was always a huge risk, but the club’s strategy since Chris Hughton’s sacking has largely been with great risk comes great reward. Something Potter benefited from by getting the job in the first place.

And yet amongst all this change and the difficulty that has been faced, Albion’s defensive record remains as strong as it did under Hughton despite the more attacking nature of the team. Particularly in the period after the restart when a slightly less idealistic style of play allowed the team to keep it tight at the back and pick up some important results. It’s an attribute that’s helped the team pick up some important draws this season and allow the team to stay consistently above the relegation zone.

I’ve seen many of the Potter’s fiercest critics even suggest names of replacements, mentioning some fine managers who could do a good job, but changing manager is not without risk and without transfer activity in January, would piling further risk onto an already risky situation be sensible? Especially in such uncertain times.

But it would be wrong to ignore the criticisms of Potter’s management. Most recently the team selection for the defeat to Arsenal escalated criticisms of his excessive tinkering in team selection. A selection Andy Naylor described in the Athletic this week as “baffling” and “a step too far this time”.

Then came a Twitter post from the club on New Year’s Eve with a quote from Graham Potter, thanking “the ones” who have supported him in 2020. It came across as a thank you to his supporters but also a veiled chastisement of his critics.

As you’ll have gathered by this point, I’m very much in the “Potter In” camp, but this kind of statement is unhelpful and just adds oil to the fire of Potter’s critics that has been gathering pace throughout the year. I would rather have seen Potter calling for unity ahead of some important games. But instead, the fires that were seemingly put out in the summer following the impressive end of season form that secured survival are now back and at risk of overwhelming Potter if results don’t turn around.

Then again, we’ve seen this before from Potter. After the 1-0 defeat at home to Palace in February he was very defensive of his team post-match and criticised by many for not recognising the importance defeat. But subsequently Albion rallied, accumulated 16 points from the final 10 games and ultimately survived relegation comfortably.

Despite there being plenty of evidence to the contrary and despite there being seemingly no appetite at the club to turn their back on him, bad results will always override everything else. The club has put a lot of time, resource and investment into its current strategy for progression and consolidating its topflight status, so if it’s decided that Graham Potter’s reputation is undermining this, I have no doubt the board will not hesitate in sacrificing him for the greater good. But, evidence from 2020 shows us that just when adversity strikes Graham Potter often does his best work.