Aaron Connolly – Patience is required ahead of a pivotal season

After announcing himself to Albion fans with some impressive performances for the Club’s development team and winning the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season award (ahead of compatriots including England U21 striker Eddie Nketiah), Aaron Connolly scored twice on his first Premier League start for the club at home to Tottenham in October 2019, a game broadcast live on BT Sport.

Due to this success with the development team he had already built up a huge reputation amongst the Albion supporters even prior to his fairytale home debut. But his performances since then haven’t always kept up that upwards trajectory and his 3 goals in his subsequent 37 appearances in the Premier League is a return that is beginning to lead to questions being asked of the young striker.

The last season in particular was tough for Connolly. Missed chances led to so much online abuse that he temporarily removed his social media accounts. Whilst more recently, allegations about his personal life and criticisms about perceptions of an attitude problem will only have added pressure onto a young man who has already had huge expectations being placed on him from day one.

Whilst inconsistency and difficult periods are par of the course for young players, Connolly has admitted that he hasn’t been up to the standard required at times. Saying in an interview with Balls.ie earlier in the year that “I take responsibility for the fact that it hasn’t been good enough recently.”

In contrast to some of the recent press he’s received, this was a mature, reflective, and modest interview from Aaron Connolly, especially when you consider his age. Sometimes we forget how young he is, just 21.

Whilst there are a growing number of uncomplimentary and unfair comparisons or criticisms made of Aaron Connolly’s so far short Albion career, when compared to the other eight players who were nominated alongside him for the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season he comes out well. In fact none of the other eight have made more appearances or scored more goals in the Premier League than Aaron Connolly.

Even the player who preceded him as the Premier League 2 player of the season in 2018, Reiss Nelson, has made only 22 Premier League appearances scoring just 1 goal, compared to Connolly’s 41 appearances and 5 goals to date.

In a recent article WeAreBrighton.com pointed to his former development squad teammate Viktor Gyokeres not getting similar opportunities to Connolly. And whilst it may look like Gyokeres didn’t get his chance, what we didn’t see were the months spent training with the first team under both Hughton and Potter, neither of whom entrusted him to make even a single Premier League appearance, not even as a late substitute.

Gyokeres isn’t the first talented young player with a good record for the development team not to make it with the first team and he won’t be the last. We need to get used to that as Albion’s academy continues to make strides forward and has more and more impact on the senior team.

Whilst Connolly has racked up an impressive number of first team appearances, Gyokeres was gaining his experience out on loan. Connolly is clearly highly rated by those at the club, they gave him the number 7 shirt last summer after all. And unlike Gyokeres, the club clearly believes that so far he’s been better off staying at Albion rather than going out on loan, even if it is as back up. Maybe his short spell on loan at Luton where he made just two substitute appearances and mostly spent his time recovering from an injury has something to do with that.

And you can understand why. At Albion he’s learning from senior professionals, current and former internationals and working under Graham Potter, who has a good record of working with and developing young players.

Circumstance has also led to his first team status. Whilst Ben White was sent out on loan in 2019 to Leeds to gain experience due to a surplus of centre backs, a lack of firepower up front combined with potential new additions not materialising have accelerated Connolly’s progress into the first team.

It’s also true that not all development team products will have such meteoric rises as the likes of Ben White or Robert Sanchez. Patience is a crucial cultural attribute in turning young talent into the finished article, Connolly deserves that at least.

Yes, as he admits himself that he deserves some criticism for missed goalscoring chances last season. But as his manager Graham Potter has said on numerous occasions when questioned about the teams goalscoring problems, it’s a collective issue not about individuals.

Moreover, the accusations about Connolly’s personal life or his attitude are commonplace tropes made against struggling players with high expectations placed upon them. It’s simply an easy stick to beat them with.

Some argue that all the criticism he’s received is a sign that Connolly hasn’t been looked after enough by the club, but if so that goes for the club’s supporters too.

Brighton fans dumping their frustration over the teams goalscoring woes on a 21-year-old back up striker, when he’s hardly on his own in that regard, is nothing more than convenient scapegoating and has at times seen revolting levels of abuse.

If I’m honest, in the past I’ve probably been guilty of sticking the boot in a bit too harshly to some of Albion’s bigger money signings like Locadia and Jahanbakhsh. As a football fan it’s the hope that drives you, but it’s also the hope which can also destroy you. So it can be hard to not get a little carried away and end up taking that out on certain individuals from whom your hope was derived. Nonetheless, particularly when it comes to young prospects like Connolly who are still finding their feet in the game, as supporters we need to try to be better and more rational in our criticism, particularly when it’s aimed at an individual.

In reality we only see a small amount of the work that goes in, really, we have very little insight on how hard or not Connolly works and whether he deserves the opportunities that he gets over other players. But I’m guessing given the competition for places and the high standard of coaching at the club, that he probably does.

In a recent interview Aaron Connolly’s former teammate Glenn Murray spoke about how he needed to get out and enjoy himself after a bad match in order to lift his mood. Something which Murray said led to some criticism over his own attitude, and this is a player who only recently retired from playing at the age of 37, hardly the sign of a bad attitude.

Many supporters are happy to criticise players if we don’t perceive them to be making enough effort or having the right attitude if things aren’t going well. But as Murray’s example shows this quickly changes if things go well.

The delayed Tokyo Olympics that are currently taking place are a great (if extreme) example of how athletes spend the majority of their time building up to an event and a very small amount of time actually carrying out the work which they are judged upon , something that is true of professional footballers too.

Footballers spend years working for their first professional contracts, most of whom don’t even make it. The few that do then spend far more days and hours on the training pitch preparing for matches, or resting and recuperating after matches than actually playing in them.

Then when involved in a match (which Connolly was sparingly last season) they will only have the ball in their possession for around 2-3 minutes and spend most of the rest of the time running between 10-15 kms trying to win it back or getting into good positions for a teammate to find them.

For Aaron Connolly, as a striker who mostly plays off of the last defender, he will likely have the ball less than average and he will mostly receive the ball in attacking positions under great pressure from the opposition defence, making every poor touch or moment of hesitation far more costly than for many of his teammates. For example, last season Connolly averaged just 12 touches of the ball per appearance or 23 touches per 90 minutes played, giving him little opportunity to make up for any mistakes.

These are the harsh truths of being a Premier League and International footballer, something many of us can only dream of achieving, especially by the age of 21. Aaron Connolly still has time on his side to win around the doubters, but another season of frustration and missed chances will make that task even harder.

As such, the best thing us Albion fans can do is to give him a break and be more patient with a footballer who whilst young, has already gained lots of topflight experience, international experience and who has the talent to be a brilliant player for Albion for many seasons to come.

Mings, Coady and White all in contention for a starting place as England gets ready to Host(ish) a Home(ish) European Championships

England go into the much delayed Euro 2020 with high expectations and the manager Gareth Southgate having an increasingly exciting and talented young group of players to pick from. Hold on, haven’t we been here before?

Maybe, but it does feel like a different England under Southgate. Whilst you cannot please everyone, the team now come across as far more likeable than many of its previous incarnations and that’s backed up by success on the pitch too with two consecutive semi-final appearances now to their name. There is an air of confidence in this team without the arrogance of old and a firm belief in its ability without the brash cockiness seen in past eras.

England start the tournament as favourites to win their group and as one of the most highly fancied teams in the entire tournament, but they won’t be caught by surprise by any of their group opponents with each one in its own way a familiar face.

Each match will be tough, but in many ways the second match with Scotland is looking like the toughest test after an impressive run of results under manager Steve Clarke who has transformed the previously much maligned home nation. Which makes beating England’s World Cup semi-final nemesis Croatia in their opening game all the more important and that won’t be easy opponents either.

Whilst Czech Republic’s win over England in qualification, the success of Czech internationals Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal at West Ham last season, along with the success of the countries invincible domestic league champions Slavia Prague over British teams in the Europa League last season all ensuring England are well aware of their threats too. All three matches mean any speculation over potential last 16 opponents and possible routes to a prospective semi-final and final at Wembley will have to remain on ice for now.

Southgate said after England’s friendly win over Romania last weekend that he had just one place in the starting eleven for Sunday’s opener against Croatia that he was still unsure of, and I wonder if it’s his choice over defensive shape and personnel that this quandary is in relation too.

Much has been made of Man United Captain Harry Maguire’s injury in the lead up to the tournament and if he was fit he would almost certainly start alongside John Stones, but someone’s loss is another person’s opportunity and England’s back-up centre-back options of Mings, Coady and the late addition of our very own Ben White will all likely be in his thoughts.

The pre-existing members of the England squad Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady would appear to be at the front of the queue despite much derision being put their way on social media. Mings as a no nonsense defender may be Southgate’s go to option alongside Stones in a back four, whilst Coady would probably be more likely first pick in a back three.

Mings in particular has seen his fair share of criticism after a couple of unimpressive performances in England’s warm up games, but as many have already pointed out these games are more about gaining/maintaining fitness and avoiding injury than performance. Whilst his two years at Villa in the Premier League marshalling their defence to survival and then an impressive 11th place last season show he’s more than capable to fill the hole in the back four if required. As the Aston Villa online blog “Under A Gaslit Lamp” said recently: “Regardless of the occasional below par performance, Aston Villa are a better team and club due to the fact that Tyrone Mings is a part of it and he will be vital, as Dean Smith tries to steer the club into the upper echelons of the Premier League and back into Europe.” Unfortunately for him, in tournament football any mistake is likely to be amplified and ultimately this may count against him.

As an Albion fan I will be hoping that is the case and it is instead Ben White who gets the nod against Croatia, a player who’s versatility to be able to play in a number of positions along with his potential to improve appears to be what has secured him a place in England’s 26 after the injury to Alexander-Arnold.

White has continued to impress since coming to the attention of the Albion faithful during his multi-award winning season on loan at Newport County and his Rookie Premier League season saw him continue his impressive rise and surprise a few last weekend to win the club’s player of the season award, albeit seemingly with the help of his old friends from Leeds.

Whilst he only made his Premier League debut less than a year ago and his England debut less than two weeks ago, I doubt Gareth Southgate will be afraid to throw him in if he feels that he’s his best choice. After all Southgate himself was handed a surprise call up and subsequent selection to start as centre back for England at Euro 1996. Having only made his England debut seven months before, he started the opener against Switzerland alongside captain Tony Adams with just four caps to his name.

If it is Ben White who starts for England, it will be a huge personal moment for him and his family. But also for the Albion and everyone involved at the club. It is 23 years ago this week that the club made the signing of the Withdean era legend Gary Hart for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits from non-league Stansted, who went on to be the club’s joint top scorer in his first season. That youth team product Ben White has made the England squad this summer, let alone is being discussed as in contention for a start in the opening game, shows just how far the club has come since then.

The Tweeting Seagull awards 2020/21

It’s been a season like no other and one that the players deserve a great deal of credit for their perseverance in such difficult and uncertain circumstances. So here I’ve picked out a few of the best and worst moments from the season just gone.

The Guy Butters Award for defying initial judgements – Dan Burn

Dan continues to defy the expectations of him as well as the at times inane derision put his way in equally emphatic measure. His winning goal against City, whilst scrappy, was just rewards for the frequency of his forward runs and upfield impact that he has had in the second half of the season since coming into the team after injuries to both Tariq Lamptey and Solly March.

Burn also played a huge part in the other highlight of Albion’s season, their 1-0 win away to Liverpool. That night Graham Potter described him as “incredible”. Going onto say about his detractors: “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football, ultimately, I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me. Dan just gives his best every day.”

Many of his critics will reference his performances against Leicester away in late December and Wolves at home in early January, which drew much criticism. TalkSPORT described his performance in the draw with Wolves as “a night to forget” whilst the Guardian described him as “helpless”.

However, it’s hard to find an Albion player who hasn’t had a few bad games this season. Even my pick for player of the season Lewis Dunk has had his moments, including that recent red card which ultimately cost Albion all three points in Albion’s return match with Wolves.

Nonetheless, so bad were a couple of Burn’s performances that many questioned his suitability on the left or even in the topflight entirely. Whilst his selection in the Albion team continues to draw a huge amount of confusion and contention despite his consistent dependability in numerous positions.

But he’s been hugely important for Albion throughout the season, which is a testament to him and his mental resilience. His importance to the team, despite not being in many Albion fans first eleven, is demonstrated by the fact that he has still been involved in 27 of Albion’s Premier League games this season and 10 of Albion’s 12 victories in all competitions, only Pascal Gross with 11 has played in more.

The Mark McCammon Award for most cringeworthy moment of the season – Albion fans booing Man City onto the pitch for their guard of honour.

We’ve been here before, back in 2019 Kyle Walker was booed whilst receiving his Premier League winners medal, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Albion have their fair share of petty supporters willing to spoil another teams moment of joy.

The irony that after a season which saw the near crumbling of the competitive structures of the game as we know it, and with it the integrity of the competition, that the team who won the league fair and square were then booed during a guard of honour held to congratulate them on their victory, shouldn’t be lost on us.

Evidence of petty and pathetic behaviour like this is racking up from the AMEX faithful and it isn’t a good look.

The Award for the most irritating and most repeated line of Albion punditry – “Neal Maupay embodies Brighton problems in front of goal”

Some will be surprised by this one, but I’m a huge supporter of Maupay and think Albion are far worse off without him.

Anyone who has watched Albion without Maupay this season should recognise that the team has struggled offensively without him. The bluntness of the attack on the final day defeat to Arsenal was telling of how he offers so much more than just scoring goals.

Albion’s recent win over Man City is the exception to this, but City were down to 10 men for most of the game, which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from. The other four games that Albion played without Maupay this season (Fulham away, Spurs away, West Ham home & 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).

As a part of their end of season reviews the Guardian were quite typical in the national press’ distain towards Albion’s top scorer. Going in hard on Neal Maupay by naming him as one of the “Flops of the season”.

Yes, he has missed big chances and should have scored more goals. But it is worth noting that he’s scored 22% (18) of Albion’s goals over the past 2 seasons, whilst taking 18% of their shots. Maupay isn’t blameless, but Albion’s problems in front of goal don’t just lie with him.

In fact, it doesn’t make sense to blame a teams lack of goals on the player actually scoring a significant proportion of its goals. Instead we should look at others. For example the likes of Gross, Lallana, Jahanbakhsh and Trossard who should all have scored more this season too, between them have only matched Maupay’s 8 goals.

The idea of Albion needing to sign a 20-goal a season striker is a huge red herring, the only two who actually scored that many in the Premier League this season were Harry Kane and Mohammed Salah, players unattainable for the Albion. If we look at two teams Albion have been competing with in previous seasons that managed to lift themselves up the division this season, Aston Villa and West Ham, neither had one player on 15 goals, let’s alone 20.

Instead, both teams had a number of players with multiple goals. West Ham’s top scorer was Antonio on 10, but they had three other players on 8 goals or more. Admittedly Villa’s top scorer was Watkins 14, but they also had El Ghazi on 10 and Traore on 7. In contrast, aside from Neil Maupay, over the past two season no Albion player has matched Danny Welbeck’s 6 goals in the a single season.

The only player to do that in their four Premier League seasons is Pascal Gross in 2017/18 with 8. But his more recent goalscoring form in particular is a concern. Since moving into a slightly deeper role he has scored just 8 across the next three season, only 2 of which from open play. Whilst still crucial to Albion’s play, he’s become far less effective in front of goal under Potter.

I don’t think anyone in the squad this season, maybe Connolly aside, shows the same kind of instinct to get in the box like Maupay does. So in that sense, compared to the too often goalshy likes of Trossard, Gross, Lallana and Jahanbakhsh, he’s the antithesis of Albion’s problems in front of goal. If Albion had more players with his mindset to get in the six yard box and take a risk then Albion would have turned far more of those many draws into wins.

At the start of the season I said an improvement from Albion would be partly contingent on Maupay showing the kind of second season improvement in his goal tally as he did at Brentford in the Championship, but that hasn’t happened. In fact he’s scored 2 less than last season’s tally of 10. So just as his goalscoring rate has largely stood still, so have Albion finishing 16th compared to last season’s 15th placed finish.

Much like at Brentford he’s been asked to play a role that is the focal point of the attack, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the team always plays to his strengths. At Brentford you’d often see him getting on the end of crosses or picking up second balls, but he doesn’t really get much of that kind of delivery at Albion and is often expected to deal with short sharp balls to feat, which has often seen him get his feet in a muddle and miss the chance.

I think to get the best out of Maupay next season Albion need to add a bit more variety to the balls going into the box. They need to be a little more direct from wide areas, and/or find a taller striker for Maupay to play off and pick up the scraps from. But whether Graham Potter would want to forgo an element of the teams slick and sharp forward play that has drawn so much admiration from pundits and caused opposition defences such concern but not yet seen the deserved improvement in the goals and points tally to go with it, is yet to be seen

The Billy Sharp Award for best opposition player performance at the AMEX – Reece James

Reece James progression as one of the most exciting young players in Europe continues somewhat under the radar because of the prominence of so many other top class English right-backs. But in his first full season as an established first team player at Chelsea, he started as he meant to go on with a match-winning performance for Chelsea in their 3-1 win over Albion at the AMEX.

Even on this night, he was somewhat overshadowed by his former Chelsea teammate Tariq Lamptey’s impressive performance at right back for Albion that actually earned Albion’s right back the BBC’s man of the match award.

But given it was James who with the game tied at 1-1 grabbed it by the throat and won it for the visitors, he should ultimately take the plaudits. Firstly he was given a bit of space on the edge of the box and took no hesitation in rifling the ball home into the top corner of the net. Chelsea’s third then came from his attack down the right hand side winning a corner off Solly March, whom he had tormented all night, then sending in the corner towards Zouma, who turned it home to make it 3-1 and put Chelsea out of sight.

Whilst in the second half of the season his success was somewhat curtailed by injury and a change of management, his impressive first half of the season shows the potential and ability that he has. So good was he that he was named by Alan Shearer in his Premier League half-way team of the season and was involved in two of England’s qualifiers back in March including the crucial 2-1 win at home to Poland.

That night at the AMEX the Guardian’s Barney Ronay described Brighton’s performance as “impressively slick and a little unlucky”. Start as you mean to go on as they say. However unlike on many occasions this season where it has been Albion’s poor finishing or sloppy defending when ahead that has cost them points, on this occasions it was largely down to an impressive performance from arguably England’s best right back.

The Scott McGleish villain of the season – Maty Ryan

What a difference a year makes. This time last year Maty Ryan was Albion’s number one and considered pretty untouchable in that position. A year later he has lost his place, been loaned out and found himself as the unfortunate figure of hate from a significant portion of Albion’s social media supporters.

In Albion’s second Premier League season Ryan was deemed so important to Albion that his absence for a short period to appear in the Asia cup for his native Australia was one of that season’s regular narratives of concern. As it turned out Albion would manage ok without him, but he was still instantly reinstated on his return.

However the improvement of the young Robert Sanchez, who started the season as Albion’s 4th choice goalkeeper after returning from loan at League One Rochdale and ended it by being named in his national team Span’s European Championships squad, alongside a run of bad form for Ryan that stretched back to the end of the previous season, saw Ryan quickly replaced as Albion’s number one.

Maybe links last summer between Albion and Emiliano Martínez, who would ultimately sign and star for Aston Villa, should have given a hint that Ryan’s days at Albion were numbered. But when he was initially dropped away to Spurs and then again for Albion’s trip to relegation rivals Fulham, there was a great deal of shock, but Sanchez has quickly proved his worth and no one has looked back since.

Ryan was completely isolated from Albion’s Matchday squads and loaned to Arsenal after becoming a figure of blame for Albion’s woes from some on social media. But his subsequently interview with Australian broadcaster Optus Sport only served to increase the animosity.

In that interview Ryan went into detail about his private conversations with Albion manager Graham Potter about being dropped, before going onto describe his move to Arsenal as a step up and revealing that he viewed Brighton as a stepping stone to a bigger club. Comments that I think just described the situation honestly and frankly, but that appear to have upset the more sensitive and insecure members of Albion’s support.

Furthermore, Albion’s current transfer model is just that, to become a stepping stone to bigger clubs for young and talented players like the often praised Yves Bissouma. Maty Ryan’s comments show a level of ambition the club should expect of its players and is an attitude the supporters are going to have to accept as the new normal, even from players they don’t rate as highly as Bissouma.

Despite this and Albion’s Chief Executive Paul Barber defended Maty Ryan, saying he felt his comments had been misinterpreted, but some Albion fans still seem keen to stick the knife into Maty Ryan at every opportunity.

But he is person who represented the club with such distinction for three and a bit years both on and off the pitch. Yes, substandard performance meant he was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements and he was possibly naive and tasteless in the honesty of his comments in this now infamous interview, but that doesn’t diminish his previous three seasons of commendable service to the club, a period where he was a hero to many.

And yet because some have taken exception to something he said in an interview they will continue to abuse him at every opportunity. Franky, they need to grow up.

Dunk out and White in as Gareth Southgate names his provisional 33-man England squad

Poor old Lewis Dunk, he has the season of his life and whilst many have called for his inclusion in this summer’s England squad for the European Championships, he has instead been usurped by his rookie teammate Ben White.

It’s a game of opinions I guess. And given Gareth Southgate does have a pretty decent record as England manager, you will have to excuse me for trusting his judgement.

Good record you ask? Yes, Gareth Southgate in fact has the second best win percentage of all England managers. Add to that getting to the semi-finals of both the World Cup and Nations League, as well as two comfortable qualification campaigns all to his name in just four years, I believe his record looks rather impressive. Especially whilst also managing a huge turnover in players.

Many Brighton fans (along with a few others) have said that based on form Lewis Dunk should be in the England squad, and even if we accept this as true, I don’t think you can base an international squad selection purely on form or that he’s been at the heart of Albion’s impressive defensive record.

Many talk about Dunk’s form in reference to an interview Southgate did in 2017 with the Daily Telegraph where he talked about selecting players based on form rather than reputation. But this is taking what he said out of context. There are many other factors which also need to be considered than simply form, no international manager picks a squad purely based on form. This isn’t Garth Crooks selecting his team of the week after all.

Here’s the full quote from that interview: “I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team. I never pick on reputation — form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”

Going onto say: “We’ve got to be better, everything we do has got to be better. Even being second in the world isn’t good enough, we have to be the best we can be, and that’s the best.”

Building a squad of players, as Albion have found in the Premier League, is hard. Most importantly you need to have depth, experience, a range of characteristics and versatility in terms of position. Unfortunately for Dunk, he appears to have fallen just short in Southgate’s eyes compared to his other defensive options.

Southgate did reference Dunk’s impressive season and how important he is to Brighton in his press conference. But in reasoning Ben White’s selection (along with the also uncapped Ben Godfrey) over Dunk he referenced both White’s potential to improve and his versatility, both areas that Dunk does fall down on compared to other options available to England.

Dunk has had his chance with England too and clearly failed to sufficiently impress. In The Athletic earlier this season Andy Naylor reported that Lewis Dunk fell well below the training levels expected during his only England call up and that Dunk’s training was also an issue at Brighton earlier in his career under Guy Poyet. It may sound like a harsh and rash judgement, but these things do matter in terms of setting the type of winning mentality and attitude that Southgate referenced back in 2017.

This of course won’t be the only factor in Southgate’s thinking. If we look back at Southgate’s 2017 interview he talks about the balance of the team as well as the opposition they face as factors in his mind when selecting a team. Some have said Southgate has an anti-Dunk agenda or even an anti-Brighton agenda. I think his agenda is simply that he prefers Mings, Coady, Maguire and Stones to Dunk in terms of what he wants from his squad. That’s his job to make that call after all.

Many say Dunk deserves to be in the England squad and I don’t dispute that he is more than good enough. But so are many others. For example, Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa and AC Milan loanee Fikayo Tomori were also specifically mentioned by Southgate in his press conference, whilst James Tarkowski and Michael Keane have both been in England squads more recently than Dunk, all of whom miss out too. We are lucky to have such competition for places.

Some have suggested Dunk’s omission is because of a smaller club bias, but that Ben White has also been included is a huge contradiction to this. And that nine of the fourteen non-“Super Six” Premier League Clubs are represented in the provisional squad also massively contradicts this notion.

Gareth Southgate has consistently been willing to pick players from a wide variety of clubs, even those overseas most of us don’t see as much or those like Brighton not competing in a European club competition.

Much like many of those clubs represented, for Brighton, Ben White’s selection is a feather in the cap for the growing reputation of its academy. It’s one that they will hope to be the first of many and not simply for the odd one cap that Lewis Dunk is currently stuck on.

White’s talent, potential and versatility appears to be what saw him saw him beat others into the provisional squad, but getting into the final 26 is likely to be a much tougher task. As Southgate yesterday suggested, he’s there more as one for the future than for these Euros.

However, I wouldn’t be too despondent. The last and only time a Brighton player was picked by England at a major tournament, Steve Foster in 1982, Albion were relegated from the topflight the following season. So if White is overlooked like his Albion teammate Dunk, then maybe we should all be grateful.

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.

Is this the end of the road for Alireza Jahanbakhsh at Brighton?

As time goes on, the signing by Brighton of The Iranian international Alireza Jahanbakhsh looks more and more like an unsuccessful venture for all involved.

The former Eredivisie top scorer and current star of the Iranian national team came to the club with great promise and fanfare, as Albion fought off interest from Leicester City to win his signature. But Leicester will likely be the only ones grateful based on the lack of impact he’s had over the past three seasons.

And yet, despite Jahanbakhsh’s fairly modest record in terms of goals involvement in now over 28 hours of Premier League football, he remains a key figure of Albion’s squad having featuring in 18 of Albion’s 35 matches this season.

After a quiet first season at the Albion, many expressed frustration at his performances, whilst others called for patience. But the sacking of the defensive-minded manager Chris Hughton and the appointment of the more attack-minded Graham Potter was meant to open up a new opportunity for Albion’s former record signing. Instead that 12 of his 18 Premier League starts came in that first season under Hughton shows a very different story.

Jahanbakhsh was brought into a team that needed goals. As the summer transfer of 2017 closed, there was panic amongst many Albion supports after the club failed to sign a striker leaving the club very reliant on a certain Glenn Murray for goals. Panic then turned to panic-buys, as Dutch striker Jurgen Locadia was signed January 2018, arguably Albion’s worst signing since promotion the topflight.

Then in the summer of 2018 Jahanbakhsh was signed along with a spate of new signings including the Romanian striker Florin Andone and Brazilian full back Bernardo, with Albion making a total outlay on new signings that summer of over £50m, and yet the club went backwards in terms of points and league position. Only surviving relegation because of a series of failures to capitalise on Albion’s deficiencies by Cardiff City.

Despite the outlay being focused mostly on attacking players, Albion also mustered just 35 goals in 38 games, only one more than in its maiden Premier league season. Whilst Glenn Murray was consistently reliable notching 13 goals, new signings Locadia and Andone scored 2 and 3 respectively, whilst Jahanbakhsh failed to earn even earn an assist to his name, let alone a goal scored.

There were exceptional circumstances. Jahanbakhsh’s progress was initially limited by a lack of game time and then when he made it into the team he was asked to play a very defensive wide midfield role, with Albion primarily attacking through the middle via the effective partnership of Pascal Gross and Glenn Murray.

Under Graham Potter’s period of management Jahanbakhsh has been played in a number of different roles, as varied as wing back to playing as a number nine, and whilst there have been moments of quality they have been few and far between as the Iranian has struggled to find his place in Graham Potter’s far more fluid and possession-based side.

To his credit, in that first season and since Jahanbakhsh has shown himself to be a hardworking & likeable person, he wouldn’t still be here otherwise as the departure and diminishing influence of other players signed around the time shows. But that he’s played in two Albion teams with very contrasting styles of play and not been good enough to hold down a regular place in either is telling. Whilst he’s shown to be capable of brilliance, it’s not been consistent or reliable enough to warrant the first team football he desires.

To succeed at this level you need to be able to adapt to different systems and positions, particularly under a manager like Graham Potter. Unfortunately Jahanbakhsh has shown a lack of ability to do that, despite a willingness to try.

But that he has still regularly been involved in matchday squads despite Brighton’s strengthening options and he has been used so many times as a substitute ahead of other attacking options, clearly shows that Graham Potter thinks he has something to offer. Unlike some of Albion’s other big money signings from the earlier Premier League transfer windows, Jahanbakhsh is reliable and someone Potter can turn to for some additional attacking intent if Albion need to change the game in search of a goal.

However, that the recent defeat away to Sheffield United was a rare occasion where Jahanbakhsh made an impact as a substitute (and even then it didn’t deliver a goal), shows equally how difficult that role is to play and how unsuited he is to Graham Potter’s Albion side.

Jahanbakhsh was signed to great acclaim as the Eredivisie’s top scorer in the 2017/18 season. However, whilst his appearance on Saturday was his 47th appearance for the club in the Premier League, taking his total minutes playing in the English topflight to 1,683, all that time on the pitch has yielded just 2 goals and 1 assist.

Some would point to his additional 11 cup appearances for the Albion, which yielded a further 2 goals. But both those goals and many of those matches were played against lower league opposition, which is hardly a barometer of Premier League success.

Others would say that an average of 35 minutes per Premier League appearance shows just how little opportunities he has really had, but I’d suggest that of his 18 starts he has completed just 3 is far more exemplary of Jahanbakhsh’s struggles in an Albion shirt.

On Saturday his 57th minute exit against Wolves exemplified much of his problems. Whilst he hadn’t had a bad game up to that point, as soon as Albion were reduced to ten men he was an obvious candidate for an exit to allow Albion to change shape and adapt to the situation it found itself in. Whilst others playing in a similar wide midfield role like Solly March or Dan Burn would have been just asked to switch positions, Graham Potter knew he had other players better suited to the job now required.

I’d say that he’s had far more opportunities under Potter than his output deserves compared to the likes of Zeqiri, Tau, Izquierdo and Propper, all of whom have shown glimpses of talent as a substitute but who’ve all spent most of the season on the sidelines after either returning from loans or long term injuries. And that’s not to mention his fellow summer 2018 inductee Florin Andone who hasn’t played a minute of football yet this season.

Some would point to chance creation. According to Premier League stats he has after all created 6 big chances this season. And whilst only 1 has yielded a goal, you can’t blame him for Albion’s well known poor chance conversion.

It’s worth saying in riposte, that this is largely just exemplary of his role this season, where he has often been brought on in games where Albion were pushing forward in search for a goal as an additional attacker.

Nonetheless, he has played this super sub role reasonably well, according to FB Ref he has made 17 shot creating actions across his 18 Premier league appearances this season, but which have led to just 1 goal creating action. Albion’s misfiring attack summed up in a nutshell.

Jahanbakhsh hasn’t been innocent of this himself either, with his fleeting appearances including a glaring miss as the team searched for a winner in the draw at home to a ten men (now relegated) Sheffield United side. But then again you can probably afford a bit more sympathy to a player whose featured as fleetingly as Jahanbakhsh has this season, especially compared to some of Albion’s other misfiring attackers.

Jahanbakhsh has voiced his frustration at not getting many minutes and has played well when given a chance at times, but usually only plays well against lower league teams in the cup, or against the likes of already relegated Sheffield United. His impact otherwise has been limited.

In reality Graham Potter has had the pleasure of watching him every day for the past 2 years. As did Chris Hughton the year previously. I think they are both far more qualified to assessed whether he deserves to play or not. During Jahanbakhsh’s time at the club yet he’s always been some way off being a regular, which is despite a change in management and a significant change in styles, which says a lot.

In comparison to one of his fellow wingers in the Hughton era Solly March, Jahanbakhsh has been far less successful in cementing a place in the team. With March’s versatility allowing him to play a number of different positions and over three times the number of minutes over the past three seasons compared to the Iranian.

Nonetheless, as previously stated, Jahanbakhsh clearly cares. As his recent celebration for Albion’s second against Leeds demonstrated as he awaited his introduction as a substitute. As do the tears shed after scoring his first goal for the Albion against Bournemouth last season.

Nonetheless, compared to the excitement upon his record breaking signature, he has proven to be far from the real deal and has not lived up to expectations. But then again in an industry of ever inflating transfer fees and salaries, transfer fees are less meaningful than they ever used to be.

What we can say is he continues to be a useful member of the squad and based on over 28 hours of evidence nothing more. Time will tell if that’s enough for both him and the club to justify another season with the Albion.

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.

Brighton v Everton (1924)

Brighton and Everton aren’t teams who’ve come up against each other much in their respective histories. Prior to Albion’s promotion in 2017, and aside from their other brief spell in the topflight between 1979 and 1983, you have to go back to 1924 when the sides had last met, in the second round of that years FA Cup. A game that saw one of Albion most famous victories prior to the Second World War.

Brighton had played their first season after the First World War in the Southern League in 1919/20 finishing 16th, before joining the expanded Football League with the rest of the Southern League’s best club’s for the 1920/21 season.

Charlie Webb, who had scored the winner in Brighton’s 1-0 1910 Charity Shield win over Aston Villa, had since retired and taken over as manager in 1919, a position he would hold until 1947. And his first task was rebuilding the team after the horrors of the First World War.

Webb was known for his shrewd transfers, but this was in part forced upon him due to circumstance because of a relatively limited budget at the club. Restrictions which at times during his tenure led to bad relations between him and the board, and which were made worse due to accusations of undue influence on team affairs.

Until the 1920’s, Football Managers had been little more than trainers who picked the side and did little to influence how they played. But this was the decade of the emergence of the modern manager, largely influenced by Herbert Chapman’s success with Huddersfield in the 1920s and later more notably at Arsenal in the 1930s.

However, at the time Everton were still managed by the club’s secretary manager Thomas McIntosh, and it wasn’t until Theo Kelly was appointed in 1939 that the club appointed their first manager in the modern sense. Whilst for Brighton, Charlie Webb oversaw a period of great modernisation in the role, but the tales of conflict suggest it wasn’t a quick transition.

Although consistently in the upper half of the Third Division South table, Albion’s chief successes during the 1920s and 1930s were in the F.A. Cup, with its first and one of its most notable giant-killing successes coming when they beat Everton 5-2 in the second round at the Goldstone Ground.

Albion had already knocked out higher ranked opposition at home in a first round replay in the form of Second Division Barnsley, and the visit of Everton brought a then record crowd of 27,450 to the Goldstone.

Everton were a regular in the top half of the First Division before the war, which they had already won twice. But the club’s performances since the end of the First World War and the resumption of the Football league had been inconsistent. Their 7th placed finish that season being one of their better seasons until the great Dixie Dean was signed from local Third Division North side Tranmere Rovers and transformed their fortunes.

Nonetheless they were strong favourites and named no less than six internationals in their line-up. So it was no surprise when they opened the scoring through John Cock and despite Tommy Cook quickly equalising the visitors were back in front through Wilfred Chadwick on 25 minutes. However, Albion were giving as good as they got and a Wally Little penalty made it 2-2 at half time.

After the break the game turned quickly in favour of the hosts as Albion dominated the second half. Tommy Cook scored two in the first twenty minutes to complete his hat trick, before Andy Neil made it 5-2 to add a bit of extra gloss on a magnificent result for the club. A display manager Charlie Webb described as “the best Cup exhibition of any Albion team under my management”.

The Sunday Post exclaimed: “Brighton surprise Everton.” Going into state that the result “was one of the biggest surprises of the round, but none would deny that it was deserved.”

The Liverpool Daily Post said “Brighton’s best were Wilson, at outside left, Nightingale, in the second half, at outside right, and Coomber [Albion’s captain], at centre half, together with the snap-chance artist Cook” The aforementioned Ernie “Tug” Wilson had joined the club in 1922 and spent twelve years with the club in the inter-war years going onto become Brighton’s record appearance holder with 566 appearances, a record he still holds.

And he wasn’t the only prospective club record holder playing that day. Albion’s hat-trick hero Tommy Cook would go onto become the club’s record goalscorer with 123 goals, once again a total yet to be beaten. He had joined the club on an amateur basis in 1921 and became a regular in the first team the following season. Part of the reason for Cook’s prolific record in front of goal was that this hat-trick was one of eight for the club, his first coming against Gillingham in only his third appearance, after which he never looked back until leaving the club in 1930.

Cook was described that day by the Sunday Post as “one of the most dangerous centres in England”. And despite playing for Albion in the regionalised third tier he went on to win an England cap, in a 2-1 win against Wales in a Home International in 1925. However, despite being praised he was never chosen again for his country.

The Liverpool Daily Post said of his performance that day “Cook did not stand out on his own in spite of his three goals. He just kept his position, kept the ball going, and shot instantly the chance showed itself. That was why Brighton scored so heavily.”

Albion went onto host another First Division team in the next round of the competition in Man City, but this proved one step too far as they were heavily beaten 5-1. They went on to finish 5th that season missing out on promotion to the Second Division by 8 points. And it would be another 34 years before they achieved their long awaited promotion into the second tier in 1958.

Everton and Brighton would have to wait 55 years before they met again, this time in the First Division, after Brighton were promoted into the topflight for the first time in their history.

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.