Was Gross at Left Back really such a crazy idea?

We are 45 mins into the new Premier League season and Graham Potter has already started receiving criticism for his team selections, so far so normal. However, after some changes at half time, a remarkable second half turnaround followed and many have subsequently claimed this as a Graham Potter tactical masterclass by the end of the 90 minutes.… really? I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to criticise Graham Potter’s team selection after a victory, but neither am I going to suggest he’s some kind of tactical genius after a comeback from near comprehensive defeat in the first half. The reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle.

It’s going to be a long season; 45 minutes shouldn’t be enough for us to class him totally right or totally wrong. This is all part of a bigger picture in terms of the process of management that is required at our club in order to succeed at the highest level.

I’ve seen a fair few people suggest Graham Potter was mad for playing a few players in less familiar positions on Saturday… because he has never done that successfully before?

Playing Pascal Gross at Left Back in the first half caused the largest consternation and proved to be a short-lived experiment. But was it really such an awful or unexpected selection?

Yes, it was unsuccessful, but we should also consider why he played Gross there before we all lose our minds after just over 1% of the season has passed.

Setting up against Burnley’s front 2 with a back 4 makes sense tactically and is something Potter has often done to match teams who play a 442, rather than use his favoured 352. Partly I assume, because of the well-known advantages down the flanks that a 442 has over it.

So, then you are looking for someone to play at Left Back, and we know we are short in that position, especially with Burn out injured and with Albion’s transfer target Cucurella not having been secured, in part due to his participation at the Olympics with the Spanish national football team. And I wouldn’t be surprised is the unexpected absence of Joel Veltman changed the plan too, a player who has filled in at Left Back and Left Wing Back in the past.

Then you’re left with the fringe and development players (those who haven’t already been sent out on loan that is). None of whom I would think would ideally want their debut to be away to Burnley on the first day of the season. Probably the most prominent of these options is Michal Karbownik, young, inexperienced, and yet to make a Premier League appearance. I can understand Potter’s hesitation in using him, but his inclusion on the bench suggests Potter wanted him available as a backup just in case.

So, then you’re looking at other options, those to be played out of position. And you’re looking at players with a degree of positional intelligence and versatility. For this you need look no further than Pascal Gross.

A huge part of Potter’s coaching since he arrived at the club has been the requirement asked of his squad for adaptability. In particular the likes of Pascal Gross and Steven Alzate, who have both been asked to play in a number of less familiar positions during that time, just as they were on Saturday.

Last season Gross played in most areas of the pitch, including at one point playing a run of games at Right Wing Back, so you can understand why Potter would turn to him as an auxiliary option in this area of the pitch.

Ultimately, Potter took a few risks in his team selection, sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But it’s taking those kinds of risks and being slightly unconventional that makes him the coach that he is.

For example, playing Solly March at Left Wing Back or Dan Burn at Left Back were similar risks in that area of the pitch which paid off. And helped both players go from fringe players who were being spoken of having possible exits, to crucial members of Albion’s squad over the past two seasons. Unlikely turnarounds seem to be the mark of the Potter era in change of the first team.

I suspect this higher level of tolerance to taking risks and trust in his players are also part of the reason why the club appointed him. The club has long realised it isn’t likely to succeed by fortitude alone and needs to out-think other clubs in various ways, not just on the pitch each Saturday afternoon.

This goes back to examples like the investment in the academy and the recruitment team back in the Championship days. This isn’t all about Graham Potter after all, it’s about the club as a whole, and the culture it is trying (and successful achieving) to implement across the entire club.

This culture goes right to the top, with Tony Bloom’s wealth originating from the gambling industry. As Sam Cunningham described in an interview with Bloom for the Daily Mail, “Bloom talks — and thinks — in edges and gains, in fortune and favour. He pauses before answering questions, always calculating.”

Tony Bloom is a discreet person, but is widely considered to be a risk-taker by nature, but a calculated risk-taker. By all accounts this appears to have been where Bloom and Potter’s predecessor Chris Hughton didn’t quite see eye to eye, particularly in terms of recruitment. Bloom knows what he wants and is willing to change if he’s sure it’s necessary.

No matter what I say, I’m sure us football supporters will continue to critique Graham Potter’s team selections, like some kind of annoying backseat driver. Particularly every time something goes wrong. And that’s ok to a degree, no one is exempt from criticism and all supporters, particularly those who’ve invested years of their time and money into following the club, deserve their opinion to be listened to.

But we also need to consider the wider context of the decisions that are being made and the thought-process behind them before we throw criticism towards senior management at the club, especially the highly scrutinised Graham Potter.

Some have likened Graham Potter’s team selections to a Roulette Wheel, but in line with the culture set down by owner Tony Bloom it is less Graham Potter’s Tactics Roulette and more Graham Potter’s Tactics Poker. This is not a random spin of the wheel, but a calculated gamble based on the limited number of cards he has in his hand. And just as in a poker game it isn’t all about one hand, in a football season is not all about one game. Sometimes you have to accept a beating for the better of your chances in the longer-term.

Risk taking of the type which saw Pascal Gross start at Left back on Saturday are part of the modern culture that the club continues to practice and will likely continue despite both the extreme disapproval of many supporters when experiments like this go wrong or the extreme praise when they work.

Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But as they say, don’t trust anyone who hasn’t failed.

Brighton Premier League Season preview – do Albion already have the solutions to their goalscoring issue?

Albion approach a ground-breaking fifth consecutive topflight season amongst an air of frustration. Expectations are arguably higher than ever, but the lack of a new striker being signed has caused some concern, whilst a 2-0 defeat to Getafe in the now traditional final friendly of pre-season at home piling on further concern.

Concerns can quickly lead to complaints and pressure being heaped on the club and the manager. But I suspect how quickly that pressure begins to mount if the season starts slowly will depend on what business the club does between now and the end of the transfer window.

If the squad stays as it is, I doubt Graham Potter will be under pressure from the board to achieve much more than a similar performance and league position to its previous two seasons, but if the club gets a few more big signings in, particularly that highly coveted striker, then expectations will markedly rise.

But that is something which could be a double-edged sword. Realistically even if Albion do sign their reported number one target in Darwin Nunez, he’s unlikely to have much impact in their first half of the season given that he is currently out injured and when back will require some initial adaptation time. More likely is that this Albion team are where they were last season.

There has been some talk, including from Albion players, of aiming for a top half finish, but to me this feels like classic over-optimistic pre-season talk.

Anyone who has read the magazine “When Saturday Comes” will be familiar with its pre-season preview supplement with sections written by a fan of each Premier and Football League club. And will also be aware that rarely to supporters predict the type of 15th – 17th placed finish for their club that Albion have achieved in each of their past four Premier League seasons.

So, Albion currently we enter this fifth consecutive Premier League Season with a sense of Deja Vu, as yet again it begins with high expectations mixed with a sense of panic over the club’s lack of a new striker so far in the summer transfer window.

I am sure the club realise the value to the squad of adding another striker could bring to it, particularly a proven goalscorer. But it’s not as simple as just going to the supermarket and buying whatever it needs, just as so many of the ventures into the market for a striker show down the years.

Add to that the fact that most teams are looking for the same thing and it makes for a small group of highly sought-after players pushing prices to an at times eye-watering level.

There are very few players outside the top six teams that score 15 or more goals in a league season, players like that are hard to find and often the players that do are the anomalies rather than the norm.

For example, Danny Ings, who’s recent £25m move to Villa raised some eyebrows, has actually only done it just once, with injuries and form halting further profligate seasons.

Meanwhile last season’s breakout star Patrick Bamford plays in a team at Leeds United that are an outlier in terms of their style of play, creating and missing lots of chances, whilst giving away plenty at the other end. Being able to afford to do so in part, because of manager Bielsa’s well-known high expectations over his team’s highly intense working rate.

Whilst the likes of Jamie Vardy, who has turned down at least one opportunity to move to a top six club, and Raul Jimenez, signed by Wolves for £34m in 2019 (a fee then beyond most teams outside the top six, let alone a newly promoted club), are outliers in terms the quality of strikers seen at lower ranked Premier League sides.

Moreover, the example of Christian Benteke at Palace shows that a high fee and wage package along with short term success, doesn’t always lead to long term profligacy in front of goal. After signing on an initial four-year deal and scoring 15 goals in this first season for a fee of £28m in 2016, he has since scored just 16 goals in 101 appearances over the subsequent four subsequent seasons.

Rather than it being the case that spending £30m-£40m on a striker is always the solution to a goalscoring issue, examples like Benteke show that lower ranked teams and player more often than not tend to struggle to score goals either way. And it can work against you in the long run, leaving a player draining wages and stunting potential for improvement.

The average goals scored in a season by a bottom half Premier League team that has survived relegation over the last four seasons totalled 44, only four more than Brighton’s total of 40 last season. Something which was more than compensated at the back with Albion conceding just 46 goals last season compared to the 59 goals conceded on average by bottom half Premier League teams that have survived relegation over the last four seasons.

Instead, Brighton’s issue over the last season or two was more about the key moments in games too often going against them, with the team’s lack of experience often counting against it. Whether that was dropping points through late goals conceded like at home to Man United, Palace or Leicester, or whether it was key missed chances like the two penalties missed against West Brom.

In fact, it’s when in front that Albion have proved their most wasteful at both ends of the pitch, with the 25 points it dropped from winning positions being the most in the Premier League last season.

Ill-discipline comes into this too. Since being promoted to the Premier League Albion have led the way in terms of two statistics, own goals, and red cards. Red cards in particular is a worrying issue, with 14 being racked up to date, three of which coming from the club captain and talisman Lewis Dunk. The latest coming away at Wolves toward the end of last season where Albion threw away a 1-0 lead, ultimately ending with a 2-1 defeat after Dunk was sent off with Albion in the lead. An example of where their ill-discipline has cost them a lead and three potentially crucial points.

This is of course to be overly harsh on Lewis Dunk, who for a long time has been the club’s most reliable and consistent performer. A player whom without Albion would not be in the topflight. But it shows that at times we can over emphasise one issue over others and forget that even our better player make big, costly mistakes.

Nonetheless, missing goalscoring chances is clearly a big part of that conundrum and whilst I don’t think we’ve ever fully solved the issue in that area, we are now in our fifth straight Premier League season. An achievement that slightly undermines the “we need a striker” cause as it also now enters its fifth summer.

Would a 10-15 goal a season striker improve the team? Probably. Do we “need” one? No.

Yes, all the stats show Brighton don’t take as many of their goalscoring chances as they should. But assuming that one player coming in solves that issue is simply naive. Top half teams have multiple regular goal-scorers. Whereas Albion only really have Maupay. That’s the bigger issue.

In his first season Maupay looked like a player who was rough around the edges, but hungry for more and bursting with potential. But in his second he more often looked like he had the world on his shoulders, and no wonder given the poor finishing of most of his teammates.

People focus on the team’s and more specifically Neal Maupay’s underperformance against the expected goals statistic (xG), but this only really tells you part of the goalscoring tale. For a player like Maupay to have a high xG even if he underperforms against it, he needs to have the intelligence and execution in terms of movement and positioning to be in the right positions at the right time to earn those chance. Something that xG doesn’t measure and us average supporters under-appreciate, because we are too busy watching the ball.

As the past examples above show, even if Albion had scored more goals, can you rely on this team to hold onto those all leads? Probably not. So £30m-£40m on what could be a nil-sum gain is a huge financial risk for the club to take on, especially after such an unexpectedly difficult period financially.

A key part of bringing in a new striker is can you also fit Maupay into the team. If not, you’re not only losing 18 of the team’s goals (more than 1 in 5) over the past two seasons, but also a player who is key to the teams build up play. Put simply, when he is missing Albion struggle to create chances.

Albion’s end of season win over Man City is the exception to this, but City were down to 10 men for most of a game which for them was meaningless, making it a difficult situation to draw definitive conclusions from.

The other four games that Albion played without Maupay last season (Fulham away, Spurs away, West Ham home and Arsenal away) saw the team struggle going forward. In all those 4 games the team created less shots (average across those 4 games was 7.5 shots pg) than the season average shots per game (12.8), scoring just twice (half their average goals per game rate).

So, a new striker is not without its trade-offs and its potential to unbalance a team that is making great strides forward in so many areas of the pitch. So, to sign a striker to replace Maupay or anyone else, it needs to be the right player not just any old striker.

As I said at the end of last season, if we look at two teams Albion have been competing with in previous seasons that managed to lift themselves up the division last season, Aston Villa and West Ham, neither had one player on 15 goals, let’s alone 20. Instead, they had multiple goalscorers on smaller tallies, for Albion its really only Maupay. Others need to step up to take the pressure and attention off his shoulders.

It maybe that Albion already have the answers to its goalscoring problems in its midfield. If Lallana can stay fit, he has the potential to add to his goal tally of one last season. Whilst the recently added Moder and Mwepu both look like having the potential of adding goals to Albion’s midfield where others have failed to do so.

Whilst admittedly in lower standard divisions, both Mwepu and Moder scored at a high rate for their old clubs, with Moder averaging 0.3 goals per 90 and Mwepu averaging 0.22 goals per 90 in their last seasons with their previous clubs. Managing even half that rate would put them ahead of pretty much all of Albion’s misfiring midfield.

To their credit, this team tends to control more games it plays in than it doesn’t. Whilst it could have achieved more over the past two seasons with a bit better execution and decision making in both boxes, the 14 draws achieved in both of Graham Potter’s two Premier League seasons in charge at Albion show that he has made this team harder to beat whilst playing far more on the front foot, a feat that shouldn’t be undervalued.

A big part of that is how he has evolved the defence. With the signings of Adam Webster and Joel Veltman two example of how that has been achieved, by providing Albion’s back line with more capability with the ball rather than being more comfortable without it as it was under Hughton’s reign.

Ben White’s sale to Arsenal is a loss but given the depth of Albion’s squad in that area they should be able to cope without a drop in performance levels, especially given the return of Shane Duffy adding competition for places.

It may be that Duffy still leaves before the end of the window, but following his challenging exploits at Celtic I wouldn’t be surprised if he was now more willing to settle for a role as back up rather than fly the nest in search of a regular first team place. As I said last January, despite having his critics he has plenty still to offer this Albion team. His experience and know-how could be just what Albion need to resolve some off the issues it has had in throwing away leads last season.

Going into the new season with what is currently largely the same squad and front line as last season, may underwhelm some who see greater potential in this team than has been achieved over the past four seasons. But as comparisons to the teams around them show, their struggles in front of goal are far from a novel issue nor an easy one to solve.

What Brighton do have is a team packed full of talent and potential, one that has a growing amount of experience and belief in itself at this level and a coach at its head that has the ability to get the best out of it. A mix that makes for one of the most exciting seasons in the club’s history.

Finding a purpose

It’s been an odd season and one where the very purpose of football has been questioned in the light of the restrictions that have been placed on all of our liberties in order to protect public health.

As the Pandemic surged over the winter, football persevered, despite many, including the manager of the ultimately relegated West Bromwich Albion – Sam Allardyce, calling for the season to be halted.

But the season continued, initially amongst a succession of postponements due to Covid outbreaks at various clubs, and this Sunday we now find ourselves at the final round of matches after a season like no other. One that many of us will be glad to see the back of.

For Brighton it’s been an odd season on the pitch too, one that has constantly promised so much improvement, but one that as we go into the final day will most likely be delivering another 15th-17th league position finish.

Let’s not pretend survival is anything other than a success for Albion. But for the first time there is genuine reason to believe, barring a disaster of a summer transfer window, that this Albion team can push on next season. It has so much potential.

For all teams outside the established seven topflight clubs, at the beginning of a new season relegation is a very realistic possibility. But for Albion it feels like loftier ambitions than just surviving are now too a very realistic possibility.

Over the last two seasons, Graham Potter’s management has improved performances at the Albion markedly, but it is yet to achieve a consistent improvement in results and lift the team up the table towards its long term goal of established top half status.

But, whereas in previous seasons we’ve just been grateful to not be in the bottom three, this season that feeling is mixed with an increased frustration not to be higher up the league table.

Most prominently this season leaves me with a feeling of what if and not just because of all the missed goalscoring opportunities that we’ve all ranted and raved about throughout the season, but also because of Albion’s inability to hold onto a lead.

In fact Albion have led in 19 of their 37 games so far this season, but won just 9 times (as many as they won in each of their last three Premier League seasons) and dropped 25 points from winning positions, the most in the Premier League this season. And those matches don’t include a further 9 draws, many of which could have been turned into victories with better finishing. And you can add to that a fair few additional hard luck stories like the last minute winner conceded at home to Palace or the two penalties missed in the 1-0 away defeat to West Brom. I could go on…

And yet amongst the difficulties, Albion are clearly making progress. They currently hold the longest run of any team in the top two divisions without losing a game by more than one goal (28 matches). Manchester City (17) and West Ham (17) are the next nearest Premier League sides to that current streak. Chris Hughton always used to say that at 2-0 down you are still in the game, but at 1-0 you are just a moment of magic away from improving your outcomes and with it your league position.

Yes there are big issues to resolve, but there are far more positives than negatives to take from this season. In particular having a manager in charge of the club of such increasing renown as Graham Potter.

He said recently of Albion’s difficulties in front of goal. “As a coach, my number one business is to try to help the players that we’ve got to improve and that’s always where I’ll look to start. Then, as with everything, we want to try and get better, so we have to think about what we need to do to get better, but firstly it’s about improving the players we have here.”

It’s encouraging to have a manager who puts such faith in his players. This is in contrast to many other Premier League managers who are quick to talk down and criticise their players in search for an excuse to hide behind when things go wrong. This includes Scott Parker of Fulham, who has regularly publicly criticised his players this season. So it should come as no surprise that by the end of it many of them looked like they had completely lost all confidence. In contrast Graham Potter has shown great leadership this season and this has no doubt played a huge part in Albion’s survival.

Pablo Picasso once said “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Football is often an industry focused purely on results rather than the bigger picture. But listening to Graham Potter this season gives me belief that at Albion there is a bigger goal than that, creating a football team that we all can be proud of.

In a year where mental health discussions and awareness have become more prominent. I’ve had my own struggles due to personal problems and for me football has often offered a salvation from the difficulties of everyday life. Something positive to focus on and to help punctuate the gloom.

Life throws up obstacles and challenges, it rarely goes as planned and most of us go out of our way to ensure no one knows we are struggling. Empathy and thoughtfulness for others are priceless qualities that can go a long way. Graham Potter has shown in the way he has carefully and consistently defended his player that he has this in bucketloads.

In football, as in life, when someone wins someone else has to lose. So creating an identity purely around winning is always likely to lead to an identity crisis, as the recent history of clubs like Arsenal show us. An identity crisis heightened by the recent bid to join a breakaway European Super League.

In a society that feels ever more fractured and divided, the global pandemic came at a difficult time and heightened those feelings. And as our communities were closed down we became more isolated and as a society we became increasingly divided. So moments like the return of supporters to the AMEX this week for the game against Man City are so important in rebuilding those communities in a (hopefully) post-pandemic society.

In the days leading up the game I thought it would feel poignant to be at the AMEX again after over a year away, but it was in fact more like pulling on a comfy pair of slippers you’d had stuck at the back of the cupboard over the summer. Throughout the evening I felt a heightened sense of excitement and joy. Even when Albion went 2-0 down and looked to be heading towards certain defeat I couldn’t help but continue to smile.

Being part of a community of fans that brings such joy for something that is in reality quite trivial, is a reminder that together we are all stronger.

Many will depict this season as one of missed opportunities. Both on the pitch for Albion and off the pitch for us supporters who have gone so long without our matchdays. But it has also been an opportunity to assess, and if the match against Man City is anything to go by, I think we will be making the most of things from now on.

Yet another Albion home draw

Monday’s game against Everton started as a good opportunity to ease the club’s relegation worries and get back to back Premier League home wins for the first time in 17 months.

Whilst West Brom’s win prior to kick off was a reminder that Albion could not rest on their laurels on 32 points and still probably require at least another 5/6 points to be safe. So this match against an out of form and injury ravaged Everton team was an opportunity for Albion to get a much needed win.

It was a game that yet again highlighted Albion’s core strength in controlling games by building the play out from the back through its ball playing defenders. With Yves Bissouma sitting in front controlling the midfield and nullifying the opposition.

However, it’s Albion’s lack of quality in areas higher up the pitch which continued to cost it a victory in a game it dominated. As Albion created more missed chances from its strikers and more hesitant play from its creative, attacking midfielders.

That and a combination of brilliant defending from Everton means they were left with another draw, its twelfth of the season. Eight of which were at home, 50% of Albion’s home matches this season.

Teams seem to know how to stop Graham Potter’s team at home. This wasn’t the first time Albion have come up against an effective rear guard action at home and it works, as proven by the fact that despite dominating most of their 16 home league matches this season they have failed to score in 5, scoring a measly total of 16 in that time. More goals and more quality in the final third is required if they are to turn more of those draws into wins.

However, it’s too easy to just blame Maupay, Welbeck or Connolly for poor finishing, the whole process needs to be quicker. Albion’s play out of the back is often crisp, sharp and quick, but too often once the ball get into the opposition half players have hesitated on the ball, allowing the opposition to get into their defensive shape, which in turn allows less space and makes it harder for Albion’s strikers.

The Premier League’s record goalscorer and Match of the day pundit Alan Shearer said recently about Albion’s attack that: “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”

And he has a point, by the time the ball gets to strikers in the box it’s often gone side to side two or three times, allowing time for the opposition defence to close down the available space.

Albion have had more touches in the opposition third than any other team in the bottom half of the Premier League this season so far. With Trossard the king of touches in the opposition third, having had a total 631 touches in the attacking third this season or 22.5 per match.

However, whilst Trossard is a talented young player, this is not a stat I think he will be overly proud of. Albion often dominate the play, allowing Trossard more of it. But, he too often dithers on it, taking that extra couple of seconds and that extra touch or two, which allows the opposition defence to get into better positions and close the options down for Albion’s strikers.

Just as has been the case too often at home this season, once Albion did get the ball into a shooting position the space had been closed down by the Everton defence and the shooting opportunity diminished. Albion need to be sharper and quicker in the final third to win games like last night.

But, there were plenty more positives than negatives for Albion in a game where they were rarely threatened by the opposition. Everton came to defend and make it hard for us. They seemed happy with a point from the off, so it was always going to be a struggle to break them down. And so it proved.

But it’s a sign of the progress made under Graham Potter by this Albion side that so many teams now come to the AMEX to defend, expecting a tough game and believing a draw to be a good result. As opposed to what we saw previously where the opposition more often saw a trip to the AMEX as a chance to attack and win an easy three points. Unfortunately it’s that change in approach too that has largely been the reason that we have struggled to break teams down.

As the first half wore on and Albion pushed for an opening goal to break the deadlock, the game began to become worryingly stretched and open. If it weren’t for some good defensive exertions from certain individuals like man of the match Yves Bissouma, we may have been caught out.

But the second half saw Albion again dominate in a more controlled manner as Everton struggled to counter against a more disciplined and organised Albion team, whose clean sheet rarely looked in doubt.

In fact it highlighted an improvement in Albion’s defensive play, with it being their fifth clean sheet in their last seven home league matches since that wild 3-3 draw with Wolves. Lessons have been learned and the defence has been giving away less sloppy opportunities and goals to its opponents, the Palace and Leicester games aside.

Whilst there is an understandable level of frustration after yet another draw at home and yet another blank in front of goal, a point is a good result, which takes Brighton above Burnley on goal difference into 15th and edges them closer to that all important safety mark and a record 5th consecutive topflight season.

But if Albion are going to begin their push up the table in their quest for an established top half place, winning more of these games at home is the first place to start looking for progress. After picking up 3 wins in his first 6 home games as Albion manager, Graham Potter’s side have now managed just 4 wins and mustered 13 draws in the subsequent 29 home games.

Exhausted by xG?

An economics professor at my university once stated in a lecture that “economic forecasts are only right half of the time, so we may as well just flip a coin!” Whilst this was a throw away comment meant not to be taken particularly seriously, the comparison between complex statistical models used to measure probability and pure chance is a compelling one and one that I often think back to when I see statistics used in such a definitive way as they have often been to analyse Albion’s Premier League woes this season.

Albion’s season is one where the narrative has become overwhelmed by one particular complex statistical model. xG, A model used to show the expected goals scored by each team, but one that has often not been matched by the end result in Albion matches this season. There have been multiple games that xG predicted that an Albion victory was most probable, but which wasn’t achieved. Mostly because of so many missed goalscoring opportunities and a fair amount of sloppy goals given away at the other end.

This was most dramatically highlighted in Albion’s home defeat to rivals Crystal Palace who beat Albion 2-1 after managing just 3 shots, 2 of which were on target, compared to Brighton’s 25 shots yielding just one goal. That this defeat was then followed up with a defeat to West Brom where Brighton missed 2 penalties and a host of other guilt edged chances after their opponents scored early on from a corner, one of only two shots they managed on target, only increased the attention on Brighton’s misfiring strikers.

Furthermore, Brighton have had an xG advantage over their opponents of more than 1 expected goal 7 times this season, but have only beaten their fellow relegation strugglers Newcastle (twice) by a winning margin of more than one goal. The numbers tell a clear story, Albion have underperformed in front of goal this season.

We could pull these kinds of stats out about many more of Brighton’s games this season till we are blue in the face. But I’ll stop there because you’ve probably read this kind of stuff a number of times before. And yet it keeps getting discussed, mainly because it’s an easy explanation as to why Brighton have looked so good during much of the season, yet this isn’t reflected in the league table

However, despite Albion’s lack of clinical edge in front of goal, goalscoring isn’t actually a massive issue relative to its nearest rivals. After 29 games plays Brighton had the second best goal difference, had scored the third most, conceded the least and lost the least times of all the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table.

But whilst these stats highlight some positives and improvements in Albion’s play, it is not being seen in an improvement in points gained and league position. Despite xG suggesting Albion have been better than they have managed to achieve in terms of results, they remain in their common Premier League standing just above the league’s bottom three. So the consistent and dramatic deficiency when compared to XG is raising some eyebrows, but possibly points to a deficiencies in the model itself.

We could go into detail about the ins and out of the model itself, but I don’t know how much value that would have. But in general I think that Albion are showing up the flaws of placing a lot of merit in a weighted probability model such as xG to measure the likelihood of goals being scored in a low scoring game such as football. And to a degree the weight we place on statistics generally in football.

We can all get pulled in by data analysis at times, especially when they argue for a point that we believe to be true. The increase in the use of statistics and analytics has helped us to understand the game in ways we previously didn’t. But they don’t often tell you the full story of an event, or the full reasons as for why a team dominates a particular game or a particular period of play. Maybe an early goal, an in-game injury, a number of minor tactical shifts, physical conditions or the connotations a certain result has on their league position, or simply individual errors makes a team change its approach. There are many things these generic weighted probability models simply don’t account for.

For Albion, their accumulated xG performance after 29 games puts them better off than Man United and West Ham and 4th in the xG table. In reality they are 22 points and 12 league places worse off. However only five of the 20 Premier League teams sit in their xG projected position, with 9 more than 2 positions different than this projection. Including Everton, who according to xG would sit 17th rather than their existing 8th position.

So it’s not just Albion’s whose variation compared to xG is far from accurate. But many have taken these statistical anomalies and run with them. Some have said that simply if Albion signed a £40/50m striker then they would start taking those chances and qualify for Europe, which is a huge simplification. Especially considering Albion have thrown away 17 points from winning positions this season. Albion’s problems go much further than simply not scoring enough goals.

In reality Brighton have constraints in terms of their aspirations. In particular its wage bill, which has consistently been one of the lowest in the league during its time in the topflight and yet they have spent most of their time at the top level out of the relegation zone and are not far from securing a club record fifth consecutive topflight season. Focusing on individual statistics like xG can at times mask the bigger picture. One which shows in reality Albion and Everton are probably about where they should expect to be rather than at opposite ends of the table.

Whatever the opinion, statistics don’t tell you how to solve a problem, at best they tell you how it was created. And that’s only if they data has been collected and analysed accurately and is then interpreted correctly. Much of which leads into areas of judgement and subjectivity rather than fact.

The solutions for these problems the data highlights are created by the experts. The creative minds like Graham Potter and his regular tactical switches. Minds that most football fans deep down wish they could pit their wits against, but in reality are greatly inferior to in this context.

Football is a game of opinions, not statistics. Moments of ingenuity and creativity, moments that aren’t created by data analysis of historic points in time alone, but by the invention and astuteness of those at the very top of their profession in the moment.

Whatever the data does show, the fact that Albion are sitting six points and two places above the Premier League relegation zone in their fourth consecutive topflight season should be considered an overperformance rather than an underperformance. We should stop focusing on xG and focus more on what a remarkable period of Albion history that we are currently watching.

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.

Temperament and Temper Tantrums

I took great joy in Brighton’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals in 2019 which ended with that grand day out to Wembley. Yes we’d lost 1-0 but we’d still enjoyed a wonderful occasion. The moments after the final whistle where 35,000 Albion fans stayed behind to applaud and cheer their side, drinking in every last moment of the day, will stay with me for a long time.

As an Albion fan, days like that are rare and I was hopeful that many would share my enjoyment of the day, but much of the media coverage of the game was negative. I felt many had missed the point in their comments, in particular Jermaine Jenas who in Match of the Day’s live coverage described it as a “missed opportunity” for Albion.

A few days later I listened to the Guardian’s football podcast, a regular on my podcast listening list. Their panellists were also less than complimentary about the match, with it being described in the introduction as “a game of walking football”, and the disparaging comments went on from there.

I once again felt the media was missing the sense of occasion and in the heat of the moment I took exception to their scorn and sent a critical message on Twitter. However, I was subsequently, and rightly, put in my place by the Guardian journalists I’d called out. Who in the space of a couple of hundred characters made me look like a real wally.

To me it wasn’t just any old game, this was the game I’d been waiting to see for the past two decades. Albion at Wembley in the FA Cup. Who cares if it was only a semi-final, this was Wembley in the cup! After all like many Albion fans, I was still sore from missing out on a trip to Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final after losing on penalties to Luton Town in the semifinals ten years previous.

But for everyone apart from those 35,000 Brighton fans, it was just another game and a not very entertaining one at that. Anyone still needing more convincing just need look at our opponents Man City’s tickets sales from that day, who left whole blocks empty with some being handed to Brighton to help fill the stadium.

Life as a football fan often has a habit of making us behave irrationally, letting our emotions get the better of us. Whilst social media can have a habit of reinforcing our shaky opinions the more we post them, getting likes and retweets from our fellow ignorants. You’re either in or out, and never in between, let alone changing your mind. Whether that’s with Brexit, Graham Potter’s competence or anything else, we all end up finding reasons in the things we see to reinforce our own confirmation bias and berate those who dare to disagree.

One area there has been a lot of emotion invested in of late is the aforementioned Graham Potter and his role in the Albion’s season. It’s been a bizarre season for many reasons, and the week just gone for Albion which saw defeats to rivals Palace and West Brom is yet another chapter in that story. Despite controlling on average 72.5% of possession and having 40 shots, they scored just one goals and managed to lose both games. And whilst much of the scorn has been poured onto Albion’s front line, Graham Potter has yet again taken a fair amount of flack.

It was, to a degree, just the same old story for Brighton this season. More missed chances in front of goal and more sloppy goals conceded at the other end against the run of play, all despite dominating the play. On this week’s Guardian football weekly podcast Barry Glendenning spoke about how one Albion fan had described this Albion team as equally the best and the worst in his 40 years supporting the club. I wouldn’t go that far, anyone who remembers the 1-0 defeat at home to Walsall under Micky Adams doomed second tenure as manager in 2008 would probably agree that this team is at least better than that one! And let’s not even delve into the Gillingham years.

Despite Graham Potter’s assertion this summer that he wanted to work with the players he had and coach more goals out of this team, particularly Neal Maupay, the team remains goalshy and ever more continue to justify the loud calls in the summer by many supporters to bring in a “silver-bullet” striker. Maupay himself was bold in his claims of him solving Albion’s longstanding issue with scoring goals before the start of this season, stating his hunger for more goals in his second season just as he’d done at Brentford previously.

Graham Potter has refused to publicly criticise the £20m striker, or any other players. But he didn’t shy from the wider problem of scoring goals in his post-match interview after the defeat to West Brom, admitting that “clearly” scoring goals is the issue. But went onto stress that “this is elite top level football… you’re going to suffer sometimes that’s how it is”.

We shouldn’t be surprised that whilst many fans like myself have expressed much frustration, Graham Potter stayed grounded. It’s what he does, never too high, never too low, never giving much away. Just like his predecessor Chris Hughton, and a quality seen in many Albion managers since Gus Poyet’s eventual sacking. A quality which I believe has helped consistently keep the relegation zone at arm’s length, so far that is.

Poyet’s time at the club was often tainted by his sometimes-absurd media outbursts and his relationship with the board of directors was often strained by his constant criticism of the club’s transfer policy and threats that he would leave if he felt the club had “reached its ceiling”. This rollercoaster ride culminated in a fittingly chaotic climax, which began with the play-off semi-final defeat to rival Crystal Palace. After the game Poyet made several comments suggesting he might resign and with the ultimately unrelated story of human faeces being found in the away dressing room at the AMEX hanging over the club like a bad smell, both literally and metaphorically, Poyet was initially suspended and later sacked for Gross Misconduct.

He was a brilliant manager, and a revolutionary one in many ways for the club at a time when it really needed it. Having been close to relegation to the fourth tier shortly before his arrival and with the new stadium soon to arrive, he put the club on the path it continues to follow. But his off the pitch behaviour left a cloud over his on the pitch achievements and brought unnecessary attention to the club when it often wasn’t beneficial.

So it’s no surprise that since the club have stuck with more considered personalities as head coach/manager. First the quiet Spaniard Oscar Garcia was brought in, then the unassuming Finn Sami Hyypia, before Chris Hughton and then Graham Potter were brought to the club.

Graham Potter is the next step in the evolution in terms of mentality at the club. This is in many respects, including a job title of head coach rather than manager, a degree in Social Sciences, masters in Leadership and Emotional Intelligence and a track record of working with and developing youngsters at his previous clubs he really fits the bill on paper. And the potential is there for it to be realised in practice too.

However, he has come under some warranted criticism this season. But the players have really let him down in recent matches, a subject I discussed earlier this week. However, Graham Potter kept his cool and remained calm in his recent post-match press conferences under no doubt intense questioning. I know many will disagree, but I’m pleased to see him not criticising his players in public, god knows he’d be entitled too!

As Chris Sutton said in this week’s Monday Night Club on BBC 5live about the Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel’s public criticism of some of his players since taking over recently, “[criticism in private] that’s the game, everybody has to accept criticism” but said “as soon as you go into the public arena with that, what’s the positive which can come out of that?”

Club captain Lewis Dunk told the Club website after the match at the Hawthorns – “it doesn’t help to dwell on the past – we look ahead to next Saturday against Leicester City now.” – I’m sure words will have been said in the dressing room and that’s where it should stay.

Some will point to Fulham’s recently promoted squad who may have been seen to have reacted positively to being publicly criticised a few times by their manager Scott Parker this this season. Yet they are still in the relegation zone and struggling to win games just as much as Albion, which suggests there has been little positive effect.

I also doubt if Albion’s young and inexperienced team would have reacted in a positive way to such criticism. Particularly the likes of Aaron Connolly who has recently had to delete his Instagram profile for the second time in quick succession after a torrent of online abuse. Given the amount of criticism some have had to deal with lately, the last thing they need is their coach turning on them too.

Graham Potter has his work cut out to turn around Albion’s season and avoid it from nosediving after a terrible week on the pitch. So the last thing he needs is a demoralised group of players off the back of some unwise and emotive comments that he’s made in the media.

Us supporters will no doubt continue to get into a frenzy about this Albion team, for good and bad, whilst pundit will no doubt continue to wilfully dissect the at times comical aspects of Albion’s performances. But Graham Potter will no doubt continue stay as cool as a cucumber right to the end, and we are all the better for it.

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.

Graham Potter and the succession of missed opportunities

For many last night’s defeat to Crystal Palace will have only reinforced their opinions of Graham Potter’s Albion team being an almost comically wasteful football team, but his persistence with the project he continues to carry out is nonetheless something to admire.

Just as many times before, last night saw an Albion performance with plenty of youthful exuberance in attack, but one which was mixed with just enough youthful inexperience and naivety to spoil it.

These have been the defining characteristic of the club’s season so far as well Potter’s entire tenure in charge. So it’s easy to conclude that the team aren’t learning some of those lessons Graham Potter often talks about after a disappointing result.

But amongst the frustration it’s easy to overlook that Graham Potter has done a great job over the last year and a half and that he’s not a magician, despite his surname. Albion’s wage bill is reportedly just over half that of last night’s opponents, but it certainly didn’t look it despite the result reflecting that.

The club’s transfer business over the last year has been widely admired, with the signings of Lamptey, Lallana and Veltman now looking like absolute bargains. But, the lack of investment in the squad has often been evident where it counts this season, in the opposition penalty box.

Many have criticised the club for not signing a top class striker, but manager Graham Potter has stated on numerous occasions that he is happy to work with what he has. Bringing through a roster of largely young and unproven talents, all of whom have had their difficulties in front of goal.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the limitations of this Albion team are ones they seem to be unable to overcome. This is a relatively young Albion team, one which over Potter’s tenure has replaced some of the key experienced members of its squad like Shane Duffy, Dale Stephens and Glenn Murray with players with no previous topflight experience like Neil Maupay, Yves Bissouma and Adam Webster. With others like Robert Sanchez, Ben White, Steven Alzate and Aaron Connolly being brought through from the club’s U23 team to fill other gaps in the squad. Players who other than U23 football only have varying degrees of experience on loan at lower league clubs to their name.

Some have done better than others. Adam Webster in particular is a true gem of Potter’s persistence with the younger and inexperienced members of his squad, but this was too after a difficult first season in the topflight. However, he has since become arguably Albion’s best centre back.

Webster’s performance in last season’s defeat at home to Sheffield United left many Albion fans audibly expressing their disgust at the centre backs performance and place in the team. As the man voted the club’s player of the previous season that he was keeping out of it, Shane Duffy, was sat on the bench. But Graham Potter defiantly stated in his programme notes ahead of the teams next home game against Bournemouth that: “mistakes will happen” and that it was “all part of the process”. And the subsequent win that day along with Webster’s progress since certainly support that claim.

So to see him consistently stick by his roster of young strikers is no surprise either. One of the main reasons Graham Potter got the job at Brighton was his ability to work with youngsters, something which was so evident from his time at Swansea.

The signings of younger more inexperienced players like Trossard, Connolly, Zeqiri and Maupay, either for the first team or initially for the U23s is a huge part of the clubs recruitment strategy and something many Albion fans have lauded. And Graham Potter’s job is to coach them into being better players, but he needs time and patience to do that.

Giving Graham Potter patience doesn’t mean to direct your ire elsewhere, ire that many of the names mentioned above have experienced over Potter’s tenure. It means, as he previously stated, to accept that mistakes happen, especially with the club’s chosen recruitment strategy to focus on this young talent.

Games like last night’s are an inevitable part of the process for this Albion team. But Graham Potter and more broadly the entire management team at the club have a clear idea of how they want this team to progress. The evidence of the progress of Adam Webster can serve as a template for Albion’s roster of misfiring striker to follow. What is clear is that Potter will stick by them, even if many others have lost their patience.

Monday Musings- A halfway debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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