Monday Musings- A halfway debrief

As Brighton pass the halfway point of their 2020/21 Premier League season, it comes with a fair amount of frustration despite the great promise shown so far. But it’s a feeling of frustration which has a much more positive glow to it after an important 1-0 win away to Leeds United on Saturday.

Brighton went into Saturday’s game on the back of no wins and just 5 points taken from their last 9 league games, a run which means despite Saturday’s victory means they end the first half of the season on their lowest halfway Premier League points total of 17.

Nonetheless, Albion find themselves in their usual position just above the bottom three but not quite engaging with the battle for mid table positions in the Premier League. And with many of the teams around them having games in hand and recently making gains on them in terms of points, Saturday’s win by no means expunges all of the anxiety.

But it’s still been a season of great promise from Graham Potter’s side, as his project to turn Chris Hughton’s robust and solid Albion team into a free flowing attacking side continues to progress.

But the team have often flattered to deceive. Despite plenty of good approach play and plenty of dominating performances it’s not led to improvements at either end of the pitch. Whilst Brighton have now accumulated more expected goals (xG) than their opponents on twelve occasions this season, of those 12 games Saturday was only their second win.

Going forward Albion’s style of play has seen them gain plenty of plaudits, but in terms of goals scored, their total to date of 22 is the same total scored after 19 games last season and only one better than in the first 19 games the season before.

Offensively Albion’s play has probably been typified by Leandro Trossard. Who has hit the woodwork on 5 occasions this season, the equal most in the division along with Chelsea’s misfiring striker Timo Werner. Trossard is a very gifted footballer, arguably Albion’s most talented attacker, but his shooting leaves much to be desired.

At times it’s his decision making that has let him down. As was pointed out by Jon Manuel this week in an article for Stats Perform “With just 0.06 xG per shot it is clear he is a fan of a more speculative effort and, having taken the second-most shots of anyone in the team, it may be worth asking whether it is sometimes better to pass than shoot.” It’s this habit of going for the shot when there is often a better option available that led to some excessive criticism from Percy Tau’s South African faithful after his debut in Brighton’s win over Newport in the FA Cup.

But if Trossard can improve his decision making in the final third he has almost everything required to be a top class player, as evidenced by his continued selection for the Belgian national team squad alongside the likes of Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. His one-two with Alexis Mac Allister for Brighton’s goal against Leeds is just one of a number of examples of that talent and if he can make more of the opportunities he creates and less so often go for the speculative shot, expect Albion to start turning far more of thier draws into wins.

In fact it’s been 8 draws this season for Albion, the most in the division so far. And most of them have felt like two points dropped rather than a point gained. In comparison, in Chris Hughton’s last season 2018/19, Albion drew just 9 games all season

Trossard’s place in the team may come under threat from the presence of Percy Tau. Whose impressive performances in his first two appearances for the club since being recalled from loan gives Potter even more options to tinker with in attack. What is clear though is that it is most likely to be a place alongside Maupay who Potter tends to select if available come what may.

Along with Trossard, Albion’s top scorer Maupay has been criticised for not taking enough of his chances, but the faith Potter places in him by regularly selecting him despite these lapses in front of goal shows he adds so much more to the team. No Albion player has been involved in more goals this season (8), with Albion’s nearest other players Gross and Trossard on just 4 each. Maupay may miss the odd chance, but he creates more than enough through his movement and interplay with those around him to compensate.

A positive Albion can take from the first half of the season is that aside from a couple of occasions, away to Leicester and Everton, they have always been in games, losing 5 of their 8 defeats by just 1 goal and drawing a further 8.

But their relatively young and inexperienced squad is proving to cost them in the key moments in games. For example, Ben White, who has rightly been lauded for some impressive displays in his first Premier League season, has been one of a few notable players caught out too often when Albion have been defending set pieces.

Indeed, it’s not all been about not taking chances. Albion’s defending is a clear issue too that has limited the figure in its win column.

There have been 12 points dropped from winning positions so far, the most in the Premier League. But if the team put in more defensive displays as they did against Leeds, where they defended their one-goal lead for 73 minutes, then that should become a much less common occurrence.

But despite Saturday’s clean sheet Albion’s naive defending, particularly when in the lead, has not gone away. Even on Saturday when the defensive display was much improved, Dan Burn still got caught in possession whilst overplaying in his own half and let in Leeds, but fortunately for Albion on that occasion it came to nothing.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 21, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.

From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 13 of their goals in that manner, the equal 7th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that have led to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore recently against Wolves, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

Then there’s Albion’s struggles in goal, which have no doubt contributed to its defensive issues. Albion’s number one since promotion Maty Ryan lost his place after a period of widely discussed bad form. In his place came the young Robert Sanchez who only has experience of playing in England’s lower divisions. Left in reserve are Jason Steele and Christian Walton, whose experience also comes mostly from outside of the Premier League.

Whilst Sanchez has impressed since coming into the side, question marks still remain and it may prove to be too early for the young ‘keeper. With Ryan having been told by Potter that he should take a good offer to leave if he gets one this month, if Albion are to reinforce any area of the pitch this month, a new goalkeeper should be its number one priority.

If the action in both boxes is its weakness, Albion strength is most definitely in its approach play and in the midfield. On the wings Lamptey and March have been consistently dangerous going forward whilst the signing of central midfielder Adam Lallana has proved a shrewd piece of business despite his injury problems. The continued improvement of Alzate and Bissouma has only made Albion stronger in that area of the pitch, whilst Pascal Gross has been revitalised in a slightly deeper area of the pitch as a back up for Lallana.

When it comes to business in the January transfer window, Potter has said on numerous occasions that he is happy to work with what he has. This willingness to do so will no doubt have been part of the reason he was given the job in the first place. In contrast it is fairly well-known that Hughton did have disagreements about recruitment with other senior members of staff at Albion during the end of his tenure.

And given we don’t expect this team to be given any significant reinforcements, it’s a good thing too that there is this willingness from Potter. If the team are going to start turning their dominance in games into victories, they will be relying on some of their younger talents like Trossard, White and Maupay to cut out the errors, be more clinical and repay the faith Potter has placed in them more consistently.

But given this Albion squad is relatively young, we should forgive them for their individual mistakes. However, they will need to learn from their lessons quickly and execute Potter’s plan more effectively in the second half of the season if Albion are to avoid relegation for a fourth consecutive season.

2005/06 – A year of contrasting disappointment for Brighton and Leeds

For Leeds and Brighton, 2020 represented a year of success. For Leeds promotion back to the topflight for the first time in 16 years has seen them shake off the “fallen giant” tag. Whereas for Brighton, Premier League survival has seen them match their longest and to date only other spell in the topflight of four years.

But go back 15 years and things were very different for both clubs who started the 2005/06 season together in the recently rebranded Championship.

Albion were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably best exemplified by a striker shortage solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a target man. He went onto be the team’s top scorer with 8 goals as they survived relegation on the last day of the 2004/05 season. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight plummeted after he had fired the Seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.

The summer of 2005 saw Adam Virgo sold to Celtic for £1.5m in a deal described by chairman Dick Knight as “The Best Deal I Ever Did”. Saying in his book he thought Virgo was only actually worth around £200k. It was a price that led to speculation of dodgy dealings between Albion manager Mark McGhee and then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan who would later work together for Scotland as assistant manager and manager respectively. But as McGhee told the Athletic recently: “People have suggested that there was some sort of skulduggery going on between Gordon and I because of the amount of money they ended up paying. I have to give credit to Dick. He was the one who forced it up to that price. It wasn’t me. I kind of stepped back, partly because of my association with Gordon.”

In his place came the “Coca Cola Kid”, Colin Kazim Richards. Nicknamed as such after his fee was paid for when the club had won from the Coca Cola win a player fund. A cheque for the £250k prize fund was presented to Dick Knight at the 2005 Championship playoff final between West Ham and Preston.

It was a fund that Dick Knight said in his book “Mad Man” he originally wanted to use to bring Bobby Zamora back to the club. And having spoken to his current club West Ham’s owners at that game, Dick says they seemed interested in a deal. Until that is when Zamora scored the winner for West Ham that day, which secured the Hammers promotion to the topflight and killed any deal.

So Kazim Richards it was. Unfortunately for Albion, he was young, inexperienced and couldn’t be solely relied on to lead the line and provide the goals this Albion side were missing, like Bobby Zamora had done previously. Compared to the 14 Zamora scored for Albion in an injury-hit 2002/03 season when Albion were also relegated from the second tier, Kazim Richards managed just 6, not scoring in any Albion victories. So whilst in 02/03 Albion were only relegated on the final day after failing to beat Grimsby, in 05/06 Albion finished bottom, 12 points adrift of survival and were ultimately relegated with two games to spare after a dismal defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday.

Another of mercurial Albion’s strikers Leon Knight, who had been becoming progressively anonymous since his 27 goals inspired the club’s promotion from the third tier in 2004 and was sold to Swansea in the January of this season. But not before being threatened with being kicked off the club coach in the middle of the New Forest by manager Mark McGhee who simply had lost patience with the one time goal machine.

McGhee had already publicly questioned Knight’s attitude in training and after he questioned McGhee’s decision to drop goalkeeper Michel Kuipers before an away match with Southampton, he was first threatened with being kicked off the coach and then subsequently told he wasn’t even welcome in the dressing room. Leon then scored a hat trick on his Swansea debut just four days later, but that was a rare high point of his short time with Swansea and his career saw a quick demise thereafter.

In contrast, Leeds had come from the other direction. Having finished 3rd in the Premier League in 2000, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 and begun 2002 top of the Premier League, a sudden financial crisis hit the club that had been building for a while as a result of financial mismanagement and saw a fast and dramatic fall from grace for the club.

By the end of 2002 many of their star players had to be sold and they ended the 2002/03 season 15th. But despite those sales the club’s finances were not under control and they were relegated to the championship the following season, and finished a disappointing 14th the next as the club were forced to sell both their training ground and their stadium to make ends meet.

By the time they had reached the 2005/06 season the Leeds squad had already seen a number of successive seasons of mass overhauls, a job recently inherited by manager Kevin Blackwell and chairman Ken Bates. A host of players exited Elland Road that summer, most notably star player Aaron Lennon who moved to Tottenham. In their place came a host of loan signings and free transfers along with a handful of paid for players including that season’s club top scorer Rob Hulse.

One player that Leeds also signed for a fee that summer was the Albion left back Dan Harding. It was a transfer that went to a tribunal to decide the fee. Despite him being out of contract, as he was under 24 Albion were still entitled to compensation so Leeds were ordered to pay the club £850k. Youth team product Dan Harding was one of Albion’s most prized possessions having been recently nominated by Four Four Two as one of the top 50 players outside the Premier League, but over the previous season he and the club had engaged in drawn out and ultimately fruitless contract negotiations that did nothing for the reputation of either party. But despite a promising start to his season, it was an injury hit one and he moved to Ipswich at the end of the season in an exchange for another former Leeds and Brighton player Ian Westlake.

Given the nature of his exit and the extended contract talks which preceded it, it is little surprise that when the two sides met in September Harding was booed by the Brighton supporters every time he touched the ball in a 3-3 draw at Elland Road. It was ultimately a draw that was harsh on Albion who led 2-0 through a rare Leon Knight goal and a second from Sebastian Carole only for a David Healy double to level the scores, who was fresh from his heroics of scoring a famous winner for Northern Ireland against England at Windsor Park. A Sean Gregan own goal looked to have won the game for the Seagulls but Leeds equalised in injury time through Jonathan Douglas to earn the home side a point.

Whilst Leeds manager Keven Blackwell was adamant his team deserved to win and that Healy “could have had six goals”, “the mighty mighty whites Leeds” fan site is far more magnanimous saying “Leeds were lucky to get anything out of Brighton”.

This wasn’t the first time Albion’s defence proved to be leaky that season, in fact they conceded a total of 71 goals, the second highest in the division. And it was no coincidence that Albion’s former club captain and defensive rock Danny Cullip had left in the December of the previous season. So the young Irish defender Pat McShane was brought in for the 2005/06 season on loan from Man United to fill the still resultant gap.

Despite the defensive issues, McShane’s quality shone at the back and he went on to win the club’s player of the season award, which his centre back partner Guy Butters had won two years previously and McShane remains the only loan signing to have ever been voted as Albion’s Player of the Season.

McShane in part received the award for the appreciation of his contribution to one of Albion’s highlights of the season, scoring the winner in a 1-0 win at Selhurst park over rivals Crystal Palace, which left Albion 20th as at the same time saw Leeds climb to 4th in the table.

As the season progressed it looked as if both teams were in a good place to achieve their respective goals come the end of the season. A win over QPR on Boxing Day put Albion four points clear of the relegation zone courtesy of a Guy Butters header. Whilst a 3-1 win at home to Coventry put Leeds 3rd and closing in on the previously run-away top two, in particular Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United.

For Albion though the joy of their fourth victory of the season was tempered by the loss of captain Charlie Oatway to an ankle injury in what turned out to be a career-ending injury for the central midfielder and the man who inherited the captaincy from Cullip. That it was also against the club he supported as a boy was an even crueller twist of fate and left Oatway on 248 appearances for the club over eight years. His injury hit Albion hard as they lost ten of their next twelve, which left them five points from safety and second bottom of the league going into March.

Brighton’s 2-1 win over Leeds at Withdean in January was a rare highlight of an otherwise bleak winter of Albion. The win was secured by a goal from Gary Hart and lifted them out of the bottom three. It gave Albion belief that a second consecutive survival could be achieved, but a run of 7 defeats and a draw in the next eight would essentially secure relegation for McGhee’s Albion side.

There would be some hope for Brighton. A subsequent run of three straight draws and a win over 3-0 fellow strugglers Millwall gave them a faint lifeline. But as manager Mark McGhee stated ‘It’s probably too late for both of us. But this gives us a chance. Who knows?”

And so it turned out, as four defeats in the final five meant any hopes of a great escape were quickly squandered. With both Brighton and Millwall relegated, finishing 12 and 10 points from safety respectively.

With relegation this side was quickly dismantled. McGhee was sacked shortly after the beginning of the following season whilst Albion’s young striker Kazim-Richards made the move to the Premier League with Sheffield United during the summer. A year later he found himself playing for Turkish giants Fenerbahce and in 2008 he appeared for semi-finalists Turkey at the European Championships, a long way from the Withdean stadium.

For Leeds the defeat to Brighton may have seemed at the time as a blip, but signalled what was to come. A good run of five wins in the next eight left them going into the final ten games very much in the automatic promotion hunt, now only five points adrift of Sheffield United after being 17 points behind earlier in the season. But an end of season slump left them settling for the playoffs with three games to spare. And to rub salt in their wombs the first of those three games was a high tempered affair away to the newly promoted Sheffield United on Easter Tuesday which ended 1-1.

After beating Preston in the playoff semi-finals, the playoff final saw another capitulation from this Leeds side as a 3-0 defeat to Watford cost them promotion back to the topflight and so much more aside. It was a defeat that signalled their continued demise. Further struggles were to follow with relegation to League one next season and the subsequent infamous angry pitch invasion from Leeds fans which followed. Then there was the equally infamous defeat to Histon in the FA cup, it would be a long and winding road back for the Leeds faithful.

At the time there was much optimism at Leeds of what was to come. Chairman Ken Bates said to the Leeds players in the dressing room after the playoff final that: “They had given what they had and they had given their best. I said that tomorrow is the first day of our Championship season.” Little did they know how misplaced that optimism would turn out to be.

I doubt many who saw Leeds lose the 2006 playoff final thought it would take Leeds another 14 seasons for them to get back to the topflight. Or that the 05/06 season would be their highest league finish for another thirteen years, before the arrival of a certain Marcelo Bielsa saw their return to the topflight. Nor that this Brighton team who were then playing in a converted Athletics stadium with a four figure capacity, still battling a lengthy and expensive planning permission battle for a new stadium and out of their depth in the second tier, would return to the topflight three years before Leeds.

When you look back at this period of Leeds’ history, it’s somewhat explains the reprehensible and overly defensive attitude we’ve seen from some of its supporters towards Karen Carney and other critics of the club in recent months.

Having experienced such highs in the 60s and 70s and then again in the 90s and early 2000s, this demise will have been hard to swallow for many of its supporters. Especially given that it was largely self-induced by its own incompetent leadership. And as a result, the club became the punchline of jokes for the rest of the English football community.

It was a trend that would last until the recent Bielsa-led renaissance of the club. Meanwhile less prestigious club’s like Brighton had leapfrogged them into the topflight and Leeds were and still are desperate to put things straight.

Following the 2005/06 season, the next 14 years would see both clubs have plenty of disappointing days and see much concern over each club’s existence. But more recently they have both been had periods of great and historic success.

The current reality for both is that amongst times of great global economic struggles, the Premier League represents a whole new challenge altogether for both.

Will Shane Duffy be offered Mercy by Graham Potter?

Brighton have struggled all season with defending set pieces, conceding plenty of soft goals along the way. And whilst I’ve written at length recently about Albion’s problems in goal, its defence has to take a fair share of the blame too.

Meanwhile Albion’s on loan defender and 2018/19 player of the season Shane Duffy is receiving widespread criticism for his performances at Celtic as they struggle to keep pace with leaders Rangers. So there has been suggestions he may return to the Albion. Something Graham Potter has suggested won’t happen, but could Duffy be the answer to his teams issues at the back?

Maybe he’s not a Potter-type player like Webster, White or Dunk, all of whom have the top-level passing ability to be a naturally ball playing centre back to the extent which is desired. But as last season proved, having a more diversely attributed squad is important to meet the varied demands that it will be put under over the course of a Premier League season. Last season Duffy had a huge input in key games which secured Albion’s survival and despite only playing 19 games, his win percentage of 26% and goals conceded average of just 0.95 per game, the lowest of any Brighton Centre Back, show just that.

It’s easy to forget that when Graham Potter inherited this side Shane Duffy was the club’s reigning player of the season and considered by many the most important player at the club. Chris Hughton had built his team around the best players he had, namely the stern centre back partnership of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk.

When Graham Potter was appointed he was given the task of developing Albion’s style of play and creating a more entertaining and attacking side. The (as some saw it) “mere” survival and defensive heroics of the Dunk-Duffy led Hughton era were to be a thing of the past and a big part of that has been breaking up Hughton’s side. In Duffy’s place came Adam Webster, much more of a ball playing centre back. But as We Are Brighton said back in 2019 “you still need to be flexible and pragmatic enough to realise that on occasions, you need to adapt to the challenge facing you. And that means that Potter should have room for both Webster and Duffy.”

Yes, the new playing style Potter has brought in has not played to Duffy’s strengths, but needs must and as he said to Andy Naylor in The Athletic last season “football changes quickly”. And some form of change is probably what Albion need given its problems with set pieces this season and more pertinently being seemingly unable to defend a lead. Both are issues that will need to be resolved quickly if a fourth consecutive season of Premier League survival is to be achieved.

Albion need wins and Shane Duffy’s stats tell me that he is the centre back Albion need to achieve that. He has the highest Premier League win percentage of any Brighton Centre Back with more than 10 EPL appearances (25%) and the lowest goals conceded per game rate (1.32). Even last season he statistically outperformed the rest of Albion’s centre back options in terms of win percentage (26%) and goals conceded per game (0.95). These kind of stats don’t tell you much about him as a individual, but they do suggest Albion have a much more effective defence when he is a part of it.

Then there’s Albion’s other issue, scoring goals. Something Duffy is fairly effective at too considering he’s a centre back, having score six times in his 96 Premier League appearances, a goals per game ratio equal to that of Dunk and Webster. And anyone who’s seen Duffy play in the green of Ireland will know he has the potential to offer even more to offer in that area too. Put simply he’s a player that is good in both boxes, something you can’t say of Albion this season.

Then there’s his experience. Over the course of Graham Potter’s tenure Albion’s team has become progressively younger and more inexperienced. The losses of Murray, Duffy, Mooy, Stephens last summer and more recently Ryan has meant a team who’ve been far too naive too often over the past year is also becoming less and less experienced, which feels counterintuitive. The presence of a Shane Duffy on the pitch and on the training ground could be just what some of the younger players need to up their game in those key moments which are currently going against the team.

Even in some of the teams more inferior performances of the past few seasons Duffy came away with credit. Always playing with a level of passion and determination, which is just what is needed in Albion’s current relegation fight.

As Shane admitted himself, football is a world that changes quickly. After his recent struggles some will now see him as a cast-off or a has-been, particularly given how dramatically that it appears to not have worked out for him at Celtic. Shane’s had a tough time recently personally too having had to deal with the death of his dad last year. Maybe the move to Celtic, one which as a Celtic fan himself was a such huge deal for him personally, hasn’t come at the right time. Right place, wrong time.

But the evidence from a bad half a season at Celtic is far outweighed by the evidence of the four fantastic seasons at Albion prior to that. His record from which stands up against any player in that position at the Albion, both past and present.

Maybe Shane Duffy’s story at the Albion is already written and his time has passed, or maybe he could be just the solution required to solve the team’s problem.

Monday Musings – Calamity and heroics add more volume to Albion’s goalkeeper debate

As was pointed out after the final whistle of Brighton’s 3rd round FA Cup tie with Newport on Sunday night by Opta Joe, Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele made just one save in the 120 minutes preceding the penalty shootout and made an error that led to Newport’s 96th minute equaliser, but saved four penalties during the shootout. A story of personal redemption, but also one that highlights Albion’s ongoing goalkeeping issues.

Steele admitted it was his fault for the goal after the game. And fan site We are Brighton posted on Twitter in their usual deprecating way: “Would now be a good time to remind everyone that Graham Potter thinks Jason Steele is a better goalkeeper than Maty Ryan? 👀”.

It’s a fair point and I would add fellow Albion goalkeeper Christian Walton to the debate too. It’s a subject I discussed just last week and one I suspected that we haven’t heard the last of.

Nonetheless I’m gutted for Jason Steele for his mistake, but he’s shown over his career that he’s got that in his makeup. Anyone who watched him play for one of his previous club’s can confirm that. A fact most infamously demonstrated at Sunderland during a difficult period for Steele captured in the Netflix series “Sunderland Till I Die”.

But Steele has constantly shown more than enough stoicism in his career to pick himself up and keep coming back for more. So the fact that after the error for the Newport equaliser he managed to refocus on the task at hand in the shootout should come as no surprise either. Rather than losing his head like some others would in the circumstances, he refocused, remembered his research and followed it to the letter, saving four of Newport’s seven penalty kicks.

Andy Naylor stated in a recent piece for The Athletic: “The club believe a No 2 goalkeeper requires a different skill set. Steele is experienced and was signed as a back-up, which makes him more suited to a place on the bench than Ryan, who is accustomed to life as a No 1.”

It’s a fair point and suggests Graham Potter doesn’t necessarily think that Steele is better than Ryan as per We are Brighton’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but rather that he’s seen a good back up keeper to have around. Highlighted by how Robert Sanchez jumped Steele in the pecking order when Maty Ryan was dropped earlier in the season leaving him remaining to warm the bench alongside Albion’s other substitutes.

Steele was generous in his moment of glory after the game in praising Albion’s goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts. Who is credited with much of the improvement that’s been seen in many of Albion’s goalkeepers in recent years, including that of David Stockdale in Albion’s Championship promotion winning season.

In Steele’s defence, Goalkeepers often make mistakes after being exposed by their defence. In many cases where Steele has struggled in his career he’s been playing in a struggling teams, last night being no exception. For the equaliser, Albion should have stopped the cross from occurring in the first place. No cross, no error.

We can focus on Steele’s mistake, just like many did Dan Burn’s from the week before. But how did Albion even give Newport the chance to put a cross in the box from their left-hand side whilst defending a 1-goal lead in the dying moments of injury time, having had a throw in on their right-hand side at halfway less than 30 seconds before? As has been far too common this season, it was a case of naive play from Albion whilst in possession that again cost them a crucial lead.

Moreover, as one person on Twitter also pointed out to me, Albion had just switch their left back too, replacing match winner March for Bernardo. Something which adds to the Potter “over-tinkering” debate, but that’s another can of worms entirely.

Overall, a calamitous 30 seconds for Albion and a 5-minute period from scoring to conceding the equaliser that encompasses almost everything which Albion’s season has been about so far. As Graham Potter said after the game “Traumatic”.

Brighton v Newport (2013)

Newport County just keep causing cup upsets. It’s helpful not just for the South Walians but also for Albion, with each one making Albion’s defeat at their hands in 2013 look ever less embarrassing.

Back in the early stages of the 2013/14 season Albion were still reeling from the aftermaths of the previous season’s playoff semi-final defeat to rivals Crystal Palace. Following the very drawn out and public sacking of manager Gus Poyet which followed over the summer, the former Barcelona B team manager Oscar García had been brought in as his replacement to manage the team and finish the job that Poyet almost managed but ultimately fell short of, get Albion into the Premier League.

So a weeknight League Cup tie against a League Two side recently promoted to the Football League hardly seemed like a priority, but nonetheless was an opportunity for García to get his first win in charge of Albion after a 2-1 defeat in his first game away to Leeds. But despite that, Albion made a number of changes to a team that featured then young prospects and now current Albion regulars, Solly March and Lewis Dunk as unused substitutes.

Albion started the game the dominant team and quickly had the ball in the Newport net after a Kemy Agustien cross found Jake Forster-Caskey, but the goal was ruled out for offside. Not long after Albion did go 1-0 up with Ashley Barnes putting away a Will Buckley cross at the end of a typically aesthetically pleasing quick passing move. This was exactly the type of football that Gus Poyet had spent his time at the club working towards, and why Owner Tony Bloom had decided to bring in the former Barcelona man Oscar Garcia to replace him so he would continue that work.

Newport battled and created a couple of chances of their own, but Albion continued to have the better of the game and again had the ball in the net but it was again ruled out for offside. However, the game changed on the 67th minute when a 50/50 tackle between Albion’s right back Inigo Calderon and Newport Captain Byron Anthony resulted in a red card for the Albion man and a double leg break for Newport captain. It was an injury that took a while to treat on the pitch so you couldn’t say it was more serious than it looked, but that didn’t stop some unwelcome boos from a minority in the home crowd.

With that the game swung in Newport’s favour and constant swathes of Newport attacks followed. And with nine minutes to go Newport equalised through a Danny Crowe header.

And with the game into extra time Danny Crowe double his tally with a spectacular finish from outside the box to make it 2-1 to the visitors. And as Albion pushed forward in search of an equaliser Newport made it 3-1 as Connor Washington capitalised on some absent Albion defending to break clear, take it round the helpless Albion ‘keeper Casper Ankergren and put the ball into an empty net.

Ultimately an impressive win for the Football league newbies and despite the shock of the serious injury to their captain Byron Anthony, they impressively rallied to win the game with some gusto. As then Newport manager, the late Justin Edinburgh suggested after the game his side “won the game for Byron”.

However in his typically honourable style he showed no resentment towards Inigo Calderon also saying in his interview about the incident that: “I don’t think there was any malice in it – I know there wasn’t – but we’re really disappointed for Byron and it takes the gloss off tonight’s result really.”

A statement backed up by Calderon’s manager Oscar Garcia who said: “I know Calde. He went to the ball and it was a 50-50 challenge. It was unlucky for the Newport player. We have seen the video and we can see the action of Calde was legal.”

The Albion manager went into say “We had many, many chances to finish the game and win it before and they had three or four chances and they scored them all.” A cruel game for Albion to lose, but it’s a lesson that Albion have since learnt too many times this season too, having dropped 12 points from winning positions so far in the 2020/21 Premier League season. If you don’t finish off your opponent’s, you’ll pay for it.

Although Byron Anthony made a brief return to playing the following season, the injury would eventually result in his retirement. Following that, he was appointed as a youth coach at Newport and was eventually promoted to academy manager after a brief spell as the interim manager, but resigned in 2018.

For Albion, 2013/14 was another season that would result in a Playoff Semi-final defeat and a subsequent summer of managerial recruitment following Oscar Garcia’s resignation after that semi-final defeat, this time at the hands of Derby. Even more unfortunately was that in his place came Sami Hyypia, but that’s another story…

Subsequent links between the two club’s are mostly through Albion defender Ben White, who is set to return to Rodney Parade after a loan spell there in 2017/18. As the 2017/18 season drew near and being on the fringes of the Albion first team at the time, White was sent on loan to Newport for the season to get some game time.

Whilst there, he came up against England striker Harry Kane in Newport’s impressive run to the 4th round of the FA Cup that season, which also saw them beat his future loan club Leeds in the 3rd round. A 1-1 draw in the original tie against Spurs saw White mark Kane admirably as Newport pulled off a shock draw at home to earn a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

Ben said of his time there: “The cup run was amazing, what we achieved and the manner in which we secured the game with Tottenham Hotspur was brilliant. Then we nearly beat them in the home tie, but to then play at Wembley Stadium was a dream come true. Facing Harry Kane was great for me and I feel like I more than held my own against him.”

White came to the attention of many clubs and many Albion fans during this loan spell at Newport. Whilst the club had finished a fairly underwhelming 11th place in the league, he had greatly impressed. Both to the masses in the cup run and the locals throughout the season, winning four of Newport’s player of the season awards, the Doc Heffernan Shield for Young Player of the Year; the Brian Tom’s President’s Cup Player’s Player of the Year Award; the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made.

That was just one season of many that has featured Newport’s cup upset exploits and it’s lazy to typecast Newport as some archetypal long ball League Two club either. Anyone who has been paying attention lately will know they are having a great season and sit one point off top of the league. And having beaten Watford in the League Cup earlier this season they then gave Newcastle a fright in the next round only to lose on penalties.

That said, the Rodney Parade pitch is often in a terrible state at this time of year due to its use by multiple sports teams, and the recent postponements due to a waterlogged and frozen pitch respectively are a cause for concern. Whilst many will be aware of Newport’s cup exploits in recent years, those still involved at the Albion who remember that defeat in 2013 will want to make sure Albion don’t become serial victims at the hands of the South Walians.

Monday Musings – Albion’s search for safe hands

Saturday saw a further three goals conceded by Albion in a dramatic 3-3 draw with Wolves, leaving them having conceded a total of 28 goals this season. Not only is it the 5th highest goals conceded in the division so far this season, it’s the most the club have ever conceded at this point in a Premier League season.

Within those 28 conceded are 6 from penalties, 7 from set pieces and far too many examples of sloppy defending, which is not up to the club’s usual standards. Whilst the aftermath of the draw with Wolves has focused on Dan Burn’s mistakes, there is a bigger issue here that needs resolving.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 20, 8 less than actual. Also despite having conceded the 5th highest number of goals this season, they have conceded the 3rd fewest shots.

From open play, Albion do tend of defend well. A fact backed up by conceding only 12 of their goals in that manner, the equal 8th fewest in the division. And having only made 1 mistake that led directly to a goal all season. Of course that doesn’t include all the poorly timed tackles that lead to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore on Saturday, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

So it may seem odd that I don’t think the issue is the defence, but more an issue of discipline and concentration that stems from the insecurity over Albion’s goalkeeper.

It’s too simplistic to say it’s simply due to bad goalkeeping, after all we’ve seen plenty of examples of bad defending from the Albion defence, as mentioned above. But more striking than that is how Maty Ryan struggled before being dropped.

Despite the relatively few shots faced, his goals conceded per game was 1.7, the equal third highest in the division. Only less than Sam Johnstone of West Brom and Illan Meslier of Leeds, both of whom play for teams where they are left significantly more exposed by their defences. Furthermore, Ryan’s save percentage of 50% is one of the worst in the division this season and significantly down compared to the 68.3% he achieved last season.

In a recent interview with The World Game Ryan said he will fight for his place unless the right offer comes in after being told by Graham Potter that he is free to go in January.

Ryan’s place has been rumoured to be up for grabs for a while now and that seems to have affected his performances this season. The problem is the other options at Potter’s disposal are all young, inexperienced goalkeepers who probably aren’t quite good enough yet.

Yes, Ryan’s replacement Robert Sanchez has impressed with some good saves and performances, but he’s also made a few mistakes and is still very young. It may be too early for him to take the number one shirt just yet.

Solve the Goalkeeper issue and I think a lot of the panic and hesitation from Albion’s defenders that has led to the high number of goals conceded goes away.

The more I look at the stats and rewatch the highlights from this season, the more a new goalkeeper looks like the solution to a lot of Albion’s issues, much more so than a new striker. Albion are creating chances and despite widespread frustration have been taking a fair few of them. In contrast to goals conceded, the 21 goals scored is the highest at this point by the club in a Premier League season.

Te problems at the back have come from a consistent lack of discipline and concentration. A reliable goalkeeper usually leads to a better organised defence and also puts less pressure on the forwards to take every chance going. So don’t be surprised if Albion go looking for a new Goalkeeper in the January sales.

That said, like with Albion’s problems up top there is no “silver bullet”. And as with a potential new striker, I suspect Potter is happy to work with what he’s got, if so fine. But I don’t think a talented youngster is the solution for the goalkeeper position where experience is key, however good Sanchez has been or however promising Walton is.

Maty Ryan’s Australian national team assistant coach Rene Meulensteen said recently on Albion’s goalkeeper situation: “While Sanchez is very talented – he hasn’t had a run of games previously at this level, let alone high-pressure games. For me, Maty is too good not to be involved. Leaving him out is risky when you consider what he has to offer, especially in crunch matches. I’d like to know the reason he’s not in the team but from Maty’s perspective he hasn’t downed tools and is working away in the knowledge that things could quickly flip again in his favour.”

Personally I agree. I would not have dropped Ryan, he’s been fantastic for the majority of his three and a half years at the club and from the outside looking in, he appears to be a key figure in the dressing room too. But as Potter’s been more loyal to other players when out of form, (including starting Burn on Saturday) and given the surprising links with the club to other goalkeepers in the summer transfer window before Ryan had even lost his place, we can only assume Potter simply doesn’t fancy him.

Highlighting the team’s goalkeeper issue is not to absolve Dan Burn of his blame in Wolves three goals, nor any of his defensive counterparts for theirs this season. But more that it’s easier for them to do their job properly when playing in front of a settled and experienced goalkeeper that they can fully trust. Especially if they are a player coming into the side after a period on the side-lines or playing in a defensive position that they haven’t recently, something that has happened a lot under Potter’s management.

2020 ends but adversity persists

2020 ends but adversity persists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Claridge – A brief Albion hero at Upton Park and plenty more besides

When it comes to football league ex-professionals Steve Claridge may well be the most well-travelled. His was a playing career that spanned 34 years, saw him play over 1,000 matches and took him briefly to a number of the league’s member clubs including the Albion where he was part of a famous and unlikely victory.

By that point he was an old hand at the job and had accumulated much of the experience he later used to his advantage as a pundit on football league matters at the BBC for many years.

Given his start in life it’s possibly no surprise Claridge demonstrated a great worth ethic during his career. His life started unstably when was adopted at six weeks old and then was diagnosed as having a heart problem at 12, but made sure nothing held him back.

His heart was something that he struggled with as a child. He once said “If I did any exercise my heart used to go mad. After just five minutes it felt like I had done a five-mile run.” But he was eventually prescribed medication that enable him to manage the problem and slow his heart rate.

In 1988 at the age of 22 he had a brief spell with Crystal Palace when he was still a novice having spent the three years previous with non-league Weymouth. But with Palace on the verge of the First Division and some iconic years for the club he failed to make an appearance due to their wealth of striking talent including a certain Ian Wright. But years later took his chance to show them what they had missed, something he made a habit of throughout his career.

It was after a move to Fourth Division Aldershot where Claridge first caught the eye scoring 22 goals in 76 appearances and winning supporters’ player of the season in the 1988/89 season, before making a move to John Beck’s famously no nonsense Cambridge side.

Claridge was a unique breed throughout his career and the story of him running out of petrol on the M11, abandoning his car on the hard-shoulder and hitchhiking to the Abbey Stadium on his first day of training as well as another of him punching manager Beck in the face in an altercation between the pair are just a couple of example of this.

That is a Cambridge United team fondly remembered mostly for his fellow strikers Dion Dublin and John Taylor. And whilst Claridge is not necessarily held in the same regard as either from that time at the club, his energy and work rate meant he became a fondly remembered figure.

After ending his second spell at Cambridge in 1994 Claridge made a £350k move to Birmingham during Barry Fry’s ignominious period as manager of the club. But despite the club’s difficulties he top scored with 25 and won the club’s supporters player of the year award as they won the Second Division and the Football League Trophy.

As Claridge’s career was on the rise, Brighton were going in an opposite direction. As whilst Birmingham won that season’s Second Division Brighton finished a lowly 16th and would be relegated to the football league’s basement the following season.

But as Albion’s demise continued Claridge’s rise did so too and in early 1996 after losing favour with Barry Fry at Birmingham he made a £1.2m move to Martin O’Neill’s Premiership promotion chasers Leicester City. Whilst they had a wealth of attacking talent and despite making a largely unimpressive start to his time there including a debut in a 4-2 defeat to Ipswich where City were 3-0 down inside 12 minutes and he accidentally wore his shorts the wrong way around, he quickly had a crucial impact.

But it was a noticeably difficult start that had carried on from his old team Birmingham and lead to a 19-game goalless run. He and his new manager wanted to get to the bottom of what was wrong. “I explained what was happening to me and we decided I should go and see a specialist.”

Blood tests revealed that he was suffering from an under-active thyroid gland and which could have been a side-effect of the pills which Steve was using to regulate his heart. The doctors prescribed different drug for his heart, and his thyroid and as such Steve has said he’s now on three pills a day for the rest of my life. “Two for my thyroid and one for my ticker.”

That Leicester team had a reputation as an unruly bunch and just as at Cambridge, Claridge had a reputation as one of the key figures. Aside from his outspoken personality that helped him later forge a role as a successful pundit, Claridge also later admitted in his autobiography, “Tales from the Boot Camps”, that he had a 10-year gambling addiction, which had cost him £300,000.

Nonetheless once he got going at Leicester, he enjoyed probably the best spell in his career scoring some important goals including one in a 3-0 win against his old club Birmingham in the penultimate game of the season that helped secure Leicester a playoff place. A goal he celebrated by running in front of his old manager Barry Fry and one which was not welcomed by his old club’s supporters who waved pound notes in the air in disgust at Claridge’s move. And then he scored probably the most famous goal of his career, the extra time winner against another of his old teams Palace in the playoff final to earn the Foxes a place in the Premier League.

In the topflight Leicester and Claridge initially excelled finishing 9th in their first season and winning the League Cup, with Claridge leading the line top scoring with 15 goals including the winner in the replay of the League Cup final.

Unfortunately for Claridge his time at Leicester quickly took a turn for the worse and after failing to score the next season, he lost his place in the team and was soon loaned out to Portsmouth before being sold to Wolves.

But after five months at Wolves with Mark McGhee he was given little playing time and regularly criticised by fans so was sold to Portsmouth the following summer. There he spent three years and scored 34 goals including a hat-trick against his old club Wolves two years later, yet more revenge against an old club for Claridge. But his time with Portsmouth was ended after a short 25 game spell as player/manager, his first of a few experiences in such a role.

Claridge was then reunited with Mark McGhee at Millwall and was part of a team that got to the semi-finals of the Division one playoffs. But left the club at the end of the 2002/03 season to become player/manager of his old club Weymouth in the Conference South who he almost led to promotion but was sacked in his second season in charge after a poor start and a FA cup exit.

So after two short spells in management it was a surprise for some to see him rock up at Withdean stadium in 2004. Mark McGhee once again signed the veteran striker this time on a one-month deal, which would see him make 5 appearances for the Seagulls including a debut in a famous 1-0 away win at West Ham.

It was an unlikely victory by Albion, the ultimate smash and grab as they were dominated by their hosts or as scorer of the match winner Guy Butters put it: “the absolute Alamo”.

Manager McGhee praise Claridge saying “We kept the ball up front more which is important. Steve Claridge was key to that. He is one of the fittest players I’ve worked with and I have no doubt that after 18 months away from this level he would be able to perform.”

But that game was the high point of his spell with the club with his 3 other league appearances yielded three defeats and no goals for the Seagulls. Whilst the other saw a narrow one goal victory over Rotherham in the FA Cup. But despite the disappointing run, Claridge had impressed for the seagulls and looked like he could be the tonic to the club’s striker problem.

Non-league to the second tier is no regular move for a player, especially as a veteran, but Claridge’s is no regular career and this was no regular Brighton team either. They were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably defined by a striker problem solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a striker, who top scored that season with 8 goals. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight, who had fired the seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, severely tailed off scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.

Unfortunately despite this opportunity for the club to fill this gaping hole in its squad after he impressing in his short spell, finances were incredibly tight at the club with the stadiums planning permission battle taking hold of activities and it seems they couldn’t stretch as far as was required financially.

As such Claridge couldn’t agree a deal with the Albion and continued his nomadic career in the Football League by moving to Brentford. He later had spells with Wycombe, Millwall (again), Gillingham, Bradford, Walsall and then Bournemouth, where he played his landmark 1,000 career appearance.

Whilst later working as the BBC’s football league pundit for its TV highlights show he upset then Albion manager Gus Poyet by describing his teams football as “flicky, flicky” and that “as you go up leagues, there is no way that Brighton will be able to play that way against better players as better players are stronger”. Maybe not his finest punditry prediction, but we all get it wrong from time to time, even someone of Steve’s experience.

Steve Claridge may be a player who struggled to hold down a place at a club for a long period of time, had his own personal demons and also had conflicts with many managers. But at most club’s where he played at he left positive memories. Even at ones like Albion where his time was incredibly short, his part in that night at Upton Park is still fondly remembered.

Further patience is required for Potter as Albion continue flattering to deceive

Graham Potter’s Albion side have often been a contradiction since he took charge of his first competitive match as manager of the team back in August 2019. That 3-0 win over Watford turned out to be more a signpost of where Albion’s opponents were rather than themselves, as another season of relegation struggle followed. But then again, it’s not surprising considering the level of overhaul he was required to oversee in his first season at the club with relatively limited funds.

After Hughton’s sacking, Potter was tasked with creating a more entertaining team that also progressed up the table towards its long-term goal of an established top half place and away from that dreaded relegation zone, all whilst blooding youngsters and replacing the unwanted but previously important squad members.

Given the amount of change required, we all knew it wasn’t likely to be a bed of roses and patience would be required well into Potter’s second season and beyond. But in a year of such uncertainty and anxiety the patience required is understandably thin on the ground. So it should come as no surprise that it now appears whether he is still managing to do a satisfactory job depends on who you speak to.

Whichever side you fall on, I think it’s hard to not appreciate the progression made by the team during his tenure. He took over the most defensive team in the division and in the space of a year and a half has turned them into one praised for its attacking and entertaining style of play, a team that has dominated most games it’s played this season in terms of possession and chances created, whilst albeit also rightly criticised for its wastefulness in taking the opportunities it has created.

You will likely already know about Albion’s incredibly poor performance in comparison to its expected goals measurement (XG), which is the worst in the division this season. But there are many other statistics that demonstrate Albion’s attacking progression not demonstrated in the league table.

For instance (according to FBref.com) in Chris Hughton’s last season in charge Brighton had the lowest number of touches in the opposition penalty box of any Premier league team, but in the following season (Potter first in charge) they ranked 10th with a 32% increase. A trend continued into the 20/21 season with Albion now having had the 5th highest total touches in the opposition penalty box in the Premier League so far this season.

There are plenty of other examples too. Comparing the last Hughton season (18/19) to the first Potter season (19/20), season on season:

• shots were up 23%,

• shots on target up 38%,

• possession was up 23%,

• shot creating actions were up 20%,

I could go on. Ultimately, Brighton have attacked more frequently and more effectively.

An attractive style of play is one thing, ultimately it has to be backed up by results and the relative stagnation of Albion’s league position has frustrated many (17/18 – 15th, 18/19 – 17th, 19/20 – 15th, 20/21 – currently 17th). However as I’ve discussed in more depth previously, Albion are far from alone in what is a competitive field of clubs in the search for the top half of the topflight.

Many have focused on Albion’s recent poor home form having recorded just two home wins in all competitions in 2020 so far going into their final home game of the year against Arsenal on Tuesday night. A fair point, but you can’t focus solely on home form. Away from home it’s now 5 wins 4 draws and 3 defeats (to Spurs – 6th, Leicester – 2nd & Everton – 4th) in the 12 games since the restart, which would have been an unimaginably good record when Potter took over considering Albion achieved just 5 wins in all of Hughton’s 38 Premier League away games.

Nonetheless it is a poor run at home that’s been highlighted by the recent failure to beat struggling West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield United. However, the value of those results depends on your perspective.

Those draws along with the one away to Fulham do make Albion unbeaten against its fellow members of the league’s current bottom five. And whilst they did fail to win all four matches, that lack of a defeat combined with Albion’s away form continuing to improve could mean those results prove to be a beneficial rather than a damaging factor in Albion’s season.

Despite only winning two games so far this season (currently 9% down on its consistent 23% average win percentage across the last three seasons), it’s still fairly early days and Albion have shown through its increased attacking threat detailed above that they are able to give anyone a game. And given they are yet to be beaten this season by a team outside the current top 7 in the league, they can feel confident going into most fixtures.

However, that confidence continuing may well be dependent on Albion capitalising on opportunities to win games more often than they have so far this season, starting with their next three fixtures against West Ham, Arsenal & Wolves respectively. Fortunately all three opponents are ones they have a good record against, taking a accumulated total of 29 points from a possible 48 in the Premier League, whilst recording just 1 defeat in those 16 matches.

Considering their shortage of victories, Albion could certainly do with that run continuing this season. But in order to do so it needs to start turning draws and victories based on expected goals into actual wins and three points. But as the old football adage goes, you’d rather be creating chances and missing them than not creating chances at all. The signs are good, once again let’s give Graham Potter the patience to get it right.

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.