Monday musings – Mistakes and mentality shifts

Saturday’s home match with Leicester saw another good performance from Albion in an entertaining game at the AMEX. But once again, a positive result was snatched at the death by opponents Leicester City after yet more mistakes from Albion when defending set pieces.

And it was yet another game that highlighted how this Albion team is so close to being very, very good, and yet dangerously close to being relegated. But those are perils of topflight football.

Just look at Southampton. They were top in November. Then at the start of February after losing 9-0 to Man United they were beginning to look over their shoulders and worrying about getting dragged into a relegation battle until their win on Saturday.

The defeat to Leicester did show once again however that this Brighton team is more suited to playing the better, more attacking teams in the division. It was a game in contrast to the recent defeats where the opposition dominated possession, with Albion having only 37%, but where Albion were arguably closer to winning than some of those recent games where they had nearly double that proportion of possession.

In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to the three matches prior to Saturday’s defeat, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in those 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was comparable to Saturday at 38%, again almost half.

Albion have had over 60% possession four times in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four, accumulating just 2 points.

Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 4 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.

The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (10 times this season), they’ve won on 4 occasions and picked up 14 points, an average of 1.4 points per game.

Fortunately, our fixture list means there’s a fair few games left where we can expect the opposition to take the game to us and Albion can play a style that has been more fruitful for them in terms of points this season.

Unfortunately, they are the teams in the division that will punish you just like Leicester did on Saturday.

Especially if you drop off as Albion did in the second half on Saturday. As Adam Lallana said in his post match interview “If you drop your levels you get punished, it feels like we didn’t perform well enough.”

A big part of that was Albion’s lack of attacking thrust as the game went on, which has been significantly hampered since the injury to Solly March that has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Since Solly March came off in the 67th minute in the win over Liverpool, Albion have scored just three times in 563 minutes of football, losing 4 and drawing 2 of those matches.

I think it’s easy to assume now, that if Albion are to stay up we need to beat Newcastle. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case given who we’ve beaten this season and the record outlined above. I would class that match as a must not lose instead.

But there is still plenty of hope on the remaining eleven league fixtures. The Newcastle win earlier in the season now seems more of an anomaly, with all of Brighton’s other league wins coming against teams currently sitting 6th-11th in the league table. So I’m more optimistic about some of the later fixtures against teams who will come at us more, rather than that return fixture against Newcastle in two weeks time.

However, this style isn’t fool proof and didn’t see Albion pick up any points on Saturday, with the Leicester winner another example of Albion’s risk in throwing in so many youngsters this season.

These are the players who more often have been culpable with errors at the back. First there was Sanchez’s flailing punch, then Alzate losing his marker. It’s been a running habit of the season and to be fair to those mentioned above we’ve seen many others like Ben White often similarly culpable from defending set pieces. It is a part of the process of blooding so many youngsters unfortunately. But one the team really can’t afford to have many more examples of if they are to survive this season.

Whilst I like Alzate, I don’t think bringing him on late in the game with the score tied made much sense. With the game as it was our midfield needed a bit more stability and experience, but he is a player that Graham Potter has shown plenty of trust in during his tenure, maybe before he is quite ready for it.

I would have preferred Davy Propper to come on instead, a player with a little more nous and plenty more experience. The Dutchman’s lack of playing time this season remains a real puzzle to me and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him figure more than Alzate in the run in.

If you can criticise Graham Potter for one thing this season, it’s his over reliance on the young players. It’s admirable and exciting to see, but I think that he’s shifted out the likes of Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray whilst barely using Propper when fit has been a huge factor in the key moments that have gone against the team.

That said, this is the route the club has chosen to take and whatever happens, I really hope we keep hold of Graham Potter and stick to it. As I discussed at the beginning of the season, this mix of youth and experience was always going to be a tough balancing act for Potter and is one he isn’t always going to get right. But let’s wait until the end of the season to make a final judgement.

Two days on we’re all still reeling from that late Leicester goal, but nonetheless let’s take a moment to appreciate what a player Adam Lallana is. He was fantastic against Leicester, his first Premier League start since the draw away to West Ham in December. If he stays fit I think we’ll be fine.

Fulham’s win over Liverpool has since left Albion only above the dreaded dotted line only on goal difference by a mere three goals. Albion’s time in the Premier League has partly been defined by its ability to avoid being in the relegation zone, but that may have changed by the time we next play.

It will be a huge shift in mentality for this team from constantly keeping the bottom three at arm’s length to being in it. What is clear is that unlike in the 2018/19 season, when Cardiff City failed to take advantage of a faltering Albion team, this time we cannot rely on the bottom three to get us out of trouble.

This season began with many talking about progression rather than just mere survival for the team after Graham Potter’s first season in charge saw green shoots of hope in that direction. But for this progress to continue mere survival is imperative.

I suspect 38/40 points will be required for that after this weekend’s results. That’s just over a point a game from here on, which is very achievable, but this bad run needs to end fast.

A scrappy draw at the Cottage frustrates Albion again, but it’s too early to panic

Wednesday night saw Albion partake in a scrappy game of football and earn a useful point in what was a largely disappointing and frustrating performance.

As both sides admitted afterwards, a draw was a fair result and it’s a useful point that keeps Albion above an improving Fulham team, takes them a further point above a Burnley team who have two games in hand at the time of writing and one that helps to lift some of the despondency from Sunday’s heavy defeat at the hands of Leicester.

The highlight from an Albion perspective on a fairly dreary night of football was an impressive performance by incoming goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who made some key saves to earn Albion’s third clean sheet of the season.

As the game got going in a quiet Craven Cottage, it quickly became apparent it was one that both teams were afraid of losing. The best the first half got was a few speculative shots from range and some miss-hit crosses. With the rest of the half mostly taken up by some fair but firm tackling in a congested midfield.

With London entering tier 3 of the UK’s COVID restrictions on the morning of the game, a lack of supporters in the ground who had roared Fulham to an impressive draw with Liverpool there just three days before was very noticeable. And possibly responsible for the drop in intensity in the home sides performance.

The congested midfield left little room for the creative players to flourish and as a result it was as if at times Albion’s Leandro Trossard was playing a different game to everyone else. But as the game progressed, he was the one who managed to open up Fulham with some good play at the beginning of the second half, making 3 key passes including some uncommonly (compared to Albion’s season so far) good set piece deliveries.

It was a performance from the Belgian that highlighted his superior agility and movement in comparison to one of the men he replaced in the starting line up Pascal Gross. But what this season has also highlighted is that he does as yet lack Gross’s high standard of nous and conviction in the final third, with the Belgian one of many Albion forwards proving to be often wasteful. I just hope the younger talents like Trossard take the time to learn from Gross about being more sharp and effective in front of goal.

Indeed Albion attacked with intent for a short period after the break. And were it not for a VAR overturn and some smart work from the Fulham crossbar after it turned an Adam Webster header away from goal, Albion would have taken the lead. But the subsequent introduction by Fulham of Lemina & Kamala in midfield halted Albion’s dominance and the home side had the better chances on the break after then. Particularly after Albion’s near-hero turned near-villain when Webster mistimed an interception and left Chelsea loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek clear on goal only to see his shot saved by the feet of Sanchez.

There were moments of quality and the second half performance was an improvement on the first, but Albion will need to capitalise on period like that better if they are to start picking up the wins they require to lift them up the table and away from the danger of relegation. But a point is a decent result.

That’s now five points won from the five games since the most recent international break, which is by no means a disaster given the fixtures. But the feeling remains that Albion are missing too many opportunities to accumulate wins and the points which would enable them to climb the table. It now feels like wins from the next four games, which include three at home and a trip to West Ham, are a necessity to avoid anxiety levels continuing to escalate and the pressure from some quarters on manager Graham Potter becoming detrimental.

Nonetheless, in the context of the season so far this feels like a more of a positive than negative result. As well as five draws, Albion have admittedly lost a not insignificant six times in the thirteen games played already this season. But, given that five of those defeats were against the current top six and the other that remarkable 3-2 defeat at home to Man United, we should probably be feeling more positive about Albion’s season so far.

But another failure to take all three points means that positivity is now even more dependent on how the Christmas period continues to play out. Once the next four games have finished, we will know far better if those five draws Albion have achieved so far this season, three of which being against teams below us, were a point gained or two dropped.

Excess despondency ahead of a decisive few weeks

2020 has been a year where many of us have been reminded of our own frailties and of the instabilities that everyday life holds. Alongside all that Albion’s current concerning run of form is quite frankly small beer, but with all this instability around the uncertainty of the club’s Premier League status will no doubt be adding to Albion fan’s anxiety.

Whilst many have suggested this incarnation is the squad of players that the club has ever had, the points they have accumulated after 12 games is the lowest of its four Premier League seasons since promotion.

But, given that of the 12 teams Albion have faced so far this season, eight of their opponents currently sit in the top half of the league and only two are in the bottom eight places, there is reason to believe that the promise and potential which we have seen and discussed of Graham Potter’s Brighton over the last 18 months may materialise in the coming run of matches.

However, turning potential and promise into fruition is more difficult than it may appear on paper. Something highlighted by the recent demise of Sheffield United, a team who pre-lockdown in March were being spoken of as challengers for Champions League football having picked up 43 points from their first 28 games. But having subsequently won just 12 points from the subsequent 22 games, they are all of a sudden very much relegation fodder.

In comparison, Albion’s fairly consistent total of 22 points from their last 21 league games over the same period looks lucrative, especially given the previously mentioned relatively high standard of opposition faced so far this season. Not that the discourse amongst Albion’s fans after last Sunday’s 3-0 reverse away to Leicester would have suggested as such.

Mainly because it’s a result that leaves the club in a perilous position, just two places and two points above the relegation zone, ahead of two increasingly important games against teams beneath them in the table, first away to a rejuvenated Fulham and then at home to the aforementioned Sheffield United.

Lose those and Albion’s record of avoiding a prolonged stay in the relegation zone since promotion could quickly end and given the lack of stability in the UK at the moment, there may never be a worse time to lose their place at the top table of English football, especially given that the EFL is facing its own crisis.

Despondency can quickly have a spiralling effect and can quickly exacerbate the issues we face. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this most pertinently in our own personal lives. Be it from a professional or personal perspective, when you’re stuck in a rut everything becomes that little bit harder, and your goals, however big or small, can feel increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Throughout the club’s time in the Premier League it’s as moment like these appear that Albion have often managed to conspire to pull out a run of positive results, which keep its head above water and keep spirits high. The next two matches are a huge test of that ability to continue to survive at this level.

After Albion’s win away to Aston Villa, I spoke about how anxiety levels had been lowered somewhat as the team found themselves marooned in that mid-bottom-half league position that has become very familiar to Albion fans since promotion. But results since have meant that whilst the league position hasn’t changed, anxiety levels have increased as the teams below them have closed the gap.

Unlike the macro economic factors that will likely dominate our lives in the UK and further afield for the coming decade, and possibly longer, the transformation in the mood of football fans from despondency to euphoria – and back again, can happen in the space of just 90 minutes. Feelings that are only magnified for all the teams in the bottom reaches of the Premier League due to the fragility of their top flight status’.

However, just as with the fortunes of the country, Albion now find themselves with a decisive few weeks ahead, which could have huge implications for the coming months and years ahead.

18/19 season review – Ten games in

Ten games is traditionally the point in the season that the league table starts to take shape and become a meaningful barometer of a team’s performance. As such it feels like a good time to reflect on what’s happened so far this season. Brighton sit 11th in the table with fourteen points from those ten games, a points return and league position that is probably better than most predicted, so let’s take a look at how we got there and what it shows us.

Matchdays 1-3 – The bad, the good and the ugly

We started the season with a wave of optimism. Partly because of the number of new signings made over the summer, including record signing and last season’s Eredivisie top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. But partly because of the way safety was secured last season, earning four points in our final two home games against top four sides Spurs and Man Utd, including that unforgettable 1-0 victory over United.

So as we approached the first game of the season away to Watford there was plenty predicting an Albion victory. But instead what occurred was a 2-0 defeat, the Albion’s eighth 2-0 defeat on the road since promotion the year before and the fourteenth time the Albion had lost conceding more than once in the process, all that in only twenty-four Premier League games.

So, as the team lined up at Vicarage Road it wasn’t long before that optimism faded. Bruno was substituted early through injury and replaced by Bong, with new signing Bernardo moving to right back. Subsequently Bernardo had a tough day up against the former Juventus player Roberto Pereyra, who scored both goals that day and whose second was scored after Bernardo was found hopelessly out of position allowing Pereyra to double the Albion’s arrears. Bernardo’s poor performance and Bruno’s injury opened the door for another new signing Martín Montoya to cement a place in the team in the coming weeks at right-back.

I mentioned in one of my pre-season blogs that I thought Bernardo was being lined up as Bruno’s long term replacement. However, given the subsequent signature of Montoya and the subsequent events on the pitch, it appears Bernardo is seen as more of a left-back by Chris Hughton. So, given Hughton’s loyalty to Bong, a players who’s featured in every game this season, it’s likely Bernardo will have to patiently wait his turn to make amends for his poor showing against Watford.

The team didn’t make it a meaningful contest against Watford and despite promising substitute appearances from new signings Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Albion took few other positives from a terrible display, with Albion manager Chris Hughton describing his side as “off the pace”.

Thankfully this low level of performance didn’t continue. In fact, if this was the bad, the first three games were a case of the bad, the good, and then the ugly.

So, next up was the good and another victory over Man Utd, although it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day. After captain for the day Lewis Dunk came off injured early in the first half, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun. However, unlike Bernardo, Balogun was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside Duffy.

With Balogun a more than capable deputy, the Albion were able to press United with gusto, putting them under plenty of pressure. And it wasn’t long before this pressure told and the Albion got off the mark with a sublime chip from Glenn Murray. This is a goal that has to go down as one of his best for the Albion, whilst it was from close range, the skill and technique to flick the ball up and chip the ball over United ‘keeper De Gea was a sight to behold.

Whilst the Albion faithful were in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. With Shame Duffy allowed an absurd amount of time to take the ball down he then rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead. After Lukaku pulled one back with the Albion conceding another goal from a corner, last season’s Brighton player of the season Pascal Gross converted a penalty to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.

As the first half ended it was hard to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the defeat to Watford the week before. Despite an improved display from United in the second half they rarely trouble the Albion defence, making the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored by Pogba a meaningless consolation for the visitors. In contrast to the game against Watford there were so many positives, none more so than the previously mentioned debutants Martin Montoya and Leon Balogun.

Nonetheless the two sloppy goals conceded were a concern. It was four conceded in two now from the Albion and there were more to come.

Which bring us to the Ugly, Liverpool away. Ugly because of the dreadful way the Albion gifted Liverpool the lead via an error from the otherwise impressive Yves Bissouma. After he was dispossessed by the evergreen James Milner in the Albion’s defensive third, Liverpool made no mistake and took the lead which they held onto for the rest of the game to take all three points.

Nonetheless this was a good Albion performance where they minimised Liverpool’s well-known attacking threat (particularly well-known by Albion who lost 4-0 at Anfield as recently as May) and could have nicked a point if Gross or Knockaert had beaten the keeper with good chances to score in the second half.

Matchdays 4-7 – A charitable donation of a 2-0 head start

So, it had been a mixed start for the Albion but one that gave hope for better things to come. But then followed a string of four games where the team gave all their opponents 2-0 head starts and took only two points from a possible twelve.

First up Brighton returned to the AMEX to face a newly promoted Fulham side in good spirits after their first win of the season, a 4-2 win at home over Burnley. But it was Brighton that started the stronger, earning an early penalty, but one that this time Pascal Gross failed to convert.

On this moment the game swung and Fulham took advantage taking a 1-0 lead into half time. Brighton’s defence was again looking shaky and with a newly returned Lewis Dunk looking as if he’d been rushed back too early from injury, the Albion soon found themselves 2-0 down after the aforementioned Dunk was outmuscled by Fulham’s new signing Mitrovic who put the ball past Maty Ryan and into the top corner.

It had been an incredibly frustrating first 60 minutes for the Albion and particularly for last season’s player of the year Pascal Gross. In fact it had been an underperforming start to the season in general for Gross, who was clearly playing through an injury. He was brought off on the hour and hasn’t feature since this season, such is the strength in depth that the Albion now has in its squad.

So Gross was replaced by Bissouma and with some added attacking impetus from his fresh legs and incisiveness, the game swung again as the Albion started an impressive comeback. First after a wonderful run from a reinvigorated Anthony Knockaert, he found Murray in space on the edge of the box to pull Albion back in it. Then after an inexplicable handball from Fulham goalscorer Mitrovic, the Albion were awarded a penalty. One which Murray dispatched to earn Albion a draw.

Next up was Southampton on one of those weird Monday night games Sky Sports insist on organising. And it took Brighton 45 minutes to get their head in the game as what followed was the worst half of football the Albion has produced so far this season. It was reminiscent of many other away performances since promotion, one with poor ball retention, a lack of tempo and intensity in and out of possession, leading ultimately to a lack of attacking intent.

Southampton took advantage, first through a spectacular long-range strike from Hojbjerg. Then after the Albion gifted the opposition another penalty, this time via a clumsy foul by Gaetan Bong, Southampton striker Danny Ings scored to make it 2-0.

So the Albion found themselves once again needing another great comeback and a remarkable improvement materialised. The midfield pushed up, the full-backs made more forward runs and the Albion created multiple opportunities to score. And after Duffy scored again from a set piece, Murray scored a late penalty to make it 2-2 in the second consecutive game.

Next up it was Spurs at the AMEX, who were on a three-game losing streak meaning there was optimism of an upset. But after a third sloppy concession of a penalty so far this season, this time via an inexplicable Murray handball (a matter of feet away from the spot where Mitrovic conceded a penalty via the same fashion as in the last home game) the Albion were 1-0 down at the break. Then Erik Lamela finished off a wonderful team move to give Spurs a 2-0 lead. The Albion rallied and attempted another unlikely comeback but could only muster a late Knockaert consolation goal. If only he’d taken the chance he had from only a few yards out earlier in the second half with the game at 1-0. Ultimately, the game swung on moments of skill and good decision making that goes to show the quality the Spurs squad has in greater supply to the Albion.

A trip to Champions Man City followed where an ever-greater supply of quality players was on offer and it was like Albion were lambs to the slaughter. That said, having put five past Burnley and Cardiff and six past Huddersfield, despite losing two-nil the Albion can take many positives from the performance if not the result. In conceding twice despite having only 20% possession the defence had to dig in and concentrate for long periods to avoid a thrashing, which they did, and it was a sign of things to come.

So although ending match-day seven with two consecutive defeats, the City game was still an improvement on the performances away from home that we’d seen previously given the standard of opposition the team were facing.

In fact considering the calibre of opposition the Albion had faced in the first seven games, (which included playing all of last season’s top 4 and an in-form Watford side) a five-point tally coupled with some good performances against the top teams was satisfying. However, taking account that the only win came against United at home rather than against Fulham at home or Southampton away it suggested a certain amount of missed opportunity and meant the next three games, two at home with the away game to winless Newcastle, had a bit more riding on them than they should have.

Matchdays 8-10 – 1-0 to the Albion, defensive solidity at last!

So if the first seven games showed signs of a team with a habit of conceding soft goals. The next three games that followed demonstrated the team were capable of the exact opposite. There were two 1-0 home victories courtesy of Glenn Murray’s 99th and 100th goals for the club, which were sandwiched between a hard fought 1-0 victory away to struggling Newcastle.

This run made it seven one-nil wins since promotion for the Albion, and thirteenth clean sheets, a good record all things considered. Hard-fought one-nil wins have been a regular feature of Hughton’s tenure at the Albion, with six coming in the promotion season alone.

The first of the three consecutive wins was one of those special Friday nights at the AMEX. A night where we welcomed West Ham, a team the Albion convincingly beat twice last season and a team we would beat once more.

Wins over the teams around you at home is always important in a battle for survival from relegation, but in a game like this where the Albion were under pressure from West Ham attacks for so much of the game it is all the sweeter.

Hughton started with a changed midfield, with Stephens and Gross out, Kayal and Propper started in deep lying central midfield roles and Knockart and Jahanbakhsh played on the wings with Solly March surprisingly getting nod to play in the number ten role in a three behind Murray. And it worked for much of this and the following two games, with Stephens replacing Propper and Izquierdo replacing Knockaert in the following two games.

It was a sign that the impressive player recruitment the Albion have continued to make since winning promotion is paying dividend in the form of options for and unpredictability in Hughton’s team selection. We rotated mainly between the same 15 or 16 players throughout most of last season with no decent back up in many positions. In fact we have already used 18 players this season and whilst this is comparable to the total this time last season, it’s no doubt that the standard of the second-string players has improved significantly. With the remaining players from the squad like Florin Andone and maybe the odd development squad player likely to be used at some point in the near future, there are real signs of the added options and strength in depth available to Chris Hughton.

This is most true in attacking areas and that night against West Ham the adapted system meant the three behind Murray provided lots of threat through runs on and off the ball, with March particularly causing the opposition lots of problems. This left space for others to exploit. Something which Kayal did exactly that for the goal, finding space on the left wing to cross the ball to Murray in space at the back post.

The return of Izquierdo was a welcome positive, but the three games were dominated from an Albion perspective by the return to powering dominance of the centre-back partnership of Dunk and Duffy. Who were no doubt buoyed by the good display in the previous game at the Etihad. Before the West Ham game it was announced they both signed five years deals and if performances like this continue over that period, they should go down as the best centre back partnership the club has ever had.

A week later the team travelled to the North East to face a Newcastle side who’d lost all their four previous home games this season, and Albion would make it five with another hard fought 1-0 win.

After Murray came off injured with a nasty looking head injury, Kayal opened the scoring by deflecting an Izquierdo shot past the Newcastle ‘keeper. What followed was another display of defensive solidly from the Albion as Duffy and Dunk once again showed why the club had just extended their contracts, whilst Maty Ryan made multiple saves to earn his second clean sheet of the season.

Then came the third win in a row and it was becoming a case of Groundhog Day for the Albion. Another 1-0 home win, another Glenn Murray winner, more great defending from Duffy and Dunk, and some reliance on a few top saves from Maty Ryan to keep the clean sheet.

It wasn’t just any old 1-0 win though, Glenn Murray cemented his place as only the second ever player to score one-hundred goals for Brighton. He also becomes the highest post-war goal scorer, taking over from Kit Napier on 99 goals.

And he did it in typical Glenn Murray fashion. He spoke in Nick Szczepanik book ‘Brighton Up’ about how he would often find space in the box by standing still, whilst others moved around him. This day was no different, as the ball fell to Bruno on the right side of the box the Wolves defence shifted in his direction. In the same motion Murray stayed almost stationary but alert to find himself in acres of space at the far post to score his century goal.

But that day and in fact across the last three games it wasn’t vintage Albion. Hughton admitted after the Wolves game that the team were not at their best, citing the problem of poor ball retention that has been a bad habit throughout the first ten games of the season.

As centurion Glenn Murray stated after the win over Wolves it was ‘back to basics’ for the Albion. Keeping it tight at the back by defending deep and not giving too much away to the opposition and then relying on taking the odd chance you get at the other end. Whilst this worked over the past three games and was a system that kept us safe last season, there’s plenty of flaws in this tactic.

For me, the biggest example of this is the amount of draws last season that could have been wins. We entered the final third of last season having been hammered by Chelsea and mainly as a result of all those draws, relying on winning the home games we had left. We did this emphatically and partly through allowing the team more attacking licence and creating more chances to score. Swansea and West Ham at home being the best examples. But given the amount of sloppy goals conceded in the first seven games a back to basics approach was required.

A ten-games in summing up

There is plenty to be pleased with out of the first ten games, nothing more so than the points tally. But let’s not get carried away it’s a tally of 14 not 40, and none of Albion’s wins were emphatic. What the first ten games have shown, as we all knew before the season started, is that there is very little difference between all the teams that will fill the bottom end of the table.

One stat that’s been mentioned a lot since the Albion’s recent run of wins is that the team have conceded the second most amount of shots in the Premier League this season, whilst having the least amount of shots ourselves. But stats are sometimes misinterpreted and given the way the fixtures have fallen and the easier run of games ahead for the team, I suspect that both statistics will revert to a similar level to last season.

As we quickly approach the winter period of the season, one thing that has proved founded, despite the early bump in the road at Watford, is the wave of optimism from back in the summer. Many of the new signings have given the squad a strength and versatility that was not on offer last season. These additions have allowed the Albion to make changes in personnel and tactics more often as well as making changes during games that have helped towards achieving the points total amounted so far.

The idea the team could have coped with the absence of Dunk, Stephens and Gross for long periods in the first ten games, whilst playing such high calibre opposition and find themselves with the outcome they have so far this season, would have been unthinkable this time last season. Whilst this season has been and will continue to be a scrap, the investment in player recruitment made by the club and led by Paul Winstanley and his team in the recent transfer windows, looks to be making the difference for the Albion. Long may it continue…

The Welsh Wizard – Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones time playing with the Albion will be best remembered by many for the trickery and skilfulness that made him a cult figure on the Sky Sports program Soccer AM, but to just remember him for that would be unfair. Signed by manager Micky Adams in the summer 2000, he was a key part of the team that won back to back championship winning promotions, and after the subsequent relegation he was then part of the team that won the playoff final in 2004 to win its third promotion in four years. In fact it was the end of an eventful nine-year period for Jones.

After growing up in the Rhondda in rural Wales, he started out with Welsh club Merthyr Tydfil playing non-league football. It wasn’t long though before he went professional signing for the team he now manages, Luton Town. He spent a year there, but after failing to break into the first team he moved onto sunnier climates in Spain, where he was able to utilise his Spanish A-level.

He initially playing for Segunda División side Badajoz during the 1995/96 season as they missed out on promotion to La Liga, the next season he stepped down a division to play for Numancia where he won promotion back to the Segunda División. He later returned to the UK signing for Southend, in a three-year spell that included a loan spell at Scarborough in his second season. Despite that he still accumulated 99 appearances for the shrimpers, winning player of the season in his final season.

Therefore when he moved to the Albion in the summer of 2000 it was a major coup for then manager Adams. He quickly became an integral part of a team that is fondly remembered by many supporters of the club. Jones showed versatility at the club playing initially as a left winger and later also as a left back, a versatility that helped him keep his place in the team. In the back to back title winning promotion seasons Jones was a regular playing 76 times scoring 6 goals. After promotion to Division One, he found game time harder to come by starting only 16 games, with Paul Brooker battling him for the left winger role, whilst Kerry Mayo had a great season at left back.

After relegation back to the third tier and with Brooker leaving to join Micky Adams at Leicester, Jones was once again a key part of the team that won promotion via the playoffs, with the team winning its third promotion in four years. And with the playoff final in his home country’s capital Cardiff it was a nice way for him to cap off an eventful few years with the Albion. In the build up to the playoff final Jones said of his time to date with the Albion: “The emotions have been up and down over the past few years, but coming to Brighton is one of the best things I ever did – it’s a fantastic club”.

Following promotion and with the team reinforced with new signings, Jones once again struggled to get game time at the higher level, starting just three times. Whilst the Albion reached its highest finish during its time at the Withdean of 20th in the Championship, Jones was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements. At the end of the 2004/05 season Jones was not offered a new deal and with the good wishes of everyone at the club he moved to Yeovil, where he spent seven years first as player and later as a coach.

After being brought in initially just as a player, in 2008 he began his move into coaching by combing his playing duties with becoming first team coach of Yeovil women’s senior team under manager Steve Phelps and assistant manager Nigel Wolfe.

Whilst many Yeovil fans will remember the highlight of his time at the club when he captained the club at Wembley when they lost the 2007 playoff final, for many Brighton fans they will remember a number of games he played in for Yeovil against the Albion.

One such game against the Albion was during Micky Adams doomed second spell at the club, where The sides drew 1-1 on a sunny day at Huish Park. It was so sunny, when I finally arrived home I resembled a tomato shade of red. Despite leaving on good terms Jones received a lot of stick from the travelling Albion fans, which only got worse after the events that would follow. The game saw debutant Joe Anyinsah sent off for two yellow cards, the second yellow was for a high-footed kick on Jones, which manager Adams didn’t take kindly to as his post-match interview shows.

Later that season after manager Russel Slade left Yeovil (who following the sacking of Micky Adams would later take the Albion job), Jones became Player-Assistant manager of Yeovil men’s senior team under player-manager Terry Skiverton. Later that season, Brighton met Yeovil again, this time beating them 5-0, in a defeat branded by Jones as “embarrassing”. With former Yeovil manager Russel Slade having by now replaced Adams as manager, the Albion were on their way to a remarkable escape from relegation and along the way gave Jones a footballing lesson to take forward.

After a few years of consolidation in League One, Skiverton was sacked with Yeovil in the relegation zone and Gary Johnson appointed manager. Subsequently Jones was demoted from assistant to first team coach and following this he only stayed on until the end of the season.

After only a matter of weeks since leaving Yeovil, he started a new coaching job as u-21 team coach at Charlton. But after only a year there he moved on again to take a job as first team coach at the Albion, returning after 8 years away. He first worked under then manager, Spaniard Oscar Garcia, once again utilising his A-level in Spanish. When he left at the end of the season Jones was kept on to work under newly appointed manager Sami Hyypia, in what was a short-lived and unsuccessful spell in charge.

With Hyypia gone, Jones was appointed Caretaker boss for games with Reading and Fulham. However, Jones wasn’t ever in the running for the job on a permanent basis as chairman Tony Bloom and the board wanted someone with successful managerial and Championship level experience, something Jones didn’t have. In fact Jones stated before the Fulham game that he had ‘no personal ambition’ to take the Albion job at the time, despite his long term goals to be a manager.

After a 2-2 draw with Reading in which the Albion lead 2-0, Jones took charge again as the Albion visited Fulham. That night the Albion put in probably the best performance of the season so far to beat Fulham 2-0. The scenes at the end as Jones celebrated wildly in front of the Albion fans were special, if it were up to me I’d have given him the job there and then, but that is probably why I’m not in charge of making those decisions and Tony Bloom is. You can tell what that night meant to him too by watching his post match interview.

Later that week Chris Hughton was appointed manager and Jones was kept on as a first team coach. Hughton in fact was keen to keep him on board and had some nice things to say about Jones on his appointment. “Nathan Jones will very much be part of my first-team coaching staff and he has done a fantastic job here. I’m particularly grateful for the last two results and as somebody from the outside with a keen interest looking in, I was hoping that the last two results would fare well and he has done very well. I have a lot of respect for him as an individual and also as a coach, so I’m delighted to have him on board.”

During his time under Hughton and following his successful spell as caretaker, there were constant rumours Jones would leave the Albion and get his first job in management.

When Southgate invited him to shadow him and the other coaching staff of the England U21s it was another sign of his growing reputation. And when two months later he left to manage his old club Luton Town no one was surprised, in fact there was nothing but good wishes from the club. Albion Chairman Tony Bloom said, “Nathan has been a great servant to the club”, whilst Manager Chris Hughton said “Since I arrived, he has been an enormous help to me in my first year in the job; and alongside Colin Calderwood, he has played a big part in our progress in the last 12 months. I think he has all the attributes to become a very good manager.”

So it’s no surprise that Jones has done well at Luton, achieving promotion to League One last season, his first full season at the club. So well in fact that he was interviewed for Sunderland job in 2017, but some would say fortunately he missed out to fellow Welshman and former national team manager Chris Coleman. Fortunately as he now manages Luton at the same level as Sunderland following their relegation to League One in the same season and even more fortunately as Coleman is already out of a job whilst Jones’s reputation continues to rise.

One thing you may not know of Nathan is how much his religious faith, Christianity, shapes his life. The Rhondda village Nathan grew up in had a population of less than 2,000 but four practicing churches. He was so devoted to his faith that it was at the expense of a potential football career, missing a number of trials as a youngster because they were on a Sunday. Whilst he is still a devoted Christian his views on the Sunday holy day, have slightly altered. “I went to Cardiff and they had games on Sundays. I went to God and said, ‘I believe you brought me to this opportunity, I need to play.’ It was done in good faith. It was a necessity then. I believe God understands that.”

Through his faith Jones is in full belief he has fulfilled his potential and then some. “I don’t look back and think, I could’ve been this or that. I’ve surpassed any dream that I ever had and I’m very blessed, and in God’s will I did those things. If I hadn’t done all of those things, who’s to say if I’d be here?”. In modern society religion has a bad name and whilst there is much evidence of the evil it is responsible for, stories like Nathan’s shows the other side of the coin. In his case showing the strength it can give to people to achieve their goals.

So, what next for Nathan Jones? Currently he is managing a Luton side in League One who, despite a mixed start, have been tipped as an outsider for promotion to the Championship. As for the medium to long term future, if he continues his progress as a manager he’s certainly left enough of a mark in Sussex to be considered a potential future Albion manager.

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.