One Sky Sports most prominent pundits Graeme Souness got on his soapbox after Brighton’s 3-1 home defeat to champions Liverpool on Wednesday night calling Brighton manager Graham Potter “naive” for his teams approach in playing the ball out the back. An approach which led to Albion giving the ball away twice and conceding two goals in the first seven minutes. A deficit from which they never recovered.
Souness stated that he thought even Man City who had better players would play more long balls initially against Liverpool and “wait for the sting to go out of the game”. He went onto say that if any team played that approach from the start it would be a “mistake”. Whilst Souness’s co-pundit Matt Murray agreed saying “when you’ve just conceded, just learn from it… I think they’ve got to work it out and maybe play it a little bit longer a couple of times.”
This isn’t the first time these kind of accusations have arisen about Potter’s management. In particular there was the defeat at home to Sheffield United earlier in the season when it seemed that the tide had turned against his approach. It was a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in.
Unlike on Wednesday night with an empty AMEX, that day heard a stadium full to the brim with vocal frustrations over the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and making little progress going forward. Adam Webster in particular received heavy criticism, a player seemingly unperturbed as it was his loss of possession when rashly trying to dribble out from the back through the centre of the midfield, which led to Liverpool’s second on Wednesday night.
The defeat to Sheffield United, and more importantly the fans reaction during it, lead to Potter’s comments in the matchday programme before the next home game against Bournemouth. In which he said: “You will see misplaced passes. But these are all part of the process & the mistakes that we make will be made with the intention of developing our way to play, our identity & our belief. They will also be essential in us getting to where we want to be.”
The home defeats to Leicester, Sheffield United and Palace all brought scorn and concern from the home crowd and have highlighted the weaknesses to Potter’s approach when coming up against an organised counter attacking outfit. Something Man United exposed brilliantly in their 3rd goal of a 3-0 win over Albion at the AMEX recently. But every team has their weaknesses. Whilst managers like Chris Hughton look first to set up to minimise these risks, Potter instead sets up to first maximise the opportunities which the team can achieve. It’s a higher risk approach, but with higher risk comes higher rewards.
Potter also admitted he’s no stranger to Souness’s accusations of nativity saying to The Athletic after the Liverpool game: “I know why he would say that, and I have been called that a few times, and I’ve ended up in the Premier League coaching.” Fighting talk indeed.
Many call for more pragmatism from Brighton, but as Potter pointed out himself after the game, over the past 2 years many teams have played against Liverpool using a variety of different approaches, yet Liverpool have regardless still won comfortably more often than not.
Moreover, the stats suggest Brighton’s approach on Wednesday night was far from useless, with its XG being so high at near 3, only Man City had achieved higher against Liverpool this season. Demonstrating that Brighton had enough chances to level it up despite these mistakes.
This highlights another quirk of the Potter reign. Last season Brighton were converting a high proportion of a relatively low amount of chances, this season they’re converting a much lower proportion of a far higher number of chances. Conversion and creation are both difficult problems to solve, arguably the most difficult things to solve in the game and ultimately come down to the quality of personnel who are making those decisions in the moment.
It was indeed poor decision making and individual errors that cost Albion on Wednesday night. Both in conceding goals and not taking chances, with Dan Burn’s miss at 2-1 down a further example of Brighton’s plentiful missed opportunities to score more goals this season. Whilst Trossard’s goal for Albion was their 36th of the season, their highest total since promotion, it could have been so much higher. Going back to XG, this statistical model shows Brighton with an expected goals total of 8 higher for the season at 44.
So despite the criticism, Potter’s approach should leave us with some optimism, but only if Brighton take the chances they are creating. If you don’t do that, then it makes the risk taken by the defence in playing the ball out short under opposition pressure not worth taking.
Looking forward, we can be confident that from the evidence of the team’s good early season form and the further evidence from its recent good post lockdown form, that the more time Potter gets to put his ideas across on the training ground, the better prepared players are going to be to carry out his ideas. The team have certainly improved since the break, arguably better than any other team in the division, and Potter deserves a lot of credit for that.
The recruitment teams work is also paying off too with the teams previous reliance on Gross and Murray for goals continuing to reduce, due mostly to the continuing improvement of Maupay and Trossard, who’ve scored 14 of Albion’s league goals between them this season. This being the kind of impact the recruitment of Jahanbakhsh, Locadia and Andone was also hoped to have had.
Regardless of this progress, there will still be a need for some summer acquisitions. In particular the need for another striker is evident in order to add competition to Maupay. Especially coupled with the ever wilting performances of Connolly and Murray’s game time still surprisingly limited despite some good performances pre-lockdown.
I suspect there will also be a search for a new left back. Especially considering Gaëtan Bong’s departure in January, along with the minimal game time afforded to Albion’s other recognised left back Bernardo and regular makeshift left back Dan Burn probably hoping to move back to centre back in the long term. And then there’s also the potential prospect of replacing any sold players, with interest in some of the more senior first team player such as Lewis Dunk likely this summer.
That said, Alzate and Connolly have shown the U23s will have opportunities. Players like Alex Cochrane who started in the League Cup against Villa as left wing back, Tudor Baluta who did so in central midfield and Taylor Richards who started on the left side of the attack, will all be hoping they can emulate their former development team colleagues. As will central midfielder Jay Molumby and centre backs Matt Clarke and Ben White, who are all getting good reviews from their loan spells in the Championship this season.
Bringing through more youngsters into the squad certainly won’t help Graham Potter disprove accusations of nativity. But considering the U23 teams continued success and the good performances of many Albion loanees, all those mentioned above plus a number of others will all feel they are both overdue an opportunity to impress in the Brighton first team next season, just as Alzate and Connolly have this season.
Potter’s approach is very different from that of his predecessor Hughton, both in terms of risk taking and the promotion of young players. It has at times rightly led to some calling him out for being foolhardy and hasty in his decision making, I have even done so myself. But to say that he is naive isn’t fair or just. Especially when you consider his record and the resources, he’s achieved all that with.
Time will tell if next season leads to the continuation of the recent progress, or a difficult second season at the club’s helm, but the early signs are good. I for one suspect that this change in approach at the club we’ve seen this season, is one Albion fans will have to get used to for some time to come.