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.

Will Shane Duffy be offered Mercy by Graham Potter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings – Calamity and heroics add more volume to Albion’s goalkeeper debate

As was pointed out after the final whistle of Brighton’s 3rd round FA Cup tie with Newport on Sunday night by Opta Joe, Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele made just one save in the 120 minutes preceding the penalty shootout and made an error that led to Newport’s 96th minute equaliser, but saved four penalties during the shootout. A story of personal redemption, but also one that highlights Albion’s ongoing goalkeeping issues.

Steele admitted it was his fault for the goal after the game. And fan site We are Brighton posted on Twitter in their usual deprecating way: “Would now be a good time to remind everyone that Graham Potter thinks Jason Steele is a better goalkeeper than Maty Ryan? 👀”.

It’s a fair point and I would add fellow Albion goalkeeper Christian Walton to the debate too. It’s a subject I discussed just last week and one I suspected that we haven’t heard the last of.

Nonetheless I’m gutted for Jason Steele for his mistake, but he’s shown over his career that he’s got that in his makeup. Anyone who watched him play for one of his previous club’s can confirm that. A fact most infamously demonstrated at Sunderland during a difficult period for Steele captured in the Netflix series “Sunderland Till I Die”.

But Steele has constantly shown more than enough stoicism in his career to pick himself up and keep coming back for more. So the fact that after the error for the Newport equaliser he managed to refocus on the task at hand in the shootout should come as no surprise either. Rather than losing his head like some others would in the circumstances, he refocused, remembered his research and followed it to the letter, saving four of Newport’s seven penalty kicks.

Andy Naylor stated in a recent piece for The Athletic: “The club believe a No 2 goalkeeper requires a different skill set. Steele is experienced and was signed as a back-up, which makes him more suited to a place on the bench than Ryan, who is accustomed to life as a No 1.”

It’s a fair point and suggests Graham Potter doesn’t necessarily think that Steele is better than Ryan as per We are Brighton’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but rather that he’s seen a good back up keeper to have around. Highlighted by how Robert Sanchez jumped Steele in the pecking order when Maty Ryan was dropped earlier in the season leaving him remaining to warm the bench alongside Albion’s other substitutes.

Steele was generous in his moment of glory after the game in praising Albion’s goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts. Who is credited with much of the improvement that’s been seen in many of Albion’s goalkeepers in recent years, including that of David Stockdale in Albion’s Championship promotion winning season.

In Steele’s defence, Goalkeepers often make mistakes after being exposed by their defence. In many cases where Steele has struggled in his career he’s been playing in a struggling teams, last night being no exception. For the equaliser, Albion should have stopped the cross from occurring in the first place. No cross, no error.

We can focus on Steele’s mistake, just like many did Dan Burn’s from the week before. But how did Albion even give Newport the chance to put a cross in the box from their left-hand side whilst defending a 1-goal lead in the dying moments of injury time, having had a throw in on their right-hand side at halfway less than 30 seconds before? As has been far too common this season, it was a case of naive play from Albion whilst in possession that again cost them a crucial lead.

Moreover, as one person on Twitter also pointed out to me, Albion had just switch their left back too, replacing match winner March for Bernardo. Something which adds to the Potter “over-tinkering” debate, but that’s another can of worms entirely.

Overall, a calamitous 30 seconds for Albion and a 5-minute period from scoring to conceding the equaliser that encompasses almost everything which Albion’s season has been about so far. As Graham Potter said after the game “Traumatic”.

Monday Musings – Albion’s search for safe hands

Saturday saw a further three goals conceded by Albion in a dramatic 3-3 draw with Wolves, leaving them having conceded a total of 28 goals this season. Not only is it the 5th highest goals conceded in the division so far this season, it’s the most the club have ever conceded at this point in a Premier League season.

Within those 28 conceded are 6 from penalties, 7 from set pieces and far too many examples of sloppy defending, which is not up to the club’s usual standards. Whilst the aftermath of the draw with Wolves has focused on Dan Burn’s mistakes, there is a bigger issue here that needs resolving.

Many of the defensive statistics are damming. For example Albion’s expected goals conceded based on the chances conceded is 20, 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 12 of their goals in that manner, the equal 8th 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 lead to penalties being conceded, like Burn’s on Traore on Saturday, or the poor marking at corners that has become all too common.

So it may seem odd that I don’t think the issue is the defence, but more an issue of discipline and concentration that stems from the insecurity over Albion’s goalkeeper.

It’s too simplistic to say it’s simply due to bad goalkeeping, after all we’ve seen plenty of examples of bad defending from the Albion defence, as mentioned above. But more striking than that is how Maty Ryan struggled before being dropped.

Despite the relatively few shots faced, his goals conceded per game was 1.7, the equal third highest in the division. Only less than Sam Johnstone of West Brom and Illan Meslier of Leeds, both of whom play for teams where they are left significantly more exposed by their defences. Furthermore, Ryan’s save percentage of 50% is one of the worst in the division this season and significantly down compared to the 68.3% he achieved last season.

In a recent interview with The World Game Ryan said he will fight for his place unless the right offer comes in after being told by Graham Potter that he is free to go in January.

Ryan’s place has been rumoured to be up for grabs for a while now and that seems to have affected his performances this season. The problem is the other options at Potter’s disposal are all young, inexperienced goalkeepers who probably aren’t quite good enough yet.

Yes, Ryan’s replacement Robert Sanchez has impressed with some good saves and performances, but he’s also made a few mistakes and is still very young. It may be too early for him to take the number one shirt just yet.

Solve the Goalkeeper issue and I think a lot of the panic and hesitation from Albion’s defenders that has led to the high number of goals conceded goes away.

The more I look at the stats and rewatch the highlights from this season, the more a new goalkeeper looks like the solution to a lot of Albion’s issues, much more so than a new striker. Albion are creating chances and despite widespread frustration have been taking a fair few of them. In contrast to goals conceded, the 21 goals scored is the highest at this point by the club in a Premier League season.

Te problems at the back have come from a consistent lack of discipline and concentration. A reliable goalkeeper usually leads to a better organised defence and also puts less pressure on the forwards to take every chance going. So don’t be surprised if Albion go looking for a new Goalkeeper in the January sales.

That said, like with Albion’s problems up top there is no “silver bullet”. And as with a potential new striker, I suspect Potter is happy to work with what he’s got, if so fine. But I don’t think a talented youngster is the solution for the goalkeeper position where experience is key, however good Sanchez has been or however promising Walton is.

Maty Ryan’s Australian national team assistant coach Rene Meulensteen said recently on Albion’s goalkeeper situation: “While Sanchez is very talented – he hasn’t had a run of games previously at this level, let alone high-pressure games. For me, Maty is too good not to be involved. Leaving him out is risky when you consider what he has to offer, especially in crunch matches. I’d like to know the reason he’s not in the team but from Maty’s perspective he hasn’t downed tools and is working away in the knowledge that things could quickly flip again in his favour.”

Personally I agree. I would not have dropped Ryan, he’s been fantastic for the majority of his three and a half years at the club and from the outside looking in, he appears to be a key figure in the dressing room too. But as Potter’s been more loyal to other players when out of form, (including starting Burn on Saturday) and given the surprising links with the club to other goalkeepers in the summer transfer window before Ryan had even lost his place, we can only assume Potter simply doesn’t fancy him.

Highlighting the team’s goalkeeper issue is not to absolve Dan Burn of his blame in Wolves three goals, nor any of his defensive counterparts for theirs this season. But more that it’s easier for them to do their job properly when playing in front of a settled and experienced goalkeeper that they can fully trust. Especially if they are a player coming into the side after a period on the side-lines or playing in a defensive position that they haven’t recently, something that has happened a lot under Potter’s management.

2020 ends but adversity persists

2020 ends but adversity persists

The end of one year into next is usually a good point at which to take a step back & consider the state of affairs.

It’s been a turbulent year for many and for Albion manager Graham Potter it’s been no different. Having lost his mother in July 2019, his father passed away in January of this year. These are trying and defining moments in anyone’s life, but for him they were moments that have coincided with possibly the defining period of his professional career to date.

Professionally, 2020 started badly too. After Albion earned an impressive draw at home to Chelsea and looked to have started the 2020 in a promising manner, Graham Potter’s Albion side failed to win any of the next ten games that preceded the national lockdown following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK in March. And many assumed relegation would follow upon resumption.

But the lockdown gave everyone a chance to stop and reassess. And when the Premier League restarted his side looked revitalised, picking up three wins and accumulating 15 points in their final nine games to achieve the club’s highest Premier League points total and match the club’s highest Premier League season ending league position.

So when subsequent 2020/21 season began in September, it was with much promise and optimism of carrying on the good run of form from the previous season. But Albion’s failure to capitalise on their dominance in matches has left the club in that familiar position of struggling for goals and hovering just above the relegation zone.

However, I’m still of the view that Graham Potter has done a good job in very difficult circumstances. Yes, recent results have been disappointing, but patience is required for Potter, who I believe has demonstrated he’s still best placed to help Albion progress at this time.

As I said before the start of the 2020/21 season, if the first two thirds of last season is anything to go by then this season would be a lot tougher than most predictions, and so it has proven. The good form after the restart may have lulled some into a false sense of status, but Albion were always likely to struggle to progress as some expected.

Expectations management is key for any organisation, especially one of such public interest as Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. And if we are honest Potter has been dealt a very difficult hand by the club’s ambitions statements over wanting to becoming an established top-half side in the Premier League.

And the huge squad churn over the summer which preceded the 2020/21 season has made things even more difficult. In losing the likes of Duffy, Murray, Stephens and Mooy, the club’s transfer policy has subsequently left development team players like White, Molumby, Alzate and Connolly needing to step up and fill some of the gaps. This was always a huge risk, but the club’s strategy since Chris Hughton’s sacking has largely been with great risk comes great reward. Something Potter benefited from by getting the job in the first place.

And yet amongst all this change and the difficulty that has been faced, Albion’s defensive record remains as strong as it did under Hughton despite the more attacking nature of the team. Particularly in the period after the restart when a slightly less idealistic style of play allowed the team to keep it tight at the back and pick up some important results. It’s an attribute that’s helped the team pick up some important draws this season and allow the team to stay consistently above the relegation zone.

I’ve seen many of the Potter’s fiercest critics even suggest names of replacements, mentioning some fine managers who could do a good job, but changing manager is not without risk and without transfer activity in January, would piling further risk onto an already risky situation be sensible? Especially in such uncertain times.

But it would be wrong to ignore the criticisms of Potter’s management. Most recently the team selection for the defeat to Arsenal escalated criticisms of his excessive tinkering in team selection. A selection Andy Naylor described in the Athletic this week as “baffling” and “a step too far this time”.

Then came a Twitter post from the club on New Year’s Eve with a quote from Graham Potter, thanking “the ones” who have supported him in 2020. It came across as a thank you to his supporters but also a veiled chastisement of his critics.

As you’ll have gathered by this point, I’m very much in the “Potter In” camp, but this kind of statement is unhelpful and just adds oil to the fire of Potter’s critics that has been gathering pace throughout the year. I would rather have seen Potter calling for unity ahead of some important games. But instead, the fires that were seemingly put out in the summer following the impressive end of season form that secured survival are now back and at risk of overwhelming Potter if results don’t turn around.

Then again, we’ve seen this before from Potter. After the 1-0 defeat at home to Palace in February he was very defensive of his team post-match and criticised by many for not recognising the importance defeat. But subsequently Albion rallied, accumulated 16 points from the final 10 games and ultimately survived relegation comfortably.

Despite there being plenty of evidence to the contrary and despite there being seemingly no appetite at the club to turn their back on him, bad results will always override everything else. The club has put a lot of time, resource and investment into its current strategy for progression and consolidating its topflight status, so if it’s decided that Graham Potter’s reputation is undermining this, I have no doubt the board will not hesitate in sacrificing him for the greater good. But, evidence from 2020 shows us that just when adversity strikes Graham Potter often does his best work.

Further patience is required for Potter as Albion continue flattering to deceive

Graham Potter’s Albion side have often been a contradiction since he took charge of his first competitive match as manager of the team back in August 2019. That 3-0 win over Watford turned out to be more a signpost of where Albion’s opponents were rather than themselves, as another season of relegation struggle followed. But then again, it’s not surprising considering the level of overhaul he was required to oversee in his first season at the club with relatively limited funds.

After Hughton’s sacking, Potter was tasked with creating a more entertaining team that also progressed up the table towards its long-term goal of an established top half place and away from that dreaded relegation zone, all whilst blooding youngsters and replacing the unwanted but previously important squad members.

Given the amount of change required, we all knew it wasn’t likely to be a bed of roses and patience would be required well into Potter’s second season and beyond. But in a year of such uncertainty and anxiety the patience required is understandably thin on the ground. So it should come as no surprise that it now appears whether he is still managing to do a satisfactory job depends on who you speak to.

Whichever side you fall on, I think it’s hard to not appreciate the progression made by the team during his tenure. He took over the most defensive team in the division and in the space of a year and a half has turned them into one praised for its attacking and entertaining style of play, a team that has dominated most games it’s played this season in terms of possession and chances created, whilst albeit also rightly criticised for its wastefulness in taking the opportunities it has created.

You will likely already know about Albion’s incredibly poor performance in comparison to its expected goals measurement (XG), which is the worst in the division this season. But there are many other statistics that demonstrate Albion’s attacking progression not demonstrated in the league table.

For instance (according to FBref.com) in Chris Hughton’s last season in charge Brighton had the lowest number of touches in the opposition penalty box of any Premier league team, but in the following season (Potter first in charge) they ranked 10th with a 32% increase. A trend continued into the 20/21 season with Albion now having had the 5th highest total touches in the opposition penalty box in the Premier League so far this season.

There are plenty of other examples too. Comparing the last Hughton season (18/19) to the first Potter season (19/20), season on season:

• shots were up 23%,

• shots on target up 38%,

• possession was up 23%,

• shot creating actions were up 20%,

I could go on. Ultimately, Brighton have attacked more frequently and more effectively.

An attractive style of play is one thing, ultimately it has to be backed up by results and the relative stagnation of Albion’s league position has frustrated many (17/18 – 15th, 18/19 – 17th, 19/20 – 15th, 20/21 – currently 17th). However as I’ve discussed in more depth previously, Albion are far from alone in what is a competitive field of clubs in the search for the top half of the topflight.

Many have focused on Albion’s recent poor home form having recorded just two home wins in all competitions in 2020 so far going into their final home game of the year against Arsenal on Tuesday night. A fair point, but you can’t focus solely on home form. Away from home it’s now 5 wins 4 draws and 3 defeats (to Spurs – 6th, Leicester – 2nd & Everton – 4th) in the 12 games since the restart, which would have been an unimaginably good record when Potter took over considering Albion achieved just 5 wins in all of Hughton’s 38 Premier League away games.

Nonetheless it is a poor run at home that’s been highlighted by the recent failure to beat struggling West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield United. However, the value of those results depends on your perspective.

Those draws along with the one away to Fulham do make Albion unbeaten against its fellow members of the league’s current bottom five. And whilst they did fail to win all four matches, that lack of a defeat combined with Albion’s away form continuing to improve could mean those results prove to be a beneficial rather than a damaging factor in Albion’s season.

Despite only winning two games so far this season (currently 9% down on its consistent 23% average win percentage across the last three seasons), it’s still fairly early days and Albion have shown through its increased attacking threat detailed above that they are able to give anyone a game. And given they are yet to be beaten this season by a team outside the current top 7 in the league, they can feel confident going into most fixtures.

However, that confidence continuing may well be dependent on Albion capitalising on opportunities to win games more often than they have so far this season, starting with their next three fixtures against West Ham, Arsenal & Wolves respectively. Fortunately all three opponents are ones they have a good record against, taking a accumulated total of 29 points from a possible 48 in the Premier League, whilst recording just 1 defeat in those 16 matches.

Considering their shortage of victories, Albion could certainly do with that run continuing this season. But in order to do so it needs to start turning draws and victories based on expected goals into actual wins and three points. But as the old football adage goes, you’d rather be creating chances and missing them than not creating chances at all. The signs are good, once again let’s give Graham Potter the patience to get it right.

A scrappy draw at the Cottage frustrates Albion again, but it’s too early to panic

Wednesday night saw Albion partake in a scrappy game of football and earn a useful point in what was a largely disappointing and frustrating performance.

As both sides admitted afterwards, a draw was a fair result and it’s a useful point that keeps Albion above an improving Fulham team, takes them a further point above a Burnley team who have two games in hand at the time of writing and one that helps to lift some of the despondency from Sunday’s heavy defeat at the hands of Leicester.

The highlight from an Albion perspective on a fairly dreary night of football was an impressive performance by incoming goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who made some key saves to earn Albion’s third clean sheet of the season.

As the game got going in a quiet Craven Cottage, it quickly became apparent it was one that both teams were afraid of losing. The best the first half got was a few speculative shots from range and some miss-hit crosses. With the rest of the half mostly taken up by some fair but firm tackling in a congested midfield.

With London entering tier 3 of the UK’s COVID restrictions on the morning of the game, a lack of supporters in the ground who had roared Fulham to an impressive draw with Liverpool there just three days before was very noticeable. And possibly responsible for the drop in intensity in the home sides performance.

The congested midfield left little room for the creative players to flourish and as a result it was as if at times Albion’s Leandro Trossard was playing a different game to everyone else. But as the game progressed, he was the one who managed to open up Fulham with some good play at the beginning of the second half, making 3 key passes including some uncommonly (compared to Albion’s season so far) good set piece deliveries.

It was a performance from the Belgian that highlighted his superior agility and movement in comparison to one of the men he replaced in the starting line up Pascal Gross. But what this season has also highlighted is that he does as yet lack Gross’s high standard of nous and conviction in the final third, with the Belgian one of many Albion forwards proving to be often wasteful. I just hope the younger talents like Trossard take the time to learn from Gross about being more sharp and effective in front of goal.

Indeed Albion attacked with intent for a short period after the break. And were it not for a VAR overturn and some smart work from the Fulham crossbar after it turned an Adam Webster header away from goal, Albion would have taken the lead. But the subsequent introduction by Fulham of Lemina & Kamala in midfield halted Albion’s dominance and the home side had the better chances on the break after then. Particularly after Albion’s near-hero turned near-villain when Webster mistimed an interception and left Chelsea loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek clear on goal only to see his shot saved by the feet of Sanchez.

There were moments of quality and the second half performance was an improvement on the first, but Albion will need to capitalise on period like that better if they are to start picking up the wins they require to lift them up the table and away from the danger of relegation. But a point is a decent result.

That’s now five points won from the five games since the most recent international break, which is by no means a disaster given the fixtures. But the feeling remains that Albion are missing too many opportunities to accumulate wins and the points which would enable them to climb the table. It now feels like wins from the next four games, which include three at home and a trip to West Ham, are a necessity to avoid anxiety levels continuing to escalate and the pressure from some quarters on manager Graham Potter becoming detrimental.

Nonetheless, in the context of the season so far this feels like a more of a positive than negative result. As well as five draws, Albion have admittedly lost a not insignificant six times in the thirteen games played already this season. But, given that five of those defeats were against the current top six and the other that remarkable 3-2 defeat at home to Man United, we should probably be feeling more positive about Albion’s season so far.

But another failure to take all three points means that positivity is now even more dependent on how the Christmas period continues to play out. Once the next four games have finished, we will know far better if those five draws Albion have achieved so far this season, three of which being against teams below us, were a point gained or two dropped.

Excess despondency ahead of a decisive few weeks

2020 has been a year where many of us have been reminded of our own frailties and of the instabilities that everyday life holds. Alongside all that Albion’s current concerning run of form is quite frankly small beer, but with all this instability around the uncertainty of the club’s Premier League status will no doubt be adding to Albion fan’s anxiety.

Whilst many have suggested this incarnation is the squad of players that the club has ever had, the points they have accumulated after 12 games is the lowest of its four Premier League seasons since promotion.

But, given that of the 12 teams Albion have faced so far this season, eight of their opponents currently sit in the top half of the league and only two are in the bottom eight places, there is reason to believe that the promise and potential which we have seen and discussed of Graham Potter’s Brighton over the last 18 months may materialise in the coming run of matches.

However, turning potential and promise into fruition is more difficult than it may appear on paper. Something highlighted by the recent demise of Sheffield United, a team who pre-lockdown in March were being spoken of as challengers for Champions League football having picked up 43 points from their first 28 games. But having subsequently won just 12 points from the subsequent 22 games, they are all of a sudden very much relegation fodder.

In comparison, Albion’s fairly consistent total of 22 points from their last 21 league games over the same period looks lucrative, especially given the previously mentioned relatively high standard of opposition faced so far this season. Not that the discourse amongst Albion’s fans after last Sunday’s 3-0 reverse away to Leicester would have suggested as such.

Mainly because it’s a result that leaves the club in a perilous position, just two places and two points above the relegation zone, ahead of two increasingly important games against teams beneath them in the table, first away to a rejuvenated Fulham and then at home to the aforementioned Sheffield United.

Lose those and Albion’s record of avoiding a prolonged stay in the relegation zone since promotion could quickly end and given the lack of stability in the UK at the moment, there may never be a worse time to lose their place at the top table of English football, especially given that the EFL is facing its own crisis.

Despondency can quickly have a spiralling effect and can quickly exacerbate the issues we face. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this most pertinently in our own personal lives. Be it from a professional or personal perspective, when you’re stuck in a rut everything becomes that little bit harder, and your goals, however big or small, can feel increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Throughout the club’s time in the Premier League it’s as moment like these appear that Albion have often managed to conspire to pull out a run of positive results, which keep its head above water and keep spirits high. The next two matches are a huge test of that ability to continue to survive at this level.

After Albion’s win away to Aston Villa, I spoke about how anxiety levels had been lowered somewhat as the team found themselves marooned in that mid-bottom-half league position that has become very familiar to Albion fans since promotion. But results since have meant that whilst the league position hasn’t changed, anxiety levels have increased as the teams below them have closed the gap.

Unlike the macro economic factors that will likely dominate our lives in the UK and further afield for the coming decade, and possibly longer, the transformation in the mood of football fans from despondency to euphoria – and back again, can happen in the space of just 90 minutes. Feelings that are only magnified for all the teams in the bottom reaches of the Premier League due to the fragility of their top flight status’.

However, just as with the fortunes of the country, Albion now find themselves with a decisive few weeks ahead, which could have huge implications for the coming months and years ahead.