Dan Burn – conveniently unconventional

He may not be the most technically gifted player in the team and probably doesn’t get into the Albion’s first eleven when everyone is fit, but Dan Burn has been pivotal for Brighton this season.

He is one of only five players to have featured for Brighton in all six of its league wins this season (along with Yves Bissouma, Lewis Dunk, Ben White and Neil Maupay). And he is also the only Albion player to have featured in all nine of Albion’s wins in all competitions that were inside the normal 90 minutes.

Some may be surprised to hear of his record, but it is a sign of Burn’s positional and tactical versatility, which gives Graham Potter something most others in the squad do not. An attribute that makes him so important to the squad, especially for a manager like Graham Potter who regularly alters his teams system and approach.

In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of football’s tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles. Graham Potter’s management approach and Dan Burn’s adaptability are good examples of this beginning to come to fruition. Burn’s positional adaptability under Potter has turned him from a rarely used fringe player under Hughton to a key member of the Brighton squad under Potter.

Even during the early periods of the current season where Burn spent much of his time on the bench for league matches, he was often brought on as a substitute. Being used by Potter to switch the formation and adapt to the issues that were arising in the match.

But of late he has taken advantage of the opportunity that injuries to other teammates has given him, starting the last eight games in a row, his best run since last season where he was near ever-present, starting 33 of the 38 league matches.

The first of those eight matches was a perfect example of his versatility, which was used to the team’s benefit to surprise the opposition in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield. In that match, rather than in the more defensive role he is accustomed to, he was used more as wide target man/left winger.

Jurgen Klopp said after the match that his team struggled to deal with Albion’s attacks which he described as “Chipping the ball to Burn and go from there.” It certainly wasn’t a role Burn had played often before if at all, so it’s not a surprise it caught Liverpool out and was so effective. And Burn’s role in subsequent matches has seen him stay in that position further up the pitch than he’s played previously, filling in for the absent Solly March.

This trend goes back to Albion’s defeat at home to Southampton during the early stages of the 2019/20 season, when after starting the season in a back three alongside Dunk and Duffy, he was switched to left back after Florin Andone was sent off and Potter switched to a back four. Despite the defeat, his marauding and effective full back performance was a real positive and was a role Potter went onto use him in for much of the rest of the season.

Former Fulham manager and Man United coach Rene Meulensteen said of Burn last season: “He’s an ideal player for a manager because he can play in multiple positions. He’s decent on the ball with his feet for a big, tall lad. Skill-wise, he’s very well equipped.”

However, it’s not been plain sailing for Burn this season. Most notably his first half performance against Wolves when he struggled to deal with Wolves winger Adams Traore so much that he gave away a penalty, got booked and scored an own goal as Albion trailed at half time 3-1 and he was eventually subbed off part way through the second half as Albion recovered to draw the match 3-3.

But Potter was defensive of his utility man saying after the game: “Dan Burn a couple of years ago was at Wigan in League One. Rather than being critical of Dan Burn, we should be proud of him. He puts himself there, he gives his best every day, gives his best every match. It’s easy to be critical in this world and he is a fantastic professional, a fantastic person.”

Graham Potter is clearly conscious of the criticism his players are getting, particularly after making mistakes whilst being asked to fulfil at times unfamiliar roles and take big risks defensively, such as the amount of space sometimes left in defence by Burn’s marauding runs forward. And is keen to not be overly critical of his players.

But Burn is a player Potter has regularly had to come to the defence of, saying after his eye-catching performance away to Liverpool “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football… I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me”.

As well as the criticism, Burn has drawn praise from many areas, not just from his manager. Last season Premier League pundit Adrian Clarke said “Burn does not look like a left-back, but he has taken to his new role wonderfully” Going into say “He is comfortable moving the ball through the lines…Meanwhile, his height and defensive ability are assets out of possession.”

Even prior to March’s injury which saw him return to the left hand side, he had made the left back role in a back four his own last season and has often been used in games this season as a left sided centre back in a back three able to switch to a left back in a back four if Potter makes one of his regular in-game formation switches. An adaptability that has regularly allowed Potter to save using a substitution.

Indeed he has had to adapt and find a less conventional route throughout his career to get to the point of playing regular Premier League football. He was initially on the books of Newcastle United but was released at the age of 13 and had to work his way through a more obscure route via the youth team Blyth Town and onto Blyth Spartans. From there he was picked up by League Two Darlington before moving to Fulham in 2011.

Whilst at Fulham two loan spells followed in between a handful of appearances for the club in the Premier League. Before playing more regularly for them in the Championship after their relegation in 2014. A move to Wigan followed in 2017 where he caught the eye of the Albion scouts despite their relegation to League One and was signed by Brighton under then manager Chris Hughton in 2018.

Hughton described Burn upon joining the club as having “a wealth of experience” going into say “He’s an imposing figure and had an excellent season helping Wigan to the League One championship”. And yet Burn was initially loaned back to Wigan for 6 months before being used sparingly by Hughton mostly in cup matches, as he favoured the tried and tested partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Indeed it’s been a long road for Burn who admits he initially struggled during his time at Newcastle, saying: “I wasn’t very good… I was struggling to grow into my body and a little bit all over the place.” To add to the difficulties he faced whilst he was still growing into his body, he also lost one of his fingers on his right hand, when it caught on a spike while he was climbing a fence.

Yes there are many things about Burn’s development and career that are unconventional, which in many ways makes him very suited to Graham Potter’s Brighton side.

Graham Potter’s own route into Premier League management is similarly unusual. Having started as a lower league footballer, he studied at the Open University and then at Hull University before working as an administrator for Ghana’s women’s team at the 2007 women’s World Cup. He then had his first chance in management in the Swedish Fourth Division, where he took Ostersunds into the top tier and then into European competition before he moved to Championship side Swansea and then onto Brighton in 2019. An experience which means he is clearly not overly influenced by a players track record, as his treatment of Burn shows.

It’s often the case that criticism of individuals in team sports comes from the audiences confirmed bias of that individual and an ignorance of the bigger picture. I think this is often the case when it comes to Dan Burn.

For example you hear it said a lot that “Dan Burn can’t win a header despite being so tall”. This simply isn’t true. Dan Burn has won 71 aerial duels so far this season, the most in team and the 19th most in the division. Whilst last season he won 141 aerial duels, again the most in the Albion team and the 10th highest in the Premier League.

The Secret Footballer has spoken about how ignorance from supporters often leads to unfair criticism of players, including how on many occasions when a misplaced pass is made, it’s often that a teammate didn’t make the right run off the ball rather than the player passing the ball being at fault.

Potter’s Albion are a team that takes more risks than many of its competitors, particularly the players in Burn’s current role at wing back. Graham Potter seems unafraid of his teams making mistakes and is happy to place his trust in those who have made them on multiple occasions previously. In fact, it would be hard to find a player in the Brighton team that hasn’t made a few mistakes this season. But at 6”7 and playing as an eye catching marauding wingback, Dan Burn stands out more than most when they do occur.

When players reach their late 20s as Burn now has, it isn’t unusual for them to reinvent themselves positionally to adapt and maintain their position in the game. However, it isn’t as commonplace that you see a centre back doing so as an attacking wing back, let alone one that is 6”7 tall. But if history has taught us anything it’s that neither Graham Potter nor Dan Burn are conventional.

Monday musings – Mistakes and mentality shifts

Saturday’s home match with Leicester saw another good performance from Albion in an entertaining game at the AMEX. But once again, a positive result was snatched at the death by opponents Leicester City after yet more mistakes from Albion when defending set pieces.

And it was yet another game that highlighted how this Albion team is so close to being very, very good, and yet dangerously close to being relegated. But those are perils of topflight football.

Just look at Southampton. They were top in November. Then at the start of February after losing 9-0 to Man United they were beginning to look over their shoulders and worrying about getting dragged into a relegation battle until their win on Saturday.

The defeat to Leicester did show once again however that this Brighton team is more suited to playing the better, more attacking teams in the division. It was a game in contrast to the recent defeats where the opposition dominated possession, with Albion having only 37%, but where Albion were arguably closer to winning than some of those recent games where they had nearly double that proportion of possession.

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

Albion have had over 60% possession four times in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four, accumulating just 2 points.

Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 4 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 (10 times this season), they’ve won on 4 occasions and picked up 14 points, an average of 1.4 points per game.

Fortunately, our fixture list means there’s a fair few games left where we can expect the opposition to take the game to us and Albion can play a style that has been more fruitful for them in terms of points this season.

Unfortunately, they are the teams in the division that will punish you just like Leicester did on Saturday.

Especially if you drop off as Albion did in the second half on Saturday. As Adam Lallana said in his post match interview “If you drop your levels you get punished, it feels like we didn’t perform well enough.”

A big part of that was Albion’s lack of attacking thrust as the game went on, which has been significantly hampered since the injury to Solly March that has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Since Solly March came off in the 67th minute in the win over Liverpool, Albion have scored just three times in 563 minutes of football, losing 4 and drawing 2 of those matches.

I think it’s easy to assume now, that if Albion are to stay up we need to beat Newcastle. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case given who we’ve beaten this season and the record outlined above. I would class that match as a must not lose instead.

But there is still plenty of hope on the remaining eleven league fixtures. The Newcastle win earlier in the season now seems more of an anomaly, with all of Brighton’s other league wins coming against teams currently sitting 6th-11th in the league table. So I’m more optimistic about some of the later fixtures against teams who will come at us more, rather than that return fixture against Newcastle in two weeks time.

However, this style isn’t fool proof and didn’t see Albion pick up any points on Saturday, with the Leicester winner another example of Albion’s risk in throwing in so many youngsters this season.

These are the players who more often have been culpable with errors at the back. First there was Sanchez’s flailing punch, then Alzate losing his marker. It’s been a running habit of the season and to be fair to those mentioned above we’ve seen many others like Ben White often similarly culpable from defending set pieces. It is a part of the process of blooding so many youngsters unfortunately. But one the team really can’t afford to have many more examples of if they are to survive this season.

Whilst I like Alzate, I don’t think bringing him on late in the game with the score tied made much sense. With the game as it was our midfield needed a bit more stability and experience, but he is a player that Graham Potter has shown plenty of trust in during his tenure, maybe before he is quite ready for it.

I would have preferred Davy Propper to come on instead, a player with a little more nous and plenty more experience. The Dutchman’s lack of playing time this season remains a real puzzle to me and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him figure more than Alzate in the run in.

If you can criticise Graham Potter for one thing this season, it’s his over reliance on the young players. It’s admirable and exciting to see, but I think that he’s shifted out the likes of Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray whilst barely using Propper when fit has been a huge factor in the key moments that have gone against the team.

That said, this is the route the club has chosen to take and whatever happens, I really hope we keep hold of Graham Potter and stick to it. As I discussed at the beginning of the season, this mix of youth and experience was always going to be a tough balancing act for Potter and is one he isn’t always going to get right. But let’s wait until the end of the season to make a final judgement.

Two days on we’re all still reeling from that late Leicester goal, but nonetheless let’s take a moment to appreciate what a player Adam Lallana is. He was fantastic against Leicester, his first Premier League start since the draw away to West Ham in December. If he stays fit I think we’ll be fine.

Fulham’s win over Liverpool has since left Albion only above the dreaded dotted line only on goal difference by a mere three goals. Albion’s time in the Premier League has partly been defined by its ability to avoid being in the relegation zone, but that may have changed by the time we next play.

It will be a huge shift in mentality for this team from constantly keeping the bottom three at arm’s length to being in it. What is clear is that unlike in the 2018/19 season, when Cardiff City failed to take advantage of a faltering Albion team, this time we cannot rely on the bottom three to get us out of trouble.

This season began with many talking about progression rather than just mere survival for the team after Graham Potter’s first season in charge saw green shoots of hope in that direction. But for this progress to continue mere survival is imperative.

I suspect 38/40 points will be required for that after this weekend’s results. That’s just over a point a game from here on, which is very achievable, but this bad run needs to end fast.

18/19 Season review – The last ten games

Matchday 29 and FA Cup Quarter Final- Two wins that will go down in folklore

The final ten games started with two wins that will go down in Albion folklore. First it was a trip to Selhurst Park for the seemingly unpopularly named ‘M23’ Derby (something Jonathan Pearce pointed out in his Match of the Day commentary), followed by a trip to Millwall for an FA Cup quarter final.

It was an early start for the trip to Selhurst Park, with the game kicking off at 12:30, and it was the first top flight game between the sides that had been picked for live TV coverage. Crystal Palace away is a fixture I have little good memories of, the only time we’ve won there in my memory was in 2005 when I was stuck in a hostel in the Lake District with little communication with the outside world. That was in fact the only win the Albion have experienced over Palace at Selhurst Park since 1986.

It felt like this might be another bad day there for the Albion when Andone, who was picked to start ahead of Murray, was injured in the warm up. So Murray started once again against his old club looking for his 100th league goal for Brighton, but it was the hosts that dominated the early passages and more doom was feared by the Seagulls faithful.

But despite not being the aggressor, Brighton started the game by making sure Palace knew they were in for a battle. And in doing so almost instantly made Milivojevic a marked man. First Anthony Knockaert went in overzealously for a tackle and caught the Serbian studs high in his private area, then just as the pain was starting to subside Bissouma caught him painfully on his ankle.

Whilst this sent a message to Palace that they were in for a battle, with Knockaert and Montoya already on yellows up against Zaha, and Bissouma on a warning the Seagulls were walking a tightrope. But nonetheless they kept Zaha quiet virtually all game. Palace’s star man and top scorer from open play had only two shots, neither of which were on target. Whilst he attempted 9 dribbles only three were successful (a 33% success rate compared to his average of 50%). His passing accuracy was 70% compared to his average of 77%, which included three crosses, none of which were successful.

Many pundits adore Zaha when he’s good, and at the Albion we know to our cost how good he can be. But this was the other side of him, ineffectual, impatient and petulant. Montoya had him under control all game and even when Zaha switched to the right at 2-1 down after Solly March was introduced for Knockaert he was just as ineffectual.

He did create one good moment when one of his crosses was blocked but was deflected back into box to create one of the best chances of the game. But the Albion held firm as Duffy’s headed clearance was followed up by a Dunk block in a moment that personified the Albion back line. Dunk in particular was brilliant that day, as it seems the targeting he got from the Palace supporters from the start spurred him on.

The scoring was opened by that man Glenn Murray to achieve another landmark. After James Tomkins unintentionally flicked the ball into his path, Murray volleyed the ball into the bottom corner with aplomb. This was only Tomkins second error leading to goals this season, both of which he saved for Brighton, cheers James. Aside from these two games, he’s been fantastic for Palace, but such is the way of the football gods that he made his two errors in the two big derby games.

But the Albion would only hold the lead until the 50 minutes mark when Davy Propper gave away a penalty and the Albion’s marked man Milivojevic retaliated by putting it away to draw Palace level.

But the game wouldn’t stay level. And it was a moment of magic from Anthony Knockaert that settled the game with a goal reminiscent of his 2017 Championship player of the season winning form. A goal that would end up winning the premier league goal of month award and the Albion’s goal of the season. As Knockaert ran away in glee Glenn Murray held his hands over his face, presumably to hide the glee and shock of the goal from his former employers and their supporters, but we all knew.

This is one of the moments that would lead to these two games in eight days going down in Albion folklore. And it was a moment that perfectly demonstrated the contrasting elements of Knockaert’s game. One minute his enthusiasm is getting the better of him and he almost gets sent off, the next he wins the game with the goal of the season.

At full time the Albion sat on 33 points and eight clear of the bottom three, which with their far superior goal difference was effectively nine. But in the 3pm kick offs, Cardiff, Newcastle and Burley all won and the gap between the Albion and the bottom three remained at 5 points. There was still work to do but with the FA cup quarter final away to Millwall up next we could all take our minds off worrying about the relegation battle, for now.

Millwall

Then came a game that summed up 2019 for the Albion. At times awful, at times heroic, at times let down by the officials, at times just chaos. But ultimately just about doing enough. The win at Millwall, and specifically the moment Solly March’s overhit cross was dropped into the goal by Millwall’s veteran ‘keeper David Martin will be a moment that will live with all the Albion fans that witnessed it for a long time.

This was an epic cup tie and one where Brighton were on the backfoot from the off. The great Millwall atmosphere was intimidating, which was whipped up by a team huddle at start and continued by the noise created by the Millwall fans that was less a football chant and more a communal grunt. And if the Brighton team weren’t intimidated by then they had to contend with being left to wait on the pitch in the middle of this ferocious atmosphere for the Millwall team to return to the pitch after half time.

This clearly affected the Albion in what was a largely disjointed and timid performance until March replaced Knockaert on 67 minutes. But until then the Albion showed little of their Premier League status Hughton called on them to call upon before the game. A particularly prescient example of this was every time Millwall won a corner, something met with roars of delight from the home crowd and a large degree of panic in the Albion defence of the like seen by the team last season.

And this paid dividends for Millwall when Alex Pearce scored from a corner after being left unmarked at back post when his marker Murray was blocked off during an ever effective Millwall routine.

Knockaert was as poor as any Albion player that day and was clearly affected by the circumstances. Every decision was rushed, lacking composure and it was inevitable he would be replaced. In fact in these last two games Knockaert had played badly in both, and a wonder goal aside left the Albion right hand side quite diminished until Solly March was brought on.

When O’Brian put Millwall 2-0 up with just over ten minutes to go even the most optimistic of Brighton fans wouldn’t have expected what was to come. And as the minutes ticked down all hope seemed lost. And as Jonathon Pearce said in his commentary Brighton were heading out unless there was a late miracle.

But when Solly March’s impact down the right finally paid dividends after he rounded the Millwall defence and found fellow super sub Locadia who swivelled and fired it home to make it 2-1. Then after Brighton won a free kick mid way into the Millwall half, Solly March’s equalised with his miss-hit cross.

From here the Albion had the momentum, and despite having a perfectly good goal disallowed in the dying moments of extra time and then Murray missing the first penalty of the shoot out, Brighton won 5-4 on penalties.

And as the Seagulls fans in South London went mad, so did the team. This truly felt like a momentous occasion. Even Hughton said excitedly after the game “Now the draw has been made we are so excited about a game in which we will obviously be big underdogs, but what a challenge.”

Match day 30 – 33 and FA Cup Semi Final – 5 big games, 5 big defeats

So after two big wins, the Albion entered a key and exiting section of the season with a trip to Stanford Bridge and an FA Cup Semi Final sandwiched in between three important home games against fellow relegation candidates. Five games that promised much but delivered little but heartache.

Southampton

First up was Southampton at home and a 1-0 defeat, which piled the pressure on the team. Some suggested the players had ‘taken their eye off the ball’ due to the FA cup distraction? But this was ignoring the fact that thing hadn’t been going right for the team for a while.

Much like Huddersfield it was a poor first half that Southampton edged. But unlike Huddersfield the second half started much the same and got worse when after Bissouma was caught in possession, Nathan Redmond pounced and drove forward with pace and found Hojbjerg who scored his second goal against the Albion this season.

It was a goal that illustrated the issues with the Albion performance. Too slow in possession and too easily disturbed by the good Southampton press. Southampton, who’s switched from their usual back three to a back four to best combat the Albion’s front three were the better organised and saw out the game with reasonable ease. Whereas Albion were struggling to make their much derided 433 formation work effectively.

It wasn’t until March (for Jahanbakhsh) and then Locadia (for Propper) came on until the Albion looked dangerous. This was another example that without March stretching the defence and another attacker (in this case Locadia) adding an extra penalty box threat, Brighton are too reliant on set pieces and Glenn Murray for goals.

For long periods Murray looked isolated and had to drift wide to find space leaving little to no penalty box threat. This combined with the lack of willingness of midfielders to make forward runs to compensate, then you can see why we only managed one shot on target all game. And this was a trend that continued on this run and the deficiencies that this system caused would be further exposed in upcoming games against the far superior opposition of Chelsea and Man City.

That said, if Duffy had connected with Knockaert’s free kick, or Bernardo had done better when free at the back post from a corner, or Jahanbakhsh‘s shot had clipped the underside of the bar and gone in then it could have looked different. But these are the small margins which games are decided on.

Chelsea

With the trip to Chelsea sandwiched between the Southampton game and the FA cup semi it was almost like the visit to the home of the three times Premier League champions had been forgotten. Somewhat surprisingly for a London away game, the away end didn’t sell out with many Albion fans saving their hard earned pennies for Saturday’s FA Cup Semi Final. And this summed up the feeling around the club since the Millwall win, the focus was all on Wembley.

And with Hughton’s plan for Brighton to shut down Chelsea’s attacking threat and create a forgettable game the ones who stayed away probably made the right choice. But whilst it was frustrating to watch and the 3-0 defeat suggested otherwise, his plan largely worked. A bit of a freak first goal followed by two wonder strikes (one from Hazard, again) won Chelsea a deserved lead but on another night we could have sneaked a draw.

In many ways it was a disciplined and impressive performance, in particular Dale Stephens’ positional awareness was making things tough for the home team. Whilst primarily doubling up with Propper on Hazard. Dale also filled in for Bissouma when required when the Malian tried to drive forward

Dale Stephens always divides opinion. But a look at his stats from that night back him up. Defensively he was good, his tacking was as good as ever. Going forward he was also one of the better ones, with an 88% passing accuracy 5% up on his season average.

Our defensive shape that night was quite good in general and Stephens held it all together. Something we’d need again at the weekend.

Man City

All the defensive shape and discipline practice would come in handy for playing City in the semi final that I described in more detail here. But rather than focus on the game here I want to focus on the day, and what a day it was.

Yes we lost, but the day never was about the result, it was about the club and its fans enjoying a historic day in the club’s history. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. And pre-match the atmosphere in the west end of the stadium was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase.

For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feet applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.

These were post match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.

Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for the club, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the Albion managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.

The club hoped this would be a springboard for the two key home games coming up against Bournemouth and Cardiff. As Hughton said himself after the game: “To run City close takes a huge effort so it’s a very, very tired changing room. We are happy but on Monday morning we’ve got to get our Premier League heads on. We have got a fight on our hands.”

Bournemouth

But rather than a springboard for that fight, in preceded the most damming week of the season and probably that of the AMEX era. The was on the receiving end of its worst home defeat in 47 years and then lost to their direct relegation rivals Cardiff a few days later.

Tired and drained from the culmination of the cup run? Restrained by a lack of confidence and the pressure of the occasion? Or just out-fought and out-thought? Whatever the reason, Brighton were second best on both occasions.

Albion’s FA Cup heroes returned to the AMEX for Premier League duties knowing that avoiding defeat in both games would likely be enough to see them secure another season in the top flight. But instead they quickly became villains as they were taken to pieces by an out of form Bournemouth and then comfortably beaten by a struggling Cardiff who’d only won twice away from home all season before that win.

For me this was the week that the excuses for the bad performances really had to end. In both games there was plenty of evidence of a placid stand-offish approach from the Albion, which was maybe in part as a result of a hangover of the approach from the Chelsea and City games. But it had become ever more a habit as the season went on and the team’s form deteriorated.

Ultimately you can’t defend in the same fashion against Bournemouth or Cardiff as you do against City and get away with it here. Two sides whose strength lies in fast counter attacking picked off an Albion team caught in two minds of whether to go out and attack or defend in numbers, ultimately managing neither.

The terrible defending for the first goal is an example of this. As a defensive unit they, much like against City and Chelsea, sat deep and let Bournemouth pass around then. But without the same back tracking from forward players and without the same effective defensive shape, Bournemouth walked it though the large gaps in the Brighton defence.

After half time it got worse as Fraser scored a spectacular second when he caught an off-colour Ryan out of position. And it got even worse than that after Knockaert was red carded for an awful tackle. A moment that could be put down as trying too hard, but in reality was a moment stupidity.

After that the team seemed to give up and the third, fourth and fifth goals just added to the embarrassment. As well as the heaviest home defeat since 1972 it was the heaviest defeat under Hughton. As described by the Talk Sport radio commentator that day, it was an “absolute humiliation”.

Such was the humiliation, many fans left at 4-0 with ten minutes to go, early even by AMEX standard. And it’s hard to blame them, after all the talk of creating more chances since the change to a 433, the team had mustered only had 2 shots on target over the last 2 home games.

Cardiff

So with the Albion facing Cardiff on the following Tuesday it felt like a reaction was needed. And the team started like a house on fire, but it was Cardiff who took the lead via a spectacular strike from Mendez-Laing on the break.

It was he who drove the visitors forward with a pace that the Albion lacked, after winning the ball in midfield from Propper, also showing a determination that the Brighton team lacked. With Propper caught out of position, Mendez Laing was given too much space by Stephens and he rifled it into the top corner.

At half time some initial boos were drowned out by cheers and chants of Albion to encourage the team. But what followed in the second half was even worse. In attack the team looked rudderless, whereas Cardiff looked constantly dangerous on the break with the pace of their attack.

And after the returning Pascal Gross gave away a free kick Morrison headed home Camarasa’s cross to give Cardiff an unassailable two goal lead.

As a result of the predicament Hughton brought on Izquierdo and Andone and they showed some intent, but it created little chances on goal and a 2-0 defeat is how it ended. This was now three straight defeats at home to non-top six sides and eight goals conceded without reply.

Whereas this was once a team that whilst struggling to control games were good in both boxes, this was now a team that was seemingly good at nothing and needed to go back to basics to find any kind of winning formula.

This was a run that had tested the squad and that supposed strength we spoke about earlier in the season had been found out as weak, in attacking areas at least. With Murray’s goals drying up and Gross injured, the rest of the team had failed to fill the hole they left and this is certainly something that will need addressing in the summer. And in particular the pressure was now on Jahanbakhsh to show in the remaining games why the club paid so much for a player with so little impact, albeit only in his first season. Pressure that he was struggling under.

Much of the criticism for the last two performances was fair, but to say this team was passionless demonstrates a very short memory considering it’s track record. As Maty Ryan said “We dedicate and sacrifice our lives – not just the players but everyone in and around the club – by working tirelessly day in and day out to maintain our status in the Premier League.”

Many suggested that this result was terminal for Brighton’s survival hopes. And with Cardiff now holding the momentum and a run of winnable games compared to Brighton’s much tougher run-in, there was certainly good reason for concern. But the team reacted with a run of performances that removed any anxiety and answered many of the questions raised over these two games of the team’s attitude and aptitude at least.

Matchday 34 – 38 – Battle, bottle and fight, or crawling over the line depending on your perspective.

Wolves

But if the defeat to Cardiff looked terminal, the draw with Wolves that came next brought the team back to life. If the team lacked passion and battling qualities against Cardiff they were here for everyone to see in this game and it was a point that felt huge with Cardiff losing to Liverpool the following day increasing the gap to three points and with the Albion also having a far better goal difference, it meant Cardiff needed more than one win to go above the Albion even if they gained no more points. The pressure was now truly on Cardiff to get a result.

It was a game where we showed little attacking threat, underling the need to add pace and composure in attacking areas to the squad next season. But, some absolutely brilliant defending brought a well earned clean sheet and the solidity of the defence has ultimately proved our saviour this season.

It was a performance that was just what the doctor had ordered. It was only Brighton’s second clean sheet of 2019 & the second clean sheet away all season. But the only shame is that we had to go back to basics and take a step back in our tactical progression to get it.

Tottenham

And the trip to Tottenham that followed this during the following week was a repeat performance only spoilt by a spectacular if speculative winner from Eriksen to give Albion yet another defeat. It was a second game running playing a very defensive 451 with little to no attacking intent.

However, when the teams were announced many were surprised to see both Bernardo and Bissouma start in a game like this. They’re both more attack-minded than Bong and Kayal who instead started on the bench in a game which the team would be doing a lot of defending. But they wholeheartedly proved us wrong.

Defensively we were very good against a very dangerous team. With Dunk and Duffy doing their usual job of blocking everything coming their way, whilst Bernardo had a very good game at left back too.

But this was more evidence of how the team needed to work on that final ball when they do get in the right areas. Everyone’s latest scapegoat Jahanbakhsh was trying all the right things, but with nothing coming off.

My ultimate feeling was of pride despite the deflation of the late goal conceded. If Brighton were to be relegated from here, it won’t be because of this result. It will be because they haven’t put in a 90 minutes full of that kind of commitment, discipline and resolve enough times since the start of the year.

Newcastle

So then came Newcastle at home. Realistically, the best and possibly only chance of the win that would see off the threat of Cardiff once and for all. But before the game, news came through that Cardiff had lost away to Fulham and unless there was a huge goal difference swing in their favour, they now needed four points from their last two home to Palace and away to Man United to go above Brighton. A win here would therefore all but secure safety, whereas a draw meant Cardiff needed to pull off an improbable two wins.

Following that news there was much relief in the stands at the AMEX. Personally I thought that was it as I couldn’t see Cardiff winning one, let alone both of their final games. But this game still needed to be played and preferably resulting in a long awaited win and morale boosting performance, not to be, certainly in the first half.

Albion started against an already safe Newcastle side with an unusual looking 442. Gross started on the right and Andone and Murray were up top. But after not working well and Newcastle talking an early lead they switched back to the 433, with Andone moving to the right of a front three and Gross into the midfield three. A change which was made little difference to a terrible first half performance. Tactics have been the talk of the terraces since January and after trying it in the second half against Cardiff and then it lasting less than half an hour here, the option of playing a 442 looked as dead as a dodo.

But this was less about systems and more about personnel. In the first half they looked like a set of players scarred from conceding 4 to Fulham, 3 to Burnley and 5 to Bournemouth. Afraid to press, afraid to take the risks required to created chances and devoid of any confidence. As the teams trudged off to a chorus of boos, it was hard to see us turning this around.

Pascal Gross admitted after the game that “not everybody has the biggest confidence.” This is something that’s been evident for a while and especially since that 4-2 defeat to Fulham. The confidence in themselves and their teammates has clearly been diminished and too often the easy option was taken, either when in or out of possession.

But the second half was a much better performance and they did turn it around to get a draw, another example of the team’s great mental strength in adversity. One main reason for the change in performance was half time substitute Solly March, who was the game changer. He gave the team the energy to attack and get the draw which allowed Cardiff a stay of execution.

Another change at half time was to the system (again). Back to the tried and trusted 4411 with Gross behind Murray as the number 10. And who’d have known that playing Gross in the role he was so successful in last season would mean we would create chances to score? This change also helped Murray, who looked so much more effective on his own up top.

And it was these two who combined for the equalising goal. Murray heading down a Bruno cross for Gross to score. And it was almost three points when Murray headed over from a near perfect Knockaert cross in the last minute.

A miss that many wondered whether it would it prove costly with Cardiff still able to go above us with two wins. But as Palace did us a favour and beat Cardiff before we played next, another season in the Premier League was secured, just about.

Arsenal

So the game away to Arsenal which was the Sky Sports Super Sunday game and Arsenal’s last home game of the season as they searched for Champions League football was one with little but pride riding on it for Albion.

But it was hard to tell that after a good first half of football from both teams that was only spoilt by a rash tackle from Jahanbakhsh who gave away a penalty to give the home side a 1-0 lead at the break. Yes, it was a soft penalty but it was a naive tackle from behind from the Iranian, which is always a risk and left few Albion fans arguing with the decision.

Jahanbakhsh was subbed at half time, with Knockaert replacing him. The Frenchman seemingly forgiven for his misdemeanour against Bournemouth. And with that it was same again for the next 45 for the Albion who looked a great attacking threat on the break.

And Brighton deservedly drew level when Glenn Murray converted a penalty given away by Granit Xhaka, another silly tackle, another soft penalty few argued with. This was a landmark goal for Murray, his 200th career goal in his 400th career games. A great return.

And after a number of good chances were missed by both sides the game ended level. This was Brighton’s first away goal in five matches, and it earned them their first point at the home of a top-six team since promotion, a breakthrough moment. It’s just shame it came after the point in the season when it didn’t actually matter.

And despite the impressive performances from the team, on The BBC’s Match of the Day, Jermaine Jenas and Ian Wright were scathing of Albion’s negativity during the season as a whole. With Jermaine Jenas saying that Hughton “needed to show the club and his players that he can do it another way and that they can be more entertaining.” With Wright adding: that Hughton was “very negative”.

They in particular highlighted the fact that Brighton had their most touches in an opposition box away from home all season here (28). But that was in part due to the gung ho approach of the opposition here. For example against a similarly attacking styled team Fulham, Brighton managed 27.

Brighton have been too negative at times this season, yes. But the players deserve as much criticism, if not more, than the manager for this. The players need to show more confidence and be braver at times, this was an example of what happens when they do that. It’s easy to blame Hughton, but it’s harder to recognise that bigger issues exist that are harder to spot by the untrained eye.

That certainly wasn’t the case here as Brighton counter attacked with intent at every opportunity, but why was this game different to recent games such as City or Spurs where they struggled to do so? Despite their 30% possession Brighton had 11 shots, 5 of which on target. Compare this to the recent games with Spurs away 6 shots, 1 on target, Wolves away 5 shots none on target, and City in the Cup Semi 5 shots 2 or target.

The pressure being off will certainly have given the players the confidence to go forward and take risks. Whilst it’s also fair to say that playing a team like Arsenal who will not track back in the numbers that most other teams do would have helped. But another big reason was the good use of the 433, in particular the two central midfielders Bissouma and Gross getting forward to support the attack. Something not seen enough when it was used at other times in the season.

The formation change has come under great criticism in the second half of the season but this performance was in part the fruits of Hughton’s labour in persisting with the change. Whilst nominally continuing with the 433, out of possession it became more of a 451, but in possession it was more of a 343 with Stephens sitting deep to join the back line and the fullbacks pushing up to join the attack.

When we talk about confidence and bravery, this performance was an example of it in an attacking sense. This was a great performance, probably the best away from home since promotion, unfortunately it finally came when the pressure was off, and that is a concern for next season when the pressure will be very much back on.

Man City

With City playing to win the league the Albion played second fiddle in their final home game of the season. And it was an emotional day as the club said goodbye to captain Bruno, retiring after his seven years with the club. And unbeknownst to everyone at the time it would be Chris Hughton’s last game at the club, after he was sacked by the club the following morning after 4 and a half years in charge of the club.

After a lively start it was Albion who took the lead via Glenn Murray’s brave header at the near post from a corner. After he landed in a heap on the floor, maybe slightly bruised but unharmed and clearly showing no hesitation after the nasty head injury he received earlier in the season.

But this only awoke the beast as City went on to justify their Champions status. City’s equaliser came immediately after, 83 seconds after to be precise. It was a wonderful pieces of ingenuity from David Silva to flick it round the Albion defence and put Aguero clear who scored past Ryan

They then quickly took the lead when Laporte headed in from a corner unmarked after leaving Glenn Murray in his wake. Then in the second half they upped their game some more and finished Albion off with a great strike from Marhez from the edge of the box and another from Gundogan from a free kick.

With the game and the season petering out, Hughton made one final substitution, bringing off captain Bruno who received a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground and shared a poignant ‘changing of the guard’ moment when he passed on the captain’s armband to his successor Lewis Dunk.

And with that the season and another home defeat ended. But there was no shame losing to this City team, one of the best club sides English football has ever seen. For the club to be involved in such a game and see City lift the Premier League title gave a shine to an otherwise mostly dreary end to the season. And it was a reminder of the success of achieving Premier League survival.

But we should recognise the failure here too. The win over Palace, was the only league win against a team outside the bottom three in 2019. In fact, Brighton went into 2019 with 26 points from 20 games and then took only twelve from the remaining 18, including only 2 wins. That’s a points average for a team that would be lucky to not finish bottom of the league most seasons, let alone survive relegation.

So in a way losing here was a fitting end to a disappointing second half of the season. Whilst we may have ended the first half thinking we were a mid-table team, we ended the second half just glad to be a top flight team.

And the next day the club announced it had parted company with Chris Hughton. A sad end to a brilliant tenure as manager, arguably the greatest that the club has ever seen. It was a decision Chairman Tony Bloom described as “one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion“.

My initial feelings were that of shock, sadness and a little anger that at least Chris should have been given the send off he deserved, one similar to that of Bruno’s. But, football is an unsentimental business. And if Bloom has proven himself one thing since becoming chairman of the club, it’s a shrewd and unsentimental businessman who knows his own mind.

Summary – A Job well done, just about

So with all that Brighton ended the season 17th with 36 points. All in all a success, but a diminished return from last season’s 15th placed finish with 40 points. And it should be stated that 36 points would only have been enough to survive the drop in 50% of the time since the Premier League changed to a 20 team league in 1995/96. Ultimately we were lucky that Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff were as bad as they were.

And there was plenty of evidence that pointed to a year on year demise. The City defeat made it eight home defeats this season, double the total from 17/18. Games at home to Burnley, Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, ones we wouldn’t have lost last season, are the cause of that year on year diminished points return.

Last season we lost at home to three of the top six plus Leicester (and Leicester got lucky that Murray missed a penalty). This season saw defeats to four of the top 6 plus the 4 games mentioned above. A huge negative in the year on year comparison. Add to that the relative lack of progress in the teams away form and the lack of success in the tactical progress that initially promised so much, and you have plenty of reasons to look on this season negatively.

But what is the reason for these problems?

Firstly, this is a very competitive division. Four of that top six are European cup finalists, whilst another accumulated 198 points over the last two seasons. Even relegated Fulham spent £100m on new players before the season started.

But nonetheless, this Albion team had promised so much more in 2018 but all that promise collapsed in 2019. A collapse that coincided with the attempts to play more offensive football since January. Tactics that played against our strengths and it’s clear now that it was done without the required quality in the squad to do so on a consistent basis. This needs addressing in the summer.

This was a team that for a season had been hard to beat, losing only 16 games last season, not bad for a newly promoted side when you consider Fulham lost 26 this season whilst Cardiff lost 24. But Brighton lost a total of 20 games this season, in a season where we were hoping for progression we instead got regression.

The turning point of the season in hindsight looks like when the Albion threw away those two 2-0 leads at both West Ham and Fulham. At the time with the run that directly preceded it they were easier results to write off as bad days at the office. But ever since then the team has looked scarred from those experiences and as a result were frightened to take risks, the sort of risks that are required to be made if the offensive tactics are to work. It was only really since the second half vs Newcastle where that changed, by that point it was ultimately too late to save our season from a feeling of disappointment and Hughton from the sack.

But as Paul Hayward said in the Telegraph: “Those fans who said there was “nothing to celebrate” about the club’s survival may care to reflect that Liverpool and Man City will be traveling to Brighton and Hove again next season. The summer offers hope of a review and improvements. That process would be a lot less fun in the Championship.”

And as Paul Barber pointed out in his Man City programme notes, “we have only played six seasons in our 118 year history at the highest level.” A comforting bit of realism that makes Hughton’s sacking look hasty.

And there are plenty of positives to build on from this season: The improved squad strength is evident, no less shown in that wonderful cup run that papered over the ever growing cracks in our league season. And this is a squad that has been far more tested to its extremes this season with its ability to manage far more injuries & suspensions that have occurred.

Furthermore, the far more consistently competitive performances against the top 6 is also a big positive (Champions City aside perhaps). Whilst in the 12 played the club only accumulated 5 compared to the 7 points from last season, we’ve been in virtually every game bar Chelsea and City away conceding only 22 (27 last season) scoring 9 (6 last season) and picked up the team’s first away point against a top 6 side, at Arsenal.

Many of the signings made have contributed to this progress. At the back Button, Steele, Burn and Balogun were all clearly signed as back up and when asked have done a good job. Whereas Bernardo and Montoya have had largely good seasons and can now rightly be considered first choice full backs going onto next season, an area of the team that needed strengthening.

The club’s problem in the transfer market have instead been in the areas further up the pitch. Whilst Bissouma was signed for a large fee this is in part based on his potential, he’s 21 and the club wouldn’t have necessarily been expecting him to be first choice in his first season. But he has nonetheless shown lots of talent and in the second half of the season has been picked to play in most of the big games, to admittedly varying success.

there is also Andone, who was signed after a great deal of excitement, but injuries have limited his impact. Yet, he’s also done enough to be considered another good addition and would have played more were it not for Glenn Murray’s continued goal scoring form.

But it’s Jahanbakhsh that has received much of the ire and yes he has struggled. As the season has gone on and the pressure to get results has increased his performances were ones which noticeably suffered. Whilst established players like March and Knockaert have shown relatively consistent impacts in the attacking third, Jahanbakhsh has shown a consistent lack of impact.

This coupled with the continued struggles of Locadia and the constant injuries of Izquierdo, one of the key players last season, has made things much harder in this area. Between the three of them they have contributed just 2 goals and 1 assist in the league this season.

It’s easy to criticise the recruitment. But much like with Bissouma, all of these players would be considered players purchased with the future partly in mind as well as this current season. Unfortunately, this progress has been too slow, for Hughton at least.

But it was Hughton who underlined this when asked about the limited contribution of Andone and Jahanbakhsh. Saying: “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’ve brought a player in and you have other options. A lot of players that don’t settle into that first season can or possibly could argue that if they had played more regularly, they would have worked through it. But that’s trying to get that balance between what you feel is your best team at the time. With the players mentioned, I’m sure there will be more from them next season.”

Whilst we used less players this season, 21 compared to 24 last season. There was less reliance on a core set of players. Last season seven players played in all bar three games, whereas this season there were only four. Moreover three players played a part in every game, whereas this season the only man to do that was Glenn Murray, a stat that underlines his importance to the team.

But as well as the above three, it’s also Gross’s injuries that have meant the team struggled in the final third. Compared to last season we lacked both Izquierdo’s pave and Gross’s composure to create chances. Gross in particular, who scored 7 goals and made 8 assists last season, compared to 3 goals and 3 assists, which tells its own story.

This left the team reliant on a combination of Glenn Murray and set pieces for goals. And set pieces are a real area of year on year progress. Last season we scored only 5 times from set pieces, whereas this time it was a total of 14. And this progress occurred at the back too with us conceding just 10 this season compared to a whopping 21 last season. A real sign of the good work Chris Hughton and his team were doing on the training ground.

Whether this was down to a lack of quality in the squad or the players not being utilised to their appropriate skill set, time will tell. But to a degree, this was always the case. The win over Man United, when playing them at a fortunate time, meant we could ignore the terrible performances against both Watford and Southampton it was sandwiched between. And those slightly fortunate three back to back 1-0 wins in matchdays 8-10 have been what gave us the cushion that ultimately kept us above the dotted line all season. A run of wins built on the foundations of our strong defence and won by the clinical finishing of Murray and a slightly fortunate deflected winner from Kayal at Newcastle via one of those a set pieces. The luck eventually evened out and the lack of chances created by the Albion has led to a lack of goals, with only 5 goals scored in these 11 games in league and cup.

And as the season went on not only did the goals dry up, as did the ability to keep clean sheets with only two achieved in 18 league games in 2019. Whilst goals conceded the from set pieces were decreasing, goals from open play were increasing due to a combination of poor defending and individual errors.

A football season isn’t defined by a continuous consistent narrative, but instead in hindsight by a number of moments that explain its conclusion. A conclusion that on paper, I suspect most Brighton fans would have been happy with in August. Survival is a success, however it is achieved.

But it’s a conclusion that leaves questions to be answered and work to be done over the summer. The club has now not only got to add to its limited attacking threat in the squad but now also bring in a manager who can match the growing expectations that ultimately told for Chris Hughton. Expectations that a man considered possibly the best manager in the club’s history could not match, so good luck to his successor.

What next? After a season which saw the club’s 4th highest ever league position and 2nd best performance in the FA cup, a season preceded by the club’s third highest league finish and equal third best FA cup performance, the board of directors decided it was appropriate to dispense with the services of the manager. A manager in Chris Hughton who is admired not just at our club, but across the country.

But, whether to agree with the decision or not it shows an incredible ambition to progress in tough circumstances, but a decision that may yet prove foolhardy if the club appoint the wrong man.

Whatever happens over the summer, I feel that the team and whoever is appointed manager need to hit the ground running. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of this season could spark another collapse in confidence and optimism in a clearly damaged and fragile squad of players that need to be restored to the much higher standards they set throughout 2018. As well as causing more tension amongst an already strained fanbase.

But despite the negativity. There is room for optimism and joy. We go into this summer of no doubt much flux and uncertainty as a Premier League club. And with many great memories from a season to remember, for both good and bad. That is ultimately what football supporting is all about.

Come August, we do it all again, and I for one cannot wait. Up the Albion.

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…

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?

Second Season Syndrome – Fact or Fiction? A blog looking at the effect of Second Season Syndrome in the Premier League #bhafc #htfc #nufc

So as Brighton approach another season in the Premier league a topic that will no doubt be discussed at length is the concept of “Second Season Syndrome”. For those who are unaware of this concept “Second season syndrome” is simply put: where a team fails to match the achievements of the first season after promotion in the season that follows, usually leading to relegation. The reasons for this occurring have been hypothesised as ranging from increased pressure resulting from heightened expectations to decreased motivation and complacency after achieving or exceeding a club’s expectations in its first season.

To be clear a “syndrome” can be defined as: a group of symptoms that are consistently occurring together. Suggesting Second Season Syndrome would equate to a regularly occurring trend for teams in their second season. Therefore, in this blog I will analyse the historic data to see if this syndrome exists, specifically within the Premier League.

According to anecdote the examples of this theory appear to be numerous but for me there are two that stick out. First Ipswich town who finished 5th in their first season in the top flight in the 2000/01 season and qualified for Europe, only to finish 13 places lower and be relegated the following season. Furthermore, Reading finished 8th in their first ever top flight season back in 2006/07 but dropped ten places to finish 18th the following season to be relegated back to the Championship.

However, there are of course examples of teams who have by contrast drastically improved on their first season performance in their second season. Leicester City famously won the league in their second season after promotion, whilst last season Burnley finished 7th and qualified for European competition. Both improving significantly on their first season league position.

But are either or both of these examples of anomalies or a rather sign of a greater trend?

Findings and analysis

I have looked at the performance of teams in their second season in the top flight following promotion to see if we can prove or disprove this theory, basing a team’s overall performance on their end of season league position. I looked at this using two fairly definitive measurements of second season syndrome. The proportion of team that were relegated in their second season, and the movement in position of a team from its first to its second season.

To do this I looked at the Premier League from 95/96 to date. The reason I did this was because for this period the top level contained 20 teams and 3 were promoted and 3 were relegated. I appreciate football began before this period but it would be an unfair year-on-year comparison as a result.

Furthermore, much has changed since the start of the premier league, particularly with the factor of ever increasing Sky tv revenue, which makes comparing the current day performances to performances before the advent of the Premier League difficult.

My analysis shows:

  • Since 95/96 – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 42% in first season).
  • In the last 10 years – 13% of teams relegated were in their 2nd season (compared to 33% in first season)
  • Since 95/96 – teams on average finish 1 place lower than they did in their first season (0.86) with a median movement of a one place drop.
  • In the last 10 years – teams on average finish 1 place higher than they did in their first season (1.22)
  • Standard deviation is a statistical measure which shows the spread of data within a dataset, the higher the deviation the higher the number. The standard deviation of the change in second season performance compared to the first season is just above 5 (5.4).

Findings

Whilst the examples of teams performing significantly worse in their second season are apparent, there is no clear evidence of a trend. Furthermore, there are as many examples of successful second seasons as there are unsuccessful.

The generally accepted hypothesis appears to be that a team’s second season is harder than the first, however the data here shows you are almost four times as likely to be relegated in your first season as your second.

Whilst a small decrease in average position of teams in the Premier league from first to second was found over the course of the period studied, there was no clear trend.

In fact, the standard deviations of the change in second season performance compared to the first of 5.4 shows there are large swings in 2nd season performance from one team to another. For instance during the period studied, whist Ipswich dropped 13 places year on year, Leicester went up 13 places year on year. As you can see from the final graph there are as many outliers on both sides of the deviations, which ensures this doesn’t skew the average significantly enough to affect the findings.

Conclusions

Ultimately Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle fans will be glad to see my analysis shows no definitive trend either way. The data shows a team’s 2nd season performance is ultimately more dependent on each club circumstances and the fact it’s their 2nd season doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop-in performance.

Ipswich for example had to contend with the additional strain on resources of extra games in the form of European competition in the season they were relegated. Leicester and Burnley however, went from a first season of relatively narrow survival to a second season of great success. Second seasons appear to only be a hinderance in certain circumstances.

These are of course outliers, the more common movement year on year was a fall of one place, with 50% of the year on year movement between a three-place fall and a one place rise in end of season league position. Whilst a small fall in average final league position suggests a second season may be on average marginally harder, a small movement such as this in a game of small margins such as football, hardly equates to a “syndrome” of such widespread notoriety.

In fact, in the last ten seasons the trend of second season performance has moved from a small decrease in year on year league position to a small increase, something that seems logical to me. As a team’s become more experienced and established in the top flight you’d expect their league position to rise. Furthermore, with the level of analysis that takes place at Premier league clubs now it’s not unexpected that the surprise factor of newly promoted teams may have been lost or at least diminished.

So, whilst some will refer to second season syndrome it appears to me to be a fictional concept designed in an attempt to try to create the narrative of a trend that doesn’t really exist. Many clubs in fact perform similarly or better to how they did in their first season and as already mentioned, where this isn’t the case there are often extenuating circumstances.

The clear trend is if you survive your first season you are between three and four times as likely to survive relegation in your second, many Premier League teams key goal. A trend that should fill Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton fans with confidence. Furthermore, the general trend is that every season you survive you’re then more likely to survive the following season.

My club Brighton appear to me to be a stable club that picked up points consistently over the course of the previous season and one that is more than capable of meeting and even improving on last season’s performance. Ultimately though the Premier league is a toughly fought division and time will tell where we end up come May and whether my hunch is correct.