With ten games to go, the Albion’s season has changed from one of aspiring to achieve a record high league finish into a nerve-wracking battle to earn another season in the Premier League. However, with a record high finish currently being 13th, the line between those two scenarios is marginal at best.
As the season reaches its crescendo, the confidence that was in place at the halfway point has been well and truly tested. In my last instalment, I discussed how Brighton were a team that were starting to be considered a forgettable mid-table side but have since, fittingly almost unnoticed, become engulfed in a scrap for top flight survival, alongside a promising FA cup run. A scenario that has a concerning likenesses to 1983.
A false dawn
Hughton’s men started the second half of the season at home to Everton, 13th in the table 10 points above the bottom three. And it was one of those enjoyable games scheduled in the post-Christmas/pre-New Year’s Eve lull, but what followed was a feisty rather than a festive affair which was won by the Albion with a goal via a set piece from Locadia.
More notably it was another win since the move to the 433 formation from the tried and trusted 4411. Hughton admitted of the change in formation: “In some ways, how it’s materialised is that we have two wingers we’ve bought in. Izquierdo, who’s out, and Jahanbakhsh, who’s out, so it gives us a different dimension. Locadia gives us a goalscoring front three as well. The thing I’m delighted with, and with Bissouma, the type of player he is, is that I think I’ve got more tactical options than perhaps I had in the past. You’ve got a midfield three where Davy [Propper] can play in all three positions, and Dale [Stephens] in probably a couple, certainly Bissouma. We’ve got good scope with them.”
And whilst this game demonstrated Hughton’s new found ability and confidence to vary the teams approach, he remained cautious: “We’re at a level where we can’t really afford to think upwards. We have to think about the teams below us, and try to increase the gap as much as possible. I know the level of club we are. And it has to be slowly. For any club that has a huge leap, at some stage they’ll level off and at some stage they’ll find it difficult. All I hope is that, as a club and as a team, we can continue to make progress and see where that takes us.” How true Hughton’s comments would become as this part of the season continued to materialise.
But as well as a tactical variability, the game further demonstrated an edge to the Albion’s game, as they fought tooth and nail for another 1-0 victory. A moment that showed this as much as the solid defending and impressive work rate, was a moment of mercilessness from Solly March. With Everton’s £40m summer signing Richarlison down injured clutching his ankle, Albion refused to stop play and when the ball came to March he raced away down the right, only to be halted by an overly-aggressive challenge from Lucas Digne. Digne then lost his temper, taking exception to March’s actions but March stood up to his aggressive protestations. Digne was clearly affected by the events and once again lost his temper at the final whistle having to be dragged away from the pitch by his teammates.
This positive result and the hope that comes with the beginning of a new calendar year meant there was a lot of optimism around the club, and the team entered a busy January fixture-wise on a high with the general consensus that it would be a quiet January transfer-wise. And with the team now 13th with 25 points from 20 games and 11 points above the bottom three, there was plenty to feel optimistic about.
A tough start to the year in the league, but progress in the cup
But if 2018 ended with hope of a progression in tactics and squad depth, 2019 began with a game that showed there was still a lot for the Albion to still improve on. The Seagulls were faced with a trip to the site of one of the highlights of last season, the London Stadium, to play West Ham. Going into the game, Glenn Murray’s good record against the Hammers was greatly discussed. He had in fact scored more goals against West Ham than any other team, averaging a goal every 58.7 minutes when starting against the Hammers. In total Murray has scored 7 goals from 5 starts, including 4 in 3 games with Brighton, 2 of which came in last season’s 3-0 win for the Albion at the London Stadium. But today he wouldn’t add to his tally in what was a topsy-turvey game, a trait that would define many of Albion’s games in this run to come.
After a cagey and uneventful first-half, the second-half burst into life and Albion soon found themselves 2-0 up. The first was through Dale Stephens’ first Premier league goal, the second came quickly after, when Shane Duffy, channeled his inner Matt Le Tissier and rifled home a volley at the back post from a corner.
Stephens milestone was one that his centre midfield partner Davy Propper was yet to achieve. In fact, Shane Duffy is one of only six Albion players to have scored more than twice in the league since promotion, with Glenn Murray contributing a third of the team’s league goals since in that time. The reliance is so prominent that Andy Naylor in the Argus stated that “A priority must be signing another striker.” But whilst some will see this as an overreaction, the long-term view must be to ensure the Albion have a replacement in the first team squad for when Murray retires, which with him being 35, sadly won’t be too far into the future.
This day was an exception to the wider trend. But thoughts of scoring again and matching last season’s 3-0 victory didn’t last long as the home side quickly levelled, with Arnautovic scoring both goals, both of which were assisted by Albion’s poor defending. First a slightly hopeful through ball from Mark Noble was misjudged by Shane Duffy who looked a little like Bambi on ice as he panicked in an attempt to halt Arnautovic’s first goal. And next Bernardo was far too easily outmuscled by West Ham’s winger/utility-man Michail Antonio on the Albion’s left and he cut the ball back to Arnautovic who levelled the game at 2-2.
Whilst the Albion managed to hold on to get a decent point, it was a night remembered mostly by frustration. As we know from prior evidence, defensively we are better than that. At 2-0 up with half an hour left, even with our poor away record, you’d expect the team to hold out for all three points. But once the dust had settled a 2-2 draw was probably a fair result and actually it was a decent away point against a good West Ham side.
That left the Albion averaging just 0.73 points a game away from home this season so far. Whilst this compares favourably to our measly 17/18 points per game average away of 0.57, with United, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Wolves and Leicester all coming up away from home, we could well expect that current season points per game average to drop. The way the fixtures had fallen had meant we were most likely left relying on that well-known good home record to get us to that coveted 40-point mark. And with Liverpool next up home in the league, the 5 points gained over the Christmas period looked all the more vital.
Bournemouth (FA Cup)
So, with progress seemingly being made in the league our attention turned to the third round of the FA cup, a competition which the Albion had seen relative success in recent years. In the last ten years the Albion had qualified for or entered due to league status, round three every year and lost just once. A defeat in the 15/16 season, 1-0 away to then Premier League Hull City whilst we concentrated on an ill-fated promotion campaign from the Championship, a game where both sides made seven changes. In the last eight seasons the team had made it to round 5 four times, including reaching only its third ever FA Cup quarter final last season.
But like other seasons gone by, despite Chris Hughton stating in his pre-match press conference that he thought “the FA Cup is the best cup competition in the world”, he made eight changes to the side that faced West Ham. Whilst I can’t say I’m sure how to reconcile those two statements, it was a management decision replicated throughout teams from the Premier League and the Championship after a busy Christmas fixture list.
Of course, the other side of the coin regarding the eight changes is that despite them, the team the Albion were still able to put out highlighted our newfound squad depth. But of course, this is more a symptom of the Premier League riches inherited since promotion than anything else. In all honesty, the teams that both sides put out weren’t much more than glorified reserve sides.
After a terrible first 30 minutes as the fringe players shook off any residue rust from a lack of first team action, the game was brought to life by two goals from the Seagulls. The first a nicely taken goal from Knockaert after a cheeky back heeled pass from Locadia. And the second a long-distance effort from Bissouma. These were two players on the scoresheet who had found league starts limited but would take their chances when given in the cup matches, today as well as in the games to come.
A third Brighton goal this time from Andone via a corner ensured Brighton won the battle of the reserve teams against Bournemouth and went into the hat for the 4th round. But to be honest the best way I can describe the game is that it looked like Brighton had a top-stylist cut fringe on show, whereas Bournemouth’s fringe looked like the kind of bowl-cut your mum would have given you when you were seven.
As the Albion returned to league action it was time for another first. It was the first time that the Albion had played the English top division league leaders at home since 1983 when they played the great 80’s era Liverpool side of Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Bruce Grobbelaar and others drawing 2-2 at the Goldstone, with Liverpool rescuing a 2-0 deficit via two late Ian Rush goals.
This game was a comparatively tight affair as the Albion sat deep and tried to contain the league leaders well known attacking threat, with little intent to attack. And it was a foul by Pascal Gross on Mohammed Salah that decided the match. A penalty was given, which was scored by Salah and the Albion suffered a 1-0 defeat, their second against Liverpool this season.
After the game the referee Kevin Friend was heavily criticised with a lot of Brighton fans whining about refereeing decisions, but the reality is you make your own luck. Both at Anfield earlier in the season and at the AMEX, mistakes gifted Liverpool 1-0 leads. From that point on it’s always tough to get a result, especially if you’re relying on marginal refereeing decisions to go your way.
But the reality that Brighton will have to accept whilst in the Premier League is that they are a small fish in a large pond and in games like this they are likely to be the less dominant party. In any sport, the team or player being the aggressor is likely to get the better of the 50/50 decisions, which is a trend we saw to our benefit during promotion from the Championship. And whilst us Brighton fans complained about the referee, many pundits instead criticised the Albion for negative tactics.
In contrast, Ian Wright said on Match of The Day that he didn’t think Brighton put Liverpool “under enough pressure”. And whilst he accepted Brighton were “brilliantly organised” defensively, he said he was “disappointed” the Albion didn’t create enough attacking opportunities and that he wanted to see players like Solly March to attack more “instead of having to constantly defend”. The Telegraph also said that Brighton’s negative display was “their chief error and they paid dearly for it.” Whilst the Guardian said that Brighton “never committed fully to attack.”
But despite defeat and the growing criticism of negative tactics, this was yet another sign of the continuous progress Brighton had made under Hughton. Last season Liverpool outclassed the Albion 9-1 on aggregate home and away, a score-line that if anything flattered our contribution to the two matches. This season the 2-0 aggregate score home and away told a very different story, realistically Brighton could have drawn both. Whilst it was not the result we wanted, there were still plenty of positives to take forward.
And after a frustrating 1-0 defeat what better game to have up next than a trip to face an in-form Man United side looking to break a club league record? New manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hoping to become the first Manchester United manager to win his first seven league games in charge and the Albion stood in his way.
And this good run meant Solskjaer went into the game with confidence, some might say over-confidence after the United manager said before the game he expected United to “dominate” Brighton, despite his side having lost their last two outings against the Seagulls. But as he predicted the game started with a continuous period of United pressure, keeping Dunk, Duffy and stand-in keeper David Button all busy.
And they couldn’t keep United out for long, with Paul Pogba opening the scoring after a clever run that left Gaetan Bong in all sorts of bother as he clumsily brought down Pogba in the box to give away a penalty. The Frenchman continued with his distinctive penalty run-up and slotted home past David Button to make it 1-0.
After Button kept Brighton only one behind with some important saves, Brighton started to create opportunities themselves. Most notably Murray missed a good chance to score after Locadia was fouled outside the box. Subsequently the ball fell to Solly March who found Murray with a quick and clever left-foot pass, but Murray shot wide when you’d have expected him to at least test the keeper.
This was Murray’s 8th game without a goal, his longest run in the Premier League since promotion. And some were starting to question his place in the side. But he had proved his worth despite criticism last season, a little baron run wasn’t going to stop him.
But despite the Albion’s pressure it was United who scored next, as Marcus Rashford then made it two-nil with a solo goal of the highest quality, finishing it off into the top corner. Once again, Button stood little chance and Rashford was possibly the best player on the pitch during the first half leading the line and linking up play. And as the second half started, he continued to look imperious, creating a chance for former Albion loanee Jesse Lingard who hit wide.
Last season being 2-0 down away from home would have meant the rest of the game was a damage limitation task. But instead the Albion were a different team from then on, and a double substitution, introducing Florin Andone and Anthony Knockaert on the hour mark in place of Murray and March added extra attacking impetus.
And the Seagulls pulled a goal back shortly after through Pascal Gross, who fired home from a wonderful Davy Propper cross. And this goal initiated a twenty-minute period of almost constant Albion pressure, but despite Brighton finishing the stronger and creating panic in the United defence, clear cut chances were few and far between and it wasn’t enough to get an equaliser against an in-form United side.
And whilst much of the national media naturally focused on United and Solskjaer. There were again plenty of positives to take away from an Albion perspective. For a start if you’re going to score your first goal at Old Trafford for 36 years, that Davy Propper turn and cross to set up Pascal Gross is one hell of a way to do it. And talking of year on year improvements, if you’re going to lose to United I’d much rather it be to a great goal of the like Rashford scored than the scruffy deflected winner that Ashley Young scored last season.
West Brom (FA Cup)
After a run of frustration in the league, it was extended with frustration in the cup as the Albion drew another blank in a stalemate with Championship side West Brom. Brighton made six changes and when accounting for injuries and unavailable players due to international commitments, the Albion had once again put out a team that was essentially its second 11.
But once again it was a testament to the squad strength of the team that it was Brighton who created much of the opportunities. After Andone had missed a number of those opportunities, Beram Kayal and Dale Stephens tried their luck unsuccessfully with shots from distance and the deadlock remained.
As the game went on West Brom came into it more, hitting the bar from a set piece. And to counter that the Albion made changes, including the introduction of top scorer Glenn Murray and recent Sweden’s international debutant Viktor Gyokeres who made a lively appearance.
First he made an impressive solo run from the right, which ended in a shot pushed out for a corner by the West Brom ‘keeper Jonathan Bond. Then after fellow substitute Glenn Murray had a shot saved, Gyokeres headed the rebound wide with most of the goal to aim for, but the offside flags saved his blushes. And after that and little else to speak of, the game ended nil-nil. Gyokeres’ cameo was one of few high points and one which demonstrated the talent the Albion obtained within it u23 side. A side that were making an unlikely bid for the Premier League 2 title.
It’s a shame that this game was a frustratingly dull nil-nil considering there were a number of new fans at the game, especially kids who got in for a fiver. This dull nil-nil on a cold afternoon would have put off some of the more dedicated supporters, let alone the newbies.
Overall the game suggested that whilst the club’s squad is as strong as ever, the sides second string attacking options weren’t quite as good as the defensive options, strengthening calls for another striker to be added to the squad. Furthermore, without Pascal Gross, Solly March and for large parts of the game Davy Propper, the teams attack looked weak and without ideas.
This was particularly from set pieces where the Albion have excelled at this season. Last season Brighton struggled to score goals from set pieces whereas the concession of a corner would strike fear into those in blue and white stripes, this season it’s been virtually the opposite. With the team scoring 13 and conceding only 7 from set pieces in the league this season, compared to scoring 5 and conceding 21 for the whole of last season.
Whilst the performance was ultimately not good enough to get the team through to the 5th round that day, they were still in the hat and could go again in a couple of weeks in a replay that would be screened live into living rooms up and down the country on BBC One. A tough weeknight trip up to the Hawthorns would be in store for the Seagulls, which is certainly what the team wanted to avoid, but it was at least a chance to exorcise the ghosts of a terrible away trip last season at least.
Next up was another midweek trip to London to face second bottom side Fulham. And it was Brighton who took an early two goal lead through a revitalised Glenn Murray. The first from an unopposed run forward and cross from right-back Martin Montoya, which Murray got on the end of by nipping in ahead of a dozing Le Marchand to score. Then the second came shortly after and was another virtually unopposed cross from the right, this time from Solly March. As the ball pin-balled around the box it somehow again fell to Murray, who was inexcusably unmarked in the six-yard box to tap it home with his left foot.
Things were to turn and could have turned sooner had Dale Stephens not been lucky to avoid a red card for a bad tackle in the middle of the park, something we are coming to get used to from him. He slid in recklessly on Fulham’s Andre Schürrle with his studs up and in the very wet conditions was lucky he didn’t do damage to the German striker. In the end he received a yellow, his fourth of the season along with the red he was given at Cardiff for a similar tackle earlier in the season. But Lee Probert was clearly taking the difficult weather conditions into account as Seri received a yellow just afterwards for a slightly less reckless but still dangerous sliding tackle on Montoya.
A minute after the Stephens’ yellow Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri noticing things weren’t going their way made a change, bringing on Tom Cairney in place of Tim Ream. And Fulham began to get a foothold in the match. First Ryan did well to get down to his right to keep out new Fulham signing Ryan Babel who hit a smart shot from range. Then at the other end Murray had a chance for his hat-trick well saved, before Shane Duffy cleared Schürrle’s shot off line after a good cross to the back post from Babel.
As the first half neared a close Davy Propper continued his search for his first Albion goal as a great shot from the edge of the area hit the bar and it was still shaking when Murray nearly scored again, prodding wide from another March cross from the right. And these missed chances would seem costly come full-time.
As half-time came and went Fulham fans were looking desperate for some kind of reaction from their team in a game which manager Ranieri had called a “must-win”. And they got it almost instantly as Callum Chambers fired home from outside the box to cut the home sides arrears to one.
As the ball fell to Chambers, Brighton had seven outfield players in the box and one on the edge of the box in the D. Some will criticise Hughton for defensive tactics here, but I doubt he instructed the team to start the second half so deep and sit off the opposition to such an extent. No, this was poor from certain individuals. And after the first Fulham goal and under the intense pressure of a side desperate for a win, Brighton lost their heads, their structure and their discipline. Hughton said after the game that he was “entitled to be angry” and he was right to be angry, we have all learnt to expect better from this group of players, what followed was embarrassing as the team crumbled under pressure.
Mitrovic then scored twice to turn the game on his head, a performance that led to Match of the Day’s Jermaine Jenas describing him as an “animal”. Frankly anyone who makes Dunk and Duffy look so second rate must be special. First making Duffy look weak as he headed home from a corner. Then after Seri hit the post, Dunk allowed Mitrovic the freedom of his shoulders and made it 3-2. Dunk complained he was held down and fouled by the Serbian striker but no foul was given. And it could have been different had another cross from the right from Montoya been headed home by Murray. Instead his instinctive flicked header was not quite near enough to the corner and the Fulham keeper Sergio kept it out.
But instead the momentum was with the home side and they secured the three points after Luciano Vietto headed home from close range after Tom Cairney’s shot from outside the box rebounded off the bar. And Brighton were lucky it didn’t get worse after Tom Cairney again hit the bar shortly after and then Mitrovic wasted a chance in behind the Albion defence as a bad touch enabled Dunk to recover and do enough to avoid Fulham scoring a fifth.
But 4-2 was bad enough. It was a calamitous second half from the Seagulls. We Are Brighton’s Scott McCarthy said in the Brighton Independent that “it is hard to recall a worse 45 minutes of football that any Albion side has produced. Ever.” And it was bad, historically bad. As Scott pointed out, “the last time the Albion gave away a 2-0 lead to lose was in Steve Coppell’s first game in charge some 16-and-a-half years ago when Sheffield United scored four times in the last 20 minutes to leave Withdean with a 4-2 win”. And at least that time we could blame the referee for giving two late penalties!
But whilst it was a disappointing night from the team, there was no reason to panic just yet. A glance at the fixture list coming up showed all the next seven league games were winnable, including five at home, four of which were against teams sitting in the bottom half.
A big positive the Albion could take away was that our man Glenn Murray had seemingly rediscovered his best form. On another day he could have had 4 and he looked to have put his bad spell behind him.
In the aftermath of the Fulham game the January transfer window closed with the Albion making no incoming signings to the first team and only the unused Süttner and Schelotto leaving. Otherwise the club’s business focused on a wide array of u23 team incomings and outgoings. And whilst some hoped the club would add a striker to boost options ahead of the final months of the season, there was little sign that the club intended to do so.
Hughton and the club were clear in this being a quiet window from the start regarding first team movements, and so it proved. Hughton outlined why saying, “at this moment, the squad is in a good place in regard of numbers.” And despite a January which saw the Albion pick up only one league point and fail to beat lower league opposition in the cup the club remained calm and refused to be unmoved on its transfer policy through panic.
In contrast at the same time as Albion focused on the long-term, their arch rivals Crystal Palace had been busy spending their cash by bolstering their already expensively assembled first team squad adding the loan signing of Chelsea and Belgium international striker Michy Batshuayi. Time would tell which of the club’s contrasting policies would come out on top.
A chance to turn our fortunes around, but chances wasted, again and again
So the Albion approached a run of fixtures which included a number of home games against non-top-six sides, and the first up in that run was a home match with Watford. It presented a good chance for the Albion to get back on track, but despite a good performance that was both a vast improvement on the second 45 at Fulham and encouraging for the winnable games ahead it was a second home game in a row that had ended in a stalemate.
It was a game that Brighton dominated and on another day would have won by two or three, but this required more composure in the final third. With Pascal Gross notably putting in a number of good crosses and looking nearer to his player of the season award winning worthy form from the previous season, but chances came and soon after went.
It was in part a number of great saves from Ben Foster that protected Watford’s clean sheet, and which left the Albion feeling frustrated of what could have been. It was a further sign of Ben Foster’s continued supremacy in goal after he became a Premier League record-breaker the Wednesday evening previous when he became the goalkeeper with the most saves in the division, admittedly only since records began in 2006, but an impressive statistic nonetheless.
Oddly enough this was the first home league game this season where Brighton had more possession than the opposition when the opposition had 11 men for the full ninety. And it was when we were without statistically our second-best passer Dale Stephens (second only to Davy Propper). In fact, it was only the second time all season, the first away to Burnley, probably the most direct passing team in the division.
Ball retention is not the Albion’s game, at this point in the season the team had the 3rd lowest average possession (43.4%), and the 4th lowest passing accuracy (73.9%) in the Premier League. Instead Hughton built this team to focus on winning the battles in both penalty boxes, through a compact organisation without the ball and the goalscoring ability of Glenn Murray coupled with an added goal-threat from set pieces at the other end. But the move to the 433 appears to focus more on ball retention. The progression to this new system and mindset will take time.
Whilst the reverse of this fixture was one of the worst Albion performances of the season in some ways this was one of the best, statistically at least. Even despite the game not ending in victory, the performance was dominant and accomplished in a manner not seen very often, if at all, for a full 90 minutes so far this season, they were just missing the key ingredient of goals.
And in recent home games goals had been hard to come by, scoring only three in the last six home games which preceded that win over Palace. A game which saw the Albion score three in the first half alone despite going down to ten men.
West Brom (FA Cup Replay)
But before they had the chance to break that habit they had the cup replay against West Brom to contend with. And whilst the prospect didn’t attract many more than 8,000 fans to attend in person, the national viewing figures were into the millions as the game was initially shown live on BBC One and later the extra time shown on BBC Two. In fact it was the first time Brighton had been shown live on the BBC since the 1983 FA cup final. Was this more omens for things to come?
The game saw 10 changes from the Brighton based Albion and amongst the changes, in an exciting move Alireza Jahanbakhsh was played as the number 10 as the team reverted to the 4411 as a one-off. But, despite some moments of class and skill he struggled to make an impact through the middle and had most success when moving out the left, which compensated for a quiet Gyokeres making only his second start for the club. At times this left Andone the only Albion player attacking the Black Country Albion’s centre halves and so rather isolated.
And after a lively game that saw no goals for the majority of it, many would have thought another stalemate was coming. But the home side West Brom broke the deadlock through some charitable defending from Brighton’s Leon Balogun as he appeared to just stop and let Kyle Bartley peer round him and knock the ball home from a few yards out. It was a goal that demonstrated the difference in performance, and going forward I suspect status of the two Albion back up centre backs. With fellow summer recruit newly returned from his loan at Wigan Dan Burn in contrast excelling in a composed performance at centre back. As the ball came across the penalty box, Burn got a seemingly crucial head on the ball only for Balogun to undo his good work.
But the Seagulls were quickly level when Florin Andone, equalising by rounding the ‘keeper. Despite at times looking a little isolated, it was a good performance leading the line from the Romanian, which was overshadowed by more missed opportunities in front of goal and most prominently, an incident where he should have been given a red card for striking West Brom youngster Sam Field with an elbow. An incident he later received a retrospective three match ban for, compounding Brighton’s lack of front man options.
That would have been enough had it not been for the previously mentioned defensive error, something that’s continued to become a trend in this period. In fact according to opta, in the Premier League, Albion have made five defensive errors leading to goals in the league alone this season already, more than they did the whole of last season (four).
So extra time it was, and top scorer Glenn Murray was introduced for the less effective Jahanbakhsh as the Albion moved to a 442 in search of the win. And once again it was Murray’s goals that saved the day. For the first he scored a goal off his very upper and very inner inner leg when left unmarked at the back post, and for the second West Brom failed to clear a Gaetan Bong cross and the ball eventually fell to Murray who with that amount of space being provided to him in the box, he was certain to score and make sure of the win.
But despite a pleasing 3-1 win, yet another in the cup, it was a game that would be remembered for events off the pitch. Despite their only being a relatively small number of diehard fans in the ground, or maybe because of it, you could audibly hear the opposing fans booing both Gaetan Bong and Jay Rodriquez respectively. We had been here before of course, but it shouldn’t make us any less shocked or appalled. Both are professionals who were involved in a case where the wrongdoing of one and the suggested falsehoods of another were not proven, both stated subsequently they wanted to move on, it’s a shame some of us cannot.
But nonetheless onward in the FA Cup the Brighton based Albion went, with them due to face Championship side (Frank Lampard’s) Derby County at home in the next round. A tie which left the team with the prospect of a cup-run coupled with a relegation battle and more comparisons to 1983 were being made.
Back in league action the following Saturday, the Albion went into the game at home to Burnley still looking for their first Premier League win of 2019, a win that would take the Albion to the 30-point mark. But once again at nil-nil, we didn’t take our chances. This time, unlike vs Watford, it cost us dear as Burnley took the lead. From that point on we threw caution to the wind and pushed men forward getting caught out on the counter. Whilst Everton was an example of the 433 working well defensively, this was very much the opposite.
The move to 433 in the second quarter of the season, by adding an extra attack minded midfielder in the centre of the pitch, has allowed the team to attack more and create more chances, but also left them more exposed at the back. In contrast the 4411 previously used, too often left Murray more isolated up front but gave the team an extra midfielder sitting in front of the back four providing extra defensive protection. With the systems being such a huge contrast, it’s no surprise the change has caused such debate.
The first goal shows the failing of the system well, as whilst the slip by Dunk was unfortunate, nonetheless the first goal was a symptom of the system. If you look at how much higher up the pitch Dunk and Duffy have been playing in the 433 compared to earlier in the season when playing the 4411, top six opponents aside, it highlights that it creates much more risk that errors like that will be punished, at the same time as creating more opportunities in front of goal. Maybe if the chances early in this and the Watford game had been taken we’d not be having this discussion, but those are the fine margins football is decided upon. Just like the run of the three 1-0 wins in the first ten games of the season, sometimes these moments go for you, other times they go against you.
But by making ten changes for the match against West Brom, what may have seemed like a pragmatic approach would also have showed Burnley our hand. And the fallibilities shown at times since the move to the 433, particularly in the six goals conceded against West Ham and Fulham were fully exposed here by great game management from Sean Dyche side.
This is most true of Burnley’s strikers who made hard work of it for the Albion defence by often drifting into wide areas and stretching the play. Ashley Barnes in particular spent much of the game drifting out into wide areas to find space and in turn creating a huge amount of space through the middle of the Albion defence for Chris Wood and the onrushing Burnley midfielders to exploit.
Dale Stephens in particular got a lot of abuse after this game, but the system the Albion were playing is what was causing them the issue that was leaving Stephens, as well as Duffy and Dunk, over exposed to the threat of a counter-attack. This being the method of all three Burnley goals this day.
As well as the two central midfield partners for Stephens, the full backs were also playing very high up pitch, meaning in moments like the first goal, Dale Stephens had to come across to the man with the ball. And by doing this Burnley stretched the Albion defence to breaking point.
Whilst this was a cause for concern, Burnley are masters of tactical adaption, constantly adapting their approach to target an opponent’s weaknesses. Proving very wrong the myths that the 442 is often rigid and limits creativity. Instead, this is a dynamic 442, with Barnes and Wood often swapping between the first and second striker roles to suit the game plan. The Albion here had been shown up by a team who were on a great run of form, and had recovered from a poor start to the season leaving them in a falsely low league position.
Despite a continued flurry of attacking intent from the Albion and a goal back (another from a set piece and from Shane Duffy), the Albion lost 3-1, only the third time Brighton had conceded three at home since promotion, with the other two coming against Chelsea and Liverpool. But whilst this showed how comparatively bad a defeat this was, it was also a sign of how well they’d adapted to top flight football.
After a defeat as comprehensive as this, even the more realistic of supporters were starting to feel the anxiety build. At the beginning of the year the gap between Brighton and the bottom three was 11 points, and it was now down to just three. But as a Hughton said earlier in the season, we know the level of club we are, change has to happen slowly and we need to accept bumps in the road such as this.
Derby (FA cup)
So, after another worrying defeat in the league, the fourth from the six league games in 2019 alone, the FA Cup represented a break from the impending relegation battle for the Albion. Whilst the league takes prescient in most people eyes, the relatively low standing of many of the teams remaining in the tournament meant the FA cup provided a rare chance of glory for the Albion. Surely the best chance the club has had of winning a major trophy since the Albion lost the cup final in 1983.
Many have drawn comparisons to that season, but I see it this way. League status has and will change, but cup success remains with a club well beyond the moment of that achievement. Just look at the impact the 1983 cup final defeat has had on our club. Maybe up to our recent promotion to the top tier it was what many did, and still do know us for best. And even amongst our own support it remains an important part of our identity. Just look at the amount of 1983 cup final souvenirs the club still sells and you will see tangible evidence of this.
But whilst this is true, the club and the team management continue to prioritise the league, understandably putting head over heart. So, another cup game another eight changes to the first eleven, this time some again admittedly enforced through injury and suspension. one notable change being Locadia starting up front in place of the injured Murray and suspended Andone, another sign of the Albion’s relatively limited options in this position.
Nonetheless, the team that did play were far superior to their second tier competitors in the first half. And it was for once a superiority that the Albion took advantage of taking a 2-0 lead into half time through goals from Knockaert and Locadia.
Knockaert once again finished off a great team move to give the Albion the lead. Then after a brilliant solo run from the impressive Yves Bissouma saw him hit the post, Locadia put away the rebound to give the Seagulls a lead they’d hold onto with little concern until some late pressure from Derby that was ultimately too little, too late.
Brighton’s supremacy in the game, particularly down the right was demonstrated by Derby manager Frank Lampard making two half time changes. With the left-sided duo Duane Holmes and Scott Malone brought off with both struggling to cope with the interchanging Knockaert/Jahanbakhsh combination and overlapping runs from Bruno down the Brighton right.
In contrast to Burnley the week before, where both full backs piled forward regularly, today Bernardo at left-back was much less attack-minded and provided balance to the team and some control to proceedings. A control which the Albion continued to present until the unlikely sight of Ashley Cole heading in a goal for Derby preceded a late fight back from the away side that ultimately proved fruitless.
So, it was Brighton who would qualify for the FA Cup quarter finals where they were drawn away to another Championship side, Millwall. A favourable draw considering the South London side were the lowest ranked team and only one of two non-Premier League teams left in the competition. And also considering Brighton’s good recent record against Millwall, having not lost at the Den in their last six outings, with the last defeat there coming in 2007.
So, after a ten-day break and some warm weather training, the team traveled to face a Leicester side who had lost their last four at home and were reeling from a 4-1 defeat to Palace the previous Saturday. But any hope Brighton could repeat that feat was dampened when the former Premier League champions sacked manager Claude Puel the next day, leaving the Albion set to face the likely caretaker manager bounce in the form of first-team coaches Mike Stowell and Adam Sadler. And hours before kickoff they announced the appointment of former Swansea and Liverpool manager Brendan Rogers who was sat watching his new team in the stands before taking over later that week. The Albion didn’t just have to contend with their own poor away form, but also Leicester’s new manager bounce.
But whilst many Albion fans were starting to panic about the club’s top-flight status, the players were not. Shane Duffy saying before the game: “We’re not concerned. We’re aware but I think we are still positive. Performances haven’t been too bad. We’ve just been letting sloppy goals in.”.
Addressing the club’s poor away form Duffy went onto say: “We’ve played better away from home. If you look at West Ham and Fulham, we were 2-0 up and it could easily have been six points.” And this was another case of what could have been for the Albion as they lost 2-1 despite playing well and arguably having the better of the chances.
That said, the first twenty minutes or so were calamitous from an Albion perspective and the goal summed that up as Leicester virtually played straight through the middle of the Brighton defence. With Knockaert losing the ball on halfway and with Albion players pushed forward in support of an attack, Leicester took advantage. Dale Stephens in particular was caught too high up the pitch and left too much space in behind which Leicester exploited. And whilst a subsequent misunderstanding between Dunk and Propper, which left goalscorer Damari Gray unmarked didn’t help the situation, from then on, an Albion defence on the back foot and out of position was always going to be second best.
As the Albion settled into the game they were much better in possession and began to match the home side in all facets of the game, most importantly in creating good goalscoring chances. In the end they were arguably unfortunate not to go in level after a good save by Kasper Schmeichel from Anthony Knockaert, who was starting his first league game since Chelsea at home in December as a result of his good performances in the cup.
The Albion certainly upped their game from here in and the stats show it. This was now three games in a row where Brighton had more possession than their opposition and improved on their average passing accuracy. And it’s not just possession for possession sake too. The 433 is making the team more purposeful in possession, whilst the team still average the second lowest shots a game (10) in the league this season, against Watford they had 21, Burnley 16 and Leicester 15. But as everyone has said after this and other recent league games, you’ve got to take those chances.
This was further exemplified when Glenn Murray missed a great chance from the edge of the six-yard box. It was the type of chance you’d put your house on Murray scoring, and it clearly affected him as after a second missed chance in the last five minutes he insisted on changing his boots.
As the Albion made things more difficult for the hosts, they began to get frustrated, and the tension of the four straight home defeats seemed to be telling, particularly on the home support. Young England midfielder James Maddison took the brunt of this frustration from the fan’s but turned it on its head when he found Jamie Vardy with a brilliant through pass who made it 2-0. This was Jamie Vardy doing what he does best, finding space to run in behind the defence to score, textbook Vardy.
This appeared to be game over, but shortly after the priorly mentioned goalless Davy Propper broke his scoring duck with a fine turn and strike low into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. The goal came from a good bit of build up between Propper, Knockaert and Bissouma (on as a sub for the injured Gross), and it was the type of buildup play that typified the Albion’s approach in the second half.
It wasn’t enough to save the Albion from another defeat, but it was another good performance, which was one of the better ones away from home this season. This left some reason for encouragement ahead of the visit of bottom of the table Huddersfield.
A corner turned and a weight lifted
The final game of the third quarter of the league season was a home match against bottom side Huddersfield. But if the last match against the league’s bottom side, (the 4-2 defeat to Fulham) or the last season’s 1-1 home draw with the Terriers were anything to go by, this wasn’t going to be the walk in the park some were hoping for.
Some were referring to this game as a must win for Brighton, given how long it had been without one. But Huddersfield were coming off a morale boosting win over Wolves in mid-week, a result that meant another win here would keep alive their slim hopes of survival, but lose and their slim hopes were all but over. It was do or die for Huddersfield.
And with both teams needing a win, it’s no surprise this was a tight cagey affair settled by a goal from a set piece. Before the game Chris Hughton spoke about his team’s predicament: “I have to be concerned. The league table speaks for itself and the form speaks for itself. But a lot of the games have been close and the performance levels make us optimistic. It’s a difficult period but it’s a time you need to hold your nerve.” It was time for the taking of positives to stop and points picking to start, and that’s what happened here with yet another 1-0 win at the AMEX in a tense if unmemorable afternoon.
With 11 games left and teams around them picking up points, the pressure was on Hughton and his team, and three changes were made with Bissouma, Bernardo and Jahanbakhsh replacing the injured Gross, as well as Bong and March respectively. But despite the changes the team looked stale in the first half. Maybe nerves meant some were trying too hard, but Huddersfield looked the more accomplished team and the more likely to break the deadlock in a poor first half.
But after the break, the Seagulls flew out of the traps, creating a succession of chances with both Knockaert on the right and Jahanbakhsh on the left looking dangerous. Although it wasn’t until Florin Andone was introduced for the tireless if fruitless Murray, who was still in search of his 100th league goal. Andone’s introduction stretched the game, giving Brighton a threat in behind a Huddersfield team leaving themselves a bit exposed with their high pressing approach to defending.
But despite this, an organised Huddersfield were keeping the Albion out and it was another one of those trusted set pieces that would come to the team’s rescue. With that man Florin Andone heading the ball home from a perfect Knockaert cross. A finish that was reminiscent of the winner he scored in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.
The goal was met with jubilant scenes in the stands and the forthcoming final whistle was met with much relief. This was a big three points and with Cardiff, Southampton and Burnley all losing, it put Brighton 5 points clear of the bottom three and up to 15th. The win gave the Albion a bit of breathing space going into the home stretch and a chance to reflect on the progress made ahead of the much-anticipated trip to Selhurst Park the following Saturday, followed by the FA Cup quarter final with Millwall and then a ‘six-pointer’ at the AMEX against Southampton.
One thing still being discussed was the change in tactical approach which was something Hughton addressed after the game saying: “The balances are how expansive you want to be. I think our level of performance has improved, certainly with a 4-3-3, maybe not so much in the first half, but you’ve got to be scoring goals otherwise you are putting a lot of pressure (on).” And with Gross out this felt like a much more balanced midfield three giving Stephens the defensive protection he required to control the game with some brilliant distribution. If the recent run of games at the AMEX was anything to go by, Dale Stephens really suited the pivot role in the midfield three and today showed just why Hughton had continued to trust him there despite some valid criticism of his performances since the new year.
So with four home games against bottom half sides still to come there is plenty of optimism that the team can pick up the required points to keep ahead of Cardiff at least, if not aspire to match or better the clubs record high league finish of 13th from 1981/82.
It was a run of games that many thought would be defined by the lack of Albion’s number one goalkeeper, but was instead defined by a number of defensive mistakes made by players in front of him as well as the much continued focus on the mid-season formation change. But putting this run into perspective it added a further eight crucial points to the tally. And whilst this was the toughest period of the season so far, in the same league fixtures last season Brighton picked up just 9 points, if you swap Fulham as the lowest ranked promoted side with last seasons bottom club West Brom.
Tactically the move to a 433 was cemented in this run of games and appeared to look like the natural progression of the team from the more conservative 451/4411 that had been used almost wholesale previously. It allowed the team to creates more chances and opportunities and Fulham aside, control the game more, conceding less goalscoring opportunities to their opponents. Given this change in formation and the importance to Brighton’s of the compact organisation it creates out of possession, it’s understandable that you get the odd freak performance like of the second-half away to Fulham, especially when under such pressure from the opponents.
It’s a change that will ease criticism of negative tactics and the added expansiveness has given the team a better ability of ball retention and meant the team has created more chances. Whilst they still have the second lowest shots taken per game (10.4), and the third highest shots conceded per game (14.9), they have both improved significantly since the change in formation.
The ball retention statistics are the most striking, the average possession stats of 44.7% being improved on in this period, with the team managing more possession than their opponents in the last four games, 10-15% up on their season average. In fact, the last four games were the only four times the team achieved more possession in all bar one game this season in the Premier League when the opposition kept all 11 men on the pitch. Our passing accuracy has improved greatly over the same four games too. Whilst the team had a season average of 74.5%, it was 77% against Watford, 79% against Burnley, 81% against Leicester and 80% against Huddersfield. Ball retention has been a real issue at times this season, particularly away from home but the vast improvement has been diminished by some individual mistakes.
It’s a change that has allowed the team to control games better and bring the best out of Davy Propper, who has for me been the Albion’s best player for this period of games. Whilst it in contrast initially diminished Gross’s effect on the team whilst he adapted to his new deeper central midfielder role he has continued to look more like the Gross of last season. Time will tell if Gross recaptures his form of last season entirely, but with Yves Bissouma in reserve he may not get much more opportunities to prove he is capable in this new role.
Another benefit is the improvement of Locadia and the return of Jahanbakhsh, allowing them to play in a more natural role as a wide forward off a main striker, rather than in the main striker role or as a wide midfielder. But let’s be honest for all its attacking benefits, the system change has at times been overshadowed by defensive fragility. Particularly in games against Burnley, Fulham and West Ham where the shape was more offensive and easily exposed. Propper & Gross in the midfield three pushed up higher, leaving a huge gap between defence & attack occupied at times only by Stephens. The two Centre backs and the defensive midfielder then either push up & leave gaps in behind, or sit back & leave gaps in front. Either of which would leave space for opponents to exploit as shown in these games.
How much of these failings were down to individual errors whilst adjusting to the change and how much was down to the systems structural failings is yet to be seen. Nonetheless I’m a fan of the 4-3-3 in general and believe the openness against Burnley was in part a symptom of the game and the opponents we were facing and if we are hoping to progress and establish ourselves in this division, I see it as a possible route to progress towards that.
With ten games to go last season we were 12th, 4 points clear of the bottom three, compared to our current 5-point gap sitting 15th. Despite the bad run, our fate is still in our hands, we still have a good run of fixtures, so there is no reason to panic. Let’s be realistic, all the teams above us in the league should be there given they have significantly higher budgets. We are and always were in a relegation battle, and whilst the situation may have become more severe, we are still in a good position. Finishing 17th would be a good season, anything else is a bonus. In all the excitement of the first half of the season and the recent cup run, it’s been easy forget that.
Of course, it’s not all about money. An analysis Sky Sports produced at the start of this season showed how relatively inexperienced the Brighton squad is compared to the rest of the Premier League. Brighton’s squad experience was the fifth lowest, totalling 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle.
These limited resources, both financially and otherwise, limits what Hughton has to work with and is in turn what he is being criticised for, including the squad depth available, the substitution options, the first eleven selection and tactical rotation ability. This area of the team has been particularly exposed in this run as a combination of suspension, injuries and the addition of the cup games stretched resources. With the obvious example of Andone’s suspension meaning the lack of a natural front-man replacement from the bench for Murray in the defeats to both Burnley and Leicester.
The reality is that whilst my analysis at the start of the season found no significant evidence of Second Season Sydndrome, there is evidence that the club has reached a crossroads with an opportunity to develop a more expansive approach, or to double down on the defensive organisation.
Whilst the 1983 comparison has worried some and the cup is much maligned, without it we would have had to wait for a win from Everton in December to Huddersfield in late February. What felt like an age, would have felt like an eternity.
Furthermore, whilst some people complain when others point out we should be grateful to be here based on where we were 20 or so years ago. Brighton are a relatively small team compared to rest of the division and we should be grateful to be here, as well as accepting that bad games and indeed bad runs will happen.
In fact, forget about 20 years ago:
• 10 years ago, we were a game away from relegation to league 2
• 8 years ago, we were still playing at the Withdean
• 6 years ago, (the season we lost to Palace in playoffs) Poyet said it was “now or never” regarding promotion to the top tier due to FFP
• 4 years ago, we were close to a return to League one, only for Chris Hughton to come in and turn our fortunes around
• 2 years ago, we were competing again for (and ultimately won) automatic promotion after missing out on goal difference the season before & losing in playoffs, despite many then writing us off.
• Last season, we avoided relegation from the top division for only the fourth time in our history. Reaching only our third ever FA Cup quarter final.
Whatever this season brings it will not be a surprise, and it will not be a disaster. Brighton have one of the smallest budgets and limited squads in the division and therefore we should expect to be competing at the bottom end of the table.
And it’s this expectation management that we have spoken about before that is really going to be tested as the run-in materialises. There will be low points but a dose of realism might be required for some of the more critical supporters. When we judge the team on a single poor performance we are ignoring the bigger picture and the fact this team continues to defy the odds. And my optimism remains that with this team under Hughton’s leadership, they will continue to do so.