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.

Potterball and a youth revolution amongst great ambition and expectation

Much like his predecessor Chis Hughton, did before him, Graham Potter has done a fantastic job in keeping the club in the Premier League for another season, particularly amongst all the flux of last summer.

But the task he has now of taking the club to the next stage of its development and pushing it up the league ladder from its current home for the last three years of somewhere between 15th and 17th place is a more difficult task altogether.

There is much optimism at the club at the moment that this will be achieved. With the introduction of some exciting young talent throughout last season, and the prospect of more to follow from the clubs successful youth academy being a large part of that. As well as what was a very good end to the season for the team being coupled with some good early business in the summer transfer window.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away. Our time in the Premier League shows us that high profile signings don’t always come off and form tends to too and fro sharply. The longer term trends are a better idea of success.

This considered, I don’t think we should take as much optimism from the success over the “restart” period as some have suggested. After all, prior to the pause in the season Brighton were on a severe slump, only 2 wins in 18 games and with defeats to Bournemouth in January and Palace in February left the club dangerously close to the relegation zone.

The circumstances of the season were far from normal, but Potter clearly used the break to his advantage. Utilising the extra preparation time he had with his players to get his ideas across more fully, and it showed in a greater conviction in the team’s performances over the final group of fixtures than we had seen in 2020 up to that point. But there was a distinct change in tact from much of the football being played prior to the halt in the season.

In particular in possession, where Albion had more possession than their opponents in 20 of the 27 games pre restart and just once in the 9 post restart (at home to Newcastle, a team that averaged the third least possession away from home in the league all season). More Hughton like football than Potterball, but needs must.

In the long term, with the two experienced signings already made and the prospect of more additions to the squad in the coming weeks likely, the sale of other experienced members of squad seems inevitable. And as many have recognised it may be time for some of the more established players to move aside in order for the club to meet its loftier ambitions. Three seasons and two managers in this level producing very similar finishing positions suggests these players have found their level. Becoming an established top half team will clearly require higher quality personnel.

This is going to be a tough balancing act for Potter. Much of the success in recent years was built on the team spirit created by this core group of players like Duffy, Stephens, Murray, and March. All of whom it has been suggested could leave, but it would be dangerous to see that squad ripped apart in one summer, especially such a truncated one. The gap between relegation this season may have been 7 points, but the reality is it was closer than many had hoped it would be amongst the early season optimism.

In Andy Naylor’s season end review for the Athletic he said that “Fashioning and taking more of the chances they create is the key to the extra three or four wins required to make the transformation.” However its more complex than that. As Hughton found out in Albion’s second Premier League season, to even retain your existing status you need to be constantly progressing. For Hughton all it really took was for a few signings in key areas that didn’t work out and the momentum seemed to suddenly halt.

As time passes, the teams slump in the second half of his second Premier League season in charge can be more attributed to the personnel available. As established players like Knockaert and March’s form varied greatly, the new signings bought to progress the team in forward areas like Andone, Locadia and Jahanbakhsh all floundered. In comparison this season, Potter’s new additions in this area included the all relatively successful Mooy, Maupay and Trossard, as well as the more recent addition of Mac Allistar who was unable to get a work permit during Hughton’s time.

Then there is Aaron Connolly, it’s true Hughton didn’t give the u23s much of a chance during his time and Connolly is held up as an example of that. But could this simply be that the youngsters weren’t ready? For example, Connolly has been fantastic at times this season. As well as his goals, he’s made some brilliant impact sub appearances, most notably in the comeback from behind draw at home with Chelsea. But he’s also had many games where he’s looked out of place, he’s young and still learning so that can be forgiven, but it suggests that last season may have been too soon for him. Something backed up by the very few appearances he made on loan that season at Luton, admittedly in part limited due to injury.

Connolly and Alzate are in reality the anomalies of this process, many of the others who could have been brought in were left in the development squad or sent out on loan. And whilst we’ve been told some of the players from development team will be given a chance in pre-season to prove themselves, don’t expect a youth revolution next season, more a continued trickle of talent into the first team.

The club will be conscious that Brighton can’t afford to stand still this summer, but at the same time the balance between changing too much too soon is just as much of a risk. And to have such a pivotal summer in terms of progression in such a truncated one, is unfortunate.

Just as Watford and Bournemouth showed us last season, as well as Swansea, Stoke and West Brom before them in our first Premier League season, attaching the phrase “established” to a club in the Premier League doesn’t mean what it would in most industries. Sustaining a place in the topflight is a constant battle and one of balancing short term objectives with longer term goals.

Many may wish to see the increased blooding of younger players like White, Molumby, Taylor-Richards and Gyokeres next season. But to be able to do this those player need a settled and established platform to be given the chance to thrive. The balancing the introduction of younger talent with the inevitable changes in experienced and proven squad members of the squad will be key to enabling this process. And if the general job security within football management tells us anything it’s that alongside all these long term progression, you still need to be looking to achieve results in the short term. A bad start to next season would throw all this optimism and progress into chaos.

The reality is that Graham Potter’s long term evolution was somewhat put on ice as the seasons short term goals were sought to be achieved. But it appears the continued evolution in style will be very much the mindset that the club will begin next season with. And if the first two thirds of the season is anything to go by, then next season might be a lot tougher than many are currently predicting.

Naivety and Youth

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.

Graham Potter and the Diamonds of Universality

In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of this tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles.

In particular he’s since spoken about the trend of the demise of the traditional goalscoring striker. A trend evident at Brighton this season since Potter’s arrival with his significantly lower utilisation of Glenn Murray. That said, Murray’s success of the previous two seasons does somewhat challenge this hypothesis, but that’s another story.

In Murray’s place has come Neal Maupay, who whilst similarly a penalty box goalscorer, is so much more besides. You won’t see it in his highlights reels, but his movement and energy when leading the line allows for more options and versatility in Albion’s build up play than we otherwise see. Something the goal against Norwich demonstrated as Maupay dropped deep to receive the ball, allowing space for others to run into and set the move on its way.

Part of the purpose for this was spoken about by JJ Bull after Potter’s first game in charge, a 3-1 win away to Watford last August. He outlined how when in possession the outfield players are tasked with “forming diamonds all over the pitch, with players fluidly moving into the appropriate positions depending on the phase of play and where the ball is.” This leaves Brighton’s current de facto centre forward Neal Maupay often moving out of position to enable this pattern of play. Going back to the goal on Saturday against Norwich, Maupay actually formed the deepest point in that particular diamond, passing to Mooy in an advanced position on Albion’s right wing, with Connolly and eventual goalscorer Trossard forming the other two points in the diamond.

One aspect of the demise of the traditional centre forward Jonathan Wilson spoke about was their potentially increased use as a “super-sub” when their team was looking for a goal. Something we’ve seen in Potter’s use of Murray this season, but to little effect. It’s seemingly a role he’s less familiar/suited to than he was starting games as the teams attacking focal point under Hughton, which his 14 substitute appearances generating no goals scored attest to.

Before the restart it appeared that Murray may be seeing a renaissance under Potter, with his only goal of the season coming in a start against West Ham in February, which lead to two further starts before he was dropped for the home defeat to Palace later that month. But one short substitute appearance post restart has suggested his marginal role in the team going forward continues to intensify, to my personal disappointment. Put the understandable tactical reasons to one side, I just love watching Glenn Murray lead the line in those Blue and White stripes.

Another huge part of Potter’s management this season has been the adaptability of his squad. In particular Steven Alzate, promoted this season from the U23 team and traditionally a central midfielder, has been asked to play in a number of positions. Starting with his debut where he found himself on the left side of the attack, Alzate’s played in most areas of the pitch, at one point playing a run of games at right back.

Then there’s a man traditionally thought of as a centre back, 6″7 Dan Burn, who’s spent most of the season playing aptly at left back. And it’s not been just the less established members of the squad who’ve been at it, with Murray starting the season being asked to play on the left wing before his prolonged absence from the starting eleven. In fact it was his injury that saw Steven Alzate get his debut away to Newcastle.

And it’s not just players starting positions that have been adaptable. It’s the roles they’ve played within those positions too. In particular Maty Ryan and Lewis Dunk who have had to evolve the most since Potter replaced Hughton last summer.

The change in style from a quite direct team who were happy out of possession, to one more comfortable in possession and better at retaining it, has seen Lewis Dunk move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram, to a key figure in the starting point for much of the team’s attacks. And you only have to look at his involvement in the game this season to see that. Having averaged around 55 touches a game over the last two seasons, he’s now averaging around 79 per game, and with it his highest season average passing accuracy too at 87%.

A large reason for this is the nature of Maty Ryan’s distribution. Who is being asked to mostly play the ball out short to the centre backs, rather than long over the halfway line to the forwards. Subsequently being asked to offer a passing option to his centre backs when they then have possession of the ball.

This has meant Ryan has also seen an increase in his involvement in the game, particularly in games like the win over Norwich on Saturday that saw him have 56 touches. Around 20 more than his per game average under Hughton.

But this isn’t always the case. Like Potter’s ever changing team selections and use of formations, more recently Ryan has often been asked to play far more longer-balls up the pitch in order to relieve pressure from the opposition. Particularly against Leicester where he racked up a whopping 24 long passes, compared to his season average of 6 per game.

Like a lot of things about recent Albion performances, it’s been about doing what is required to get the points needed to avoid relegation. Potter’s seen his side collect 7 point from the 4 games since the restart, an upturn in results. Something required to ease the threat of relegation after a pre lockdown slump of just 6 points collected from the previous 9 games since the turn of the year.

If we compare Potter’s first season in charge to Hughton’s last, little has changed in comparison to results and league position overall. But the nature of how Albion has got there certainly has.

Whilst I personally don’t agree with a lot of the criticism he got, Hughton’s downfall was ultimately his perceived inability to evolve the team tactically into a more effective attacking side. With his much maligned experiment with a 433 unable to solve his problems. In contrast, this season Brighton are an effective, if often wasteful attacking outfit, now combined with the defensive robustness of the Hughton years that is still in place. If it weren’t for that wastefulness in the final third, Brighton may well be competing much higher in the Premier League table.

Graham Potter’s issues at the club were primarily balancing its short term goals of retaining its topflight status with its longer term objectives of improving the teams style of play and even loftier ambitions of establishing itself as a top half Premier League Club.

Getting through this first season with that topflight status intact and with the fanbase having bought into his management was always going to be key to enable the longer term success to materialise. With the prospect of further evolution of the team under Potter in the topflight next season, it’s a testament to him that those longer term objectives which felt quite speculative a year ago when they were announced, now seem more achievable.

Albion’s impressive and improving defensive record

Throughout the season and throughout the club’s occupation of the Premier League, Brighton’s form has fluctuated, but one constant has been the teams pretty dependable defensive record.

155 goals conceded in 107 games may not sounds impressive, but when you consider many relegated teams in recent years have conceded at an average of around 2 goals per game or sometimes more, and that Albion’s record equates to less than 1.5 per game, it starts to look far more impressive.

Moreover, despite the team’s much spoken about increased emphasis on attack under new manager Graham Potter, the defensive record this season is currently better at 1.32 goals conceded per game compared to both last season at 1.57 pg or the season before at 1.42 pg.

It can’t be ignored that since promotion this defensive record has been the club’s saving grace. With the team also scoring an average of less than a goal a game in both of the last two seasons, it’s that dependable defensive record that has enabled the team to pick up some all-important draws which helped it retain its topflight status over that time.

But this season has been different in that regard, with Potter’s Albion already being one goal off matching its best scoring record since promotion and that’s with 7 games still left to play. Whilst this hasn’t led to an increased rate of wins (7 so far compared to 9 in both the last two seasons), the defeats column totalling just 12 compared to a whopping 20 last season, (which no matter what won’t now be matched), indicates progress.

Statistics can be misleading though if not analyses properly and comparing this seasons stats when we aren’t yet finished to previously completed seasons could be just that. In particular the club’s tough run in should be considered. Especially if Albion concede 4 or more at home to Manchester City and Liverpool in future games as they have in recent seasons, some of those statistics could look far more comparable to last season or even worse.

But the fact that Albion would have to concede at about 3 goals per game between now and the end of the season to even match last season’s goals conceded record, (more than double its current season pg conceding average) shows just how good a defensive job the team have done so far this season whilst also improving its attacking record.

One of the key factors in that success has been the teams improved ball retention and at the heart of that has been Brighton’s captain Lewis Dunk. He was a lynchpin in Chris Hughton’s Albion side alongside Shane Duffy and has since flourished under Potter’s less direct style of play, which has seen him move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram to a key figure in the starting point for much of the teams new found attacking possession based style.

Whilst Dunk has added consistency between the leaderships, one key change that has enabled Potter to enact this evolution in style so effectively has been Adam Webster. His arrival in the summer left many assuming Dunk would be on his way to Leicester, but it has instead seen last season’s Albion player of the season Shane Duffy spend much of the season on the bench.

It is true however that Webster has struggled at times, particularly early on when the sides use of a back three and an overemphasis on playing out from the back left him very exposed. Amongst Potter’s tactical fluidity, the move to a more regular use of a back four and a slightly more risk adverse approach to building out from the back has definitely helped him and the team improve its defensive stability.

Another player who like Dunk has had to similarly adjust to a very different style is Brighton’s goalkeeper Maty Ryan. A player who was equally important under Hughton and has equally flourished under Potter’s passing style. With the statistical swing of his distribution changing significantly from mostly kicking the ball long beyond the halfway line to mostly passing the ball out to one of Albion’s centre backs, he has arguably had to adjust the most.

I wrote earlier in the season that I’d like to have seen Duffy brought back into the team to give the club more defensive stability. And whilst he has come in and played well in some more recent games, blaming Webster individually for Brighton’s problems earlier in the season is too simple, the team’s risky approach simply left Webster often as the fall guy.

The tide really began to turn against this approach at home to Sheffield United in November, 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. That day saw the AMEX faithful frustrated with the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and make little progress going forward, with Webster in particular receiving heavy criticism.

This was one of many examples of course. Albion’s 2-0 defeat at home to Leicester in November saw Ryan achieve similar passing stats and Webster receive similar criticism after conceding the penalty for Leicester’s second. A penalty that unsurprisingly came after Ryan made a short pass to Pröpper in the teams own third despite him being under severe pressure from the opposition. It was the definition of a “hospital pass” which saw him promptly dispossessed by the opposition and a subsequent hasty challenge from Webster lead to the penalty for Leicester to score their second.

Compare that to the most recent games against Arsenal or Leicester, which saw Ryan achieve lower figures more comparable to last season under Hughton of 37 and 36 touches respectively and a lower passing accuracy of 68% and 63% as the team moved to a more direct style accepting less possession of the ball and taking less risks at the back. This has knock of effects of course, particularly on possession which has been severely reduced. Whilst this was in part dictated by the nature of the opposition, for most of the season Brighton have had more possession than the opposition, averaging 53%, the leagues seventh highest average. But in recent games this has significantly reduced with 41% against Arsenal and 34% against Leicester.

After the defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly groaning at the teams risky and frustrating possession based approach, Graham Potter said in his programme notes for the next home game against Bournemouth in December that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And whilst the subsequent win that day supported his claim, the recent change to a more risk adverse approach of playing out from the back may suggest the fans did still have a point. And although Maty Ryan’s spot of bother against Leicester shows you can’t remove all risk, moments like this have been less common in recent games.

Funnily enough in this regard, the 3-1 defeat away to Bournemouth in January in particular seems like a turning point in style. And after initial teething problems in the subsequent 3-3 draw against West Ham, the team have conceded only 4 goals in the last 6 games. Including away trips to Wolves, Sheff Utd and Leicester and home matches against Arsenal and Palace. All of whom currently sit in the top half.

Much of the recent talk on social media about Brighton’s defence has been about the future of Brighton’s loaned out youngster Ben White. But with Dunk, Webster and Duffy all playing well and the global transfer market likely to be significantly diminished by the ongoing global pandemic, there is no certainty he’d even be in Potter’s first choice eleven next season with the other options he has available. Add Dan Burn to the mix too, who whilst having played mostly at left back this season is more commonly thought of as centre back, and you have a lot of competition for places. And that ignores the likes of fellow loaned out youngsters Leo Ostigard and Matt Clarke, all making for increased competition in defence at the club.

Brighton’s end of season slump in both the previous two seasons and tough upcoming fixture list will hopefully ensure there is no complacency and that all minds are fully focused on the games ahead. But the recent improvement in its defensive record since the horror show away to Bournemouth along with Potter’s shift to a less idealistic style of play, gives rise to a certain amount of optimism for the Seagulls ahead of the final 7 game run-in.