A restart for Albion

After the initial joy of victory had subsided, Saturday’s first experience of the Premier League’s project restart left many yearning for the old ways.

Saturday’s win could be crucial in Albion’s bid for another Premier League season. But as others pointed out, imagine being at the AMEX after an injury time minute winner gives the club its long awaited first win of 2020 over the (not so) mighty Arsenal. Yes, winning is great, but experiencing it together is so much better and I can’t pretend I’m fully bought into this restart just yet.

Maybe if I was an Arsenal fan, I’d feel a bit different. Given their club’s horrific restart and the club’s recent history of a toxic atmosphere at the Emirates, the alternative fan experience of some fake crowd noise and the option to just change the channel and watch Escape to the Country on BBC One when things inevitably go against you would probably be preferable.

We all need time to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in, and all this squabbling over Maupay’s challenge on Leno that unfortunately lead to the Arsenal goalkeeper to be stretchered off with a long-term looking injury isn’t helpful. Both club’s seemed keen to accept it was an unfortunate accident based on post-match comments, but some of the media coverage and fans comments online would have you think Brighton’s match-winner went at the German goalkeeper with a sledgehammer.

Maupay didn’t help himself of course. His feisty nature more than makes up for his compact stature and when his continued verbal jousting with Guendouzi spilled into physical jousting after the final whistle it only added to the attention on his actions. But then again, it’s exactly this kind of attitude, even within the newly subdued matchday environment, that makes him so difficult to play against.

Brighton manager Graham Potter will have been heartened by his teams display. The inconsistency of his regular choices like Maupay, Webster and Bissouma have led to some, including myself, to call for going back to some form of basics with Duffy and Murray returning to the team. But this performance saw Albion achieve for periods exactly what he has been working for all season, with the winning goal in particular a fantastically well worked team move.

It’s a sign that Potter’s patience may be paying off. But without Albion’s well practiced defensive solidity and Maty Ryan’s continued heroics between the sticks, it may have been a different story. And that’s ignoring the occasion Aubameyang strayed ever so marginally offside.

In reality Brighton rode their luck and then when the opportunity came, they took it. Something we’ve seen little of this season, particularly at home. Without the preying vultures of the AMEX crowd that have become so commonplace in recent seasons when times get tough, the team were able to stay patient and play their game right to the end.

Even in added time within added time, the slow build up before Mac Allister set up a one-two between Maupay and Connolly, which led to Maupay’s winner, was impressive. And no doubt if it was going on with a full crowd in the stadium, it would have led to some counterproductive shouts from the crowd of: “Get it forward!”.

The last few months have taught us much and many are taking the opportunity to review their previous actions and restart in a reinvigorated fashion. One of the most prominent recent lessons many have have taken is the value of being less harshly judgemental and more compassionately appreciative of events. Maybe Saturday’s result was just further evidence of these lessons.

A Resumption of Woe?

As the Premier League season resumes for Brighton on Saturday, the club sit 15th, 3 places and 2 points ahead of the relegation zone.

Whilst there is much excitement of football and many other aspects of normal life returning, this excitement has masked the concerning predicament that the club finds itself in. Still searching for its first win in 2020, only having scored 8 goals in the 10 matches played during that period, and with mounting scepticism over Graham Potter’s leadership. All combining to mean those good vibes could be over as quickly as David Luiz’s chaotic cameo for Arsenal against Man City on Wednesday night.

There are significant concerns over the club’s Premier League status despite bookies making Brighton a relative 3/1 outsider of the bottom six club’s to be relegated. Especially considering the fixture list, which leaves the club with four of the traditional top six still to play plus high flying Leicester.

Lots has already been discussed about the team’s lack of ability to take its opportunities this season. Be it goalscoring opportunities, or game winning opportunities. But most telling is that of the teams five remaining home fixtures, four are against traditional top six clubs. Leaving Albion either needing to significantly improve its away form or pull off some significant shocks in order to survive the drop.

Many have praised the club for its long term strategy, but too often it’s come at the expense of short term success. I’ve discussed the club’s overemphasis on the long term before. The most prominent example of which being the club’s stated target of establishing itself as a top ten topflight club. Something that felt a bit like planning a wedding before having found a partner who has agreed to marry you.

After a few high profile and high value underwhelming transfers from overseas, the emphasis seems to have altered towards encouraging the utilisation of more unproven younger players. With the likes of Lamptey, Mac Allister, Connolly and Alzate all being relied on to fill some gaping holes in the Albion’s squad. And with 5 substitutions now available during matches and those matches now coming thick and fast, this will be the case more than ever.

Graham Potter will get much of the credit/criticism for this approach. But it’s arguably far more as a result of the ever-growing influence of Technical Director Dan Ashworth on Brighton’s transfer policy in the post-Hughton era, as it is down to the appointment of Graham Potter.

Of course, whoever you credit/criticise for Brighton’s transfer policy, it’s worth noting that the club is limited in who it can recruit by its finances. With one of the smallest wage budgets in the division mixed with a huge amount of flux last summer, a relegation battle was always likely. All meaning the likelihood that the club could have brought in significant proven talent in recent transfer windows was small.

If my recent trails through the club’s history teaches me anything, it’s that the current stable leadership and topflight status should be cherished and enjoyed. Nonetheless this season has left many with a feeling of missed opportunities on a number of occasions.

But we do have reason to be optimistic, the return of the likes of Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy to starting births in the recently games before lockdown saw the club gains some vital draws. But with games running out, the team will need to turn those draws into wins.

Much will rely on the team actually taking advantage of the creative talents of Pascal Gross, Aaron Mooy and Leandro Trossard. All of which have deserved better at times than the results have delivered. Along with an increased reliance on other experienced squad members like Ryan, Propper and Dunk setting an example which the younger players can follow.

There is still plenty of game time for Brighton to make up for their lost ground from the season gone by, but time is running out, and the excuses for Potter’s team’s missed opportunities are beginning to run thin.

The game on Saturday against an Arsenal side fresh from Wednesday night’s embarrassment, gives the Seagulls a chance to make up some of that lost ground as well as putting some space between them and the bottom three. But given how many chances have already come and gone, you could forgive Brighton fans for still being pessimistic.

In defence of our ignorance – a message from a football fan

Football rarely offers its followers emotions of the middle ground. You are either a winner or a loser, even in the event of a draw there is often one team happier than the other. Take last Saturday’s trip to the Olympic Park where Brighton faced West Ham as an example. A game of such contrasting emotions, where at one point we all thought Graham Potter was an idiot for a seemingly absurd double substitution at 3-1 down. A substitution that in fact turned the game in Brighton’s favour to finish with a seemingly unlikely 3-3 draw. Euphoric joy for Albion supporters contrasting with the crushing disappointment for West Ham supporters.

One of those substitutes who to the surprise of many made all the difference was Ezequiel Schelotto, a player who since his arrival in 2017 has at times delighted, at times not, but mostly been incredibly unfortunate with injuries. But as Michael Cox described in his latest article for the athletic his introduction was a great exploitation of a West Ham’s weakness down their left hand side.

I can understand the surprise at Schelotto’s entrance, he was cast aside by Hughton after just one season and seemed on his way out of the club. And even after being given a reprieve by Potter has only been used sparingly this season. Now with another player who is primarily also a right back joining in January in the shape of Tariq Lamptey, it was easy to assume he had been pushed further down the pecking order and was never to be seen again. But life often has a habit of catching you out when you make lazy assumptions based on half the information, a habit us football fans are famous for.

After the game Schelotto tweeted a self-congratulating and confrontational jibe at his critics when he said: “They judge you before seeing you in action, it is called ignorance. They flatter you when you win, it’s called mediocrity. Less social networks and more support!!!!

It is a tweet which contained a certain level of hubris, of which you come to expect from a professional sportsman. Nonetheless it was a message that from looking at the replies from Brighton fans has gone down well with supporters a plenty.

He subsequently then had to defend himself against unfounded personal accusations from one Twitter user, giving an example of exactly why many professional footballers don’t put themselves out there on social media platforms. And showing why in most cases ignorance isn’t a virtue.

But, despite there always being the odd clown, in general I’m always inclined to side with the fans who are being criticised by people from within the game. People like the fan site We Are Brighton, who tweeted their shock and rage when Schelotto was brought on instead of top scorer Maupay. Or reporters like Ian Abrahams who tweeted his surprise at the same moment. Only for both to later be proven markedly incorrect.

And this is where my defence of the humble football fan comes in. Because part of the joy of being a fan is not being an expert, not seeing what’s coming and revelling in moments like this when your team unexpectedly comes back from 2-0 and 3-1 down to draw 3-3. Or even revelling in the gallows humour of being on the wrong side of such a turnaround.

Supporters like those who run the We Are Brighton fan-page are doing exactly what fans do, expressing the emotions of the moment and revelling in it. Whilst reporters like Ian Abrahams are our narrators who relay the story of the events and emotions of the day to those who are following it from elsewhere.

So to Schelotto and others who accuse supporters of ignorance I say this: Yes, football fans are often a largely ignorant, unduly judgemental and overly emotional bunch, but that is the very culture that our nations football grounds were built on. And what in part drives the hope that keeps us going back every week despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Football was initially brought to the attention of the masses in the UK as a game played and watched at the end of a hard working week. Something to take your mind off the hard and often brutal conditions of 19th century factories and workhouses. And whilst it has evolved into something very different in 21st century Britain, at its heart the football fan culture is still very much the same.

But unfortunately with social media saving and displaying users’ thoughts for all eternity, our ignorance is there for all to see, maybe this is why experts like Michael Cox have become as prominent as they have? To educate us to become a more informed crowd and save our blushes.

But then again, there are expert in hindsight, and then there are the true experts. Those like Graham Potter that see the opportunities and make the difference in the moment rather than after the event. And anyway, if you want an informed crowd go to Wimbledon Centre Court or Lords Cricket Ground. Football has never been the thinking man’s game, it’s brilliance is in its simplicity.

In this same week, Brighton announced their season ticket renewals process through a glossy leaflet and email that was sent to all current season ticket holders. And whilst it was great in its intention and production, I took exception to a part of it. Not because of its glossiness, but the spirit of the quotes used from Graham Potter and Tony Bloom. Quotes of “we need you every step of the way” and “your support will always be valued” respectively.

Whilst well intentioned, what this type of output from the club ignores is the fact that we don’t dedicate ourselves to the club because we are valued but because we value it. We value the community that our clubs are a part of, the history and heritage of our clubs, and everything good that they stand for.

Anyone who has read David Goldblatt’s book “The Ball is Round” that chronicles the history of football will truly understand the history behind our nations complex and confusing relationship with our national game. A relationship probably best summed up by a quote from the late Pope John Paul II: “Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.”.

I fully accept that in the cold light of day football fandom is in many ways absurd and illogical. But the wonderful escapism that can be achieved through it is why so many keep coming back. The genuine passion and emotion we feel for our teams and hatred we have for our rivals is real, if based on admittedly flimsy and flawed logic.

Within the microcosm that is the world of football I can’t think of anything worse than those within the game who try to suppress that culture or even worse monetise it. And let’s be honest Brighton are just as bad culprits of this as any other club is.

Along with the consistent rising cost of going to a match, the club have recently called for an improvement in the atmosphere at home games and fans are continually asked by management and players for their devoted support. Fine, you might think? But just as much as us football supporters are constantly reminded by our ignorance that we should leave the football management to the experts, those within the game should leave the football supporting to the experts too.

Are Brighton paying the price of too much long-term thinking?

This Saturday sees the first of two important matches in Brighton’s third Premier League season, as they travel to fellow strugglers West Ham this Saturday before hosting a rejuvenated but nonetheless relegation threatened Watford the next.

Brighton’s recent “crisis” is put into context when you consider the goings on at their next venue the London Stadium. Since moving from their previous long-term home Upton Park in 2017 with promises of Champions League football and exciting new signings, West Ham have instead experienced three seasons of struggle on the field and strife off it. It makes you glad that at very least we have an owner who cares about more than profit margins and a chief executive that we can trust.

Our following weekends opponents Watford were in all sorts of trouble earlier in the season, when it looked like the continuous upheaval in their playing and coaching staff was finally catching up with them. (Ironically after the first summer break when they stuck with their manager since 2013, two years prior to their promotion to the topflight). But the clubs third ‘permanent’ manager of the season Nigel Pearson has instead improved the club’s fortunes with 15 points in his first 8 games in charge. A total which equates to 2/3rds of the points the club have accumulated all season.

In contrast Brighton’s focus in recent years has been about stability and long-term planning, but the club has come under increasing criticism of late, primarily for its record in the transfer market. Whilst this type of criticism is part and parcel of a bad run of form, Brighton’s current predicament does raise important questions that need to be answered.

Primarily: Can the club be accused of looking too far into the long term and neglecting its focus from short term success?

The initial signs from this season were good. After dispensing with first team manager Chris Hughton for a younger, more exciting and attack-minded coach in Graham Potter, performances looked to be improving. And whilst results at first were somewhat hard to come by, three wins at home to Spurs, Everton and then Norwich won most sceptics over.

Along with that, a MoM performance in front of the Sky Sports cameras by U23 graduate Steven Alzate away at Newcastle, followed by a brace from fellow U23 graduate and last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly, added further evidence of Potter’s good work and appeared to justify the trust he has placed in the younger members of the squad to fill the gaps. 

And there is plenty of evidence of his good work, no more so than the team’s change in tactical style. A change in which Potter has innovated and evolved the team from a deep lying defensively-minded team to a more front-foot attack-minded side. 

But change has come with growing pains. Pains not eased by the at times poor execution of Potter’s management. Be that through constantly altering team selections, a growing tendency for panicked substitutions of varying success when his changes in personnel don’t work, or simply asking too much of certain players. All in all, Graham Potter’s relative inexperience in topflight management has been on show, just as much as his innovative and exciting tactical ideas.

Possibly the biggest anomaly so far is that despite how much tactical innovation and adaptability he’s shown, and despite how much ability he’s shown to develop players, this ability is seemingly not enough to get the best out of arguably the club’s two best players from the previous two Premier League seasons in both Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy.

Whilst Murray’s age can excuse Potter over some of the criticism of his absence from the top scorers list, this coupled with Connolly failing to add to his two goals against Tottenham in early October has meant much of Albion’s goal threat has been placed on the shoulders of the inexperienced if talented Neal Maupay, who has proved at times deadly but at times unreliable in front of goal.

After the club were arguably swept away in the early season optimism, Potter was given what was then an unexpected and what now looks like an unnecessary two-year extension to his already long-term four-year contract. On announcing the news the club said: “In the summer we unveiled a new long-term vision for us to become an established top-ten Premier League club, and we feel even more strongly that Graham as a bright, energetic and innovative head coach, is the right man to lead us there.” Comments that add further suspicion to the fact that the club’s long-term goals might be overshadowing its short-term objectives.

But it hasn’t just been the Brighton Board of directors who’ve been praising Potter’s work potentially too soon. Many jumped to praise him after the 3-0 win away to Watford on the opening day, a win that looks far less impressive in hindsight given how Watford’s season then played out. Others have added high praise following the wins over Everton, Spurs and Arsenal, wins that look more like anomalies than signs of improvement considering the more recent disappointing results and performances.

But Potter’s work and the club’s senior management have certainly still got plenty to be proud of. It pays to think about the long-term, but a key element to success is finding a balance between a focus on long-term goals with an equally important focus on short- and medium-term objectives.

Short-termism has become an unattractive characteristic amongst much of English football in the Premier League era, but long-termism can be just as dangerous. As Ken Favaro said in the Harvard Business Review “You cannot sacrifice the short-term for the long-term and expect to have a future any more than the other way around. In other words, long-termism is just as bad as short-termism.”

For Brighton, having the long-term goal of becoming a top-half topflight club certainly adds value to the club’s operations. But without achieving the short-term objective of another season of Premier League survival, that goal becomes much harder to achieve and moreover becomes an implausible prospect to have faith in.

Whether the club has and will continue to find that balance and avoid the harm to its long-term goals that would come with relegation to the Championship will become much clearer over the next two matches.

A Euphoric start to the Potter era built on the foundations of the Hughton era

After all the talk and excitement, the new Premier League season finally arrived, and how! Last season Brighton travelled to Watford on the opening day where they lost 2-0 putting in one of the worst performances of the season. By contrast this season’s opener saw the Albion’s equal-biggest away win since promotion as they ran-out 3-0 winners at Vicarage Road.

One of the big question marks over whether Potter’s methods would be successful was that this squad was of questionable qualities in offensive areas and when in possession of the ball, could they play his style of football. But yesterday showed this team were capable of stepping up. And with a starting eleven made up entirely of players Hughton managed last season, the passing accuracy was up 5% on last season’s average, the possession up 8% on last season’s average and the % of short passes up 2% on last season.

But this wasn’t a case of Tika-taka style possession-based football, or completely dominating the opposition, but being braver and more offensive-minded when the opportunities arose.

As expected, Potter’s Brighton lined up with a 343, but unexpectedly all the new signings were on the bench and probably the biggest surprise was that Gross started, which is odd given how key he has been over last two seasons. But the fact it was a surprise just demonstrated the flux the team had experienced since the end of last season.

The use of the 343 and the extra centre back allowed the midfield 4 to push up and support the front three in attacks which overloaded the Watford defence and led to most of Albion’s chance creation. Something Alan Shearer highlighted well on Match of the Day.

And it was the two rocks in the middle of the pitch over the last two years, Davy Propper and Dale Stephens, who excelled and pushed forward the play when required, being involved in attacks far more than either had generally been seen previously.

Generally Propper went forward with Stephens providing defensive cover, but at times Stephens would add additional support in attack too. For example with the first goal where after intercepting the ball on halfway he pushed forward to the edge of the box and chipped the ball to Gross at the far post whose cross was turned into the net by Watford’s Doucoure.

But as well as the added attacking impetus from central midfield there was a keen focus down the right through Martin Montoya, who was playing in a less familiar right midfield/wingback role. The focus of the team toward the right-hand side was in part no doubt, targeting Watford’s left back Jose Holebas, notorious for his indiscipline and attack minded style of play. There will be days where the play is instead focused down the left or more evenly but on this occasion, Montoya excelled getting forward whenever possible.

But if you followed my blog last season, you’ll know Hughton’s side did have many good days, even in the much derided second-half of the season. But this was about taking chances. For example when these sides met at the AMEX back in February Brighton had 55% possession and 21 shots, but only 4 hit the target, failing to score in a nil-nil draw.

This in contrast was a performance of clinical attacking that was out of character with last season’s slump. Whilst there wasn’t a huge amount of chances created by the team, registering only 5 shots, almost half that of last season’s average of 9.8 per game. And just under four less than the away game average of 8.7. With of course the own goal not counting towards yesterday’s shot tally.

This wasn’t a team playing as the attacking behemoth that has in places been suggested, but one that took their chances and took advantage of opposition errors. So much of last two season has been about the reliance on Glenn Murray for goals and the lack of chances being taken by others. Yesterday two of the other strikers, Florin Andone who struggled with injuries last season and new signing Neal Maupay who scored one each to show the pressure on Murray’s shoulders could be much less this year.

Can Maupay make the step up and be clinical enough to score the goals in the topflight that Albion require? Paul Merson questioned whether he had the ability to take enough of the limited amount of chances compared to the Championship. But after coming on in the 64th minute for Locadia, he scored from his only shot of the game, clinical indeed.

But there will be days when those chances are missed and when Brighton don’t get lucky by going 1-0 up via an own goal. And don’t manage to block two goal-bound shots in the 6-yard box.

There will be tougher days ahead, and the previously discussed lack of experience and questions over the squads leadership qualities will then be tested, but this was a great day for the club after all the flux and uncertainty over the summer and a day that should rightly be revelled in.

But whilst the club sat 3rd in the table at the end of Match of the Day on Saturday night, memories of an opening day win away to Burnley from 2002 come to mind. An equally glorious win that was followed by a injury to star player Zamora, a run of 13-games without another win and ultimately relegation.

Those were very different days at the club and the fact last season’s star signing Jahanbakhsh didn’t even make the bench and that the summer before’s star signing Izquierdo missed the game through injury, just goes to demonstrate the strength in depth that the team now has.

A quality that is a legacy of the continuous strengthening of the squad over the past five transfer windows since promotion. The very transfer policy continuously criticised over the past year.

But this was more than a Potter-ball revolution, this was a victory built on the foundations of the Hughton era. Amongst all the talk of what Potter could get this team to do with the ball, the team had to spend long periods without the ball seeing off some heavy Watford pressure. Particularly in the second half with the game at 1-0.

Both Dunk and Duffy made blocks in the six-yard box to keep Albion 1-0 ahead, and with the imperious pair playing alongside the impressive Dan Burn and with £20m defender Adam Webster sat on the bench the defensive foundations of the team built by Hughton and added to over the summer give this team a basis and confidence to be able to attack with Potter’s new approach.

Unlike in the Hughton era, Potter made two attacking subs and the team showed more bravery to attack when the opportunities arose despite being under lots of pressure from their opponents Watford. Yes this was a defensive performance built on the foundations of the Hughton era, but with extra attacking intent and added clinical finishing in front of goal that everyone had hoped for.

When Potter was questioned about his quest to change the style of play and resolve the issues of last season in his interview on BBCs Match of the Day with presenter Gary Lineker, he instead spoke about how he inherited a team wherea fantastic foundation had been laid, a lot of good work [had gone before]”. And then admitted despite the good result thatwe haven’t found the answers today but it’s a nice start for us.”

The most striking thing here is the humbleness of Potter. After weeks of anticipation and no doubt plenty of stress, as most of the media wrote his new team off as certainties for relegation, his work had paid off. And straight afterward he’d have every right to go on national television and be smug and self-congratulating. But instead he plays the situation down and praises his predecessor. And as soon as he answered Gary Lineker’s question in this way I instantly knew this was the person I want managing our club.

Potters continued referral to the foundations laid by Hughton and the fact he’s spoken about not wanting to change too much too soon is equally encouraging. Many would like to see all the good of the last two years thrown out with the bad and for him to start again, but Potter is showing himself to be more pragmatic than many expected.

A good start yes, but he will be more conscious than anyone that with 37 games still to play and 111 points still available to play for, there is a long way to go. But I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Thanks Chris and welcome Graham

The Tweeting Seagull EPL Season Preview – We Shall Overcome?

In the four Gospels of the Christian Bible, Jesus is said to have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And competing in the Premier League with one of the lowest budgets and least experienced squads against some of the behemoths of world football, can at times feel like Albion are attempting to repeat a similar sized feat.

Yes, the club are in the best financial position that they’ve ever been in and the amount of transfer money spent in recent years is at unprecedented level, and is expected to increase in the coming days. But as this is the same for every team in the topflight, any benefits that each individual club receives from the Premier League’s wealth tend to average out.

And it no wonder we are fighting against the tide, with the club 118 years old, it enters only its 7th season in the topflight. The club doesn’t have a historic right to claim a place in the top flight, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is here on merit after a long fought for promotion and two hard-fought survivals from relegation.

BBC’s Sussex’s Johnny Cantor said in his recent Brighton independent column that at the start of the new season “the slate is clean”. Whilst Davy Propper stated “At the moment, it is a kind of new start.” But at the same time with a new start comes many new challenges, just as Potter admitted himself in an interview with Tom Barclay of the Sun: “Whenever you start a new job, it’s always a bit daunting, the unknown.” And for Potter there are a number of unknowns that the Albion faithful will be hoping he has resolved come 3pm on Saturday 10th August.

In the Guardian 18-19 season preview Jacob Steinburg said: “Brighton look equipped to survive if they adopt the right mindset. Consolidation is the aim, with Bournemouth’s cosy mid-table life something to aspire to. Anything more will be a happy bonus.” But whilst this year the paper predicted relegation for the Albion, in many ways much the same could be said of the team a year on. And yet the amount of flux at the club since the end of the season coupled with the less than encouraging end to last season raises question marks over how well the team will manage all of this change whilst competing at the highest level with such relatively lowly resources.

First and foremost, the Albion need to address a lack of goals. In their two Premier League season’s so far they have scored just 69 goals in 76 games, with only Huddersfield scoring less over those two seasons in the topflight.

But Potter’s intention is to change this and bring in an attacking style of play that can please the eye. On his appointment he said that “We try and play football in a positive way.” Something the four-goal haul against Birmingham and the and five-goal haul against Liefering in pre-season demonstrated.

Andy Naylor said at the end of last season, “Albion cannot keep leaning so heavily on 35-year-old Glenn Murray to keep them afloat, admirable though he continues to be. The greatest need is more firepower.” And the pressure being taken off Murray’s shoulders will be mostly reliant on new signing Neal Maupay.

Maupay is exactly what the doctor ordered for Albion, a striker who has pace and scores goals, and is a player who played the central striker in Potter’s suggested formation of a 343 at Brentford.

Last season he scored 28 goals in 47 games, a record incredibly similar to Glenn Murray’s 25 in 48 in Brighton promotion season of 2016/17 and a record that won him Brentford’s player of the season. The question will be can he translate that form into the topflight as well as Murray has over the last two seasons.

But, we’ve been here before with Albion signing a new forward player for and big fee. The club’s transfer activity seeing all bar Knockaert of last season’s mostly misfiring attackers, suggests they feel the answers are more in Potter evolving the style of play and developing the players he has, much like he did at Swansea last season. And its early days yet, but new signing Leonardo Trossard’s statement that he was convinced to join the club after being enticed by Potter’s vision of attacking football is encouraging.

In addition to Knockaert leaving, another player whose been key in attack in recent season’s, Pascal Gross, appears to be looking at having a more diminished role. In part because it’s tough to see how Potter fits him into his favoured 343 formation. This is a real concern in my eyes given he’s the Albion player who we’ve been able to rely on to deliver the goods in attacking area whilst most others misfire. A fact that piles more pressure onto Trossard.

As well as Trossard, there could be some other new attacking players making the step up from the u23 team. One in particular is last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly who was picked out by the Guardian as the Albion ‘youngster who can shine on tour’. Unfortunately, despite impressing for Ireland at the Toulon tournament over the summer, he hasn’t made much of an impact, featuring only in a young Albion team that won 1-0 at Crawley via a Taylor Richard’s penalty.

The signing of Taylor Richards is intriguing, and whilst I didn’t cover it in my recent transfer window blog as he’s initially been signed as an u23 player, the signs are he is expected by the club to make some impact on the first team this season, rather than just being limited to the odd cup team appearance and u23 football. Richards said on signing, “I feel I’m at that stage now that I need to push on, I didn’t think playing 23s was helping me – I feel like I was stuck.”

As was pointed out by Andy Naylor in a recent Argus article, “before the start of the current transfer window fifteen of the 16 permanent outfield signings made for the Premier League (including the loaned-out Percy Tau and Alexis Mac Allister) have been foreign.” In contrast the signings of Richards, Clarke and Webster make it only one of four made this summer, but such a small sample doesn’t necessarily suggest a change in tact regarding transfer activity.

A potentially bigger issue to the success in Potter’s evolution in the Albion’s style will be the team’s poor ball retention. Not only did the Albion have the fourth lowest average possession in the league last season but also the fifth lowest passing accuracy. Whilst this was partly due to the team’s defensive and direct style under Hughton, they’re not statistics that suggest changing to a back-to-front, possession-based approach is suited. This could be the real area where Potter and his assistants coaching skills are truly tested.

But the most telling deficiency could be off the field, through the lack of Leadership and experience within the squad. Something increasingly evident since the retirement of last season’s Captain Bruno, the departure of Knockaert and the resultant decreased amount of topflight experience and leaders that remain at the club.

The squad is one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of last season showed. Brighton’s squad started last season with cumulatively the fifth lowest in terms of Premier League experience, totalling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated last season, with the only other side Wolves, unlike Brighton a team made up of players with plenty of topflight experience in Europe’s other topflight leagues.

As a result, the more experienced and long-serving players who remain at the club like Dunk, Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray will now be required to step up and fill this void. It was clear morale nosedived significantly towards the end of last season during the club’s poor form, leadership will be important to ensure the feelings of frustration and negativity that remain at the club do not hang around for much longer.

There were certainly signs of a lack of leadership during the three successive defeats at home to Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, a run that spelled the end for Hughton as manager. But in the subsequent run of four games the team showed evidence of all the previously missing qualities. And if it weren’t for a spectacular, if speculative late winner from Spurs the team would have gone unbeaten in that run. A run that showed that there is plenty for Potter to work with.

The second half of last season aside, the club’s home form has been its saving grace over the last two seasons. But its poor Away form has been a real concern, having picked up only 24 points on their travels over 38 games. However, if the draw away to Arsenal in the penultimate game of last season showed anything, it’s that given the attacking freedom, the team can take points away from home. Potter’s job will be to instil the level of confidence shown that day more consistently and a new attacking approach could allow for that. Even if the team’s home form isn’t as good as it was under Hughton, if they can average around a point a game away from home, they should still be in a position to improve on last season’s 17th place finish, assuming the home form doesn’t deteriorate as drastically as it did towards the end of last season.

As this is being written, the squad for the season is still to be finalised. In particular there is talk of a central midfielder being added, with u23 players like Alzate and Baluta fall back options if the targeted deals don’t get done in time. But overall our squad is not dissimilar to the one that saw Albion survive two seasons in a row, albeit narrowly last season.

The mathematical football predictions site Forebet has forecasted Brighton to finish 18th citing the need for more Premier League quality players in order to survive. But as we know, mathematical models often prove wrong and a good coach and an organised and well-drilled team can be far more valuable than talented individuals. A quality that appeared to be working well for the team for 18 months prior to last season’s slump.

As the Guardian current season preview stated, “Brighton’s lack of business suggests they trust Potter to nurture young blood and eke more out of a flatlining attack.” And unless there is a flurry of late transfer activity, it is likely that this is what Brighton’s season will come down to.

Some are more optimistic. Especially those at Fantraxhq.com, who unlike many stated that “Brighton shouldn’t have any relegation fears come the end of the season.” But anyone who was reassured after regularly reading the same before the beginning of last season will know that it is likely to be far from the reality of a season-long relegation dog-fight.

All this talk of new signings and new styles of play reminds me of last season. With the talk of record signings and plans from Hughton for a more combative, high-pressing style of play, neither of which materialised as planned. And after a mixed start to the season the team reverted to the deep-lying defensive style Hughton was best known for. Time will tell if in contrast Potter will succeed, but those expecting a revolution will likely have to settle for a slow evolution in style, such is the priority for pick up points to ensure survival over entertainment.

Potter alluded to this himself to the Telegraph in a recent interview. “We want our teams to be able to entertain the supporters… At the Amex they’ll be very important for us. So we’ll try and entertain. At the same time I know we’re in the results business. I’m not naive.” In the Premier League you don’t often get second chances, Brighton need to grasp theirs with both hands. Here’s hoping the team can overcome the issues of last season in order to do so.

Guest blog from Albion tweeter SeagullsAcademy – Graham Potter and the Fountain of Youth

The long-time Albion fan behind the SeagullsAcademy twitter account has a particular interest in the Albion youth system and the young players developing through the academy. Here he provides a little background on the youngsters hoping to make an impression on the new Albion head coach Graham Potter.

As preparations start to ramp up at the Albion for the third successive season of Premier League football, things will be a little different this summer. The Seagulls enter the 2019-20 campaign with a new head coach at the helm; Graham Potter was appointed exactly one week after Chris Hughton was fired in the hours that followed the final match of the 2018-19 season. With Dan Ashworth having also been recently appointed (to the new position of Technical Director) it is clear that Chairman Tony Bloom is moving the club into previously uncharted waters.

Bloom has, of course, invested a huge sum of money into the infrastructure of the club over the last decade. He funded not just the building of the award-winning Amex Stadium but also the state-of-the-art Category One Academy, the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre. It is now apparent that the chairman expects to see a return on his investment (not necessarily in financial terms, but certainly in terms of producing young footballers who are capable of forcing their way into first team contention).

Chris Hughton’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as Albion manager will be fondly remembered by most Albion fans for many years to come. He inherited a side that was struggling in the Championship and took them to within a whisker of automatic promotion in his first full season. He went one step further twelve months later and then kept the club in the Premier League for two seasons, for good measure. However, there is one thing that was noticeably absent from Hughton’s spell in charge; there were very few first team opportunities for the youngsters developing through the academy, particularly in the league side. This was perhaps most evident when Hughton chose to ignore both Ben White and Ben Barclay and go with no specialist centre-back cover on the bench for three Premier League matches in December 2018.

Given the success of the U-23 side over the last two campaigns (promotion and then a third-place finish in Premier League 2 [Division One]) it would be difficult to argue that the players simply aren’t there. Who are the youngsters who might make the breakthrough now that Albion have a head coach who garnered a reputation at Swansea City last season of giving youth a chance?

Striker Viktor Gyokeres has a genuine opportunity to establish himself in Potter’s first team squad over the next few weeks, particularly as it has been reported that the Swedish youngster was on the Englishman’s radar when Potter was still at Ostersunds. Gyokeres is more a bought-in talent than a product of the academy, joining the club in January 2018 at the age of 19 and hitting the ground running with 11 goals in 15 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18. He made his first team debut against Southampton in the Carabao Cup last August and also made four appearances in the FA Cup run. He made his debut for the full Sweden international side in January (against Finland as part of a training camp in Qatar, albeit in a very young side) and scored on his full debut against Iceland a few days later.

Fellow U-23 striker Aaron Connolly will also be hoping to impress the new boss during pre-season. The diminutive forward joined Albion to commence his scholarship in the summer of 2016 after developing through the youth system at Mervue United in Galway. He has so far scored at every level he has played at, including notching a brace against West Ham in his debut for the Albion U-23s in January 2017, scoring a hat-trick against MK Dons in the Checkatrade Trophy last November and scoring seven minutes into his debut for the Republic of Ireland U-21 side in the Toulon Tournament in France recently. The Premier League 2 Player of the Season had a brief, injury-affected loan spell at Luton Town towards the end of last season, making a couple of substitute appearances, and will probably be loaned out again to continue his development.

Connolly’s Irish colleague (and captain of the U-21 side during that recent Toulon Tournament) Jayson Molumby has been tantalisingly on the edges of the Albion first team squad in the last couple of seasons, but his chances of a breakthrough have been disrupted by a serious knee injury. He started both of Albion’s Carabao Cup matches in August and September 2017 and a month later was named on the bench by Chris Hughton for three Premier League matches. Unfortunately within weeks he suffered a dislocated knee cap which required surgery in January 2018. He broke down again as he returned to training at the start of 2018-19 and required a second surgery in August 2018. He finally returned to action for the U-23s in February this year (and made the bench for the first team for the Derby County FA Cup tie the very next day). He was named as one of the top four players in Toulon and a fit, healthy and rested Molumby will undoubtedly be pressing his claim at club level.

Max Sanders came through the scholarship system at Albion at the same time as Molumby. Sanders, who hails from Horsham, has been with the club since he was 8. He earned his scholarship a full 12 months before it commenced and was captaining the U-23 side during his first full season at that level in 2017-18. He is comfortable fulfilling a number of roles in midfield, capable of getting forward and contributing goals (he scored 6 in 34 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18) but also able to sit and play the holding midfielder position where he formed a very effective partnership with Steven Alzate during that same season. He was rewarded for his fine club form when he was selected for the England U-19 squad at the UEFA 2018 U-19 European Championship Finals in Finland in July 2018. He started 3 of the 4 matches and was a half-time substitute in the other. He lost a couple of months to injury at the start of the 2018-19 campaign but earned a place in the matchday squad for the Premier League fixture at home to Liverpool in January 2019. He has yet to appear for the Albion first team (he was an unused substitute for the FA Cup 6th round fixture at Old Trafford in March 2018) but it is surely only a matter of time before opportunity comes knocking.

Turning to the defence, Albion have a player who made his first team debut nearly three years ago and who is now the most experienced outfield youngster on the books (with perhaps the highest upside). Ben White joined Albion during his U-16 schoolboy season after he was released by the Southampton academy. He made his debut for the U-18s in 2014. The cultured centre-back (who is also capable of playing at right-back) developed through the youth team and U-23s before making two starts for the first team in the League Cup in August 2016. The following season he spent the campaign on loan at League Two Newport County. He netted one goal in 51 first team appearances and won FOUR Player of the Season awards at the club’s end-of-season awards night; he also won the South West Argus Player of the Season poll. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made. He also expected White to go on and earn an international cap.

White spent the first half of the 2018-19 season back with Albion. Ben Barclay (a season older than White) was named in the Premier League 25-man squad but Hughton ranked White ahead of him in the pecking order. White would have started against Southampton in the Carabao Cup in August 2018 but picked up an injury playing for the U-23s a few days beforehand, giving Barclay the opportunity. White was named on the bench by Hughton for the Premier League fixture at Burnley in December 2018 but for the next three matches, when Albion had only two fit-and-available first team centre-backs, the manager chose to leave him (and Barclay) out of the squad altogether. In early January 2019 White went out on loan again, this time to League One Peterborough where he scored one goal in 16 first team appearances.

White has already moved out on loan for the 2019-20 season, this time to Championship Leeds United. The Whites are known to have been impressed by his spell at Newport County and he now has the opportunity to make an impact at a higher level than he has previously played. With the ink barely dry on a new three-year deal, the future looks rosy for the Poole-born youngster.

Left-back George Cox finally got the opportunity to experience senior football in 2018-19. Sussex born and bred, he joined Albion at U-11 level and developed through the age ranks until his U-16 season when he wasn’t offered a scholarship by the Seagulls. He secured a trial with Aston Villa but they didn’t offer him anything as they thought he was too small. He returned to Albion but was only getting expenses in 2014-15 (unlike his scholarship colleagues who were now being paid). He made his first start of that season for the U-18s in September 2014 against Aston Villa in a 3-0 win and immediately after the match he learned he had finally earned his coveted scholarship.

In 2017-18 Cox was an ever-present for the U-23s as promotion to Premier League 2 Division One was achieved via the play-offs. He was all set to go out on loan at the start of the following season when routine testing discovered an irregular heartbeat that required surgery. He had to be awake for the procedure and felt the surgeon cut his groin and saw his blood on the surgeon’s fingers. However, Cox made a full recovery and after returning to the Albion U-23 side he joined League Two Northampton Town on loan in January 2019. Unfortunately he suffered an ankle injury in only his second game for the Cobblers and after almost three months out returned to action for the final few league matches of the season.

Cox had repeatedly demonstrated in his Albion U-23 appearances that he is capable of delivering a lethal ball into the opposition’s penalty area for his attacking colleagues. He will have an opportunity to leave an impression on new boss Potter during the next few weeks of pre-season, but will most likely move out on loan again to continue his development. There are a number of other young players who will also be seeking to put down a marker, not least Steven Alzate (who now has league experience with Leyton Orient and Swindon Town) and Haydon Roberts (who will still be a scholar in 2019-20 but has established himself in the Albion U-23 side and become a permanent member of the England U-17 side with 15 appearances in 2018-19). The youth system at the Albion has never boasted a higher calibre of young player, and the era of the first team manager not trusting the emerging talent might just be at an end.

 

 

Graham Potter – You don’t have to be a Wizard to do well here, but it helps

So after the somewhat abrupt sacking of Chris Hughton, the club have appointed Graham Potter as first team head coach. After spending eight years in Sweden managing Östersunds, Potter then spent the last season managing Swansea in the Championship, steering them to a mid-table finish. He now finds himself making another step up, this time hoping he can pick Brighton up after a disappointing end to last season.

Like all Brighton fans I’m very impressed with what I’ve read about Graham Potter and as a result I’m excited for the season ahead. In his press conference he said all the right things too, praising his predecessor whilst sharing the owner Tony Bloom’s ambition to achieve progress on the pitch. But as Brighton fans we’ve heard a lot of the right things being said in recent months and yet had little to cheer on the pitch. So I think it’s time for some realism: It will be another tough season ahead for the Albion.

Yes, it will be a tough season in a tough league amongst an environment of growing expectation and ambition for Brighton. As such Graham Potter has shown brave ambition to take this job and at the same time leave a fairly secure post at Swansea in the league below where he is much admired. This feels like a risky step forward for both parties.

It does say a lot about the progress of the club in recent years and the ambition of the board that the club achieving its 3rd and then 4th highest ever league finish in the last two seasons is deemed not good enough by so many. But whether with this move the club have bitten off more than it can chew is a question that won’t be answered until next May.

For Potter to ensure the team match the growing expectations with the relatively limited resources he has available, then he will have to be as good as he sounds, and he will need some luck. So I for one don’t envy him. No more so than because he inherits a team damaged from a poor showing in the second half of last season.

The current squad of players he is inheriting is one that, Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross aside, lacks evidence of consistent and reliable quality in attacking areas. And is in particular short of creativity and pace. This was desperately demonstrated by only scoring 14 goals in the league in the second half of the season and scoring the 4th lowest amount of goals in the league all season, with only the three relegated teams scoring less. A situation in part caused by the injuries to the 2017/18 club player of the season, Pascal Gross.

This issue was exacerbated by the attacking options added to the squad in the last two seasons either being injured or not performing to the required standard. A lot has been made of this, but frankly this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Albion’s problems.

The squad is also one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of the season showed. Brighton’s squad cumulative experience was the fifth lowest in the Premier League, totaling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated with the only other side Wolves, who unlike Brighton are a team made up of players with plenty of top flight experience in Europe’s other top flight leagues.

That relative inexperience will be increased next season after the retirement of captain Bruno, who along with other leaders like the also now retired Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell were all a huge part of the “good group of lads” that Hughton moulded first into a promotion winning side, and then into a Premier League side which will soon enter its third straight season in the top flight.

One element in Hughton’s relationship with owner Tony Bloom that reportedly caused conflict was the transfer policy, as discussed by Barry Glendenning on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast. And with the recent appointment of Dan Ashworth as Technical Director along with Graham Potter being given the job title of First Team “Head Coach” rather than “Manager”, it suggests a change in approach in this regard. The club will be hoping this leads to more success in this area next season to overcome the issues highlighted in recent months.

But the prospect of drastically improving on what Potter has available to him by dipping into the transfer market is likely to be on the same constrained level relative to the competition as in previous seasons. As Paul Barber has signalled the fiscally responsible approach shown in previous years won’t be changed, and rightly so.

You may have recently seen criticism of the club’s transfer activity, some of which is valid, but it is done whilst ignoring the financial reality that the club is competing within. Brighton have one of the lowest wage bills in the league, in the 17/18 season, the most recent that we have figures for, Brighton had the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league with only Huddersfield’s being lower. And whilst the club’s gross transfer spend in 18/19 season was estimated as the 9th highest in the country, it was done so whilst bringing in a whopping 15 players, making the average transfer fee per player estimated around only £5/6m, which doesn’t buy much at this level.

And whilst the club’s net spend since promotion was the 6th highest in the Premier League this is also exaggerated by the fact that unlike much of the competition the club didn’t have Premier League assets to sell to offset against their spending. In fact the club’s total estimated transfer revenue was only £12m, half that of the league’s estimated average. On top of that the squad required strengthening to meet the standards required to make the step up to the top tier, which as Fulham have shown, even if you splash lots of cash it doesn’t assure success.

This all means the quality of players available to Potter is on average lower in comparison to its competitors, making his job all the more difficult. And this will likely make the prospect of Graham Potter transferring his expansive, possession based approach at the club all the more difficult.

Under Chris Hughton, Brighton’s success was built on stability and consistently, something that has gone missing for large parts of 2019. In response the club’s decision to appoint a manager who will aim to revamp the club’s approach comes with added risk of going against that mould. Especially considering Brighton don’t appear suited to it when you look at the stats. For example, they had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the league last season.

Some will reference the drastic change in style of play that Gus Poyet achieved at the club after his arrival in 2009 as a worthy comparison here. And whilst that’s true and that was also with a team that had narrowly avoided relegation the season before, that he went on to lead to win the league the following season, this was in a very different environment. He arrived when the club were underachieving, whilst the same cannot be said of now, especially considering last season was the club’s fourth highest ever league finish. Moreover when Poyet took charge the club were competing in a far less competitive league where playing such a style made them an outlier in contrast to the Premier League of today where possession is very much king.

Potter will be expected by many to hit the ground running from the start. As Hughton found to his cost the expectations at the club are probably higher than ever and if he doesn’t achieve a more comfortable survival from relegation whilst playing more attacking football, the nature of his arrive coming at the cost of Hughton in such dramatic fashion will mean he will likely be seen by some to have failed to a degree.

Potter’s problem in keeping fans on side may also be that unlike Hughton and many of his top flight contemporaries, he has neither the experience nor the credit in the bank with the fans at his club to fall back on if he comes up against a run of bad results. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of last season in the first game of the coming one could spark a beginning of mounting pressure, that could considerably negatively affect such an inexperienced and relatively weak squad of players. A squad who have shown a lack of confidence across most of the second half of the last season.

Once the Euphoria of his appointment and the excitement and optimism that comes with a new season subsides, Potter will be required to show why Tony Bloom has placed his trust in him. If we’ve learnt anything from last season, it’s that whilst it’s great to be optimistic, it only gets you so far. We all remember how excited we were when the club signed both Locadia and Jahanbakhsh, neither of whom have met those early euphoric expectations.

Over the course of a season, a team’s quality, experience and depth will tell in its final league position, much as it did for Brighton in the season just gone. And realistically another 17th placed finish would be a success for the club. To achieve the sort of transformation in style of play at Brighton many envisage Graham Potter has been brought in to do, he will need time and I hope he gets it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither can we expect instant results. Changing the style of play won’t be instant and at this level will prove harder than when Poyet did so in third tier or as Potter did at Swansea in the second tier. It may even take in relegation, but if we are to go down this road I hope then Potter is afforded that time and the odd bump in the road given the limitations he has counting against him.

Of course, given the way Chris Hughton was treated by sections of the fanbase, possibly the most successful manager in the club’s history, it’s far more likely that a bad run of results will tell for Potter before he is given the chance to do that. This is far more likely than those who said they’d rather see Brighton play attacking football and get relegated than play Chris Hughton’s more defence-minded style and stay up stick to their word when it is tested.

I’m all for optimism and at halfway last season genuinely thought Brighton could match or better its best ever finish of 13th in the top flight. And whilst a terrible second half of the season in the league ended those ambitions, to blame Hughton entirely is naive. Whilst his sacking was arguably justified the problems outlined above still remain and explain much of the team’s shortcomings.

It’s not going to be easy for Potter. In my eyes equaling Hughton’s achievements of Premier League survival would amount to a very good season. My concern is whether it will be deemed enough by others.