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.

Monday Musings – two draws and an England international adds competition up front

Two draws on Sunday left Albion 16th in the Premier League with 4 points from 5 games and 8th in the WSL with 5 points from 5 games

A derby draw that raised more questions than answers

Let’s be honest, Sunday afternoons 1-1 draw in the (don’t call it the M23 Derby) Derby left neither party happy. Whilst hosts Palace walked away underwhelmed with a sum total of zero XG if we exclude the debatable penalty, Albion walked away frustrated after a domination of a total of twenty shots to Palace’s one resulted in only a draw and only Albion’s fourth point from their opening five games.

Those opening five fixtures were always going to be tough and the impressive win over Newcastle as well as some notable injustices and unfortunate defeats have left plenty still feeling optimistic despite the disappointing results recorded. But, didn’t we feel the same way this time last season?

Brighton opened last season with a similarly impressive run of performances in their opening games which gained a similarly disappointing points total, with one impressive 3-0 win away from home propping things up. Sound familiar?

Graham Potter was given the benefit of the doubt then due to his newly appointed status as manager. But what is also different is the level of opposition, which this time around was comparatively much higher. As such the upcoming home games against West Brom and Burnley respectively are likely to give a better barometer of Albion’s progress under Potter to date and answer a number of those still unanswered questions that remain from the end of last season.

An impressive away point on a satisfactory Sunday

If Albion’s draw in the Premier League was underwhelming, the impressive nature of Hope Powell’s teams 2-2 draw away to in-form Everton in the WSL was far from it. In fact Albion remain the only team not to have been beaten by Everton women’s team so far this season ahead of their next match in the belated Women’s FA Cup final against Man City.

Albion took a slightly fortunate lead when Everton‘s Sevecke inadvertently turned in a dangerous Kaagman free kick. The Dutch international player took the plaudits as she came up against her old club Everton for the first time since signing for Albion this summer.

Albion were then unfortunate to not go in ahead at the break after a deflected Christiansen free kick flew into the top corner and evened the scores as well as the luck. Albion’s ‘keeper Walsh was then once again this season forced to make a number of important saves to keep Albion level before getting a hand but not managing to keep out a Gauvin header from an Everton corner which gave the Toffees the lead.

But Albion saved the best goal of the game until last as a brilliant team move was finished off by the team’s top scorer last season Aileen Whelan, as she slid home the equaliser to get her first of the new season.

It’s a draw that not only puts the teams cup disappointment as well last weekend’s heavy defeat to Arsenal behind them, but also suggests the impressive win over Birmingham and draw with Man City were more of an indication of the team’s potential this season than that heavy defeat.

The game was slightly spoilt by some questionable refereeing after Albion’s Kayleigh Green appeared to be awarded two yellow cards but no red, in what was presumably an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Mistakes happen, but ones of the officiating kind happen far too often in the women’s game. This one however is one which as it came to Albion’s aide, I am willing to tolerate as the luck swung once in Albion’s favour.

Are Maupay’s chances running out as Welbeck signs?

Albion striker Neal Maupay certainly had and missed his chances against Palace on Sunday (6 shots – 2 on target, 1 off target, 3 blocked). But with the announcement pre-match of the Club’s signing of former England, Arsenal and Man United striker Danny Welbeck now adding to Connolly and Zeqiri waiting in the wings, there is now genuine competition for the starting striker role to keep him on his toes.

The signature of Danny Welbeck on a free transfer is another feather in the cap of Albion’s highly regarded recruitment team and further financially prudent transfer business from the club in these uncertain times.

This one in particular however could be the best signing of the “summer” transfer window as the addition of proven quality in attacking areas appears to be just what Potter’s squad needs right now. Especially after such an excruciating period of wasted chances that has held back much of the progress made by the team during Graham Potter’s period of management.

Up Next

As this week sees the beginning of the Champions League, Albion’s men’s team have a valuable midweek off and don’t play again until the visit of West Brom on next Monday night, which is live on BBC Sussex Radio (and apparently some new Pay Per View TV thingy).

Meanwhile the Women’s team don’t play again in the WSL until they host Aston Villa on 8th November, due to international fixtures taking place next weekend being followed by the aforementioned belated Women’s FA Cup final the following Sunday.

Fear not, if you can’t wait a whole week your next Albion fix the men’s development team are in action on Friday night at home to Leicester. A win would put Simon Rusk’s ever impressive young side top of Premier League 2, after a goal scored by Reda Khadra (his second in two matches) gave them a notable 1-0 win over Liverpool. A starting eleven that also featured a 45-minute cameo from a certain Jose Izquierdo.

A restart for Albion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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