If the first ten games gave us optimism for the season ahead, then the next nine have consolidated all those good feelings. In an article about mid-table teams in the Premier League Adam Hurray aka @FootballCliches on twitter described Brighton as “the team that people will most likely forget if you challenge them to name all 20 Premier League teams in under a minute.” Some will take this as an insult but not me personally. It’s a long way from that terribly forgettable 1-0 home defeat to Millwall just over four years ago that all-but signalled the end of Sami Hyypia’s reign as Albion manager and ultimately, the beginning of the success that Chris Hughton has gone onto lead us to. So yes, I will take competent forget-ableness over incompetent forget-ableness every day.
Matchdays 11-13 – Frustration and refereeing controversy
Talking of forgettable, let’s overlook Everton away. A bad day at the office, in which we were outclassed by a better resources team. There’s no shame in that.
Not that this stopped one fan phoning in BBC Radio 5 Live’s phone-in “606” and calling for Hughton to be sacked. A call described by host and one time Albion loanee Robbie Savage as “One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in my life”. You know you’ve got it wrong when Robbie Savage is taking the common sense high-ground. Thankfully the vocal minority that phone into programmes like 606 are not speaking for the majority of sensible football fans who appreciate Chris Hughton as one of the best managers currently working in the English game.
Whilst from an Albion perspective it was a demoralising defeat, it was one that we could have anticipated. However, the game was notable for at least two positive things:
First, it saw another set-piece goal from the Albion, something we lacked last season, scoring only five all season. But something that is becoming increasingly part of our attacking armoury, scoring eight already in only half the amount of games.
Second, it saw a debut from the bench for a certain Florin Andone, someone who we will come to later.
But first, next up was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Cardiff. And if we were honest, it was a game we expected the team to win, but it was not to be.
The team made a good start, with Lewis Dunk getting his second goal in two games, another one of those goals from a set piece and another assist from Solly March. But quickly the Albion’s fortunes began to turn as soon after Callum Paterson equalised for Cardiff. Then the Albion’s Dale Stephens saw red for what was at best an overzealous challenge. And one at which I, unlike many other Albion fans, won’t argue against.
With nearly an hour left what then followed was an extended period of Cardiff pressure, one which the ten-men Brighton team fought hard against, but it was a fight that was ultimately to no avail as a late winner from Sol Bamba meant Cardiff took all three points. Upon review Sol Bamba appeared to be offside in the build up to the goal. But in the melee that was the Brighton penalty area that preceded the goal it’s no wonder the officials weren’t sure. So near but yet so VAR…
After a couple of frustrating results we hoped for a Hughton-side-like instant positive reaction against Leicester at home. And with Albion taking the lead via yet another goal from Glenn Murray, it appeared we had just that. A goal that added to the Albion’s ever-growing set-piece goal tally. And when Leicester and England’s rising star James Maddison saw red for a silly second yellow card for diving, things seemed to be evening up for the Albion very quickly. But the Albion couldn’t capitalise on their numeric advantage, and this wastefulness would prove costly. As after Beram Kayal sloppily gave away a penalty, Jamie Vardy equalised for Leicester.
It was an afternoon of frustration for the Albion. Frustration in a lack of attacking intent, frustration in a lack of quality in possession, and frustration in sloppy, panicked decision making. The amount of long distant pot-shots and wild hit-and-hope(less) crosses made it hard to watch. It was a performance described, as level-headedly as ever by manager Chris Hughton, as “below the standard required”.
Many Albion fans were less level-headed and a small amount of boos could be heard at the end of the game. Whilst the Argus’s Andy Naylor continued his never-tiring battle on twitter with those who deem Hughton too ‘negative’ tactically, and who he deems the “moaning minority”. Some other were coming around to the idea of our previously disgraced Albion fan on 606, but that perspective would soon flip on its head.
Matchdays 14-15 – Andone stars as we win away and beat the scum!
The frustration that was brewing meant that the trip to Huddersfield had more riding on it than our league position relative to our hosts along with our solid start to the season granted. Which was unfortunate given our recent bad record away to the Terriers. And as many feared the Albion got off to a bad start. But oddly it was a spectacularly miscued overhead kick from Albion captain Bruno, one which he unintentionally kicked the ball into the Brighton defensive six-yard box, that set up a goal for Mathias Jorgensen to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Bruno’s second unintentional assist of the season after his miss-hit shot set up Murray’s century goal.
Panic could have ensued, but that’s not the Hughton way, and after a slightly shaky first twenty minutes the Albion started to get back into the game. Then when a Huddersfield red card gave the Albion the initiative, soon after they equalised, just before halftime. Bruno made amends with an intentional and impressively acrobatic piece of ball control that led to an Albion corner. From the corner Solly March found Shane Duffy who equalised before halftime, another set piece goal and another Match assist.
After half time the Albion continued to step up the intensity in search of a winner, one that would this time against ten men prove fruitful. As Solly March continued to prove his doubters wrong by finding Andone with a great cross, where the Romanian nipped in ahead of the Huddersfield defence to put the ball home and give Albion only their fourth away win since promotion.
Up next was the derby game against Palace, which after all the nonsense of last season’s game at the AMEX had once again been scheduled on a Tuesday night, great. Nonetheless, with the gap between the sides at only six points the teams had to put all the sideshow of the rivalry out of their mind and get the three points.
And it was the Albion who struck first, with Murray emphatically scoring a penalty against his old side after Izquierdo went down in the area. A soft penalty but we will take it.
Next chaos ensued, after Murray was brought down in the box by James Tomkins. The ref ignored calls for another penalty and pointed for a corner. A melee ensued, one which saw Shane Duffy headbutt Palace’s Patrick Van Aanholt in front of the referee, I’m sure he had it coming, however, the referee had no choice but to send off Duffy leaving the Albion handicapped for the rest of the match.
But fear not, things were only getting started for the Albion. Pascal Gross was quickly sacrificed for Leon Balogun to partner Lewis Dunk in the back four, but before he resumed defensive duties he quickly doubled the Albion’s arrears. Balogun sending the ball home with a spectacular half volley after being unmarked in the box. An extra man and they still left the big centre back unmarked!
So, with a two goal lead the Albion attempted to hold onto what they had and defend for their lives. But rather than memorable defensive heroics, the game will forever be synonymous with a piece of individual brilliance from Florin Andone that followed.
As Brighton sat deep defending their lead, they had only one player in a remotely advanced position, Florin Andone. As the ball was pumped long and diagonally by Bernardo, remarkably Andone got to this speculative pass near the East stand touchline about ten yards into the Palace half, meaning he had a lot of ground to cover. But cover it he did, slaloming his way around the Palace defence as he did so and then finishing well to make it 3-0.
As the game went on Palace continued to probe without much penetration of the Albion defence. In a resultant moment of frustration, Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha attempted a tackle on hero of the day Florin Andone, which he seriously mistimed. Andone was fortunate to walk away unharmed and Zaha was fortunate to walk away with only a yellow card. Saving Palace further frustration and embarrassment on a bad night at the office.
And whilst Palace got a goal back via the penalty spot to make it 3-1 nothing would take the shine off this win for the Albion. What a victory, what a night. And it was a special night for Albion not just given the circumstances of the victory, but also the novelty that a win over Palace has been in recent years. In fact, this was only the second home league victory by the Albion over Palace since Boxing Day 1988. It’s the kind of win many fans would give a lot away for, and for the Albion it was a victory that preceded the worst run of consecutive defeats to date this season.
Matchdays 16-19 – A winless run – with promise
It was a winless run that started on a miserable wet and grey day in Burnley, one that at least went without last season’s deplorable behaviour from some of the home support.
The goal that ultimately cost the Albion the game was largely as a result of poor defending. As a cross from the right came into the Brighton box, it was headed to the far side of the box and headed back into the six-yard box melee by a Burnley shirt only to be headed clear by Lewis Dunk. But unfortunately, the ball fell kindly for James Tarkowski on the edge of the box to drill it home, scoring a goal that would ultimately give the home side a narrow 1-0 win. It was the type of 1-0 win that they prided themselves on last season, but the type of win that has been harder to come by this season.
If we are honest, it was a poor piece of defending from the Albion, two fairly measly clearances, which coupled with Ryan’s failure to get anywhere near a cross he came for, left Tarkowski with a simple finish. But Ryan’s error was a type of error we’ve not seen much from the Australian number one, which considering his relative lack of height is a testament to him, the management of Chris Hughton and coaching of the head goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts.
Nonetheless this was an error of judgement, but one of a type he’s been encourages to avoid. Maty Ryan spoke to the Independent last season of how before he signed for the Albion he was a much more proactive goalkeeper, with the coaches at Brighton now encouraging him to be less proactive and in situations like this stay on his line and leave the initial defensive duties to the defence, primarily due to the heading prowess of Dunk and Duffy coupled with the incredibly deep defensive line that the Albion often deploy, leaving him little option other than staying on his line.
So, maybe partly due to a concern over the missing Shane Duffy, Ryan uncharacteristically (or characteristically for him two years ago, old habits die hard) came for a cross that he didn’t win leaving a virtually open goal for Tarkowski to shoot into. And no wonder Ryan was nervous, Shane Duffy has been brilliant for the Albion since promotion and as such was justifiably given a contract extension recently. In fact, he is widely being regarded as Albion’s best player so far this season, and primarily is someone who knows how to defend a cross into the box.
As the game went on the Albion threw on Murray and Locadia to go with two up top and try to get an equaliser. And they would combine for the Albion’s best chance of the game. As Murray peeled off wide, something he has grown accustom to doing much less of as a sole striker, he found himself in a position to cross a ball into the box from a deep position. Cross he did, and what a cross it was, landing in a perfect position for Locadia to run onto and head home to equalise, except he headed it over. Cue bedwetting of the highest order, including some Albion fans calling for Locadia’s head, which is frankly ludicrous, more on this later.
But first, up next at the AMEX was Chelsea, and fresh from their victory over champions Man City it was an imposing prospect. In fact, for sixty minutes they showed exactly why that was. They controlled possession with such ease, toying with Brighton and creating enough chances to win a handful of games.
Eden Hazard in particular was brilliant. I’ve already said last season that he was the best opposition player I’d seen at the AMEX. After this day it was clear to me that he’s the best player entirely.
The first goal was of his making. After Chelsea somewhat casually sprayed the ball around the Albion defence, it came to Hazard. Out of nothing he took virtually the whole Albion defence out of the game with only a few touches, then with one more he found Pedro at the far post in space who prodded the ball home and give them the lead.
They then extended the lead as the Albion’s continued the evidence of some growing indiscipline when Balogun gave the ball away, leaving Hazard free to stride forward and pass the ball past a helpless Ryan in goal.
At half time I texted my wife, a Chelsea fan, joking that it would be nice if they could even up the teams by letting Hazard switch and Chelsea almost justified the lack of confidence that I had shown in my team as they almost scored again when Azpilicueta’s low teasing cross fell to Pedro, but his overhead kick went well over.
Then Alonso received the ball on the edge of the box but despite his well-hit shot across the face of goal beating Ryan in goal, it hit the post. It was as if the sound of the smack of the ball against the woodwork woke up the atmosphere in the stadium from its slumber and livened the home team into life.
The Albion had just brought on Florin Andone for the unusually ineffectual Glenn Murray. It was this change that would instigate the livening up of the team’s attacking play and it would quickly produce the intended impact. Propper played a cross-field pass to Gross, Albion’s player of last season then crossed to the on-rushing Bernardo who’s nodded the ball down to Solly March at the far post who tapped it home. A nice move that kept the Albion in the game, somehow.
It wasn’t just Andone who made an impact from the bench, the ever-improving Yves Bissouma came on and his pace and power from midfield put Chelsea under more pressure. Particularly when a cross-field diagonal pass looked to put Solly March through on goal, but he was brought down by Alonso who appeared to be the last man. But Alonso received only a yellow card and ultimately Chelsea held on to take all three points in a manner that was far closer than their dominance for an hour deserved.
It was Bernardo who was the Albion player who took the most plaudits as man of the match. He’d had a great match at left back and was beginning to show his worth after a tough start to the season, particularly on the opening day when his debut against Watford left some already calling him a flop. But like a few other new signings he is beginning to prove the doubters wrong.
The fact Bernardo has replaced Bong, a man who was a mainstay in the team last season, demonstrates his impressive impact on the team. I see the reason being that Bernardo is a much more proactive attack-minded full-back, and it’s no coincidence his move into the starting eleven has coincided with better performances away from home and in general more attacking football from the side.
His more proactive nature is shown via a range of stats, having totalled 5 more interceptions (18 to Bong’s 13), totalled 17 more tackles (28 to Bong’s 11) and totalled almost double the headed clearances (15 to Bong’s 8). All this in 9 appearances to Bong’s 13. It’s no doubt that Bernardo would suit the more offensive-minded and high pressing Brighton team that Hughton has started to encourage, materialising for at least periods in games if not yet for a full ninety minutes.
Game 18 was a trip to Bournemouth and a rare start for both Andone and Locadia, with Murray dropping to the bench. And unlike many other away performances since promotion, this led to the Albion matching if not bettering the home sides attacking intensity, at least for the first 45 minutes. But in their way stood an inspired goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic. First saving from the previously mentioned Locadia low down to his left and then from a Dunk header, again low down to his left.
But at the other end the home side were also creating chances and a man who is proving to be one of the best Premier League signing of the last summer, David Brooks (signed for £10m from Sheffield United) was providing the biggest threat. And it was him who opened the scoring with a wonderful shot into Ryan’s bottom left-hand corner.
But despite the Albion’s attempts to equalise, no goal was forthcoming. And after Lewis Dunk received a red card for a second yellow card it was all but over. The first card Dunk received was for a foul on the prior mentioned David Brooks, one that many believed had gone to Bissouma. So when he got his second yellow and subsequent red for a cynical trip of Callum Wilson from behind, many thought it was only his first card, but off he went and with it went any hope the Albion had of taking a point from the match.
Bournemouth sealed the points when David Brooks made a run to the near post and looped a header back over his head and over Ryan into the goal. A wonderful goal that capped a wonderful performance from the Welshman who is no doubt already worth significantly more than the £10m Bournemouth paid for him over the summer.
So, after three straight defeats it was Arsenal at home that would take us to the halfway point. And it was the visitors who started the brighter, with Aubameyang’s chipped shot forcing Ryan into an early save. And it was Aubameyang who would break the deadlock barely a few minutes later, when after Balogun kept the ball in play only to give the ball straight back to Lacazette who after interchanging with Ozil, worked his way around a static Albion defence to find Aubameyang in space who passed the ball into the top corner to give the visitors the lead.
It was Aubameyang who then forced Ryan into another great save, this time down to his left with the game still 1-0. Further evidence that Ryan is a player the Albion will greatly miss when the Australian goalkeeper now goes to represent his country at the Asia cup in UAE.
Those saves would prove vital as the Albion not long after equalised through the seemingly ever-criticised Jurgen Locadia’s first goal of the season. It was somewhat fortunate circumstances that led to it, but he deserved a bit of luck after some of the less fortunate moments he’s had this season. Davy Propper’s hopeful long diagonal pass forward from level with the Albion penalty area looked meant for Gross but was unintentionally headed into Locadia’s path by Arsenal’s Stephan Lichtsteiner. Locadia then simply had to round the keeper and pass it into the empty net to put the scores level, which he did.
Locadia deserved his goal, he was fantastic in the left-wing role and with better finishing could have given the Albion all three points in the second half. Locadia didn’t deserve the vitriolic abuse he received after his miss at Burnley and he doesn’t deserve to be held up as an Albion great quite yet either. But this was a stepping stone towards him fulfilling his potential.
When we signed Jurgen Locadia we knew he wasn’t the finished article, we knew he was a raw talent coming from a league that is below the standard of the English Premier League. For every Van Persie or Van Nistelrooy that has been a success in the Premier League after signing from Holland, there is a counter example of a Jozy Altidore or an Alfonso Alves who were not a success.
Whilst it’s a lot of money for Brighton to spend, £14m doesn’t buy you a proven goalscorer at this level. It buys you a Jurgen Locadia, a player who’s shown promise, shown he’s competent, shown he’s got a lot of ability, but also shown he’s not perfect, at least not yet. So, if he has a bad game and misses a big chance against Everton or West Ham, I won’t be getting carried away, he needs time in the team to settle and show what he can do.
In fact, it wasn’t Locadia this time being maligned for missing a good chance to score, it was Solly March or Davy Propper, or both, depending on who you spoke to after the game. As the Albion pushed forward and created chances both could have scored, but neither did. I’m happy to state that I’m not concerned with this, both players have potential to be a more significant goalscorer for the team than at current, and if they’re getting in the positions to score that’s the hard part. If they keep doing that then taking those chances will naturally come next.
A halfway point summing up
The draw with Arsenal leaves the Albion with 22 points at the halfway mark of 19 games, ahead of schedule in our search for another year of Premier league status. And 8 points from the last nine games is a reasonable return given the amount of tough away games and games against top six teams that were included in that run, along with the self-induced handicap that the three red cards we received created.
One real positive so far this season is the increased impact of Hughton’s substitutions and varied team selection. The continued impact of new signings like Andone, Bernardo and Bissouma along with regulars like Murray, March and Duffy show the evidence of the increased squad depth.
Hughton still doesn’t make change for changes sake though. And as such the consistency of approach and defensive organisation remains a true strength of the team. Burnley’s Sean Dyche has spoken before about how it’s often braver to stick with what you’ve got and easier to panic and twist when it comes to substitutions and in-game tactical decisions. Hughton shows trust in his players, hence why many have and are continuing to fulfil their potential in this team under his tutelage.
Take Anthony Knockaert as an example, someone who was almost ever-present last season and has looked reinvigorated when he has played recently but is still struggling to get a game, such is the increased competition for places.
But with the added versatility has come some frustrating moments as the team experiences some growing pains. No more so than the frustration and indiscipline that lead to the three Albion red cards. A trend that needs to end.
In my ten games in summing up, I said I thought the fact that Brighton had the second most shots conceded, and the least shots taken would reverse to the average of our league position once the season went on. Well, it hasn’t yet. We currently have the second least total of shots taken and the second highest conceded, with only Burnley totalling lower and higher totals in both areas respectively. Even more anomalous is that the Albion post fewer shots per game at home than anyone in the division despite totalling the joint 9th highest points total accumulated at home.
Whilst stats don’t necessarily tell you everything, for me this one does illustrate two things. Firstly, the Albion’s well-known reliance on their defensive solidity. And secondly, the reliance on Glenn Murray’s reliability in front of goal. In fact, in Murray’s case his conversation rate of shots taken is about as good as it gets for a high scoring forward in a top-flight European football, sitting currently at 36.4%.
The next run of matches starts with a tough visit of Everton who gave us a footballing lesson recently, followed with an away trip to West Ham who are a better team now than the one we beat 3-0 at the London Stadium last season. Which is before another trip to Bournemouth this time in the FA Cup, followed by the visit of leaders Liverpool and a trip to a revitalised Man United. So, it could be a while until we see the next Albion win. But as the recent run shows, the team is capable of giving anyone a game and if we keep beating the teams below us that gap between us and those bottom three places should remain in place.
The Albion sit 13th, a position if which we remain in come May will match the club’s highest ever league finish from the 1981/82 season. In the following season the manager Mike Bailey was sacked after growing pressure on his safety-first approach contributed to the team’s worsening performances. Despite the change of manager, the team were ultimately relegated at the end of the following season in the summer of 1983, albeit being relegated along with the memories of competing in that season’s FA cup final, one which was ultimately lost to United in the replay. Maybe we should take some lessons from history before we moan about Hughton’s ‘negative’ tactics.
When the team was in the fourth tier nearly twenty years ago, then Brighton chairman Dick Knight borrowed a phrase from an album title of DJ and Albion investor/fan Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook to describe the club’s status, “Halfway between the gutters and the stars”. Today we are one of those stars, albeit one that some could forget about amongst the brighter Middle Eastern or Russian oil illuminated stars.
As we approach 2019, we do so with promise, hope and anticipation of another 19 games to come. Ones which if the last 19 games were anything to go by, should give us a lot of excitement to look forward to. Up the Albion, Merry Christmas and a happy new year.