Albion’s impressive and improving defensive record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tide really began to turn against this approach at home to Sheffield United in November, a game which saw Brighton’s keeper Ryan have 48 touches and an 89% pass accuracy rate. Numbers that demonstrate the intention of passing out from the back but mask the difficult situations the players he was passing to often found themselves in. That day saw the AMEX faithful frustrated with the teams over playing in defence, leaving the side taking too many risks at the back and make little progress going forward, with Webster in particular receiving heavy criticism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

18/19 season review – halfway

If the first ten games gave us optimism for the season ahead, then the next nine have consolidated all those good feelings. In an article about mid-table teams in the Premier League Adam Hurray aka @FootballCliches on twitter described Brighton as “the team that people will most likely forget if you challenge them to name all 20 Premier League teams in under a minute.” Some will take this as an insult but not me personally. It’s a long way from that terribly forgettable 1-0 home defeat to Millwall just over four years ago that all-but signalled the end of Sami Hyypia’s reign as Albion manager and ultimately, the beginning of the success that Chris Hughton has gone onto lead us to. So yes, I will take competent forget-ableness over incompetent forget-ableness every day.

Matchdays 11-13 – Frustration and refereeing controversy

Talking of forgettable, let’s overlook Everton away. A bad day at the office, in which we were outclassed by a better resources team. There’s no shame in that.

Not that this stopped one fan phoning in BBC Radio 5 Live’s phone-in “606” and calling for Hughton to be sacked. A call described by host and one time Albion loanee Robbie Savage as “One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in my life”. You know you’ve got it wrong when Robbie Savage is taking the common sense high-ground. Thankfully the vocal minority that phone into programmes like 606 are not speaking for the majority of sensible football fans who appreciate Chris Hughton as one of the best managers currently working in the English game.

Whilst from an Albion perspective it was a demoralising defeat, it was one that we could have anticipated. However, the game was notable for at least two positive things:

First, it saw another set-piece goal from the Albion, something we lacked last season, scoring only five all season. But something that is becoming increasingly part of our attacking armoury, scoring eight already in only half the amount of games.

Second, it saw a debut from the bench for a certain Florin Andone, someone who we will come to later.

But first, next up was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Cardiff. And if we were honest, it was a game we expected the team to win, but it was not to be.

The team made a good start, with Lewis Dunk getting his second goal in two games, another one of those goals from a set piece and another assist from Solly March. But quickly the Albion’s fortunes began to turn as soon after Callum Paterson equalised for Cardiff. Then the Albion’s Dale Stephens saw red for what was at best an overzealous challenge. And one at which I, unlike many other Albion fans, won’t argue against.

With nearly an hour left what then followed was an extended period of Cardiff pressure, one which the ten-men Brighton team fought hard against, but it was a fight that was ultimately to no avail as a late winner from Sol Bamba meant Cardiff took all three points. Upon review Sol Bamba appeared to be offside in the build up to the goal. But in the melee that was the Brighton penalty area that preceded the goal it’s no wonder the officials weren’t sure. So near but yet so VAR…

After a couple of frustrating results we hoped for a Hughton-side-like instant positive reaction against Leicester at home. And with Albion taking the lead via yet another goal from Glenn Murray, it appeared we had just that. A goal that added to the Albion’s ever-growing set-piece goal tally. And when Leicester and England’s rising star James Maddison saw red for a silly second yellow card for diving, things seemed to be evening up for the Albion very quickly. But the Albion couldn’t capitalise on their numeric advantage, and this wastefulness would prove costly. As after Beram Kayal sloppily gave away a penalty, Jamie Vardy equalised for Leicester.

It was an afternoon of frustration for the Albion. Frustration in a lack of attacking intent, frustration in a lack of quality in possession, and frustration in sloppy, panicked decision making. The amount of long distant pot-shots and wild hit-and-hope(less) crosses made it hard to watch. It was a performance described, as level-headedly as ever by manager Chris Hughton, as “below the standard required”.

Many Albion fans were less level-headed and a small amount of boos could be heard at the end of the game. Whilst the Argus’s Andy Naylor continued his never-tiring battle on twitter with those who deem Hughton too ‘negative’ tactically, and who he deems the “moaning minority”. Some other were coming around to the idea of our previously disgraced Albion fan on 606, but that perspective would soon flip on its head.

Matchdays 14-15 – Andone stars as we win away and beat the scum!

The frustration that was brewing meant that the trip to Huddersfield had more riding on it than our league position relative to our hosts along with our solid start to the season granted. Which was unfortunate given our recent bad record away to the Terriers. And as many feared the Albion got off to a bad start. But oddly it was a spectacularly miscued overhead kick from Albion captain Bruno, one which he unintentionally kicked the ball into the Brighton defensive six-yard box, that set up a goal for Mathias Jorgensen to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Bruno’s second unintentional assist of the season after his miss-hit shot set up Murray’s century goal.

Panic could have ensued, but that’s not the Hughton way, and after a slightly shaky first twenty minutes the Albion started to get back into the game. Then when a Huddersfield red card gave the Albion the initiative, soon after they equalised, just before halftime. Bruno made amends with an intentional and impressively acrobatic piece of ball control that led to an Albion corner. From the corner Solly March found Shane Duffy who equalised before halftime, another set piece goal and another Match assist.

After half time the Albion continued to step up the intensity in search of a winner, one that would this time against ten men prove fruitful. As Solly March continued to prove his doubters wrong by finding Andone with a great cross, where the Romanian nipped in ahead of the Huddersfield defence to put the ball home and give Albion only their fourth away win since promotion.

Up next was the derby game against Palace, which after all the nonsense of last season’s game at the AMEX had once again been scheduled on a Tuesday night, great. Nonetheless, with the gap between the sides at only six points the teams had to put all the sideshow of the rivalry out of their mind and get the three points.

And it was the Albion who struck first, with Murray emphatically scoring a penalty against his old side after Izquierdo went down in the area. A soft penalty but we will take it.

Next chaos ensued, after Murray was brought down in the box by James Tomkins. The ref ignored calls for another penalty and pointed for a corner. A melee ensued, one which saw Shane Duffy headbutt Palace’s Patrick Van Aanholt in front of the referee, I’m sure he had it coming, however, the referee had no choice but to send off Duffy leaving the Albion handicapped for the rest of the match.

But fear not, things were only getting started for the Albion. Pascal Gross was quickly sacrificed for Leon Balogun to partner Lewis Dunk in the back four, but before he resumed defensive duties he quickly doubled the Albion’s arrears. Balogun sending the ball home with a spectacular half volley after being unmarked in the box. An extra man and they still left the big centre back unmarked!

So, with a two goal lead the Albion attempted to hold onto what they had and defend for their lives. But rather than memorable defensive heroics, the game will forever be synonymous with a piece of individual brilliance from Florin Andone that followed.

As Brighton sat deep defending their lead, they had only one player in a remotely advanced position, Florin Andone. As the ball was pumped long and diagonally by Bernardo, remarkably Andone got to this speculative pass near the East stand touchline about ten yards into the Palace half, meaning he had a lot of ground to cover. But cover it he did, slaloming his way around the Palace defence as he did so and then finishing well to make it 3-0.

As the game went on Palace continued to probe without much penetration of the Albion defence. In a resultant moment of frustration, Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha attempted a tackle on hero of the day Florin Andone, which he seriously mistimed. Andone was fortunate to walk away unharmed and Zaha was fortunate to walk away with only a yellow card. Saving Palace further frustration and embarrassment on a bad night at the office.

And whilst Palace got a goal back via the penalty spot to make it 3-1 nothing would take the shine off this win for the Albion. What a victory, what a night. And it was a special night for Albion not just given the circumstances of the victory, but also the novelty that a win over Palace has been in recent years. In fact, this was only the second home league victory by the Albion over Palace since Boxing Day 1988. It’s the kind of win many fans would give a lot away for, and for the Albion it was a victory that preceded the worst run of consecutive defeats to date this season.

Matchdays 16-19 – A winless run – with promise

It was a winless run that started on a miserable wet and grey day in Burnley, one that at least went without last season’s deplorable behaviour from some of the home support.

The goal that ultimately cost the Albion the game was largely as a result of poor defending. As a cross from the right came into the Brighton box, it was headed to the far side of the box and headed back into the six-yard box melee by a Burnley shirt only to be headed clear by Lewis Dunk. But unfortunately, the ball fell kindly for James Tarkowski on the edge of the box to drill it home, scoring a goal that would ultimately give the home side a narrow 1-0 win. It was the type of 1-0 win that they prided themselves on last season, but the type of win that has been harder to come by this season.

If we are honest, it was a poor piece of defending from the Albion, two fairly measly clearances, which coupled with Ryan’s failure to get anywhere near a cross he came for, left Tarkowski with a simple finish. But Ryan’s error was a type of error we’ve not seen much from the Australian number one, which considering his relative lack of height is a testament to him, the management of Chris Hughton and coaching of the head goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts.

Nonetheless this was an error of judgement, but one of a type he’s been encourages to avoid. Maty Ryan spoke to the Independent last season of how before he signed for the Albion he was a much more proactive goalkeeper, with the coaches at Brighton now encouraging him to be less proactive and in situations like this stay on his line and leave the initial defensive duties to the defence, primarily due to the heading prowess of Dunk and Duffy coupled with the incredibly deep defensive line that the Albion often deploy, leaving him little option other than staying on his line.

So, maybe partly due to a concern over the missing Shane Duffy, Ryan uncharacteristically (or characteristically for him two years ago, old habits die hard) came for a cross that he didn’t win leaving a virtually open goal for Tarkowski to shoot into. And no wonder Ryan was nervous, Shane Duffy has been brilliant for the Albion since promotion and as such was justifiably given a contract extension recently. In fact, he is widely being regarded as Albion’s best player so far this season, and primarily is someone who knows how to defend a cross into the box.

As the game went on the Albion threw on Murray and Locadia to go with two up top and try to get an equaliser. And they would combine for the Albion’s best chance of the game. As Murray peeled off wide, something he has grown accustom to doing much less of as a sole striker, he found himself in a position to cross a ball into the box from a deep position. Cross he did, and what a cross it was, landing in a perfect position for Locadia to run onto and head home to equalise, except he headed it over. Cue bedwetting of the highest order, including some Albion fans calling for Locadia’s head, which is frankly ludicrous, more on this later.

But first, up next at the AMEX was Chelsea, and fresh from their victory over champions Man City it was an imposing prospect. In fact, for sixty minutes they showed exactly why that was. They controlled possession with such ease, toying with Brighton and creating enough chances to win a handful of games.

Eden Hazard in particular was brilliant. I’ve already said last season that he was the best opposition player I’d seen at the AMEX. After this day it was clear to me that he’s the best player entirely.

The first goal was of his making. After Chelsea somewhat casually sprayed the ball around the Albion defence, it came to Hazard. Out of nothing he took virtually the whole Albion defence out of the game with only a few touches, then with one more he found Pedro at the far post in space who prodded the ball home and give them the lead.

They then extended the lead as the Albion’s continued the evidence of some growing indiscipline when Balogun gave the ball away, leaving Hazard free to stride forward and pass the ball past a helpless Ryan in goal.

At half time I texted my wife, a Chelsea fan, joking that it would be nice if they could even up the teams by letting Hazard switch and Chelsea almost justified the lack of confidence that I had shown in my team as they almost scored again when Azpilicueta’s low teasing cross fell to Pedro, but his overhead kick went well over.

Then Alonso received the ball on the edge of the box but despite his well-hit shot across the face of goal beating Ryan in goal, it hit the post. It was as if the sound of the smack of the ball against the woodwork woke up the atmosphere in the stadium from its slumber and livened the home team into life.

The Albion had just brought on Florin Andone for the unusually ineffectual Glenn Murray. It was this change that would instigate the livening up of the team’s attacking play and it would quickly produce the intended impact. Propper played a cross-field pass to Gross, Albion’s player of last season then crossed to the on-rushing Bernardo who’s nodded the ball down to Solly March at the far post who tapped it home. A nice move that kept the Albion in the game, somehow.

It wasn’t just Andone who made an impact from the bench, the ever-improving Yves Bissouma came on and his pace and power from midfield put Chelsea under more pressure. Particularly when a cross-field diagonal pass looked to put Solly March through on goal, but he was brought down by Alonso who appeared to be the last man. But Alonso received only a yellow card and ultimately Chelsea held on to take all three points in a manner that was far closer than their dominance for an hour deserved.

It was Bernardo who was the Albion player who took the most plaudits as man of the match. He’d had a great match at left back and was beginning to show his worth after a tough start to the season, particularly on the opening day when his debut against Watford left some already calling him a flop. But like a few other new signings he is beginning to prove the doubters wrong.

The fact Bernardo has replaced Bong, a man who was a mainstay in the team last season, demonstrates his impressive impact on the team. I see the reason being that Bernardo is a much more proactive attack-minded full-back, and it’s no coincidence his move into the starting eleven has coincided with better performances away from home and in general more attacking football from the side.

His more proactive nature is shown via a range of stats, having totalled 5 more interceptions (18 to Bong’s 13), totalled 17 more tackles (28 to Bong’s 11) and totalled almost double the headed clearances (15 to Bong’s 8). All this in 9 appearances to Bong’s 13. It’s no doubt that Bernardo would suit the more offensive-minded and high pressing Brighton team that Hughton has started to encourage, materialising for at least periods in games if not yet for a full ninety minutes.

Game 18 was a trip to Bournemouth and a rare start for both Andone and Locadia, with Murray dropping to the bench. And unlike many other away performances since promotion, this led to the Albion matching if not bettering the home sides attacking intensity, at least for the first 45 minutes. But in their way stood an inspired goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic. First saving from the previously mentioned Locadia low down to his left and then from a Dunk header, again low down to his left.

But at the other end the home side were also creating chances and a man who is proving to be one of the best Premier League signing of the last summer, David Brooks (signed for £10m from Sheffield United) was providing the biggest threat. And it was him who opened the scoring with a wonderful shot into Ryan’s bottom left-hand corner.

But despite the Albion’s attempts to equalise, no goal was forthcoming. And after Lewis Dunk received a red card for a second yellow card it was all but over. The first card Dunk received was for a foul on the prior mentioned David Brooks, one that many believed had gone to Bissouma. So when he got his second yellow and subsequent red for a cynical trip of Callum Wilson from behind, many thought it was only his first card, but off he went and with it went any hope the Albion had of taking a point from the match.

Bournemouth sealed the points when David Brooks made a run to the near post and looped a header back over his head and over Ryan into the goal. A wonderful goal that capped a wonderful performance from the Welshman who is no doubt already worth significantly more than the £10m Bournemouth paid for him over the summer.

So, after three straight defeats it was Arsenal at home that would take us to the halfway point. And it was the visitors who started the brighter, with Aubameyang’s chipped shot forcing Ryan into an early save. And it was Aubameyang who would break the deadlock barely a few minutes later, when after Balogun kept the ball in play only to give the ball straight back to Lacazette who after interchanging with Ozil, worked his way around a static Albion defence to find Aubameyang in space who passed the ball into the top corner to give the visitors the lead.

It was Aubameyang who then forced Ryan into another great save, this time down to his left with the game still 1-0. Further evidence that Ryan is a player the Albion will greatly miss when the Australian goalkeeper now goes to represent his country at the Asia cup in UAE.

Those saves would prove vital as the Albion not long after equalised through the seemingly ever-criticised Jurgen Locadia’s first goal of the season. It was somewhat fortunate circumstances that led to it, but he deserved a bit of luck after some of the less fortunate moments he’s had this season. Davy Propper’s hopeful long diagonal pass forward from level with the Albion penalty area looked meant for Gross but was unintentionally headed into Locadia’s path by Arsenal’s Stephan Lichtsteiner. Locadia then simply had to round the keeper and pass it into the empty net to put the scores level, which he did.

Locadia deserved his goal, he was fantastic in the left-wing role and with better finishing could have given the Albion all three points in the second half. Locadia didn’t deserve the vitriolic abuse he received after his miss at Burnley and he doesn’t deserve to be held up as an Albion great quite yet either. But this was a stepping stone towards him fulfilling his potential.

When we signed Jurgen Locadia we knew he wasn’t the finished article, we knew he was a raw talent coming from a league that is below the standard of the English Premier League. For every Van Persie or Van Nistelrooy that has been a success in the Premier League after signing from Holland, there is a counter example of a Jozy Altidore or an Alfonso Alves who were not a success.

Whilst it’s a lot of money for Brighton to spend, £14m doesn’t buy you a proven goalscorer at this level. It buys you a Jurgen Locadia, a player who’s shown promise, shown he’s competent, shown he’s got a lot of ability, but also shown he’s not perfect, at least not yet. So, if he has a bad game and misses a big chance against Everton or West Ham, I won’t be getting carried away, he needs time in the team to settle and show what he can do.

In fact, it wasn’t Locadia this time being maligned for missing a good chance to score, it was Solly March or Davy Propper, or both, depending on who you spoke to after the game. As the Albion pushed forward and created chances both could have scored, but neither did. I’m happy to state that I’m not concerned with this, both players have potential to be a more significant goalscorer for the team than at current, and if they’re getting in the positions to score that’s the hard part. If they keep doing that then taking those chances will naturally come next.

A halfway point summing up

The draw with Arsenal leaves the Albion with 22 points at the halfway mark of 19 games, ahead of schedule in our search for another year of Premier league status. And 8 points from the last nine games is a reasonable return given the amount of tough away games and games against top six teams that were included in that run, along with the self-induced handicap that the three red cards we received created.

One real positive so far this season is the increased impact of Hughton’s substitutions and varied team selection. The continued impact of new signings like Andone, Bernardo and Bissouma along with regulars like Murray, March and Duffy show the evidence of the increased squad depth.

Hughton still doesn’t make change for changes sake though. And as such the consistency of approach and defensive organisation remains a true strength of the team. Burnley’s Sean Dyche has spoken before about how it’s often braver to stick with what you’ve got and easier to panic and twist when it comes to substitutions and in-game tactical decisions. Hughton shows trust in his players, hence why many have and are continuing to fulfil their potential in this team under his tutelage.

Take Anthony Knockaert as an example, someone who was almost ever-present last season and has looked reinvigorated when he has played recently but is still struggling to get a game, such is the increased competition for places.

But with the added versatility has come some frustrating moments as the team experiences some growing pains. No more so than the frustration and indiscipline that lead to the three Albion red cards. A trend that needs to end.

In my ten games in summing up, I said I thought the fact that Brighton had the second most shots conceded, and the least shots taken would reverse to the average of our league position once the season went on. Well, it hasn’t yet. We currently have the second least total of shots taken and the second highest conceded, with only Burnley totalling lower and higher totals in both areas respectively. Even more anomalous is that the Albion post fewer shots per game at home than anyone in the division despite totalling the joint 9th highest points total accumulated at home.

Whilst stats don’t necessarily tell you everything, for me this one does illustrate two things. Firstly, the Albion’s well-known reliance on their defensive solidity. And secondly, the reliance on Glenn Murray’s reliability in front of goal. In fact, in Murray’s case his conversation rate of shots taken is about as good as it gets for a high scoring forward in a top-flight European football, sitting currently at 36.4%.

The next run of matches starts with a tough visit of Everton who gave us a footballing lesson recently, followed with an away trip to West Ham who are a better team now than the one we beat 3-0 at the London Stadium last season. Which is before another trip to Bournemouth this time in the FA Cup, followed by the visit of leaders Liverpool and a trip to a revitalised Man United. So, it could be a while until we see the next Albion win. But as the recent run shows, the team is capable of giving anyone a game and if we keep beating the teams below us that gap between us and those bottom three places should remain in place.

The Albion sit 13th, a position if which we remain in come May will match the club’s highest ever league finish from the 1981/82 season. In the following season the manager Mike Bailey was sacked after growing pressure on his safety-first approach contributed to the team’s worsening performances. Despite the change of manager, the team were ultimately relegated at the end of the following season in the summer of 1983, albeit being relegated along with the memories of competing in that season’s FA cup final, one which was ultimately lost to United in the replay. Maybe we should take some lessons from history before we moan about Hughton’s ‘negative’ tactics.

When the team was in the fourth tier nearly twenty years ago, then Brighton chairman Dick Knight borrowed a phrase from an album title of DJ and Albion investor/fan Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook to describe the club’s status, “Halfway between the gutters and the stars”. Today we are one of those stars, albeit one that some could forget about amongst the brighter Middle Eastern or Russian oil illuminated stars.

As we approach 2019, we do so with promise, hope and anticipation of another 19 games to come. Ones which if the last 19 games were anything to go by, should give us a lot of excitement to look forward to. Up the Albion, Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

18/19 season review – Ten games in

Ten games is traditionally the point in the season that the league table starts to take shape and become a meaningful barometer of a team’s performance. As such it feels like a good time to reflect on what’s happened so far this season. Brighton sit 11th in the table with fourteen points from those ten games, a points return and league position that is probably better than most predicted, so let’s take a look at how we got there and what it shows us.

Matchdays 1-3 – The bad, the good and the ugly

We started the season with a wave of optimism. Partly because of the number of new signings made over the summer, including record signing and last season’s Eredivisie top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. But partly because of the way safety was secured last season, earning four points in our final two home games against top four sides Spurs and Man Utd, including that unforgettable 1-0 victory over United.

So as we approached the first game of the season away to Watford there was plenty predicting an Albion victory. But instead what occurred was a 2-0 defeat, the Albion’s eighth 2-0 defeat on the road since promotion the year before and the fourteenth time the Albion had lost conceding more than once in the process, all that in only twenty-four Premier League games.

So, as the team lined up at Vicarage Road it wasn’t long before that optimism faded. Bruno was substituted early through injury and replaced by Bong, with new signing Bernardo moving to right back. Subsequently Bernardo had a tough day up against the former Juventus player Roberto Pereyra, who scored both goals that day and whose second was scored after Bernardo was found hopelessly out of position allowing Pereyra to double the Albion’s arrears. Bernardo’s poor performance and Bruno’s injury opened the door for another new signing Martín Montoya to cement a place in the team in the coming weeks at right-back.

I mentioned in one of my pre-season blogs that I thought Bernardo was being lined up as Bruno’s long term replacement. However, given the subsequent signature of Montoya and the subsequent events on the pitch, it appears Bernardo is seen as more of a left-back by Chris Hughton. So, given Hughton’s loyalty to Bong, a players who’s featured in every game this season, it’s likely Bernardo will have to patiently wait his turn to make amends for his poor showing against Watford.

The team didn’t make it a meaningful contest against Watford and despite promising substitute appearances from new signings Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Albion took few other positives from a terrible display, with Albion manager Chris Hughton describing his side as “off the pace”.

Thankfully this low level of performance didn’t continue. In fact, if this was the bad, the first three games were a case of the bad, the good, and then the ugly.

So, next up was the good and another victory over Man Utd, although it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day. After captain for the day Lewis Dunk came off injured early in the first half, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun. However, unlike Bernardo, Balogun was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside Duffy.

With Balogun a more than capable deputy, the Albion were able to press United with gusto, putting them under plenty of pressure. And it wasn’t long before this pressure told and the Albion got off the mark with a sublime chip from Glenn Murray. This is a goal that has to go down as one of his best for the Albion, whilst it was from close range, the skill and technique to flick the ball up and chip the ball over United ‘keeper De Gea was a sight to behold.

Whilst the Albion faithful were in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. With Shame Duffy allowed an absurd amount of time to take the ball down he then rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead. After Lukaku pulled one back with the Albion conceding another goal from a corner, last season’s Brighton player of the season Pascal Gross converted a penalty to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.

As the first half ended it was hard to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the defeat to Watford the week before. Despite an improved display from United in the second half they rarely trouble the Albion defence, making the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored by Pogba a meaningless consolation for the visitors. In contrast to the game against Watford there were so many positives, none more so than the previously mentioned debutants Martin Montoya and Leon Balogun.

Nonetheless the two sloppy goals conceded were a concern. It was four conceded in two now from the Albion and there were more to come.

Which bring us to the Ugly, Liverpool away. Ugly because of the dreadful way the Albion gifted Liverpool the lead via an error from the otherwise impressive Yves Bissouma. After he was dispossessed by the evergreen James Milner in the Albion’s defensive third, Liverpool made no mistake and took the lead which they held onto for the rest of the game to take all three points.

Nonetheless this was a good Albion performance where they minimised Liverpool’s well-known attacking threat (particularly well-known by Albion who lost 4-0 at Anfield as recently as May) and could have nicked a point if Gross or Knockaert had beaten the keeper with good chances to score in the second half.

Matchdays 4-7 – A charitable donation of a 2-0 head start

So, it had been a mixed start for the Albion but one that gave hope for better things to come. But then followed a string of four games where the team gave all their opponents 2-0 head starts and took only two points from a possible twelve.

First up Brighton returned to the AMEX to face a newly promoted Fulham side in good spirits after their first win of the season, a 4-2 win at home over Burnley. But it was Brighton that started the stronger, earning an early penalty, but one that this time Pascal Gross failed to convert.

On this moment the game swung and Fulham took advantage taking a 1-0 lead into half time. Brighton’s defence was again looking shaky and with a newly returned Lewis Dunk looking as if he’d been rushed back too early from injury, the Albion soon found themselves 2-0 down after the aforementioned Dunk was outmuscled by Fulham’s new signing Mitrovic who put the ball past Maty Ryan and into the top corner.

It had been an incredibly frustrating first 60 minutes for the Albion and particularly for last season’s player of the year Pascal Gross. In fact it had been an underperforming start to the season in general for Gross, who was clearly playing through an injury. He was brought off on the hour and hasn’t feature since this season, such is the strength in depth that the Albion now has in its squad.

So Gross was replaced by Bissouma and with some added attacking impetus from his fresh legs and incisiveness, the game swung again as the Albion started an impressive comeback. First after a wonderful run from a reinvigorated Anthony Knockaert, he found Murray in space on the edge of the box to pull Albion back in it. Then after an inexplicable handball from Fulham goalscorer Mitrovic, the Albion were awarded a penalty. One which Murray dispatched to earn Albion a draw.

Next up was Southampton on one of those weird Monday night games Sky Sports insist on organising. And it took Brighton 45 minutes to get their head in the game as what followed was the worst half of football the Albion has produced so far this season. It was reminiscent of many other away performances since promotion, one with poor ball retention, a lack of tempo and intensity in and out of possession, leading ultimately to a lack of attacking intent.

Southampton took advantage, first through a spectacular long-range strike from Hojbjerg. Then after the Albion gifted the opposition another penalty, this time via a clumsy foul by Gaetan Bong, Southampton striker Danny Ings scored to make it 2-0.

So the Albion found themselves once again needing another great comeback and a remarkable improvement materialised. The midfield pushed up, the full-backs made more forward runs and the Albion created multiple opportunities to score. And after Duffy scored again from a set piece, Murray scored a late penalty to make it 2-2 in the second consecutive game.

Next up it was Spurs at the AMEX, who were on a three-game losing streak meaning there was optimism of an upset. But after a third sloppy concession of a penalty so far this season, this time via an inexplicable Murray handball (a matter of feet away from the spot where Mitrovic conceded a penalty via the same fashion as in the last home game) the Albion were 1-0 down at the break. Then Erik Lamela finished off a wonderful team move to give Spurs a 2-0 lead. The Albion rallied and attempted another unlikely comeback but could only muster a late Knockaert consolation goal. If only he’d taken the chance he had from only a few yards out earlier in the second half with the game at 1-0. Ultimately, the game swung on moments of skill and good decision making that goes to show the quality the Spurs squad has in greater supply to the Albion.

A trip to Champions Man City followed where an ever-greater supply of quality players was on offer and it was like Albion were lambs to the slaughter. That said, having put five past Burnley and Cardiff and six past Huddersfield, despite losing two-nil the Albion can take many positives from the performance if not the result. In conceding twice despite having only 20% possession the defence had to dig in and concentrate for long periods to avoid a thrashing, which they did, and it was a sign of things to come.

So although ending match-day seven with two consecutive defeats, the City game was still an improvement on the performances away from home that we’d seen previously given the standard of opposition the team were facing.

In fact considering the calibre of opposition the Albion had faced in the first seven games, (which included playing all of last season’s top 4 and an in-form Watford side) a five-point tally coupled with some good performances against the top teams was satisfying. However, taking account that the only win came against United at home rather than against Fulham at home or Southampton away it suggested a certain amount of missed opportunity and meant the next three games, two at home with the away game to winless Newcastle, had a bit more riding on them than they should have.

Matchdays 8-10 – 1-0 to the Albion, defensive solidity at last!

So if the first seven games showed signs of a team with a habit of conceding soft goals. The next three games that followed demonstrated the team were capable of the exact opposite. There were two 1-0 home victories courtesy of Glenn Murray’s 99th and 100th goals for the club, which were sandwiched between a hard fought 1-0 victory away to struggling Newcastle.

This run made it seven one-nil wins since promotion for the Albion, and thirteenth clean sheets, a good record all things considered. Hard-fought one-nil wins have been a regular feature of Hughton’s tenure at the Albion, with six coming in the promotion season alone.

The first of the three consecutive wins was one of those special Friday nights at the AMEX. A night where we welcomed West Ham, a team the Albion convincingly beat twice last season and a team we would beat once more.

Wins over the teams around you at home is always important in a battle for survival from relegation, but in a game like this where the Albion were under pressure from West Ham attacks for so much of the game it is all the sweeter.

Hughton started with a changed midfield, with Stephens and Gross out, Kayal and Propper started in deep lying central midfield roles and Knockart and Jahanbakhsh played on the wings with Solly March surprisingly getting nod to play in the number ten role in a three behind Murray. And it worked for much of this and the following two games, with Stephens replacing Propper and Izquierdo replacing Knockaert in the following two games.

It was a sign that the impressive player recruitment the Albion have continued to make since winning promotion is paying dividend in the form of options for and unpredictability in Hughton’s team selection. We rotated mainly between the same 15 or 16 players throughout most of last season with no decent back up in many positions. In fact we have already used 18 players this season and whilst this is comparable to the total this time last season, it’s no doubt that the standard of the second-string players has improved significantly. With the remaining players from the squad like Florin Andone and maybe the odd development squad player likely to be used at some point in the near future, there are real signs of the added options and strength in depth available to Chris Hughton.

This is most true in attacking areas and that night against West Ham the adapted system meant the three behind Murray provided lots of threat through runs on and off the ball, with March particularly causing the opposition lots of problems. This left space for others to exploit. Something which Kayal did exactly that for the goal, finding space on the left wing to cross the ball to Murray in space at the back post.

The return of Izquierdo was a welcome positive, but the three games were dominated from an Albion perspective by the return to powering dominance of the centre-back partnership of Dunk and Duffy. Who were no doubt buoyed by the good display in the previous game at the Etihad. Before the West Ham game it was announced they both signed five years deals and if performances like this continue over that period, they should go down as the best centre back partnership the club has ever had.

A week later the team travelled to the North East to face a Newcastle side who’d lost all their four previous home games this season, and Albion would make it five with another hard fought 1-0 win.

After Murray came off injured with a nasty looking head injury, Kayal opened the scoring by deflecting an Izquierdo shot past the Newcastle ‘keeper. What followed was another display of defensive solidly from the Albion as Duffy and Dunk once again showed why the club had just extended their contracts, whilst Maty Ryan made multiple saves to earn his second clean sheet of the season.

Then came the third win in a row and it was becoming a case of Groundhog Day for the Albion. Another 1-0 home win, another Glenn Murray winner, more great defending from Duffy and Dunk, and some reliance on a few top saves from Maty Ryan to keep the clean sheet.

It wasn’t just any old 1-0 win though, Glenn Murray cemented his place as only the second ever player to score one-hundred goals for Brighton. He also becomes the highest post-war goal scorer, taking over from Kit Napier on 99 goals.

And he did it in typical Glenn Murray fashion. He spoke in Nick Szczepanik book ‘Brighton Up’ about how he would often find space in the box by standing still, whilst others moved around him. This day was no different, as the ball fell to Bruno on the right side of the box the Wolves defence shifted in his direction. In the same motion Murray stayed almost stationary but alert to find himself in acres of space at the far post to score his century goal.

But that day and in fact across the last three games it wasn’t vintage Albion. Hughton admitted after the Wolves game that the team were not at their best, citing the problem of poor ball retention that has been a bad habit throughout the first ten games of the season.

As centurion Glenn Murray stated after the win over Wolves it was ‘back to basics’ for the Albion. Keeping it tight at the back by defending deep and not giving too much away to the opposition and then relying on taking the odd chance you get at the other end. Whilst this worked over the past three games and was a system that kept us safe last season, there’s plenty of flaws in this tactic.

For me, the biggest example of this is the amount of draws last season that could have been wins. We entered the final third of last season having been hammered by Chelsea and mainly as a result of all those draws, relying on winning the home games we had left. We did this emphatically and partly through allowing the team more attacking licence and creating more chances to score. Swansea and West Ham at home being the best examples. But given the amount of sloppy goals conceded in the first seven games a back to basics approach was required.

A ten-games in summing up

There is plenty to be pleased with out of the first ten games, nothing more so than the points tally. But let’s not get carried away it’s a tally of 14 not 40, and none of Albion’s wins were emphatic. What the first ten games have shown, as we all knew before the season started, is that there is very little difference between all the teams that will fill the bottom end of the table.

One stat that’s been mentioned a lot since the Albion’s recent run of wins is that the team have conceded the second most amount of shots in the Premier League this season, whilst having the least amount of shots ourselves. But stats are sometimes misinterpreted and given the way the fixtures have fallen and the easier run of games ahead for the team, I suspect that both statistics will revert to a similar level to last season.

As we quickly approach the winter period of the season, one thing that has proved founded, despite the early bump in the road at Watford, is the wave of optimism from back in the summer. Many of the new signings have given the squad a strength and versatility that was not on offer last season. These additions have allowed the Albion to make changes in personnel and tactics more often as well as making changes during games that have helped towards achieving the points total amounted so far.

The idea the team could have coped with the absence of Dunk, Stephens and Gross for long periods in the first ten games, whilst playing such high calibre opposition and find themselves with the outcome they have so far this season, would have been unthinkable this time last season. Whilst this season has been and will continue to be a scrap, the investment in player recruitment made by the club and led by Paul Winstanley and his team in the recent transfer windows, looks to be making the difference for the Albion. Long may it continue…

Brighton’s Women’s team – aspiration and inspiration

With the Brighton starting their first season in the revamped WSL 1 it felt like a good time to write my first blog about the Albion’s Women team.

The story begins in the 1960’s; in those days Brighton was represented in Women’s football by Brighton GPO, a team formed by several workers from the local post office’s telephone exchange. There was no Albion Women’s team then as the state of play in Women’s football was very different. Men’s teams weren’t involved in women’s football due a ban on women’s football taking place at football league grounds that had existed since 1921. And it wasn’t until the formation of an independent body the Women’s FA in 1969 that there was an official national organisation behind Women’s football giving teams like Brighton GPO the opportunity to compete in a formalised national competition.

In 1971 the FA lifted its ban on Women’s football taking place in football league stadiums and in 1983 the WFA became officially affiliated as part of the FA. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that the FA fully integrated Women’s football within its national structure and a national league was formed. Therefore, in 1990 the Brighton Women’s football team was affiliated under the Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. umbrella. This affiliation was funded as part of the Albion in the Community scheme and following this the Albion became a founding members of the Women’s Premier League in the 1991–92 season, starting within the regionalised second tier, the Division 1 South.

Despite this being relatively recent history in the terms of English football, in the early 90s Women’s football was very much in its infancy following decades of oppression from the hands of organisations like the FA deeming football ‘unsuitable for females’. For example it would be another five years until Women’s football would be played at the Olympics during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, despite the men’s tournament existing at all but one Olympics since 1900.

Whilst since the 90’s and particularly the turn of the Millennium women’s football has continued to grow rapidly, there were still limited resources at Brighton to provide much investment in the team. With the men’s senior team struggling to make ends meet at Withdean this left little funds for the Women’s team and left them still reliant on AITC fundraising to support the team. This meant whilst teams like Arsenal were going professional, Brighton were still semi-professional and most fans who went to watch the men’s team were lucky if they saw a page devoted to them in the match day programme or an advert for the odd cup game against a big side to be played at the Withdean Stadium.

There were successes though. In 2001 Brighton won the Premier League South and were promoted to the top-level Premier League National. However, the small semi-pro outfit found themselves out of their depth, and after a season of narrow survival from the drop, they were relegated in their second season with a measly 4 points from 18 games.

They then spent the next decade in the second tier only to be effectively demoted to the third tier, when after the establishment of a breakaway league the WSL, this was incorporated into the football pyramid in 2014 and expanded into two divisions. At the same time the Premier League National was disbanded, and it meant the Albion had to win the Premier League South Division and then a playoff against the winners of the North Division to get promotion to WSL 2.

Whilst during this time the team was a small operation, it would be wrong to write off the good work done by those at the club on a shoestring during those times. The work done by those including many at AITC enabled the Women’s team to exist and compete at a good level within the women’s football pyramid for around two decades. That said, much like I said in a previous blog, whilst in those years the women’s team was an afterthought in the club’s overall strategy, it is now a well integrated and invested-in element of the club.

Tony Bloom’s investment plan after initially taking over the club in 2009 and moving the club into the new stadium at Falmer in 2011, then included ambitious goals for the Women’s team. The club stated in 2015 the aim was to achieve promotion to WSL 1 and qualify for Champions league football in 5 years. But at this point the club was still playing in the third tier of Women’s football, the Premier League Southern Division, along with not so esteemed colleagues like Lewes, Basildon and Forest Green Rovers, making this a bold statement to make at the time, but one that now looks crucial to setting an ambitious mindset amongst the team.

After the club missed out on promotion to WSL 2 via the playoffs in 2015, they were then promoted the following year and started the 17/18 season as a part of the WSL 2. This time winning the playoffs with a 4-2 win over West Bromwich Albion’s Women’s team, then known as Sporting Club Albion. To demonstrate the low level of interest in the Albion Women’s team at this point, such a high profile and historic game in the team’s history managed to gain an attendance of only 648. Albeit that crowd was slightly diminished because the game one-off game was played at High Wycombe, a two-hour drive from either Brighton or West Bromwich.

The Albion’s promotion to WSL 2 coincided with promotion and relegation being suspended for one season to enable another restructuring of Women’s domestic football. This time it was to enable the creation of a ‘franchised’ full-time top-flight WSL 1 league. Something the Albion later successfully applied for a place within for the start of the coming season, but I will come onto this later.

Despite the successes, the progress to date hadn’t been without its bumps in the road. Following allegations of disciplinary breaches made to the Sussex FA about team manager James Marrs, he was sacked in June 2017. But in response the club made its biggest statement to that point by appointing possibly the most experienced British manager in the Women’s game, former England and Great Britain manager Hope Powell. With this appointment, the club started the season in WSL 2, going from newly promoted chancers to suddenly being the team to watch.

And after joining she spoke to the Guardian about her positive experiences at the club and the seriousness with which the club was now treating Women’s football. “We are very integrated. They’re looking to invest in the future which is fantastic – I’m part of that. I’ve met the owner and I’ve met the board members, I’ve sat down in London and they really want to integrate the women.”

Bloom and Barber have clearly appointed the right people in the right areas at the club across the board and the women’s team is no different. For instance, Powell has stated the importance to the team of assistant manager Amy Merricks. Following Powell’s appointment and prior to her formerly beginning work she said: “I was in very close contact with Amy Merricks, who has done a fantastic job and I can’t speak highly enough of her. We were in regular contact once it was announced. She’s done all of the work, she knows the club, she knows the culture.”

Soon after joining Powell was quick to imprint her vision on the club, and one of the first things she focused on was the club’s style of play. “The speed of play is one of the things I really wanted to increase; we need to up the tempo, do everything so much quicker, because that is what they are going to face going forward.” And the Albion game certainly upped the tempo since, finishing second in last season’s WSL 2 in their first season back at that level.

When the WSL 1 licence status was granted for the upcoming 18/19 season last December Albion chief executive Paul Barber said on reacting to the news: “We have always wanted to achieve equal status for women’s and girls’ football at the club and acquiring tier one status will now enable us to make this a reality.”

In comparison to the Albion, Doncaster Belles who finished ahead of the Albion to win WSL 2 last season, decided not to apply for WSL 1 status, citing the costs being beyond their budget. Another key comparison is Man Utd, the biggest name in domestic men’s football who up until this restructure had gone many years without a Women’s senior team, and now have been fast-tracked up the pyramid and granted a place in this season’s WSL 2, alongside our local rivals Lewes.

It says something of the lack of ambition for Women’s football that clubs like United, Spurs, Sunderland and Palace are playing in WSL 2 or in some cases lower. The fact that clubs like those with the brand and infrastructure that they have are only granted equal or in some cases lower status to a small fan-owned semi-professional club like Lewes is telling. Lewes in comparison whose men’s team played in the 8th tier of English football last year, have an average attendance in men’s football of just over 700, which to put that in context is around 1% of that of Man Utd’s average attendance.

The reality is only the established professional clubs can compete at WSL 1 level. As a top-flight club, the Albion will be required to provide players with a minimum of 16 contact hours per week, rising to 20 hours per week by 2020-21. There are also minimum financial investment rules, whilst in conjunction clubs are also be required to meet Financial Fair Play regulations and a squad salary cap. Further rules mean that whereas second-tier sides will have lower requirements such as only being required to run a reserve team, a WSL 1 level club like the Albion will also be required to run a youth academy. Something the Albion already has in place.

Whilst the women’s game has been in a period of growth in general, the domestic club game has been in a period of disorganised flux since the turn of the millennium. This constant flux, typified by the FA and it’s constant need to restructure domestic club football, means even the big clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and City despite investing large amounts in their Women’s team have struggled to establish a significant match day following. Average attendances for each are incomparable to those of the men’s first team and more similar to those of many non-league men’s first teams.

But Brighton’s manager Hope Powell is behind the current reorganisation plans. “I understand it because a lot of clubs in WSL 2 are saying: ‘If we get promoted there’s every chance we can’t [compete] in WSL 1 anyway so what’s the point?’ So, I think they’ve had to look at it, revamp it, and try and offer it out to those clubs that can afford to be a WSL1 club, fulfil the criteria and meet the needs of being full-time. I think it’s a sensible decision.”.

The one anomaly to this is Yeovil, who whilst have a professional men’s team, are a much smaller club than any of their WSL competitors and have struggled but just about managed to meet the WSL 1 requirements. On being grant status the club stated: “Whilst the last 18 months have been testing for the Ladies both on and off the pitch, the stability of being granted a professional license should allow them to head into their next chapter.”

The Albion will be playing their home games this season at Crawley Town’s Broadfield Stadium. Having previously switched home games between there and Lancing, means the club is currently representing Brighton as a city whilst not playing within it. But as the Men’s team’s current appeal shows, the club is as much a team for the county of Sussex as it is the City is Brighton. That said the Women’s team are yet to gain the same following as the men’s team with attendances last season regularly totalling only a few hundred.

The Albion’s current group of players is most definitely the best in the club’s history. This includes Ini Umotong, scorer of 13 goals in 19 league games last season, she was signed with fellow teammate Danielle Buet from Notts County when the club folded before the beginning of last season. Ini, the Albion’s number 9 is one of the club’s star players and as such features on the poster advertising this season’s home and away shirts at the entrance of the club shop at the AMEX stadium. However, Ini recognises the challenge ahead of the club this season: “It will be a big step up. We have a few girls that have experience of playing in the top flight, but a lot of us haven’t played in the division before now.”

One face most Albion fans will know is that of AITC ambassador and Northern Ireland international Laura Rafferty. She signed for the club in 2017 from Chelsea where she made only one first team appearance. But since signing for the Albion she’s become a regular in an Albion defence that conceded only 26 goals in the league last season – the joint third lowest total in WSL 2 last season. Laura is a regular face in club media output as well as the local news for her good work as AITC ambassador, but she’ll be hoping this season she gets as much coverage for her good work on the pitch as she has previously off it.

However, there are many players like last season’s club captain Vicky Ashton‑Jones who faced the choice whether to commit to the club full-time because of the club’s new-found WSL 1 status. Whilst playing with the Albion Vicky, a police firearms officer by trade commuted 57 miles door-to-door from London because of her job. Prior to the club gaining WSL status she said: “It’s a nice dilemma. Certainly, when I was playing I didn’t have that option; all I wanted to do was be a professional footballer. For me it’s better to have the dilemma than not at all. The opportunities that are ahead of these players now are incredible, the likes of which I could only dream of. It’s going to be difficult for some, we absolutely understand that, but it’s a decision they’re going to have to make.” However, unfortunately for the Albion, Vicky has decided to concentrate on her job in the Police and not continue with the Albion this season rather than going full-time.

With the changes that are taking place at the club over the summer still being managed and the club coming up against a higher level of opposition than ever before on a weekly basis it’s hard to judge the prospects for this coming season, but there is plenty of optimism for the short to medium term future of the team.

That said, despite Albion’s heavy investment in the Women’s team in recent years and the already stated ambitious goals from the top of the club, the team will be judged this season on more than the on-field results. As manager Hope Powell says herself: “I think it’s really important that there are women role models and that people have someone to aspire to.”

Listen to the negative criticism, however valid it is

I’ve written blogs before in reaction to things that have been written on social media after Albion games. It’s something that I have found is a cathartic process, but ultimately one that some will feel is just adding to the noise of what’s been written about the topics already. Nonetheless we all continue to carry on carrying on.

Charlie Brooker said in his Guardian column about the culture of exaggerated opinions on social media in 2014: “exaggeration is the official language of the internet, a talking shop so hopelessly overcrowded that only the most strident statements have any impact…in this increasingly binary world, if good equals amazing, bad equals catastrophic. Any disappointment, any setback, anyone who steps out of line – all instantly labelled the Worst Thing Ever.”

This Sunday the twitter hashtag #bhafc personified what Charlie Brooker was talking about. One-minute Chris Hughton is clueless, negative and running out of ideas. The next Brighton are 2-0 up and he’s a tactical genius, who’s outsmarted the great Jose Mourinho and never gets a move wrong. The reality of course is, as always, somewhere in the middle.

Much of social media discussion is this way of course. Exaggerated noise for the purpose of attention and ‘likes’, but that doesn’t make all this noise worthless. Debate & criticism are an important part of getting feedback for any task. However, some felt the need to mock and pour scorn over the avid critics of Hughton’s team selection before the game, who ended up with egg on their face.

Whilst I disagreed with the criticism of Hughton, I disagreed even more strongly with those mocking the opinions of his critics. By all means disagree and debate with them and try to better understand each other’s opinions, but don’t just shut them down and call them idiots.

Hindsight is 20/20 and on social media those who are proven right often make sure the other party knows about it subsequently, but it’s important to remember the state of play at the time of the decision making. Who would have predicted the Albion would be 3-1 up yesterday whilst entering injury time? I’d suggest only the most absurdly optimistic of fanbase.

It’s all part of the growing trend that demonstrated best on Twitter, where many have an inability to disagree. The culture as described by the professor of psychology Todd Kashdan of “attack first think later, if at all”. Condemning people because their views or actions make you feel uncomfortable will not lead to a constructive debate, something that is a crucial element for any organisation, even one that is so widely discussed as a professional football team.

Furthermore, creating a culture which discourages negative criticism, however absurd or ill-informed it may be, can lead to complacency. And complacency is something that the three teams who were relegated from the Premier League last season could easily have been accused of. The moment we as Albion fans begin to discourage debate and scepticism, even from the less informed, is the moment we risk creating a bubble of ideas and a lack of creativity at the club.

As the saying goes “football is a game of opinions” and those opinions often vary greatly on the most trivial of subjects, even among the highly paid pundits and commentators of the game. Pouring scorn on those you believe to be, or even those that prove to be holding absurd opinions only goes to cheapen and diminish the quality of the debate, whilst discouraging future debates. So, let’s all try to treat each other with a bit more respect and consideration. Or to paraphrase Albion fan Fatboy Slim: We’ve come a long, long way together, so let’s not behave like idiots now we are here.

Brighton’s away form amounts to Gross Negligence

Last Saturday saw a convincing 2-0 defeat for the Albion at the hands of Watford. This was nothing we haven’t seen before, particularly away from home. In their 19 games away from the AMEX last season Brighton gained only 11 points, the worst away record in the league. This included seven 2-0 defeats, so this was much the same as last season.

To underline the point, let me throw a few stats your way. Away from home the Albion scored the second lowest amount of goals (10) in the Premier League last season whilst conceding 29. Three of those goals coming in one game against West Ham. The Albion created only 121 chances in those games, the 15th lowest in league. So even when coming up against Watford, who conceded the most goals at home in the league last season (31), it was unlikely to lead to much optimism from the Albion faithful.

Pascal Gross’s performances demonstrates this marked difference in away games the best. The Albion’s player of last season recorded a Squawka combined performance score at home of 306, the best score from any Albion player. However, away from home he received a score of -5. No wonder as all of Pascal’s goals and 6 of his 8 assists came at home last season.

There were clear differences in style when the Albion played at home compared to when they were playing away. The Albion play much deeper and retain less possession away than at home, averaging 46.3% possession at home and 43.8% away last season. This may not sound like a big difference but it equates to an extra 2 minutes without the ball and chasing the opposition, which can make all the difference. It also means when the team do have possession it’s more often in deeper areas of the pitch meaning attacking players like Gross have a diminished effect on the game.

As Gross lacks the pace of other attackers, this lack of possession and deeper defensive line means he has more to do and more ground to cover in order to create chances when the Albion have the ball. His role in the team is often to create chances but his lack of pace means that away from home attacks would very often break down before they had started. Whereas at home, the team’s greater attacking intent allows him to start from a more advanced position on the pitch and allows him to thrive.

On Saturday against Watford there was a clear difference in the impact of Gross and his 60th minute replacement, new signings Yves Bissouma. His replacement Bissouma notably had a greater effect, adding some much needed drive and pace from deeper positions. Exactly what Gross lacks. But for me this doesn’t suggest we drop Gross over Bissouma but rather we deploy an adapted system that best incorporates both whilst minimising Gross’s shortfalls. He was our most effective player last season, without him we’d be playing Championship football this weekend.

Another factor though is at the other end of the pitch. As has been pointed out by all and sundry, the Albion conceded a lot of goals from set pieces last season. In fact the most in the Premier League, conceding 22 from set pieces of which 16 were from corners. But this issue is exacerbated by the lack of goals scored away from home. Scoring more than once away from home only in that wonderful night in East London against West Ham. Excluding that game, Brighton scored a goal away from home only once in 2.2 games.

Conversely the team also scored very few goals from set-pieces last season. Scoring a total of 5 goals from this method, which again was the lowest in the league last season. This is despite Pascal Gross creating more chances from set-pieces in the Premier League last season than any other player (36). This lack of others taking those chances from set pieces will no doubt have exaggerated the low performance score Gross received away from home, as the old saying goes, goals change games (whilst masking other deficiencies in a performance). If Brighton had taken a significant amount more of their chances from set pieces many of the issues away from home could be ignored.

The manager Chris Hughton has stated that the team have focused on set-pieces in training a lot of late, but it’s something he’s been struggling with since he took charge. In December 2015 when talking about conceding goals from corners in a home defeat to Middlesbrough, Hughton told The Argus: “It’s a big worry, something we need to eradicate”. Let’s hope the worrying ends and the hard work on the training pitch finally pays off.

Burnley are a team that Brighton can aspire to match, and I’m not talking about their fans behaviour. In their first season following promotion in 16/17 they accumulated just 7 points away from home, but managed to earn a total four times that amount (28) last season, more in fact than they earned at home that season (26). Even more surprising is that last season they earned less points at home than they did in their first season (33), despite finishing 13 places higher in the league.

They achieved this by working on the defensive side of their game, conceding only 22 goals away all season compared to 35 the year before and in doing so made a league low last season of 2 defensive errors. Even more impressive considering that this was done despite taking a defensive approach similar to the Albion’s, whilst achieving only 45% possession away from home.

Burnley have been reliant on their defence to stay tight, despite their good away record they scored only 19 goals, averaging only one goal per game. Albeit this is almost double the Albion’s total in the same year, it meant they couldn’t afford the kind of errors that were made by the Albion last season to accumulate the points total that they did. Whilst Watford last weekend won’t give us Albion fans hope of better things on the road, Burnley’s success last season goes to show what defensive solidity and discipline when combined with an extra clinically edge in front of goal can achieve.

The Albion going forward away from home will look at their new signings to offer more attacking threat going forward. As the positive impact on Saturday of Bissouma and Jahanbakhsh as second half substitutes will demonstrate. But they also need to cut out the silly defensive errors and goals conceded last season. Burnley’s year-on-year improvement shows what can be achieved if this is done.

Whilst last Saturdays defeat was another example of their poor away record, Brighton’s home record has been fantastic and was their saving grace last season. They accumulated 29 points at the AMEX and scored 24 goals in the process, the 8th best home record in the league last season and only bettered by the top 6 and Everton.

Whilst some have called for Pascal Gross to be dropped for Yves Bissouma, I wouldn’t suggest such a change. The home record we achieved last season was largely as a result of using a system that got the best out of Pascal Gross. The Albion must instead find a system that gives him and them the same level of success away from home that they have achieved at the AMEX.

That said, despite that home record last season including a win against our next opponents Manchester United, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic for Sunday’s rematch. United’s away record last season was only bettered by Champions Man City. So Sunday’s game shouldn’t be considered a good chance for a repeat of that great night last May, but oddly enough does appear to be a better chance of getting a result than last weekend’s trip to Watford.

TV vs The Real Thing

Saturday at 3pm, the noise of the crowd, the chill of a mildly cold and breezy English day, the smell of cheap undercooked chips. Can’t beat it!

Origins of the 3pm kick off go back as far as the late nineteenth century. At this time, with the process of industrialisation maturing, workers were being paid higher wages and had more expendable income. As well as this, there was the introduction of the half-day on Saturdays which combined, led to huge crowds to form at football matches all around the country on Saturday afternoons, and a national obsession was born.

I still remember the thrill of the first live game I attended. Arsenal vs Coventry back in 1996, a Saturday at 3pm of course. A nil-nil draw of which I barely saw any of the action due to the taller ‘grown-ups’ in front of us and the obscured views in the upper tier of the old West Stand at Highbury.

Now, don’t judge me here that it wasn’t an Albion game. I don’t come from football loving parents, they tolerate my football obsession at best and at the time of course Brighton was not the best place to take a child on his first trip to see a live game of football. In fact as the Albion played at Gillingham the following two seasons, this meant I wouldn’t catch the Albion live until the move to the Withdean in 1999.

I remember my first taste of the Albion well. A cold day in October as Brighton beat Hartlepool 1-0. I still remember the wind bellowing across the south stand. It was a very cold day and my brother made sure to tell us of the fact continuously. Additionally, we were initially terrified by the stand wobbling every time the Albion got a corner as the fans in the South Stand stomped their feet to make some noise, but soon warmed to it and frankly the concrete under feet at the AMEX doesn’t do the same job.

But of course, I didn’t mind the cold or the rickety stand really, we were at live football and it was incredibly exciting! We also hadn’t had satellite tv very long and the luxury of watching live football at home from the sofa was not what it is now. But without a parent or elder to encourage me along to a game, there’s a good chance I could have ended up a sofa supporter.

And attending live games isn’t for all football fans. Comedian John Robins is a self-confessed Sofa Supporters, who enjoys watching football but has never attending in person, just watched from the comfort of his own home. On the BBCs football magazine show ‘The Premier League Show’ he explained himself (with tongue somewhat in cheek)

“I don’t like noise, I don’t like traffic… I don’t like chanting on public transport. I don’t like aggression of any kind… I like solitude!… Maybe you are supposed to take the mickey and utter those dreaded words, that you aren’t a real fan. How many times have you heard this? The atmosphere was amazing, you were ten minutes late because of the traffic, I missed the first goal because I was at the bar, it was amazing but you wouldn’t know that, would you? No, I wouldn’t.”

However, attending a live football game on a Saturday at 3pm is very much still an English footballing institution. But it’s one being challenged in England, particularly in the Premier League, because of television companies and their urge to show as many games at various points in the day to appeal to the global viewing market time-zones and bring in that all important advertising revenue.

I grew up watching football on tv. My brother and I always used to get my parents to record Match of the Day on Saturday nights, so we could watch it on Sunday mornings. When we first got Sky in the late nineties, they showed 60 Premier League games a season, and a similar amount of football league games. Now along with BT Sport 168 premier league games and over 100 football league games are shown live each season as well as plenty of overseas football, international football and re-runs of as much premier league football as you can handle. It’s enough to keep you occupied all day every day, as long as your willing to pay for the subscription fee that is.

If your a supporter of a club like Brighton, then over the last few years courtesy of Sky you could watch most of the team’s games live and the remainder in extended highlights. It felt like every home game was on tele last season and almost as much this season too. Not good if you want to experience that 3pm kick off feeling or cannot make the rearranged date, but great for a sofa supporter.

Due to my own personal circumstances I gave up my season ticket a few years ago, but I still go to as many games as I can via the bronze membership scheme (a great improvement on previous schemes the club has had). That said, with the Albion being on television so much in recent years it has enabled me to watch more of the Albion than I did when I was a season ticket holder.

I live for going to the AMEX, you can’t beat the walk up the slope from the station, the Harvey’s and the smell of the pies on the concourse, (because of which I always end up buying one). But watching in the pub or at home with family and friends is a close second. Sky and TV companies in general get a bad name in British football circles and largely unfairly. Putting its shareholders first ahead of football fans is a necessity for Sky, whereas it’s the Premier League and the FA who allow fans interest to be ignored and seem intent to continue to do so. Furthermore, the power of having the games on television connects supporters who may otherwise be isolated from their club. There are plenty of people who for many reasons are unable to attend matches regularly or at all for which the live TV games give them a way in.

Just look at supporters’ groups like Seagulls Downunder. Fans like them would previously have been forced to find out results in newspapers or on the radio, but are now able to watch almost all matches on tv live due to the amount on English football on tv overseas.

Obviously, this is more prominent for clubs like our next opponents Man Utd rather than ourselves, until recent years games on tele were a rarity for the Albion. I remember the excitement when Brighton’s first round FA cup tie against Aldershot in 2000 was the main feature on Match of the Day. Whilst live TV games were a novelty of once or twice a season with chants of ‘I want to be on the tele’ coming from the South Stand at the Withdean.

in contrast almost every one of Man Utd’s games will have been featured on tv for many years now, and as a result they’ve built up a reputation for Sofa Supporters. Go on twitter and a quick search of club hashtags like #MUFC and you will find people from India to New Mexico defining themselves as Man Utd fans who’ve never been to England let alone Manchester. But this is the nature of the global Premier League business model, and one we must learn to live with, learn to like even in order to survive.

We should also bear in mind Sofa Supporters and especially overseas ones have a much more significant impact on a Premier League club’s revenue now than ever before. This is now much more so than that of supporters attending games contributing to the gate receipts. Those that say the fans buying season tickets ‘pay the players wages’ are no longer entirely correct nor do these fans hold as much importance to the club as they once did, which to some degree has lead to a disconnect between clubs and its supporters at some clubs. But, whilst money isn’t everything it greatly affects a clubs decision making processes and rightly so.

Whilst Man Utd were one of the clubs that were forcing the breakaway to the newly formed Premier League in 1992, Brighton were beginning a fall that would take them to the very bottom of the Football League. Things are very different now and whilst the Albion are not and never will be the global super-club that United have become, to establish ourselves as a Premier league team the club, we may have to sacrifice some of the traditional fans interests. Changing kick-off times and meeting the television companies requirements is all part of that.

The compromise comes with a significant benefit to the club. Whilst United have for a long time been one of, if not the richest clubs in the world, most Premier league teams now find themselves in the top 30 or 40 of the annual rich list. Of course, much of this revenue is spent on the team and you only have to look at examples like Sunderland and Leeds to see how these riches can be misused in that regard. That said there are plenty of example of clubs using these modern riches to invest in greater infrastructure for the club and local community and putting money into good local community schemes like the Albion do with AITC.

The days of the like of the late nineteenth century where men would leave work in the factories on Saturday afternoons and go to watch their local football club are long gone. Whilst many traditions like Saturday 3pm kick-offs remain, television football is here to stay, for better and for worse so we may as well learn to live with it and make the most of it rather than vilifying the television companies and Sofa Supporters that come with it.