Monday musings – Got spirit? let’s hear it!

The sun is shining, the first signs of spring are here, the cherry blossoms are beginning to flower, the tide of this terrible pandemic that we have been experiencing for a year now appears to be turning in our favour and Albion have one of the most talented teams in its 120 year history. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find any optimism amongst Albion supporters after a frustrating 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

It will have come as no surprise to most that Saturday saw yet another promising Brighton performance which saw plenty of scoring opportunities created, be again spoilt by poor finishing and poor defending from set pieces. Groundhog Day. Well, I did say it was the first signs of spring.

This has been a season built on the gutting and slicing up of Albion’s promotion winning side. Yes we’ve replaced those individuals who many saw as surplus to requirements, with a group of arguably higher quality players. But, have we built a team with the replacement parts? The fact Albion keep coming up short in games suggests not quite yet.

This is clearly a very well coached, talented group of players with a clear idea of how they want to play. But, that they keep getting found out in the key moments in matches suggests that as a collective there is still something missing.

One of the key attributes of the existing group of players that Potter inherited and has overseen a clear off of, was its unity and team spirit. A quality that was so consciously and carefully cultivated by his predecessor Chris Hughton.

Hughton held great stock in ensuring the team was full of the right types of personalities, or as Maty Ryan once famously put it – “no Dickheads”. So much so that there has been suggestions made that part of the reason Hughton was sacked was for his disagreements with others about transfer policy in order to protect the teams bond.

We have seen examples of it still existing at the club from this group of players. Most notably in the second half comeback at home against Wolves and the hard fought 1-0 win away to Leeds United. But this kind of collective performance has not been evident enough this season. Albion’s key players now need to step up and be counted.

Grit, stoicism, that intangible quality which comes largely from failing and having to pick yourself and go again, call it what you want. Hughton’s team had it by the bucketload. And no wonder after it had been to hell and back together both professionally in terms of the way it missed out on promotion in 2015/16, and in some cases personally, such as with Anthony Knockaert’s well documented personal issues. But in both cases they collective stood together and came out of those situations stronger because of it.

However, this team and set of players do not appear to have the same collective industry. The fact we’ve seen ex-players not be exactly complimentary about the club and existing ones use their agent to attempt to embarrass the club in order to get the right deal they want, is hardly the sign of a harmonious collective spirit.

Another example of this is its defending from set pieces, where we have regularly seen players find space in the gaps and score. This to a degree is an inherent problem with zonal marking when the ball drops between players ‘zones’, but man to man marking has its fallibilities too.

For me this isn’t about whether we use zonal or man to man marking, it’s about individuals taking person responsibility to stop the opposition scoring. Too often we’ve seen examples like Kyle Bartley’s goal on Saturday, where players run around one man and into a gap between two or three static Albion defenders to score.

Albion’s team is relatively young team and contains players who you’d somewhat expect lapses in focus and concentration throughout the season. This is where you need your players with more experience to be constantly communicating and reminding players of their jobs.

Brian Owen from the Argus stated earlier this season that “Adam Webster’s is one of the voices we hear quite clearly up in the stands during these behind-closed-doors matches (like Lallana and Ryan).” Three player not on the pitch at the time of the West Brom goal.

It’s not a surprise that Adam Webster’s absence, who is becoming a real leader of this team, saw an end to Albion’s clean sheet run. He’s been Albion best defender this season and talk of an extended absence is a really worry for Albion’s hope of turning this bad run around.

When it comes to spirit, it’s hard not to notice Neil Maupay’s is waning. Albion’s number nine started the season with 4 goals in 5 games, but his subsequent 3 goals in the last 22 tells its own story.

Clearly he’s lacking confidence, otherwise he’d have taken at least one of his recent chances, as well as possibly stepping up to take at least one of the penalties against West Brom. Especially when you consider he has an 80% penalty conversion rate at Albion and 3 of his 7 goals this season were penalties.

The football coach and analyst Harry Brooks spoke about the Maupay conundrum after the game on Twitter and stated that he believed “there’s a reason Brighton players keep missing these types of chances. They can’t take them. So therefore, Potter has to change the type of chances they create”.

And whilst I think we can all agree this is a harsh assessment and I don’t take his criticisms of Potter too seriously, the fact Albion have beaten teams like Leeds, Villa, Liverpool and Spurs this season when playing on the break with less possession and getting more runs in behind suggest that he’s got a point.

In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to their last three matches, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in its last 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was 38%, almost half!

Saturday’s defeat was the fourth time that Brighton have had over 60% possession in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four of those games, accumulating just 2 points. Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 3 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.

The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (9 times this season), they’ve won on 4 and occasions and picked up 14 points 1.56, an average of points per game.

The Premier League’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer also commented in a question and answer session for the Athletic this week about the team’s goalscoring problems. Saying that “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”

Going onto say “I’ve always said the time to worry is when you’re not creating chances. But when you’re missing as many as they are it has to be a concern. You have to look at the ability of players to be at this level.”

I’ve spoken as recently as last week about the importance of giving Graham Potter the time and patience to get it right and accepting that during this process, mistakes will happen and that very much stands. But, following these last two defeats I think that this is now far beyond a successions of individual mistakes and has become a real issue that the club has to overcome.

Patience goes both ways and Potter also has to accept that he needs to be patient in making these changes. I think some of the problems this season have come from the club trying to do too much too soon. Particularly in regards to some of the changes in personnel referenced earlier. However, it’s admittedly a tough balance and one most teams struggle with at this very competitive level.

Potter managed to get the balance right last season. A damming 1-0 defeat at home to Palace left the team one point above the drop zone with just ten to play and saw many drafting Potter’s managerial obituary. But he trusted his team, slightly switched the teams approach to a more back to basics style and Albion got the results they needed to get over the line to safety.

But regardless of your opinion on style, the players are the ones carrying out the work and need to repay Potter’s trust. Albion should have beaten Palace and West Brom this week, take those opportunities and no one is critical of Graham Potter.

Last week and frankly too often this season the players have let down Graham Potter and his coaching. And what some of the above criticism of him obviously doesn’t excuse is the two penalties that were missed on Saturday.

This is no longer Chris Hughton’s solid and reliable, if often unimaginative outfit. Graham Potter has successfully evolved this team into a very different outfit with a very different set of players. One that is arguably Albion’s most talented squad of players ever, and yet this is arguably the most perilous position of its time in the Premier League.

These are the moments that make or break a season. Where legends and villains are formed. It’s time for the current Albion team to show their spirit and earn their stripes.

Was FFP to blame for the failed Sami Hyypia regime?

In 2013 Gus Poyet, ever the dramatiser, described Albion’s predicament as “now or never” due to the recently introduced FFP restrictions in the football league. Speaking to the independent he said: “The problem is that after this season it’s going to get even more difficult in the Championship especially with the new Premier League TV money and the parachute payments,” Poyet said. “More and more [former Premier League] teams are going to have more money and the others will have the Fair Play system without that money, which is going to make a difference.

“People think it [Financial Fair Play] will make teams more equal, but it will make things worse. Ten teams will be spending fortunes over three years of parachute payments and 10 teams will be under Financial Fair Play rules. So there will be two Championships: the ones that have been in the Premier League, and the rest. So you’ll have to be unbelievable – very smart at recruitment, players playing at their best, lucky with injuries, and then be a good team on the pitch.”

As we all now know, Albion were promoted to the Premier League four years and three playoff semi-final defeats later. But could the lessons of Sami Hyypia’s failed tenure as manager in 2014 be an example of the difficulties that Poyet pointed to and which Albion would face after not winning promotion that season?

Starting from the 2012–13 season, the Financial Fair Play (FFP) arrangement was put in place across all three divisions of the Football League. FFP rules were introduced after a number of clubs had reported financial difficulties, so that all EFL clubs would become self-sustainable and requires them to limit their losses on operating activities.

The definition of losses on operating activities excludes expenditure on Youth Development Expenditure, Women’s Football Expenditure, Community Development Expenditure and the depreciation of expenditure on long term assets such as the stadium and new training ground. This has still allowed Tony Bloom to heavily invest in the club without increasing its FFP defined losses, but this investment is more for the benefit of the club’s long term gain than in the short term.

It goes without saying that it has been of huge benefit to the club that Tony Bloom has been willing to make such a huge investment in it. The hundreds of millions which he has invested in the new stadium and subsequently on the new training ground have helped to take the club from one struggling in League one all the way to the topflight. But by the time Hyypia had taken charge, many, including one of his predecessors Gus Poyet, had expressed doubts as to whether this investment could take the club that next step and into the topflight.

Bloom’s investment could give the club an edge in terms of infrastructure, but the club was fighting hard to control its operating expenditure so it was FFP compliant. A process mainly confined to the first team players wage bill, which as many studies have shown, the size of which relative to your opponents has a significantly positive relationship with the team’s performance on the pitch. Indeed, even when the club was finally promoted to the Premier League its wage bill was the second lowest in the division and lower than some Championship clubs at the time, including Aston Villa.

There has been recent discussions around the introduction of an £18m a year salary cap in the Championship, proposals that have so far been rejected. How it would work and how it would account for teams coming down from the Premier League with players on topflight contracts is unclear, and whether it would be able to be implemented without some allowances that would potentially give relegated clubs a further advantage over the rest of the league is as yet unspecified. But the fact discussions on this even exist years on from the introduction of FFP show it has not had the desired effect on financial sustainability within the EFL.

The introduction of FFP also had a huge impact on the club’s transfer policy but the club were still bullish about being able to meet its goals. Paul Barber spoke about this over the summer of 2014 saying: “we’re not in a position where we have to sell anyone. We’re in a position where we have to progress, we’re in a position where we want to mount another challenge for getting into the Premier League and that requires us assembling a very, very good squad of players. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”

But in the previous January Albion had already let go Ashley Barnes to Championship rivals Burnley and Liam Bridcutt to Premier League Sunderland, whilst that summer winger Will Buckley and star striker Leo Ulloa were both soon to be sold to Premier League sides Sunderland and Leicester respectively. Furthermore the contracts on first team players like Matthew Upson, David Lopez, Andrea Orlandi and Thomas’s Kuzczak were all not renewed as the club cut its cloth to meet the financial restrictions.

All this meant the team that had reached consecutive playoff semi-finals was not the same team that Hyypia was inheriting. Only three of the players who started the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Derby started the opening day 1-0 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

Some of those that were released didn’t come as a surprise as their influence on the team since Gus Poyet’s departure the year before had reduced. Whilst, Matt Upson was actually offered a new contract but decided to go Premier League Leicester City instead. But the appointment of Sami Hyypia was still a clear move in a different direction, in contrast to Oscar Garcia’s appointment the year before, which was very much trying to build on the work and team that Poyet had built.

This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself, players do come and go and as Paul Barber went onto explain all those who left were either near the end of their contract or keen to move on. The big problem was that in their place arrived an array of sub-standard talent, mostly arriving on loans and free transfers as the club made around a reported £8m net profit from its transfer activity that season.

The two players who were brought in via substantial transfer fees were David Stockdale (who was signed from Fulham) and Sam Baldock (who was signed from Bristol City) and would go onto be key parts of the promotion winning side of 2017. However, many of the others were signed on the cheap, like target man Chris O’Grady who was signed for £500k from Barnsley or the Dutch midfielder Danny Holla who was brought in on a free transfer and would fall by the wayside in the subsequent clear out that followed the nightmare of the Hyypia era.

Ahead of the new season the Bleacher Report described Albion’s transfer business as giving the club “a new lease of life” under Hyypia. Unfortunately that life was one as a team battling against relegation to League One from a team previously challenging for promotion to the Premier League.

Whilst the likes of Holla and O’Grady were signed to quickly fill the gaps that were left by the departure of key players, many others were subsequently brought in on loan to compensate for theirs and others shortcomings.

In comparison the recruitment under the management of Chris Hughton was far more proactive rather than reactive and saw the club make a reported £12m net outlay the following season, the club’s highest ever until promotion to the Premier League markedly changed the club’s finances.

One of the key developments around that time at the club was the establishment of the recruitment team and the appointment of Paul Winstanley as the head of it. Hughton benefited from this just as much as the previous regime had let Hyypia down. They have since gone on to consistently get good value and bring in players who have gone on to become Albion heroes.

Winstanley’s effective predecessor, the Head of football operations David Burke, was sacked on Christmas Eve 2014 for his part in Albion’s poor transfer business just a matter of days after Hyypia had handed in his resignation. Owner and chairman Tony Bloom, a mathematician by education and big on statistics, was moving the club towards a more analyst-driven recruitment policy. And the establishment of the recruitment team was another step in that direction, but one that came too late for Hyypia.

However, it was seen that Hyypia’s lack of knowledge of English players in the Football League didn’t help the club’s recruitment. Ultimately the manager has always had final say and his sign off was not as valuable as it was by any of his predecessors or would be under Hughton. Under Poyet’s management, the club had relied hugely on the Uruguayan’s contacts across from European football and beyond. But with him gone the club has been failing to replicate that transfer-market success.

But you still need to work with what you have and the development of certain players in the Hughton’s era who failed to excel under Hyypia suggests his coaching wasn’t as effective. The likes of Stephens, Dunk, March, Stockdale, Baldock and Bruno, who were all key players under Hughton failed to improve the clubs fortunes under Hyypia.

It didn’t help Hyypia from a coaching perspective that his first choice assistant Jan Moritze Lichte turned the job down for family reasons. This situation was then exacerbated when his second choice Sami Lee, who had previously worked in the Premier League under Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez, decided against taking the role just days after agreeing a contract with the club in favour of taking up the post as assistant to Ronald Koeman at Premier League Southampton. This left Hyypia in the awkward position of promoting Nathan Jones to his assistant, after initially demoting him to first team coach upon Lee’s appointment.

But despite all this Hyypia still has his supporters. On the podcast “Football, the Albion and me” Albion player at the time Craig Mackail Smith believes this was because “maybe his style of play was a little bit ahead of his time”, going on to compare it to the current system used by reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool and that “maybe we didn’t have the players to play that system.”

Another guest of that podcast, former Albion captain Gordon Greer defended Hyypia, saying “People don’t really appreciate how good of a manager Sami was” and echoed Mackail-Smith saying “We didn’t have the players to play in the system”. Maybe not, but with a few key additions Chris Hughton soon showed this team was capable of much more.

Mackail-Smith reference a notable win of the Hyypia era away to Leeds, where the won 2-1, Hyypia’s first league win as Brighton manager where they scored their first goals of the season after two consecutive defeats.

Hyypia that day praised Albion’s opening scorer Joao Teixeia who had signed on loan from Liverpool saying: “We have a quality player and I am very happy to have him with us.” And Teixeia then scored the winner in Albion’s next game on his home debut, a 2-1 win over Bolton.

But for every Hyypia performance that backs him up, there were plenty more to counter that. Those two wins on the bounce were not to be replicated under Hyypia, in fact the team won just one more league games under his tenure.

The match which sticks out to me is the 1-0 defeat to Millwall, his last home game as manager and a game that was being broadcast live on Sky Sports. Albion were awful, so bad that there were even rumours linking Tony Pulis with the job.

By this this point Hyypia has accumulated over 20 games in charge including a run to the 4th round of the League Cup and there were few signs of anything but regression from their Albion side. In contrast, over a similar period of games Hughton subsequently steered this Albion team to a comfortable survival from relegation and they started the following season with a 4-0 win at home to Nottingham Forest, going on to only miss out on automatic promotion on goals scored and win promotion the following season.

For Hyypia, having won just one game in their last 17 league matches, that defeat to Millwall left Brighton in the Championship relegation zone, while Millwall moved five points and five places above them. And after a draw away to Wolves next time out Hyypia resigned having won just three of his 22 league games in charge.

Whilst Guy Poyet’s statements in 2013 turned out to be proved dramatically incorrect by Albion 4 years later, he did have a point. FFP was making it tougher for Albion to compete in the Championship and smart recruitment was key to the success which followed after Hughton was appointed as Hyypia’s replacement on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a testament to the smart investment decisions of Tony Bloom, as well as the work of those behind the scenes like Paul Winstanley, that Brighton did go on to defy the odds. But it is also fair to say that whilst Hyypia was found wanting during his time in charge of the Albion, it wasn’t entirely a mess of his own making. The combination of Poyet’s management ending and FFP being introduced required the Albion to now work in a different way and Hyypia unfortunately got stuck in the middle of that transition.

Monday Musings- A halfway debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Shane Duffy be offered Mercy by Graham Potter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ben White – a story of rejection and redemption

Ben White was previously profiled along with a number of Brighton’s other U23 team last summer by Tweeting Seagull contributor @seagullsacademy, which you can read here.

Like many footballers back stories Ben White’s begins with rejection. In 2014 the 16-year old born in Poole was released by Southampton. In such circumstances do many prospective football careers end, whilst a small selection of others are formed. Ben White fortunately falls into the latter category after he was given a second chance by Brighton. As he later said himself, “The club gave me a scholarship and took me all the way until now, so I’m very grateful for that.” 

For Brighton, 2014 was largely a disaster, instigated by some terrible recruitment over the year, along with the appointment of the soon to be found wanting new manager Sami Hyypia that summer. But the addition of Ben White would soon become a rarity for much of the club’s 2014 intake, in that they would begin to see the fruits of it.

White impressed so much in his first year as a scholar for the U18s that he was soon also involved with the U21s and by end of the season had earned himself a professional contract and a place in that summers 25-man first team pre-season training camp. After starting a first team friendly against Lewes, an injury halted any further involvement with the first team and he spent the remainder of the following season again in the U18s and U21s.

He was then involved as a substitute in a number of first team pre-season games ahead of the following 2016/17 season, including as a substitute in the club’s showpiece friendly at home to Lazio.

As the season started, with Albion struggling for number in defence because of injuries to Uwe Huenemeier and Connor Goldson, White was heavily involved with the first team squad. Being named as an unused substitute for the first four league fixtures of the season and making his debut in the first round of the EFL cup in a 4-0 win over Colchester alongside Rohan Ince in the centre of defence.

White impressed on his debut as a young Albion defence earned a clean sheet and he earned himself a second start in a 4-2 win over Oxford in the second round. But the signing of Ireland international Shane Duffy for a then club record fee and the continued progression of fellow Albion youth team product Lewis Dunk meant Ben White’s involvement with the first team was limited from then on and he spent most of the season playing for Brighton’s U23s in their inaugural season in Premier League 2 and helping the team get to the final of the Premier League 2 Cup, which they lost 1-0 to Swansea City.

As the 2017/18 season drew near White was again involved in first team pre-season training. But with opportunities in the first team continuing to be limited by the increased competition for places and Chris Hughton’s tendency to not make many changes to team selection, White was sent on loan to League 2 Newport for the season to get some game time.

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

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

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

After a successful loan Ben White received a new contract from the club until 2021, with Brighton manager Chris Hughton telling the club’s official website: “I’m delighted for Ben, and he is another example of a young player that has worked very hard to develop his game over the last couple of years. We have closely monitored his progress at Newport, and it is very pleasing to see him adapt so well to a very competitive standard of football in League Two. I was pleased to give him his debut for this club in the EFL Cup match against Colchester last season, and he thoroughly deserves this new contract.”

The following season, after White’s success at Newport, Hughton included White as a part of the 1st team squad, becoming the effectively now fourth choice central defender. At the start of the season Chris Hughton said of his central defence options beyond his top 3, “If I am looking within, the natural ones in that position would be Ben White” Going on to say: “Particularly in that position you would want as much experience as possible but on numerous occasions, not just myself but with other clubs, a young player comes in and surprises a few. So if that opportunity arose for him then you’d want him to take it with both hands.”

But unfortunately chances weren’t forthcoming. As after an injury ruled him out of EFL cup action, and the brilliant form of Shane Duffy alongside then vice-captain Lewis Dunk, plus the experience of new signing Nigeria international Leon Balogun meant he struggled to get a look in. Some were beginning to question by this point why the club wasn’t entrusting Ben with the back-up centre back spot, but as Hughton said in the earlier quote, his is a position where experience is key. And as many young talented English footballers have found to their cost, youth team football and one season in the lower leagues doesn’t fully prepare you for the rigours of the Premier League.

As a result, another loan move looked like a sensible option for White at the time. Especially with first team chances so limited and another centre back in Dan Burn being added to Brighton’s defensive ranks that January. So White that month was sent out on loan, this time to League One Peterborough. Chris Hughton said, “This move is one which allows Ben to play regular first-team football at a good level for his development. At this stage of his career it’s important that he continues to gain as much match experience as possible. He’s someone who we’ve had around the first-team squad for the first half of the campaign, but with competition for places increased with the return of Dan Burn from Wigan, this gives him the chance to go out and play regular football at a level higher than he experienced last season.”

It was a tough start to his loan stint, which saw a 5-0 defeat in a FA Cup 3rd tie away to Middlesbrough in his first game. But despite this White was described as “a ray of light amid the Middlesbrough gloom” by the Peterborough Telegraph and given a 7 out of 10. Once again whilst out on loan White impressed with his calmness, intelligence on the ball and awareness when defending. And as the season went on, he was a key player for Peterborough as they just missed out on the playoffs. Yet more signs of greater things to come.

Part way through that season Dan Ashworth was appointed Technical director at Brighton and soon started putting his stamp on the club. In particular with the club’s summer transfer business including a number of young talented English player to add to the first team competition for places. This included Adam Webster and Matt Clarke, both signed from Championship clubs adding competition to Ben White’s position at centre back. And with Graham Potter replacing Chris Hughton as manager and keen to not change too much too soon or introduce too many of Albion’s talented young U23s into the first team, another loan move for Ben White made sense.

And he would be one of a large group of youngsters at the club that were sent on loan that season. That summer Dan Ashworth, head of loans David Weir and head of recruitment Paul Winstanley attended an event as Stamford Bridge dubbed a “transfer speed dating event”, which they attended in order to promote its young loan players to other clubs. And given the clubs U23 team finished 3rd in the Premier League 2 and the team’s top scorer Aaron Connolly won the league’s player of the season it’s no surprise there was a lot of interest

But considering how well Ben had done at Newport and Peterborough there was no real need to advertise his availability, many clubs had already taken note of his talents. And a loan move to Leeds United in the Championship was agreed for the upcoming 2019/20 season. Like a number of clubs, Leeds had been tracking White’s progress for about two years, around the period of time which had passed since they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Ben White’s Newport County in fact.

White’s U23 boss Simon Rusk said of the loan: “This is an exciting move for Ben and one that make sense in his natural development. Ben will have to adapt once again, as he joins a new group of players and experiences an increased standard of quality and athleticism in the Championship.”

Brighton were only willing to sanction a temporary exit for White to Leeds, who were initially keen on a permanent move or a loan with an option to buy in 12 month’s time. To further protect their investment Ben White was tied down to a longer term deal until 2022, a big coup for the club given there was serious talk of Spurs amongst others being interested in signing the youngster that summer.

At Brighton it was the newly appointed head of loans David Weir who’d keep the club in contact with Ben. His role at the club is to manage the relationships with the club’s loan players. A role that’s been created by the significant amount of loan deals the club are sanctioning for its youth players to encourage their development with a view of them either being promoted to the first team or sold on at a profit.

David Weir said of his role: “It’s also about meeting people who might be interested in our players and find markets and clubs who might potentially be interested in taking our players. It’s a really good tool for me – to meet a lot of clubs in a relatively short period of time and open up some new avenues.”

Ben White’s loan was a real coup, not just for Leeds to get such a sought after player, but for Ben too. Having experienced mid table finishes in League’s 1 and 2, to now get the experience at a club in the Championship with the expectations that Leeds had was huge for his development. Having narrowly missed out on promotion the season before there were now increased expectations that the club would go one better the following season. Whilst being able to work with a manager of such global and almost mythical renown as Marcelo Bielsa too, it had the potential to be a massive season in his development.

So it turned out. It wasn’t long before heads were starting to turn toward Ben’s performances. He won widespread praise on his debut in a 3-1 win over Bristol City and never looked back. Sky Sports pundit that day Louis Carey described Ben White’s debut for Leeds as “one of the best Championship debuts I’ve seen.”

David Wier told the Athletic part way through season: “You could argue that he could play for Brighton now. He has got better and better, and has done better than anyone could have expected. He’s right up there in terms of the top defenders in the Championship. We’re all thrilled by how he is doing and the progression he has made. He’s a great example of a loan programme working well.”

And Ben White has been getting praise from far and wide for his performances at Leeds with Alex Stewart of the Athletic saying: “While White’s defending is intelligent and proactive, it’s his work with the ball that marks him out as an outstanding prospect.” Going on to say “What’s clear, though, is he has the skills to succeed almost anywhere.”

Ben White certainly left a lasting mark at Leeds United. As the fans celebrated the Championship title and promotion, Ben White joined his teammates on the steps outside Elland Road to join in the celebrations and Ben revelled in the moment as the fans urged him to join the club permanently. And the subsequent #FreeBenWhite social media campaign shows just how highly the young defender is thought of by the Leeds faithful. Something all those who have been involved in his development over the past 6 years at Brighton can take great pride in.

With the season now over, according to reports in the Brighton Argus, Albion have continued their stance that they held the previous summer by telling suitors that Ben White isn’t for sale. But just because of his recent success and hype, he isn’t simply going to walk into the Brighton first team next season. As David Weir said on the clubs official website recently, the reality that Ben White now faces at Brighton is: “Now he has to come back to us and prove that he is a Premier League player. He has shown that he is good enough to be promoted out of the Championship and be consistent.”

That said, the transfer window still has a long way to go and whilst Albion have said White is not for sale, every player has a price. Whether White is playing at Brighton, Leeds or another club next season, it’s almost certain that the Premier League will be his destination for the season ahead.

Whilst there is still plenty for White prove. If his track record tells us anything, it’s that he has continued to rise to every challenge he’s faced. It’s not been a completely smooth ride for him into English football’s top level over the last six years, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the 2020/21 season will see further success for Ben White.

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.

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.