18/19 Season review – The last ten games

Matchday 29 and FA Cup Quarter Final- Two wins that will go down in folklore

The final ten games started with two wins that will go down in Albion folklore. First it was a trip to Selhurst Park for the seemingly unpopularly named ‘M23’ Derby (something Jonathan Pearce pointed out in his Match of the Day commentary), followed by a trip to Millwall for an FA Cup quarter final.

It was an early start for the trip to Selhurst Park, with the game kicking off at 12:30, and it was the first top flight game between the sides that had been picked for live TV coverage. Crystal Palace away is a fixture I have little good memories of, the only time we’ve won there in my memory was in 2005 when I was stuck in a hostel in the Lake District with little communication with the outside world. That was in fact the only win the Albion have experienced over Palace at Selhurst Park since 1986.

It felt like this might be another bad day there for the Albion when Andone, who was picked to start ahead of Murray, was injured in the warm up. So Murray started once again against his old club looking for his 100th league goal for Brighton, but it was the hosts that dominated the early passages and more doom was feared by the Seagulls faithful.

But despite not being the aggressor, Brighton started the game by making sure Palace knew they were in for a battle. And in doing so almost instantly made Milivojevic a marked man. First Anthony Knockaert went in overzealously for a tackle and caught the Serbian studs high in his private area, then just as the pain was starting to subside Bissouma caught him painfully on his ankle.

Whilst this sent a message to Palace that they were in for a battle, with Knockaert and Montoya already on yellows up against Zaha, and Bissouma on a warning the Seagulls were walking a tightrope. But nonetheless they kept Zaha quiet virtually all game. Palace’s star man and top scorer from open play had only two shots, neither of which were on target. Whilst he attempted 9 dribbles only three were successful (a 33% success rate compared to his average of 50%). His passing accuracy was 70% compared to his average of 77%, which included three crosses, none of which were successful.

Many pundits adore Zaha when he’s good, and at the Albion we know to our cost how good he can be. But this was the other side of him, ineffectual, impatient and petulant. Montoya had him under control all game and even when Zaha switched to the right at 2-1 down after Solly March was introduced for Knockaert he was just as ineffectual.

He did create one good moment when one of his crosses was blocked but was deflected back into box to create one of the best chances of the game. But the Albion held firm as Duffy’s headed clearance was followed up by a Dunk block in a moment that personified the Albion back line. Dunk in particular was brilliant that day, as it seems the targeting he got from the Palace supporters from the start spurred him on.

The scoring was opened by that man Glenn Murray to achieve another landmark. After James Tomkins unintentionally flicked the ball into his path, Murray volleyed the ball into the bottom corner with aplomb. This was only Tomkins second error leading to goals this season, both of which he saved for Brighton, cheers James. Aside from these two games, he’s been fantastic for Palace, but such is the way of the football gods that he made his two errors in the two big derby games.

But the Albion would only hold the lead until the 50 minutes mark when Davy Propper gave away a penalty and the Albion’s marked man Milivojevic retaliated by putting it away to draw Palace level.

But the game wouldn’t stay level. And it was a moment of magic from Anthony Knockaert that settled the game with a goal reminiscent of his 2017 Championship player of the season winning form. A goal that would end up winning the premier league goal of month award and the Albion’s goal of the season. As Knockaert ran away in glee Glenn Murray held his hands over his face, presumably to hide the glee and shock of the goal from his former employers and their supporters, but we all knew.

This is one of the moments that would lead to these two games in eight days going down in Albion folklore. And it was a moment that perfectly demonstrated the contrasting elements of Knockaert’s game. One minute his enthusiasm is getting the better of him and he almost gets sent off, the next he wins the game with the goal of the season.

At full time the Albion sat on 33 points and eight clear of the bottom three, which with their far superior goal difference was effectively nine. But in the 3pm kick offs, Cardiff, Newcastle and Burley all won and the gap between the Albion and the bottom three remained at 5 points. There was still work to do but with the FA cup quarter final away to Millwall up next we could all take our minds off worrying about the relegation battle, for now.

Millwall

Then came a game that summed up 2019 for the Albion. At times awful, at times heroic, at times let down by the officials, at times just chaos. But ultimately just about doing enough. The win at Millwall, and specifically the moment Solly March’s overhit cross was dropped into the goal by Millwall’s veteran ‘keeper David Martin will be a moment that will live with all the Albion fans that witnessed it for a long time.

This was an epic cup tie and one where Brighton were on the backfoot from the off. The great Millwall atmosphere was intimidating, which was whipped up by a team huddle at start and continued by the noise created by the Millwall fans that was less a football chant and more a communal grunt. And if the Brighton team weren’t intimidated by then they had to contend with being left to wait on the pitch in the middle of this ferocious atmosphere for the Millwall team to return to the pitch after half time.

This clearly affected the Albion in what was a largely disjointed and timid performance until March replaced Knockaert on 67 minutes. But until then the Albion showed little of their Premier League status Hughton called on them to call upon before the game. A particularly prescient example of this was every time Millwall won a corner, something met with roars of delight from the home crowd and a large degree of panic in the Albion defence of the like seen by the team last season.

And this paid dividends for Millwall when Alex Pearce scored from a corner after being left unmarked at back post when his marker Murray was blocked off during an ever effective Millwall routine.

Knockaert was as poor as any Albion player that day and was clearly affected by the circumstances. Every decision was rushed, lacking composure and it was inevitable he would be replaced. In fact in these last two games Knockaert had played badly in both, and a wonder goal aside left the Albion right hand side quite diminished until Solly March was brought on.

When O’Brian put Millwall 2-0 up with just over ten minutes to go even the most optimistic of Brighton fans wouldn’t have expected what was to come. And as the minutes ticked down all hope seemed lost. And as Jonathon Pearce said in his commentary Brighton were heading out unless there was a late miracle.

But when Solly March’s impact down the right finally paid dividends after he rounded the Millwall defence and found fellow super sub Locadia who swivelled and fired it home to make it 2-1. Then after Brighton won a free kick mid way into the Millwall half, Solly March’s equalised with his miss-hit cross.

From here the Albion had the momentum, and despite having a perfectly good goal disallowed in the dying moments of extra time and then Murray missing the first penalty of the shoot out, Brighton won 5-4 on penalties.

And as the Seagulls fans in South London went mad, so did the team. This truly felt like a momentous occasion. Even Hughton said excitedly after the game “Now the draw has been made we are so excited about a game in which we will obviously be big underdogs, but what a challenge.”

Match day 30 – 33 and FA Cup Semi Final – 5 big games, 5 big defeats

So after two big wins, the Albion entered a key and exiting section of the season with a trip to Stanford Bridge and an FA Cup Semi Final sandwiched in between three important home games against fellow relegation candidates. Five games that promised much but delivered little but heartache.

Southampton

First up was Southampton at home and a 1-0 defeat, which piled the pressure on the team. Some suggested the players had ‘taken their eye off the ball’ due to the FA cup distraction? But this was ignoring the fact that thing hadn’t been going right for the team for a while.

Much like Huddersfield it was a poor first half that Southampton edged. But unlike Huddersfield the second half started much the same and got worse when after Bissouma was caught in possession, Nathan Redmond pounced and drove forward with pace and found Hojbjerg who scored his second goal against the Albion this season.

It was a goal that illustrated the issues with the Albion performance. Too slow in possession and too easily disturbed by the good Southampton press. Southampton, who’s switched from their usual back three to a back four to best combat the Albion’s front three were the better organised and saw out the game with reasonable ease. Whereas Albion were struggling to make their much derided 433 formation work effectively.

It wasn’t until March (for Jahanbakhsh) and then Locadia (for Propper) came on until the Albion looked dangerous. This was another example that without March stretching the defence and another attacker (in this case Locadia) adding an extra penalty box threat, Brighton are too reliant on set pieces and Glenn Murray for goals.

For long periods Murray looked isolated and had to drift wide to find space leaving little to no penalty box threat. This combined with the lack of willingness of midfielders to make forward runs to compensate, then you can see why we only managed one shot on target all game. And this was a trend that continued on this run and the deficiencies that this system caused would be further exposed in upcoming games against the far superior opposition of Chelsea and Man City.

That said, if Duffy had connected with Knockaert’s free kick, or Bernardo had done better when free at the back post from a corner, or Jahanbakhsh‘s shot had clipped the underside of the bar and gone in then it could have looked different. But these are the small margins which games are decided on.

Chelsea

With the trip to Chelsea sandwiched between the Southampton game and the FA cup semi it was almost like the visit to the home of the three times Premier League champions had been forgotten. Somewhat surprisingly for a London away game, the away end didn’t sell out with many Albion fans saving their hard earned pennies for Saturday’s FA Cup Semi Final. And this summed up the feeling around the club since the Millwall win, the focus was all on Wembley.

And with Hughton’s plan for Brighton to shut down Chelsea’s attacking threat and create a forgettable game the ones who stayed away probably made the right choice. But whilst it was frustrating to watch and the 3-0 defeat suggested otherwise, his plan largely worked. A bit of a freak first goal followed by two wonder strikes (one from Hazard, again) won Chelsea a deserved lead but on another night we could have sneaked a draw.

In many ways it was a disciplined and impressive performance, in particular Dale Stephens’ positional awareness was making things tough for the home team. Whilst primarily doubling up with Propper on Hazard. Dale also filled in for Bissouma when required when the Malian tried to drive forward

Dale Stephens always divides opinion. But a look at his stats from that night back him up. Defensively he was good, his tacking was as good as ever. Going forward he was also one of the better ones, with an 88% passing accuracy 5% up on his season average.

Our defensive shape that night was quite good in general and Stephens held it all together. Something we’d need again at the weekend.

Man City

All the defensive shape and discipline practice would come in handy for playing City in the semi final that I described in more detail here. But rather than focus on the game here I want to focus on the day, and what a day it was.

Yes we lost, but the day never was about the result, it was about the club and its fans enjoying a historic day in the club’s history. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. And pre-match the atmosphere in the west end of the stadium was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase.

For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feet applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.

These were post match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.

Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for the club, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the Albion managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.

The club hoped this would be a springboard for the two key home games coming up against Bournemouth and Cardiff. As Hughton said himself after the game: “To run City close takes a huge effort so it’s a very, very tired changing room. We are happy but on Monday morning we’ve got to get our Premier League heads on. We have got a fight on our hands.”

Bournemouth

But rather than a springboard for that fight, in preceded the most damming week of the season and probably that of the AMEX era. The was on the receiving end of its worst home defeat in 47 years and then lost to their direct relegation rivals Cardiff a few days later.

Tired and drained from the culmination of the cup run? Restrained by a lack of confidence and the pressure of the occasion? Or just out-fought and out-thought? Whatever the reason, Brighton were second best on both occasions.

Albion’s FA Cup heroes returned to the AMEX for Premier League duties knowing that avoiding defeat in both games would likely be enough to see them secure another season in the top flight. But instead they quickly became villains as they were taken to pieces by an out of form Bournemouth and then comfortably beaten by a struggling Cardiff who’d only won twice away from home all season before that win.

For me this was the week that the excuses for the bad performances really had to end. In both games there was plenty of evidence of a placid stand-offish approach from the Albion, which was maybe in part as a result of a hangover of the approach from the Chelsea and City games. But it had become ever more a habit as the season went on and the team’s form deteriorated.

Ultimately you can’t defend in the same fashion against Bournemouth or Cardiff as you do against City and get away with it here. Two sides whose strength lies in fast counter attacking picked off an Albion team caught in two minds of whether to go out and attack or defend in numbers, ultimately managing neither.

The terrible defending for the first goal is an example of this. As a defensive unit they, much like against City and Chelsea, sat deep and let Bournemouth pass around then. But without the same back tracking from forward players and without the same effective defensive shape, Bournemouth walked it though the large gaps in the Brighton defence.

After half time it got worse as Fraser scored a spectacular second when he caught an off-colour Ryan out of position. And it got even worse than that after Knockaert was red carded for an awful tackle. A moment that could be put down as trying too hard, but in reality was a moment stupidity.

After that the team seemed to give up and the third, fourth and fifth goals just added to the embarrassment. As well as the heaviest home defeat since 1972 it was the heaviest defeat under Hughton. As described by the Talk Sport radio commentator that day, it was an “absolute humiliation”.

Such was the humiliation, many fans left at 4-0 with ten minutes to go, early even by AMEX standard. And it’s hard to blame them, after all the talk of creating more chances since the change to a 433, the team had mustered only had 2 shots on target over the last 2 home games.

Cardiff

So with the Albion facing Cardiff on the following Tuesday it felt like a reaction was needed. And the team started like a house on fire, but it was Cardiff who took the lead via a spectacular strike from Mendez-Laing on the break.

It was he who drove the visitors forward with a pace that the Albion lacked, after winning the ball in midfield from Propper, also showing a determination that the Brighton team lacked. With Propper caught out of position, Mendez Laing was given too much space by Stephens and he rifled it into the top corner.

At half time some initial boos were drowned out by cheers and chants of Albion to encourage the team. But what followed in the second half was even worse. In attack the team looked rudderless, whereas Cardiff looked constantly dangerous on the break with the pace of their attack.

And after the returning Pascal Gross gave away a free kick Morrison headed home Camarasa’s cross to give Cardiff an unassailable two goal lead.

As a result of the predicament Hughton brought on Izquierdo and Andone and they showed some intent, but it created little chances on goal and a 2-0 defeat is how it ended. This was now three straight defeats at home to non-top six sides and eight goals conceded without reply.

Whereas this was once a team that whilst struggling to control games were good in both boxes, this was now a team that was seemingly good at nothing and needed to go back to basics to find any kind of winning formula.

This was a run that had tested the squad and that supposed strength we spoke about earlier in the season had been found out as weak, in attacking areas at least. With Murray’s goals drying up and Gross injured, the rest of the team had failed to fill the hole they left and this is certainly something that will need addressing in the summer. And in particular the pressure was now on Jahanbakhsh to show in the remaining games why the club paid so much for a player with so little impact, albeit only in his first season. Pressure that he was struggling under.

Much of the criticism for the last two performances was fair, but to say this team was passionless demonstrates a very short memory considering it’s track record. As Maty Ryan said “We dedicate and sacrifice our lives – not just the players but everyone in and around the club – by working tirelessly day in and day out to maintain our status in the Premier League.”

Many suggested that this result was terminal for Brighton’s survival hopes. And with Cardiff now holding the momentum and a run of winnable games compared to Brighton’s much tougher run-in, there was certainly good reason for concern. But the team reacted with a run of performances that removed any anxiety and answered many of the questions raised over these two games of the team’s attitude and aptitude at least.

Matchday 34 – 38 – Battle, bottle and fight, or crawling over the line depending on your perspective.

Wolves

But if the defeat to Cardiff looked terminal, the draw with Wolves that came next brought the team back to life. If the team lacked passion and battling qualities against Cardiff they were here for everyone to see in this game and it was a point that felt huge with Cardiff losing to Liverpool the following day increasing the gap to three points and with the Albion also having a far better goal difference, it meant Cardiff needed more than one win to go above the Albion even if they gained no more points. The pressure was now truly on Cardiff to get a result.

It was a game where we showed little attacking threat, underling the need to add pace and composure in attacking areas to the squad next season. But, some absolutely brilliant defending brought a well earned clean sheet and the solidity of the defence has ultimately proved our saviour this season.

It was a performance that was just what the doctor had ordered. It was only Brighton’s second clean sheet of 2019 & the second clean sheet away all season. But the only shame is that we had to go back to basics and take a step back in our tactical progression to get it.

Tottenham

And the trip to Tottenham that followed this during the following week was a repeat performance only spoilt by a spectacular if speculative winner from Eriksen to give Albion yet another defeat. It was a second game running playing a very defensive 451 with little to no attacking intent.

However, when the teams were announced many were surprised to see both Bernardo and Bissouma start in a game like this. They’re both more attack-minded than Bong and Kayal who instead started on the bench in a game which the team would be doing a lot of defending. But they wholeheartedly proved us wrong.

Defensively we were very good against a very dangerous team. With Dunk and Duffy doing their usual job of blocking everything coming their way, whilst Bernardo had a very good game at left back too.

But this was more evidence of how the team needed to work on that final ball when they do get in the right areas. Everyone’s latest scapegoat Jahanbakhsh was trying all the right things, but with nothing coming off.

My ultimate feeling was of pride despite the deflation of the late goal conceded. If Brighton were to be relegated from here, it won’t be because of this result. It will be because they haven’t put in a 90 minutes full of that kind of commitment, discipline and resolve enough times since the start of the year.

Newcastle

So then came Newcastle at home. Realistically, the best and possibly only chance of the win that would see off the threat of Cardiff once and for all. But before the game, news came through that Cardiff had lost away to Fulham and unless there was a huge goal difference swing in their favour, they now needed four points from their last two home to Palace and away to Man United to go above Brighton. A win here would therefore all but secure safety, whereas a draw meant Cardiff needed to pull off an improbable two wins.

Following that news there was much relief in the stands at the AMEX. Personally I thought that was it as I couldn’t see Cardiff winning one, let alone both of their final games. But this game still needed to be played and preferably resulting in a long awaited win and morale boosting performance, not to be, certainly in the first half.

Albion started against an already safe Newcastle side with an unusual looking 442. Gross started on the right and Andone and Murray were up top. But after not working well and Newcastle talking an early lead they switched back to the 433, with Andone moving to the right of a front three and Gross into the midfield three. A change which was made little difference to a terrible first half performance. Tactics have been the talk of the terraces since January and after trying it in the second half against Cardiff and then it lasting less than half an hour here, the option of playing a 442 looked as dead as a dodo.

But this was less about systems and more about personnel. In the first half they looked like a set of players scarred from conceding 4 to Fulham, 3 to Burnley and 5 to Bournemouth. Afraid to press, afraid to take the risks required to created chances and devoid of any confidence. As the teams trudged off to a chorus of boos, it was hard to see us turning this around.

Pascal Gross admitted after the game that “not everybody has the biggest confidence.” This is something that’s been evident for a while and especially since that 4-2 defeat to Fulham. The confidence in themselves and their teammates has clearly been diminished and too often the easy option was taken, either when in or out of possession.

But the second half was a much better performance and they did turn it around to get a draw, another example of the team’s great mental strength in adversity. One main reason for the change in performance was half time substitute Solly March, who was the game changer. He gave the team the energy to attack and get the draw which allowed Cardiff a stay of execution.

Another change at half time was to the system (again). Back to the tried and trusted 4411 with Gross behind Murray as the number 10. And who’d have known that playing Gross in the role he was so successful in last season would mean we would create chances to score? This change also helped Murray, who looked so much more effective on his own up top.

And it was these two who combined for the equalising goal. Murray heading down a Bruno cross for Gross to score. And it was almost three points when Murray headed over from a near perfect Knockaert cross in the last minute.

A miss that many wondered whether it would it prove costly with Cardiff still able to go above us with two wins. But as Palace did us a favour and beat Cardiff before we played next, another season in the Premier League was secured, just about.

Arsenal

So the game away to Arsenal which was the Sky Sports Super Sunday game and Arsenal’s last home game of the season as they searched for Champions League football was one with little but pride riding on it for Albion.

But it was hard to tell that after a good first half of football from both teams that was only spoilt by a rash tackle from Jahanbakhsh who gave away a penalty to give the home side a 1-0 lead at the break. Yes, it was a soft penalty but it was a naive tackle from behind from the Iranian, which is always a risk and left few Albion fans arguing with the decision.

Jahanbakhsh was subbed at half time, with Knockaert replacing him. The Frenchman seemingly forgiven for his misdemeanour against Bournemouth. And with that it was same again for the next 45 for the Albion who looked a great attacking threat on the break.

And Brighton deservedly drew level when Glenn Murray converted a penalty given away by Granit Xhaka, another silly tackle, another soft penalty few argued with. This was a landmark goal for Murray, his 200th career goal in his 400th career games. A great return.

And after a number of good chances were missed by both sides the game ended level. This was Brighton’s first away goal in five matches, and it earned them their first point at the home of a top-six team since promotion, a breakthrough moment. It’s just shame it came after the point in the season when it didn’t actually matter.

And despite the impressive performances from the team, on The BBC’s Match of the Day, Jermaine Jenas and Ian Wright were scathing of Albion’s negativity during the season as a whole. With Jermaine Jenas saying that Hughton “needed to show the club and his players that he can do it another way and that they can be more entertaining.” With Wright adding: that Hughton was “very negative”.

They in particular highlighted the fact that Brighton had their most touches in an opposition box away from home all season here (28). But that was in part due to the gung ho approach of the opposition here. For example against a similarly attacking styled team Fulham, Brighton managed 27.

Brighton have been too negative at times this season, yes. But the players deserve as much criticism, if not more, than the manager for this. The players need to show more confidence and be braver at times, this was an example of what happens when they do that. It’s easy to blame Hughton, but it’s harder to recognise that bigger issues exist that are harder to spot by the untrained eye.

That certainly wasn’t the case here as Brighton counter attacked with intent at every opportunity, but why was this game different to recent games such as City or Spurs where they struggled to do so? Despite their 30% possession Brighton had 11 shots, 5 of which on target. Compare this to the recent games with Spurs away 6 shots, 1 on target, Wolves away 5 shots none on target, and City in the Cup Semi 5 shots 2 or target.

The pressure being off will certainly have given the players the confidence to go forward and take risks. Whilst it’s also fair to say that playing a team like Arsenal who will not track back in the numbers that most other teams do would have helped. But another big reason was the good use of the 433, in particular the two central midfielders Bissouma and Gross getting forward to support the attack. Something not seen enough when it was used at other times in the season.

The formation change has come under great criticism in the second half of the season but this performance was in part the fruits of Hughton’s labour in persisting with the change. Whilst nominally continuing with the 433, out of possession it became more of a 451, but in possession it was more of a 343 with Stephens sitting deep to join the back line and the fullbacks pushing up to join the attack.

When we talk about confidence and bravery, this performance was an example of it in an attacking sense. This was a great performance, probably the best away from home since promotion, unfortunately it finally came when the pressure was off, and that is a concern for next season when the pressure will be very much back on.

Man City

With City playing to win the league the Albion played second fiddle in their final home game of the season. And it was an emotional day as the club said goodbye to captain Bruno, retiring after his seven years with the club. And unbeknownst to everyone at the time it would be Chris Hughton’s last game at the club, after he was sacked by the club the following morning after 4 and a half years in charge of the club.

After a lively start it was Albion who took the lead via Glenn Murray’s brave header at the near post from a corner. After he landed in a heap on the floor, maybe slightly bruised but unharmed and clearly showing no hesitation after the nasty head injury he received earlier in the season.

But this only awoke the beast as City went on to justify their Champions status. City’s equaliser came immediately after, 83 seconds after to be precise. It was a wonderful pieces of ingenuity from David Silva to flick it round the Albion defence and put Aguero clear who scored past Ryan

They then quickly took the lead when Laporte headed in from a corner unmarked after leaving Glenn Murray in his wake. Then in the second half they upped their game some more and finished Albion off with a great strike from Marhez from the edge of the box and another from Gundogan from a free kick.

With the game and the season petering out, Hughton made one final substitution, bringing off captain Bruno who received a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground and shared a poignant ‘changing of the guard’ moment when he passed on the captain’s armband to his successor Lewis Dunk.

And with that the season and another home defeat ended. But there was no shame losing to this City team, one of the best club sides English football has ever seen. For the club to be involved in such a game and see City lift the Premier League title gave a shine to an otherwise mostly dreary end to the season. And it was a reminder of the success of achieving Premier League survival.

But we should recognise the failure here too. The win over Palace, was the only league win against a team outside the bottom three in 2019. In fact, Brighton went into 2019 with 26 points from 20 games and then took only twelve from the remaining 18, including only 2 wins. That’s a points average for a team that would be lucky to not finish bottom of the league most seasons, let alone survive relegation.

So in a way losing here was a fitting end to a disappointing second half of the season. Whilst we may have ended the first half thinking we were a mid-table team, we ended the second half just glad to be a top flight team.

And the next day the club announced it had parted company with Chris Hughton. A sad end to a brilliant tenure as manager, arguably the greatest that the club has ever seen. It was a decision Chairman Tony Bloom described as “one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion“.

My initial feelings were that of shock, sadness and a little anger that at least Chris should have been given the send off he deserved, one similar to that of Bruno’s. But, football is an unsentimental business. And if Bloom has proven himself one thing since becoming chairman of the club, it’s a shrewd and unsentimental businessman who knows his own mind.

Summary – A Job well done, just about

So with all that Brighton ended the season 17th with 36 points. All in all a success, but a diminished return from last season’s 15th placed finish with 40 points. And it should be stated that 36 points would only have been enough to survive the drop in 50% of the time since the Premier League changed to a 20 team league in 1995/96. Ultimately we were lucky that Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff were as bad as they were.

And there was plenty of evidence that pointed to a year on year demise. The City defeat made it eight home defeats this season, double the total from 17/18. Games at home to Burnley, Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, ones we wouldn’t have lost last season, are the cause of that year on year diminished points return.

Last season we lost at home to three of the top six plus Leicester (and Leicester got lucky that Murray missed a penalty). This season saw defeats to four of the top 6 plus the 4 games mentioned above. A huge negative in the year on year comparison. Add to that the relative lack of progress in the teams away form and the lack of success in the tactical progress that initially promised so much, and you have plenty of reasons to look on this season negatively.

But what is the reason for these problems?

Firstly, this is a very competitive division. Four of that top six are European cup finalists, whilst another accumulated 198 points over the last two seasons. Even relegated Fulham spent £100m on new players before the season started.

But nonetheless, this Albion team had promised so much more in 2018 but all that promise collapsed in 2019. A collapse that coincided with the attempts to play more offensive football since January. Tactics that played against our strengths and it’s clear now that it was done without the required quality in the squad to do so on a consistent basis. This needs addressing in the summer.

This was a team that for a season had been hard to beat, losing only 16 games last season, not bad for a newly promoted side when you consider Fulham lost 26 this season whilst Cardiff lost 24. But Brighton lost a total of 20 games this season, in a season where we were hoping for progression we instead got regression.

The turning point of the season in hindsight looks like when the Albion threw away those two 2-0 leads at both West Ham and Fulham. At the time with the run that directly preceded it they were easier results to write off as bad days at the office. But ever since then the team has looked scarred from those experiences and as a result were frightened to take risks, the sort of risks that are required to be made if the offensive tactics are to work. It was only really since the second half vs Newcastle where that changed, by that point it was ultimately too late to save our season from a feeling of disappointment and Hughton from the sack.

But as Paul Hayward said in the Telegraph: “Those fans who said there was “nothing to celebrate” about the club’s survival may care to reflect that Liverpool and Man City will be traveling to Brighton and Hove again next season. The summer offers hope of a review and improvements. That process would be a lot less fun in the Championship.”

And as Paul Barber pointed out in his Man City programme notes, “we have only played six seasons in our 118 year history at the highest level.” A comforting bit of realism that makes Hughton’s sacking look hasty.

And there are plenty of positives to build on from this season: The improved squad strength is evident, no less shown in that wonderful cup run that papered over the ever growing cracks in our league season. And this is a squad that has been far more tested to its extremes this season with its ability to manage far more injuries & suspensions that have occurred.

Furthermore, the far more consistently competitive performances against the top 6 is also a big positive (Champions City aside perhaps). Whilst in the 12 played the club only accumulated 5 compared to the 7 points from last season, we’ve been in virtually every game bar Chelsea and City away conceding only 22 (27 last season) scoring 9 (6 last season) and picked up the team’s first away point against a top 6 side, at Arsenal.

Many of the signings made have contributed to this progress. At the back Button, Steele, Burn and Balogun were all clearly signed as back up and when asked have done a good job. Whereas Bernardo and Montoya have had largely good seasons and can now rightly be considered first choice full backs going onto next season, an area of the team that needed strengthening.

The club’s problem in the transfer market have instead been in the areas further up the pitch. Whilst Bissouma was signed for a large fee this is in part based on his potential, he’s 21 and the club wouldn’t have necessarily been expecting him to be first choice in his first season. But he has nonetheless shown lots of talent and in the second half of the season has been picked to play in most of the big games, to admittedly varying success.

there is also Andone, who was signed after a great deal of excitement, but injuries have limited his impact. Yet, he’s also done enough to be considered another good addition and would have played more were it not for Glenn Murray’s continued goal scoring form.

But it’s Jahanbakhsh that has received much of the ire and yes he has struggled. As the season has gone on and the pressure to get results has increased his performances were ones which noticeably suffered. Whilst established players like March and Knockaert have shown relatively consistent impacts in the attacking third, Jahanbakhsh has shown a consistent lack of impact.

This coupled with the continued struggles of Locadia and the constant injuries of Izquierdo, one of the key players last season, has made things much harder in this area. Between the three of them they have contributed just 2 goals and 1 assist in the league this season.

It’s easy to criticise the recruitment. But much like with Bissouma, all of these players would be considered players purchased with the future partly in mind as well as this current season. Unfortunately, this progress has been too slow, for Hughton at least.

But it was Hughton who underlined this when asked about the limited contribution of Andone and Jahanbakhsh. Saying: “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’ve brought a player in and you have other options. A lot of players that don’t settle into that first season can or possibly could argue that if they had played more regularly, they would have worked through it. But that’s trying to get that balance between what you feel is your best team at the time. With the players mentioned, I’m sure there will be more from them next season.”

Whilst we used less players this season, 21 compared to 24 last season. There was less reliance on a core set of players. Last season seven players played in all bar three games, whereas this season there were only four. Moreover three players played a part in every game, whereas this season the only man to do that was Glenn Murray, a stat that underlines his importance to the team.

But as well as the above three, it’s also Gross’s injuries that have meant the team struggled in the final third. Compared to last season we lacked both Izquierdo’s pave and Gross’s composure to create chances. Gross in particular, who scored 7 goals and made 8 assists last season, compared to 3 goals and 3 assists, which tells its own story.

This left the team reliant on a combination of Glenn Murray and set pieces for goals. And set pieces are a real area of year on year progress. Last season we scored only 5 times from set pieces, whereas this time it was a total of 14. And this progress occurred at the back too with us conceding just 10 this season compared to a whopping 21 last season. A real sign of the good work Chris Hughton and his team were doing on the training ground.

Whether this was down to a lack of quality in the squad or the players not being utilised to their appropriate skill set, time will tell. But to a degree, this was always the case. The win over Man United, when playing them at a fortunate time, meant we could ignore the terrible performances against both Watford and Southampton it was sandwiched between. And those slightly fortunate three back to back 1-0 wins in matchdays 8-10 have been what gave us the cushion that ultimately kept us above the dotted line all season. A run of wins built on the foundations of our strong defence and won by the clinical finishing of Murray and a slightly fortunate deflected winner from Kayal at Newcastle via one of those a set pieces. The luck eventually evened out and the lack of chances created by the Albion has led to a lack of goals, with only 5 goals scored in these 11 games in league and cup.

And as the season went on not only did the goals dry up, as did the ability to keep clean sheets with only two achieved in 18 league games in 2019. Whilst goals conceded the from set pieces were decreasing, goals from open play were increasing due to a combination of poor defending and individual errors.

A football season isn’t defined by a continuous consistent narrative, but instead in hindsight by a number of moments that explain its conclusion. A conclusion that on paper, I suspect most Brighton fans would have been happy with in August. Survival is a success, however it is achieved.

But it’s a conclusion that leaves questions to be answered and work to be done over the summer. The club has now not only got to add to its limited attacking threat in the squad but now also bring in a manager who can match the growing expectations that ultimately told for Chris Hughton. Expectations that a man considered possibly the best manager in the club’s history could not match, so good luck to his successor.

What next? After a season which saw the club’s 4th highest ever league position and 2nd best performance in the FA cup, a season preceded by the club’s third highest league finish and equal third best FA cup performance, the board of directors decided it was appropriate to dispense with the services of the manager. A manager in Chris Hughton who is admired not just at our club, but across the country.

But, whether to agree with the decision or not it shows an incredible ambition to progress in tough circumstances, but a decision that may yet prove foolhardy if the club appoint the wrong man.

Whatever happens over the summer, I feel that the team and whoever is appointed manager need to hit the ground running. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of this season could spark another collapse in confidence and optimism in a clearly damaged and fragile squad of players that need to be restored to the much higher standards they set throughout 2018. As well as causing more tension amongst an already strained fanbase.

But despite the negativity. There is room for optimism and joy. We go into this summer of no doubt much flux and uncertainty as a Premier League club. And with many great memories from a season to remember, for both good and bad. That is ultimately what football supporting is all about.

Come August, we do it all again, and I for one cannot wait. Up the Albion.

18/19 season review – halfway

If the first ten games gave us optimism for the season ahead, then the next nine have consolidated all those good feelings. In an article about mid-table teams in the Premier League Adam Hurray aka @FootballCliches on twitter described Brighton as “the team that people will most likely forget if you challenge them to name all 20 Premier League teams in under a minute.” Some will take this as an insult but not me personally. It’s a long way from that terribly forgettable 1-0 home defeat to Millwall just over four years ago that all-but signalled the end of Sami Hyypia’s reign as Albion manager and ultimately, the beginning of the success that Chris Hughton has gone onto lead us to. So yes, I will take competent forget-ableness over incompetent forget-ableness every day.

Matchdays 11-13 – Frustration and refereeing controversy

Talking of forgettable, let’s overlook Everton away. A bad day at the office, in which we were outclassed by a better resources team. There’s no shame in that.

Not that this stopped one fan phoning in BBC Radio 5 Live’s phone-in “606” and calling for Hughton to be sacked. A call described by host and one time Albion loanee Robbie Savage as “One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in my life”. You know you’ve got it wrong when Robbie Savage is taking the common sense high-ground. Thankfully the vocal minority that phone into programmes like 606 are not speaking for the majority of sensible football fans who appreciate Chris Hughton as one of the best managers currently working in the English game.

Whilst from an Albion perspective it was a demoralising defeat, it was one that we could have anticipated. However, the game was notable for at least two positive things:

First, it saw another set-piece goal from the Albion, something we lacked last season, scoring only five all season. But something that is becoming increasingly part of our attacking armoury, scoring eight already in only half the amount of games.

Second, it saw a debut from the bench for a certain Florin Andone, someone who we will come to later.

But first, next up was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Cardiff. And if we were honest, it was a game we expected the team to win, but it was not to be.

The team made a good start, with Lewis Dunk getting his second goal in two games, another one of those goals from a set piece and another assist from Solly March. But quickly the Albion’s fortunes began to turn as soon after Callum Paterson equalised for Cardiff. Then the Albion’s Dale Stephens saw red for what was at best an overzealous challenge. And one at which I, unlike many other Albion fans, won’t argue against.

With nearly an hour left what then followed was an extended period of Cardiff pressure, one which the ten-men Brighton team fought hard against, but it was a fight that was ultimately to no avail as a late winner from Sol Bamba meant Cardiff took all three points. Upon review Sol Bamba appeared to be offside in the build up to the goal. But in the melee that was the Brighton penalty area that preceded the goal it’s no wonder the officials weren’t sure. So near but yet so VAR…

After a couple of frustrating results we hoped for a Hughton-side-like instant positive reaction against Leicester at home. And with Albion taking the lead via yet another goal from Glenn Murray, it appeared we had just that. A goal that added to the Albion’s ever-growing set-piece goal tally. And when Leicester and England’s rising star James Maddison saw red for a silly second yellow card for diving, things seemed to be evening up for the Albion very quickly. But the Albion couldn’t capitalise on their numeric advantage, and this wastefulness would prove costly. As after Beram Kayal sloppily gave away a penalty, Jamie Vardy equalised for Leicester.

It was an afternoon of frustration for the Albion. Frustration in a lack of attacking intent, frustration in a lack of quality in possession, and frustration in sloppy, panicked decision making. The amount of long distant pot-shots and wild hit-and-hope(less) crosses made it hard to watch. It was a performance described, as level-headedly as ever by manager Chris Hughton, as “below the standard required”.

Many Albion fans were less level-headed and a small amount of boos could be heard at the end of the game. Whilst the Argus’s Andy Naylor continued his never-tiring battle on twitter with those who deem Hughton too ‘negative’ tactically, and who he deems the “moaning minority”. Some other were coming around to the idea of our previously disgraced Albion fan on 606, but that perspective would soon flip on its head.

Matchdays 14-15 – Andone stars as we win away and beat the scum!

The frustration that was brewing meant that the trip to Huddersfield had more riding on it than our league position relative to our hosts along with our solid start to the season granted. Which was unfortunate given our recent bad record away to the Terriers. And as many feared the Albion got off to a bad start. But oddly it was a spectacularly miscued overhead kick from Albion captain Bruno, one which he unintentionally kicked the ball into the Brighton defensive six-yard box, that set up a goal for Mathias Jorgensen to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Bruno’s second unintentional assist of the season after his miss-hit shot set up Murray’s century goal.

Panic could have ensued, but that’s not the Hughton way, and after a slightly shaky first twenty minutes the Albion started to get back into the game. Then when a Huddersfield red card gave the Albion the initiative, soon after they equalised, just before halftime. Bruno made amends with an intentional and impressively acrobatic piece of ball control that led to an Albion corner. From the corner Solly March found Shane Duffy who equalised before halftime, another set piece goal and another Match assist.

After half time the Albion continued to step up the intensity in search of a winner, one that would this time against ten men prove fruitful. As Solly March continued to prove his doubters wrong by finding Andone with a great cross, where the Romanian nipped in ahead of the Huddersfield defence to put the ball home and give Albion only their fourth away win since promotion.

Up next was the derby game against Palace, which after all the nonsense of last season’s game at the AMEX had once again been scheduled on a Tuesday night, great. Nonetheless, with the gap between the sides at only six points the teams had to put all the sideshow of the rivalry out of their mind and get the three points.

And it was the Albion who struck first, with Murray emphatically scoring a penalty against his old side after Izquierdo went down in the area. A soft penalty but we will take it.

Next chaos ensued, after Murray was brought down in the box by James Tomkins. The ref ignored calls for another penalty and pointed for a corner. A melee ensued, one which saw Shane Duffy headbutt Palace’s Patrick Van Aanholt in front of the referee, I’m sure he had it coming, however, the referee had no choice but to send off Duffy leaving the Albion handicapped for the rest of the match.

But fear not, things were only getting started for the Albion. Pascal Gross was quickly sacrificed for Leon Balogun to partner Lewis Dunk in the back four, but before he resumed defensive duties he quickly doubled the Albion’s arrears. Balogun sending the ball home with a spectacular half volley after being unmarked in the box. An extra man and they still left the big centre back unmarked!

So, with a two goal lead the Albion attempted to hold onto what they had and defend for their lives. But rather than memorable defensive heroics, the game will forever be synonymous with a piece of individual brilliance from Florin Andone that followed.

As Brighton sat deep defending their lead, they had only one player in a remotely advanced position, Florin Andone. As the ball was pumped long and diagonally by Bernardo, remarkably Andone got to this speculative pass near the East stand touchline about ten yards into the Palace half, meaning he had a lot of ground to cover. But cover it he did, slaloming his way around the Palace defence as he did so and then finishing well to make it 3-0.

As the game went on Palace continued to probe without much penetration of the Albion defence. In a resultant moment of frustration, Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha attempted a tackle on hero of the day Florin Andone, which he seriously mistimed. Andone was fortunate to walk away unharmed and Zaha was fortunate to walk away with only a yellow card. Saving Palace further frustration and embarrassment on a bad night at the office.

And whilst Palace got a goal back via the penalty spot to make it 3-1 nothing would take the shine off this win for the Albion. What a victory, what a night. And it was a special night for Albion not just given the circumstances of the victory, but also the novelty that a win over Palace has been in recent years. In fact, this was only the second home league victory by the Albion over Palace since Boxing Day 1988. It’s the kind of win many fans would give a lot away for, and for the Albion it was a victory that preceded the worst run of consecutive defeats to date this season.

Matchdays 16-19 – A winless run – with promise

It was a winless run that started on a miserable wet and grey day in Burnley, one that at least went without last season’s deplorable behaviour from some of the home support.

The goal that ultimately cost the Albion the game was largely as a result of poor defending. As a cross from the right came into the Brighton box, it was headed to the far side of the box and headed back into the six-yard box melee by a Burnley shirt only to be headed clear by Lewis Dunk. But unfortunately, the ball fell kindly for James Tarkowski on the edge of the box to drill it home, scoring a goal that would ultimately give the home side a narrow 1-0 win. It was the type of 1-0 win that they prided themselves on last season, but the type of win that has been harder to come by this season.

If we are honest, it was a poor piece of defending from the Albion, two fairly measly clearances, which coupled with Ryan’s failure to get anywhere near a cross he came for, left Tarkowski with a simple finish. But Ryan’s error was a type of error we’ve not seen much from the Australian number one, which considering his relative lack of height is a testament to him, the management of Chris Hughton and coaching of the head goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts.

Nonetheless this was an error of judgement, but one of a type he’s been encourages to avoid. Maty Ryan spoke to the Independent last season of how before he signed for the Albion he was a much more proactive goalkeeper, with the coaches at Brighton now encouraging him to be less proactive and in situations like this stay on his line and leave the initial defensive duties to the defence, primarily due to the heading prowess of Dunk and Duffy coupled with the incredibly deep defensive line that the Albion often deploy, leaving him little option other than staying on his line.

So, maybe partly due to a concern over the missing Shane Duffy, Ryan uncharacteristically (or characteristically for him two years ago, old habits die hard) came for a cross that he didn’t win leaving a virtually open goal for Tarkowski to shoot into. And no wonder Ryan was nervous, Shane Duffy has been brilliant for the Albion since promotion and as such was justifiably given a contract extension recently. In fact, he is widely being regarded as Albion’s best player so far this season, and primarily is someone who knows how to defend a cross into the box.

As the game went on the Albion threw on Murray and Locadia to go with two up top and try to get an equaliser. And they would combine for the Albion’s best chance of the game. As Murray peeled off wide, something he has grown accustom to doing much less of as a sole striker, he found himself in a position to cross a ball into the box from a deep position. Cross he did, and what a cross it was, landing in a perfect position for Locadia to run onto and head home to equalise, except he headed it over. Cue bedwetting of the highest order, including some Albion fans calling for Locadia’s head, which is frankly ludicrous, more on this later.

But first, up next at the AMEX was Chelsea, and fresh from their victory over champions Man City it was an imposing prospect. In fact, for sixty minutes they showed exactly why that was. They controlled possession with such ease, toying with Brighton and creating enough chances to win a handful of games.

Eden Hazard in particular was brilliant. I’ve already said last season that he was the best opposition player I’d seen at the AMEX. After this day it was clear to me that he’s the best player entirely.

The first goal was of his making. After Chelsea somewhat casually sprayed the ball around the Albion defence, it came to Hazard. Out of nothing he took virtually the whole Albion defence out of the game with only a few touches, then with one more he found Pedro at the far post in space who prodded the ball home and give them the lead.

They then extended the lead as the Albion’s continued the evidence of some growing indiscipline when Balogun gave the ball away, leaving Hazard free to stride forward and pass the ball past a helpless Ryan in goal.

At half time I texted my wife, a Chelsea fan, joking that it would be nice if they could even up the teams by letting Hazard switch and Chelsea almost justified the lack of confidence that I had shown in my team as they almost scored again when Azpilicueta’s low teasing cross fell to Pedro, but his overhead kick went well over.

Then Alonso received the ball on the edge of the box but despite his well-hit shot across the face of goal beating Ryan in goal, it hit the post. It was as if the sound of the smack of the ball against the woodwork woke up the atmosphere in the stadium from its slumber and livened the home team into life.

The Albion had just brought on Florin Andone for the unusually ineffectual Glenn Murray. It was this change that would instigate the livening up of the team’s attacking play and it would quickly produce the intended impact. Propper played a cross-field pass to Gross, Albion’s player of last season then crossed to the on-rushing Bernardo who’s nodded the ball down to Solly March at the far post who tapped it home. A nice move that kept the Albion in the game, somehow.

It wasn’t just Andone who made an impact from the bench, the ever-improving Yves Bissouma came on and his pace and power from midfield put Chelsea under more pressure. Particularly when a cross-field diagonal pass looked to put Solly March through on goal, but he was brought down by Alonso who appeared to be the last man. But Alonso received only a yellow card and ultimately Chelsea held on to take all three points in a manner that was far closer than their dominance for an hour deserved.

It was Bernardo who was the Albion player who took the most plaudits as man of the match. He’d had a great match at left back and was beginning to show his worth after a tough start to the season, particularly on the opening day when his debut against Watford left some already calling him a flop. But like a few other new signings he is beginning to prove the doubters wrong.

The fact Bernardo has replaced Bong, a man who was a mainstay in the team last season, demonstrates his impressive impact on the team. I see the reason being that Bernardo is a much more proactive attack-minded full-back, and it’s no coincidence his move into the starting eleven has coincided with better performances away from home and in general more attacking football from the side.

His more proactive nature is shown via a range of stats, having totalled 5 more interceptions (18 to Bong’s 13), totalled 17 more tackles (28 to Bong’s 11) and totalled almost double the headed clearances (15 to Bong’s 8). All this in 9 appearances to Bong’s 13. It’s no doubt that Bernardo would suit the more offensive-minded and high pressing Brighton team that Hughton has started to encourage, materialising for at least periods in games if not yet for a full ninety minutes.

Game 18 was a trip to Bournemouth and a rare start for both Andone and Locadia, with Murray dropping to the bench. And unlike many other away performances since promotion, this led to the Albion matching if not bettering the home sides attacking intensity, at least for the first 45 minutes. But in their way stood an inspired goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic. First saving from the previously mentioned Locadia low down to his left and then from a Dunk header, again low down to his left.

But at the other end the home side were also creating chances and a man who is proving to be one of the best Premier League signing of the last summer, David Brooks (signed for £10m from Sheffield United) was providing the biggest threat. And it was him who opened the scoring with a wonderful shot into Ryan’s bottom left-hand corner.

But despite the Albion’s attempts to equalise, no goal was forthcoming. And after Lewis Dunk received a red card for a second yellow card it was all but over. The first card Dunk received was for a foul on the prior mentioned David Brooks, one that many believed had gone to Bissouma. So when he got his second yellow and subsequent red for a cynical trip of Callum Wilson from behind, many thought it was only his first card, but off he went and with it went any hope the Albion had of taking a point from the match.

Bournemouth sealed the points when David Brooks made a run to the near post and looped a header back over his head and over Ryan into the goal. A wonderful goal that capped a wonderful performance from the Welshman who is no doubt already worth significantly more than the £10m Bournemouth paid for him over the summer.

So, after three straight defeats it was Arsenal at home that would take us to the halfway point. And it was the visitors who started the brighter, with Aubameyang’s chipped shot forcing Ryan into an early save. And it was Aubameyang who would break the deadlock barely a few minutes later, when after Balogun kept the ball in play only to give the ball straight back to Lacazette who after interchanging with Ozil, worked his way around a static Albion defence to find Aubameyang in space who passed the ball into the top corner to give the visitors the lead.

It was Aubameyang who then forced Ryan into another great save, this time down to his left with the game still 1-0. Further evidence that Ryan is a player the Albion will greatly miss when the Australian goalkeeper now goes to represent his country at the Asia cup in UAE.

Those saves would prove vital as the Albion not long after equalised through the seemingly ever-criticised Jurgen Locadia’s first goal of the season. It was somewhat fortunate circumstances that led to it, but he deserved a bit of luck after some of the less fortunate moments he’s had this season. Davy Propper’s hopeful long diagonal pass forward from level with the Albion penalty area looked meant for Gross but was unintentionally headed into Locadia’s path by Arsenal’s Stephan Lichtsteiner. Locadia then simply had to round the keeper and pass it into the empty net to put the scores level, which he did.

Locadia deserved his goal, he was fantastic in the left-wing role and with better finishing could have given the Albion all three points in the second half. Locadia didn’t deserve the vitriolic abuse he received after his miss at Burnley and he doesn’t deserve to be held up as an Albion great quite yet either. But this was a stepping stone towards him fulfilling his potential.

When we signed Jurgen Locadia we knew he wasn’t the finished article, we knew he was a raw talent coming from a league that is below the standard of the English Premier League. For every Van Persie or Van Nistelrooy that has been a success in the Premier League after signing from Holland, there is a counter example of a Jozy Altidore or an Alfonso Alves who were not a success.

Whilst it’s a lot of money for Brighton to spend, £14m doesn’t buy you a proven goalscorer at this level. It buys you a Jurgen Locadia, a player who’s shown promise, shown he’s competent, shown he’s got a lot of ability, but also shown he’s not perfect, at least not yet. So, if he has a bad game and misses a big chance against Everton or West Ham, I won’t be getting carried away, he needs time in the team to settle and show what he can do.

In fact, it wasn’t Locadia this time being maligned for missing a good chance to score, it was Solly March or Davy Propper, or both, depending on who you spoke to after the game. As the Albion pushed forward and created chances both could have scored, but neither did. I’m happy to state that I’m not concerned with this, both players have potential to be a more significant goalscorer for the team than at current, and if they’re getting in the positions to score that’s the hard part. If they keep doing that then taking those chances will naturally come next.

A halfway point summing up

The draw with Arsenal leaves the Albion with 22 points at the halfway mark of 19 games, ahead of schedule in our search for another year of Premier league status. And 8 points from the last nine games is a reasonable return given the amount of tough away games and games against top six teams that were included in that run, along with the self-induced handicap that the three red cards we received created.

One real positive so far this season is the increased impact of Hughton’s substitutions and varied team selection. The continued impact of new signings like Andone, Bernardo and Bissouma along with regulars like Murray, March and Duffy show the evidence of the increased squad depth.

Hughton still doesn’t make change for changes sake though. And as such the consistency of approach and defensive organisation remains a true strength of the team. Burnley’s Sean Dyche has spoken before about how it’s often braver to stick with what you’ve got and easier to panic and twist when it comes to substitutions and in-game tactical decisions. Hughton shows trust in his players, hence why many have and are continuing to fulfil their potential in this team under his tutelage.

Take Anthony Knockaert as an example, someone who was almost ever-present last season and has looked reinvigorated when he has played recently but is still struggling to get a game, such is the increased competition for places.

But with the added versatility has come some frustrating moments as the team experiences some growing pains. No more so than the frustration and indiscipline that lead to the three Albion red cards. A trend that needs to end.

In my ten games in summing up, I said I thought the fact that Brighton had the second most shots conceded, and the least shots taken would reverse to the average of our league position once the season went on. Well, it hasn’t yet. We currently have the second least total of shots taken and the second highest conceded, with only Burnley totalling lower and higher totals in both areas respectively. Even more anomalous is that the Albion post fewer shots per game at home than anyone in the division despite totalling the joint 9th highest points total accumulated at home.

Whilst stats don’t necessarily tell you everything, for me this one does illustrate two things. Firstly, the Albion’s well-known reliance on their defensive solidity. And secondly, the reliance on Glenn Murray’s reliability in front of goal. In fact, in Murray’s case his conversation rate of shots taken is about as good as it gets for a high scoring forward in a top-flight European football, sitting currently at 36.4%.

The next run of matches starts with a tough visit of Everton who gave us a footballing lesson recently, followed with an away trip to West Ham who are a better team now than the one we beat 3-0 at the London Stadium last season. Which is before another trip to Bournemouth this time in the FA Cup, followed by the visit of leaders Liverpool and a trip to a revitalised Man United. So, it could be a while until we see the next Albion win. But as the recent run shows, the team is capable of giving anyone a game and if we keep beating the teams below us that gap between us and those bottom three places should remain in place.

The Albion sit 13th, a position if which we remain in come May will match the club’s highest ever league finish from the 1981/82 season. In the following season the manager Mike Bailey was sacked after growing pressure on his safety-first approach contributed to the team’s worsening performances. Despite the change of manager, the team were ultimately relegated at the end of the following season in the summer of 1983, albeit being relegated along with the memories of competing in that season’s FA cup final, one which was ultimately lost to United in the replay. Maybe we should take some lessons from history before we moan about Hughton’s ‘negative’ tactics.

When the team was in the fourth tier nearly twenty years ago, then Brighton chairman Dick Knight borrowed a phrase from an album title of DJ and Albion investor/fan Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook to describe the club’s status, “Halfway between the gutters and the stars”. Today we are one of those stars, albeit one that some could forget about amongst the brighter Middle Eastern or Russian oil illuminated stars.

As we approach 2019, we do so with promise, hope and anticipation of another 19 games to come. Ones which if the last 19 games were anything to go by, should give us a lot of excitement to look forward to. Up the Albion, Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Hughton – A man who deserves trust and respect

Sky Sports described Chris Hughton this week as “one of the most respected managers in the Premier League”. But if you looked on social media over the past few months you’ll find some Brighton fans who will disagree.

Hughton spent the best part of his playing career at Spurs, in a period in which he won 3 FA cups, 1 League cup and 1 UEFA cup. He’s described himself as a “an attacking full-back” in a “very offensive team”. A concept that will be unimaginable to many who know him now as a more conservative, defence-minded manager.

He then moved into football coaching, spending a significant amount of time as a coach at Spurs. In his time there, Hughton got a good idea of the unstable working environment that is the life of a football manager, working under 11 different coaches. He will therefore appreciate as much as any person that there aren’t many industries like football, where an employee’s potential sacking is everybody’s business, whilst your work is judged on the basis of what other people do or don’t do.

It has no doubt led to the requirement for those working in the industry to develop a level of stoicism in order to deal with the stresses and strains of the job. And an environment like this naturally leads to stress. Couple this with the increase in international television exposure that comes with modern Premier League football, and this only increases the stressful environment for both managers, their staff and their players. And when responding to stress, this can lead to a deterioration in a persons technique, slower anticipation and bad decision making.

But it appears clear that what Hughton learnt throughout his playing, coaching and management career is the importance to ease that stress on those around him, doing so with his calm and assured nature and enabling everyone to be at their best.

The club clearly recognise this quality and on giving Chris a four year contract after missing out on promotion in 2016, the club said that in doing so it would “offer some stability”. Something Chris provides in bucketloads, as his track record attests to.

Of course, management is more than just creating a productive environment. He has shown on many occasions that he is a likeable man, one that people want to be around and work hard for. Never more so than when Anthony Knockaert’s father died. Hughton cancelled training and arranged for the whole squad to travel to France for his father’s funeral. This wasn’t just an empty gesture for popularities sake, it was one of many that has created the team spirit and unity that the Albion are currently thriving off.

Of course there are many reasons to admire him. Many see him as a figurehead for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) football coaches. It’s something he could be overwhelmed by and shy from. Instead, like many things in his career, he takes it upon himself to fulfil that role. This is no surprise though, especially given his awareness of the importance of the representation of BAME communities in such a high profile industry as football.

Chris Hughton playing career in the late Seventies and Eighties was during a time of great racial tension in Britain, which was very evident in the ferocious environment of a football stadium. Hughton says himself that “I was brought up in a football environment where we saw a lot of racism”.

Times have changed in that regard, but the lack of BAME coaches is still a huge issue in British football. It is one that to his credit he has spoken out about on various occasions. Where many others would hide behind meaningless media trained platitudes he speaks honestly and forthrightly about the issue, recently stating he would like to to see the introduction of the Rooney Rule in the recruitment of football coaches and managers roles in this country.

There are of course many ways football has changed since Hughton’s playing days. One example being the ever increasing status of players at football clubs. Hughton speaks highly of his old Spurs captain Steve Perryman, describing him as “the ultimate captain”. But he also talks of the more vocal changing room in his playing days and how different it is now. This is another example of Hughton’s adaptability and personality. Being able to gain respect from such different people as Anthony Knockaert with his man-management skills. And it’s this kind of work he does off the pitch with his players, that enables him to get the best out of them on the pitch.

Hughton is a man who is admired and liked almost wholesale across the football industry. The manager of this Saturday’s opponents Cardiff, Neil Warnock, said jokingly of Chris Hughton that: “He’s bad for us as managers, he’s so nice! He gives us a bad reputation!”.

And whilst Chris is seemingly liked by all who’ve met him (outside of Norfolk), it’s fair to say Chris has shown his ruthless side whilst at the Albion. As soon as he arrived, he was already judging the current talent, quickly axing long serving players like Jake Forster-Caskey, who were deemed surplus to requirements.

Subsequently he’s rufused to shirk from harder decisions, including last summer releasing and selling some of the players who helped the Albion in promotion to the top division. Including fan favourites Steve Sidwell and Liam Rosienior. It was Rosienior who spoke of Hughton’s ruthless side on Sky Sports the debate recently, suggesting he was liked by so many because he treated others with respect rather than it being a case of him being too nice.

Rosenior spoke of how after releasing him, Hughton sat down with him for 2 hours to discuss his next options. In fact, try to find an interview with Hughton where they don’t praise him personally, I’ve tried and I can tell you it’s hard.

For Chris Hughton though, you can tell whilst the personal acclaim is flattering, for him what matters are his achievements in football. Furthermore, there is a realisation from him of what is still to be achieved with the Albion, despite the already impressive record he can point to. And he has spoken of the work done by Sean Dyche at Burnley and Eddie Howe at Bournemouth as an inspiration of what he can achieve at Brighton.

Brighton’s progression under Hughton has been as impressive, taking a team in danger of relegation to England’s third tier to currently sitting 12th in the top tier. What would be our highest ever league position if we were still there come May. That said, he still get criticised for the style of play and in-game tactical approach.

There is history of this in Hughton’s career too. In hindsight Hughton’s pragmatism whilst manager at Norwich appears to have been undervalued and written off as an overly defensive approach. Something many who have criticised him should remember.

Indisputably, major football clubs are now complex businesses, intrinsically concerned with financial matters, and this means that whilst in Chris’s day he aimed for and achieved a great deal of success in cup competitions, today the league is all that matters and getting the Albion to Premier League safety will be his ultimate and overriding goal this season.

The issue is partly that with more success comes higher expectation. With the Albion starting the season well many fans have become more vocal than ever about what they deem as, ‘Hughton’s defensive style of play’ and how they want to see the team attack more. This pressure is only likely to increase as time goes on and the unrealistic expectations of some fans continue to increase.

But those criticising Hughton need to take a look at his track record and listen to what he says in his press conferences every week. He is a knowledgable and experienced manager who deserves your trust and respect, not your panic driven scorn.

Six things to look out for this season

(Unless stated Squakwa has been used as a source for statistics)

Cardiff

Cardiff will be an interesting prospect for their fellow Premier League teams when facing them this season, one unlike any of the established top-flight teams. Take yourself back to last seasons cup tie between them and eventual Premier League champions Man City and you’ll see a side up for a battle and not afraid to tread the line between fair and unfair play. Man City ultimately won 2-0 but Cardiff didn’t roll over, weren’t disgraced and won’t be this season.

Many have said Cardiff manager Neil Warnock is not able to translate his Football League success to the Premier League, which I think is unfair and his record isn’t as bad as many others suggest. When he was at QPR the club were a basket case. He wasn’t given enough time following achieving promotion to make a good enough judgement on his performance either way. At Sheffield United admittedly they went down in their first season. However, they only went down by one goal on goal difference and only after losing on the last day of the season to the team who stayed up at their expense, Wigan. Hardly a disaster. His time at Palace in the Premier League was also too short to derive any real judgement from. Elsewhere he’s proven over and over he’s good enough to take a team and quickly get it overachieving expectations whilst in the Football League, so why not at the top level?

Cardiff are a team that I think are suited to upset the odds. Last season they were a defensively stubborn team – conceding only 39 goals in the league. The second lowest total in the Championship with only champions Wolves conceding less, they’ll need to show those qualities again this season. They managed this despite conceding plenty of possession, with an average possession last season of only 47%, which is unusually low for a promoted side. Even Brighton under the pragmatic Hughton averaged higher at 51% in our promotion season. They compensate this with a good record on set piece goals, with over a third of their goals coming from set pieces last season. Something that should worry the Albion at least if their defending from set pieces last season is anything to go by.

Cardiff, unlike other promoted sides have no need to change their style of play and with a number of players with a point to prove, they will relish coming up against the big guns. Whilst they have not signed many new players I think they can still be a dangerous prospect and their style of play will help them overcome their shortfalls. Whilst they’re odds-on to go down, I think Cardiff will stay up. I’m not being contrary for the sake of it, they have what it takes to upset the bookies.

Fulham

As the side promoted through the playoffs, Fulham historically have the toughest job of the three promoted sides in staying up, with 15 of the last 25 play off winners relegated in their first season.

This is especially true if you look at the defensive stats, whilst they only conceded 42 goals last season, the fourth lowest in the division, they certainly have a mistake in them. They made the fourth highest defensive errors in the Championship last season (23), only four of which resulted in goals. That’s an unlikely conversation rate in the Premier League, for instance the previous season’s playoff winners Huddersfield made 22 defensive errors in last season’s premier league, 10 of which led to goals.

As has been widely agreed Fulham have made a number of good signings, including some big names, and it will be interesting to see how they all adapt. But whilst this is true, they needed to make those signings given that they are the lowest ranked team going into the new Premier League season. The Albion and Huddersfield both spent big last summer in order to make the step up, whilst Newcastle’s spending spree in the summer following relegation the year before meant they were already well reinforced and ensured all three were able to beat the drop. So, whilst the signings they’ve made are impressive and show ambition, they needed to be given the gulf they have to make up over the summer and I doubt it will give them an edge over other more established teams.

Fulham are a team that like the ball and to control possession, averaging 55% possessing last season. This isn’t something they can expect this season and they will have to get used to spending long periods without the ball, particularly against the top 6 or risk being overrun. In fact, last season all the teams outside the top 6 averaged less than 50% possession, no doubt somewhat skewed by the Man City effect but nonetheless a striking statistic. If they plan to carry on last season’s possession-based approach in the top flight this underlines the need for signings of the like of Jean Michael Seri and Zambo Anguissa to hit the ground running. Time will tell but Fulham have work to do to make the step up and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was too much for them.

England’s new ‘golden generation’

With the tune to “Three Lions” just about out of our heads and the Premier League starting, international football takes a back seat. But will we see more of the young English talent who’ve done so well in various international tournaments at youth level, break into Premier League first teams this year? And will fans start to pressure managers and clubs to give them more first team opportunities?

It certainly promises to be an exciting season for some of the young Englishmen. Particularly if the Community Shield is anything to go by then we will be seeing more of them this season. The highly rated Phil Foden started and played well as City went onto win that game, whilst Hudson-Odoi started for Chelsea and former Albion target Tammy Abraham came off the bench. Whereas at Liverpool the U20s World Cup winner and player of the tournament Dominic Solanke has already made a number of first team appearances since signing last summer. He is amongst plenty of impressive young English talent at the club including Alexander-Arnold and another former Albion target Joe Gomez. Those three sides appear to be the teams to watch for England’s future World Cup stars but here’s hoping there’s more besides.

Maurizio Sarri

To say Sarri is one of the characters of European football is probably underselling it. From reports of excessive chain smoking to stories of absurd superstitions such as repeatedly reversing into a player’s car before games for good luck, the man comes with a reputation for being an eccentric. And add to that the allegations of Homophobia made against him by former City manager Roberto Mancini, it could be an interesting and at times controversial season for Chelsea purely off the pitch.

But on the pitch, he could have a huge impact. Sarri worked wonders at Napoli, creating what many believe to be the best Napoli side since the days of Maradona, pushing the imperious Juventus close in the title race last season and playing some great football at the same time. Napoli were indeed an exciting side to watch, creating the equal second most chances in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season (472), equal with Man City and only beaten by European Champions Real Madrid (498).

Playing a high pressing 433 they scored plenty of goals and created lots of chances, and if pre-season is anything to go by he plans to set Chelsea up to do the same. After 4 years of organised, defensive tactics under Mourinho and then Conte this will be a big change for Chelsea and one that whatever the outcome will be interesting to watch.

Nations League

Usually international football is a boring inconvenience amongst an exciting Premier League season and only every 2 years does it get our full attention. UEFA are hoping this may change with the invention of the Nations League. England are in a group with Spain and Croatia, playing them home and away over the course of the season with the winner of the group going through to the semi-finals in June.

It will be interesting on two fronts. Firstly, following the success of the England national team in the summer will it catch the imagination of the public, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons? Secondly, will the players risk injury and their club managers fury to play in these games, unlike most international breaks in previous seasons?

Time will tell how much things really have changed but it does appear to be coming at a good time for English football. Amongst the political and economic uncertainty, the country is experiencing some serendipitous escapism in the form of a new-found enthusiasm for the national football team. So, don’t put those waistcoats to the back of the wardrobe just yet.

The Hughton high press

I wasn’t going to write something completely non-Albion related, was I? With the Albion approaching a second season in the top flight it appears Hughton’s plan for progression involves a change in tactical approach. Last season the team set up with a deep defensive line and then hitting teams on the break, but there are plans in place to shift to a higher pressing more offensive style.

Nantes manager Miguel Cardoso described the intensity of Brighton’s play in the recent pre-season friendly between the sides as “Incredible”. The last time the Albion were described as incredible it certainly wasn’t describing their pressing tactics.

This is something Bruno also spoke about ahead of the Nantes game, saying that in preparation for these new tactics that pre-season had been “very tough”. The Albion captain said: “I think people will see a difference this season when it comes to pressing. We want to be a team who do that even more. We are going to arrive in better shape than ever when we get to the league. Last season we were a very solid team, a team who worked hard, and that will stay the same.”

Whether a pressing style where the team push higher up the pitch leaving space in behind the back four will suit full back Bruno at the ripe age of 38 is debatable. However as already mentioned, as a unit the Albion set up to defend very deep in their own half last season. This meant the midfield had to cover a lot of ground to get from defence to attack, with moves often breaking down before an attack had begun. This limited the number of chances the Albion created, in fact the 6th lowest in the division. Therefore, playing a higher defensive line and pressing higher up the pitch makes logical sense to counter this issue as the team looks to progress on from last season. Chris will therefore be hoping the current set of players bolstered by the new signings will be able to adapt to the change in style.

The Albion started last season playing incredibly cautious football, ending it with a low average possession of 45%. As the season went on the Albion became more comfortable and they started to attack more, which paid dividends. The Albion scored just 0.71 goals per game before the new year, but then scored 1.12 goals per game after the new year, a not insignificant 56% increase. This added goals per game coincided with a marginal increase in points per game from 1.05 to 1.12, a 7% increase. Pushing higher up the pitch may allow the Albion to create more chances and control games more. At very least it’s a tactical ploy to use against the lower ranked teams in the division at home.