Graham Potter and the succession of missed opportunities

For many last night’s defeat to Crystal Palace will have only reinforced their opinions of Graham Potter’s Albion team being an almost comically wasteful football team, but his persistence with the project he continues to carry out is nonetheless something to admire.

Just as many times before, last night saw an Albion performance with plenty of youthful exuberance in attack, but one which was mixed with just enough youthful inexperience and naivety to spoil it.

These have been the defining characteristic of the club’s season so far as well Potter’s entire tenure in charge. So it’s easy to conclude that the team aren’t learning some of those lessons Graham Potter often talks about after a disappointing result.

But amongst the frustration it’s easy to overlook that Graham Potter has done a great job over the last year and a half and that he’s not a magician, despite his surname. Albion’s wage bill is reportedly just over half that of last night’s opponents, but it certainly didn’t look it despite the result reflecting that.

The club’s transfer business over the last year has been widely admired, with the signings of Lamptey, Lallana and Veltman now looking like absolute bargains. But, the lack of investment in the squad has often been evident where it counts this season, in the opposition penalty box.

Many have criticised the club for not signing a top class striker, but manager Graham Potter has stated on numerous occasions that he is happy to work with what he has. Bringing through a roster of largely young and unproven talents, all of whom have had their difficulties in front of goal.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the limitations of this Albion team are ones they seem to be unable to overcome. This is a relatively young Albion team, one which over Potter’s tenure has replaced some of the key experienced members of its squad like Shane Duffy, Dale Stephens and Glenn Murray with players with no previous topflight experience like Neil Maupay, Yves Bissouma and Adam Webster. With others like Robert Sanchez, Ben White, Steven Alzate and Aaron Connolly being brought through from the club’s U23 team to fill other gaps in the squad. Players who other than U23 football only have varying degrees of experience on loan at lower league clubs to their name.

Some have done better than others. Adam Webster in particular is a true gem of Potter’s persistence with the younger and inexperienced members of his squad, but this was too after a difficult first season in the topflight. However, he has since become arguably Albion’s best centre back.

Webster’s performance in last season’s defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly expressing their disgust at the centre backs performance and place in the team. As the man voted the club’s player of the previous season that he was keeping out of it, Shane Duffy, was sat on the bench. But Graham Potter defiantly stated in his programme notes ahead of the teams next home game against Bournemouth that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And the subsequent win that day along with Webster’s progress since certainly support that claim.

So to see him consistently stick by his roster of young strikers is no surprise either. One of the main reasons Graham Potter got the job at Brighton was his ability to work with youngsters, something which was so evident from his time at Swansea.

The signings of younger more inexperienced players like Trossard, Connolly, Zeqiri and Maupay, either for the first team or initially for the U23s is a huge part of the clubs recruitment strategy and something many Albion fans have lauded. And Graham Potter’s job is to coach them into being better players, but he needs time and patience to do that.

Giving Graham Potter patience doesn’t mean to direct your ire elsewhere, ire that many of the names mentioned above have experienced over Potter’s tenure. It means, as he previously stated, to accept that mistakes happen, especially with the club’s chosen recruitment strategy to focus on this young talent.

Games like last night’s are an inevitable part of the process for this Albion team. But Graham Potter and more broadly the entire management team at the club have a clear idea of how they want this team to progress. The evidence of the progress of Adam Webster can serve as a template for Albion’s roster of misfiring striker to follow. What is clear is that Potter will stick by them, even if many others have lost their patience.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

Monday Musings – Albion’s first ever win at Villa Park eases pressure on Potter

The trip to an in-form Aston Villa was always going to be a big test for Potter’s so far frustrated Albion side. With a run of tough games against Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester to follow and only six points so far accumulated from their first eight games you could easily see the pressure quickly mounting on Potter if results didn’t start going Albion’s way.

As I’ve been reiterating since his appointment, I hope Potter gets the time to turn these impressive intentions and subsequently impressive performances of late into the results the team deserve, but I do wonder how much patience he will be afforded if relegation worries mount. Especially in such uncertain times economically for the club, its industry and the country as a whole.

These circumstances made Albion’s victory and the dramatic way it was achieved through a VAR overturn of an Aston Villa penalty in injury time even sweeter. In the context of Albion’s season this win feels huge and eases the pressure caused by the run of frustrating results which preceded it.

Yes, we got a little lucky in the end, but regardless it was a brilliant performance all round. And it was a result that saw Albion under Potter continue to break new ground whose first ever win at Villa Park saw Albion now register its sixth Premier League away win under his management. One more than the five achieved at home in that time and one more than the five away wins achieved in the Premier League under Hughton.

In particular, the first full 90 minutes from Albion’s new striker Danny Welbeck was a true highlight. He gave Albion’s attack an extra dimension with an ability to play direct and long effectively whilst also being happy with the more common approach of patient short passing out of the back. With Albion’s two goals perfectly demonstrating this newfound variety in attack.

It gives the opposition lots to think about. If you press Albion high, they now have a dangerous long ball outlet they can hit to catch you out. If you sit back, you give players like Dunk and White the time and space that opponents can ill afford, enabling them to pass the ball about into dangerously areas. Particularly in the direction of Lamptey and March at Wing Back who have been consistently effective in attack so far this season.

So, the loss of Lamptey for Liverpool to suspension is disappointing, who according to Richard Jolly on Twitter became the shortest player ever to be sent off in the Premier League. Dan Burn has been great when called upon in reserve at left wing back this season, so don’t be surprised if Albion call upon their tallest player to replace him in the starting eleven next time out, with March switching to replace Lamptey at right wing back. That said, Potter’s team selections are rarely predictable.

But there were more positives than negatives. And Pascal Gross’s new found success in Graham Potter’s midfield three has been a joy to behold. Gross played in a deeper role alongside Bissouma and behind Lallana in the first half to great effect. But when Lallana’s tight groin once again saw him fail to complete the 90 minutes, Gross was pushed further forward with Ben White dropping into the midfield. And Gross showed his class and composure in the final third by picking out Solly March with a fantastic assist for Albion’s sublime winner.

It was a game which gave another example of Albion’s strength in depth. With a number of first team players out through injury Potter was still able to name a strong bench that enabled him to make some important alterations during the game that assisted the teams victory.

In particular, Lalana’s replacement Joel Veltman was fantastic in the second half at centre back. Composed and assured in possession whilst also fierce and combative in defence. A performance in his fifth league appearance of the season that will no doubt keep others on their toes.

One of those many players missing was Davy Pröpper, who returned to the injury list after his recent spell as an unused substitute in the last two matches. Thankfully his absence wasn’t due to a recurrence of his Achilles injury but a stomach bug.

His absence and recent return to the matchday squad has gone largely unremarked. Fitting for a player who is in my opinion the club’s most underrated player of Albion’s Premier League era. And after a run of good performances but frustrating results was ended by a good result despite a mixed performance, I feel more strongly that the Dutchman could be Albion’s missing piece of puzzle.

With Lallana’s continued struggles for fitness recently seeing Graham Potter turn to central defender Ben White to play in central midfield to retain the defensive balance which it has at times struggled to achieve this season. A fact demonstrated by the 15 goals conceded in 9 games, a goals conceded per game ratio higher than that of any of Brighton’s previous three Premier League seasons.

Pröpper’s impending return could solve this issue who is arguably Albion’s most rounded midfield player, both providing quality in attacking areas (as demonstrated by his 7 Premier League assists over the last 3 seasons) and resilience in defence (as demonstrated by being involved in 18 Premier League clean sheets in 100 games, compared to Bissouma’s 3 in 58).

Either way his impending return adds extra competition to an area of the pitch that is already congested following impressive performance from Bissouma, Lallana, Alzate, Gross and White, along with the young prospect Jayson Molumby, who made his Premier League debut against Villa as a late substitute.

This is a win that has changed the perspective of the season so far. A performance built on defensive resilience more than possession football, further demonstrating Graham Potter’s adept tactical fluidity.

The great performances of late not leading to many points being accumulated may have increased the anxiety levels and pressure on Potter from outside of the club prior to the win at Villa. But the message from inside the club appears to be that he’s the man for the long-term come what may. Which has no doubt helped that anxiety not to spread to those within the club.

Ultimately though it’s a win that leaves Albion 6 points clear of the relegation zone, but 4 points below the top half, once again marooned in that mid-bottom-half league position that has become very familiar to Albion fans since promotion in 2017. But as 2020 begins to draw towards a close, a year that has been tough both on and off the pitch, events of the last two weeks have certainly helped ease much of the growing anxiety and pressure that has been accumulating since the start of the season.

Brighton Premier League Season preview – from transition to progression?

For many, a new football season represents a new opportunity. And for many at the Albion this season it represents the opportunity of a coming of age, where a continuing changing of the guard has been taking place amongst its first team squad.

The summer has seen many bid farewell to the club, former 2016/17 Championship player of the season Anthony Knockaert made his loan move to Fulham permanent whilst 2018/19 Albion player of the season Shane Duffy along with the club’s record goalscorer Glenn Murray were both sent out on season-long loans that will likely instigate a permanent end to their playing days with the club. And with talk of other exits possibly to follow, it may be a very different Albion we are watching this season.

That said, the transfer business was becoming an inevitable outcome as last season progressed. Despite both Murray and Duffy starting last season’s opening day 3-0 win away to Watford, Murray only started a further 6 of the remaining 37 league games compared to Duffy’s 11. Instead, last summer’s new signings Adam Webster and Neil Maupay established themselves as regulars, starting 31 and 30 league games respectively.

Albion’s strong and largely reliable defensive unit continues to evolve under Potter. Albion’s greatest strength and asset since promotion has been its defensive record and with the return of Ben White after his success at Leeds as well as the signature of Dutch international Joel Veltman, it will be hoped that they can inspire that to further improve. Particularly in games against last season’s top 5, against whom Albion conceded nearly half of their goals (25) in just over a quarter of their fixtures.

In the past Propper and Stephens have been the backbone of Albion’s midfield. But, if Albion are going to improve their record in games against the better teams in the division, how they retain and use the ball in the midfield will be key given Potter’s will to control possession and build up play patiently out from the back. As such the progression of Bissouma and Alzate will be key here. Particularly in games against teams willing to press Albion high, both Stephens and Pröpper at times struggled to retain and recycle the ball sufficiently, an attribute that Bissouma and Alzate appear more accustomed to.

But if you watched Albion across the entirety of last season, you’ll know that discussions such as these in areas of relatives strength are just splitting hairs compared to the big problem area – Goals.

Part way through the season, after a run of bad results that culminated in a home defeat to Palace and with Brighton struggling to score goals, many including myself called for Duffy and Murray to be reinstated. But Potter stuck to his guns and stood by Webster and Maupay and was repaid as both showed arguably their best form following the season’s restart.

Despite a lack of goals at the club generally, Albion’s main striker Maupay did have a good first season at the club. The step up to the topflight is tough but he adapted well and his double figure goal record is impressive. But it wasn’t a season without its issues. As with his predecessor Murray, the team are very reliant on his goals and it’s no coincidence that when he went ten appearances without scoring over the winter period, this near-coincided with a run of as many games without a win for the club.

It’s not just about taking chances though, it’s also about creating more and better chances. In Albion’s first two Premier league season’s much of the creativity required to create goalscoring chances fell on Pascal Gross’s shoulders to link the team’s fairly direct style of play. But the signing Trossard has meant the former player of the season has found himself often starting on the bench and the signature of Adam Lallana and the progression of the likes of Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister will only see the chances of that increasing.

Creating better chances and taking those which are created will be incredibly important to enable the team to convert some of the draws they had last season into wins. No team in the topflight registered more stalemates (14) last season. It’s a testament to the club’s reliable defensive record that this was the case too and some of those draws didn’t become losses, making the club’s survival from relegation much less comfortable.

It’s also a sign of how much some of Albion’s previously mentioned attacking options have flattered to deceive. Many are young and have scope to improve, but are also likely to have further dips in form as the season progresses, so the experience of the likes of Gross and Lallana will be crucial in these moments and determining whether the team can convert their combined talent into more consistent performances on the pitch.

It might be that further new signings are made to bolster the squad and aid this progression, but as the club’s constant failed pursuits for added depth in attack shows, we can’t count on it. There’s talk of both a new striker and left back in the clubs recruitment plans, but given they has stated before that they won’t panic into buying just anyone, we may have to settle with the talent that we have.

There will be a continuing trend of change as Graham Potter puts more of his stamp on the club. It’s crass to say we don’t need the players that are leaving, after all many have been key to Brighton achieving and maintaining its topflight status, but it’s a judgement call of which players have the attributes that make them best placed to implement Potter’s very different tactical ideas.

The two games against Palace defined last season in many ways. The lack of cutting edge despite such impressive dominance of possession and chances created, yielding just one point, was frustrating and gave promise and concern over what was to come in equal measure. And the manner in which safety was achieved last season following the defeat at home to Palace in February, via a very much back to basics less possession-based style approach, demonstrated that change won’t be easy nor without its bumps in the road.

That the club continues to initially loan out forsaken squad members like Duffy and Murray rather than sell them permanently, suggests they’re only tentatively optimistic of the future and lingering concerns of relegation remain. Something we must accept is always a realistic possibility for the Albion in the topflight, especially if performances like those against rivals Palace last season are regularly repeated.

But as Ed Aarons said in the Guardian’s Brighton season preview “Potter has assembled an exciting squad full of potential that looks equipped to take the next step – the question is are they capable of fulfilling that promise?” I would also add to that how much time will Potter get to meet the ever-rising expectations at the club?

Sacking Chris Hughton last season and replacing him with Graham Potter was a bold decision by Tony Bloom. The exits and diminishing playing time of some of the club’s more established players during his tenure shows that Graham Potter also isn’t afraid to make bold decisions. With Potter’s first season as manager now under his belt and the transition of the club towards his approach reaching fruition, this season will begin to tell us whether those bold decision are leading the club towards the progression which we all crave and many have begun to expect.