I don’t usually write one-off match reviews, but Brighton don’t usually play at Wembley in an FA Cup Semi final.
Saturday was a special day for all involved with the club, and for many of us it was a special day out with our friends and family watching our local football team do us proud. It was a day most Albion fans had been looking forward to ever since that penalty shootout win over Millwall in the quarter finals, but now that the day was finally here it was all a bit surreal. On my walk to the station a passer by noticed my Brighton shirt and stopped me for a quick chat so to pass on a message of good luck, living in a suburb of London means random chats with strangers is a uncommon occurrence. And living in one that could be considered both Millwall and Palace territory makes this an even more unlikely story, but such is the power of the FA Cup and Wembley.
The atmosphere in London on Saturday Lunchtime demonstrated that this wasn’t any ordinary day. As I arrived at London Bridge train station I laid my eyes on the first group of Brighton supporters I’d seen that day, and it wasn’t to be the last. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. But whilst there was a great air of anticipation and excitement for the match, the expectations from a Brighton perspective were low. After all, Albion got the semi final draw that the remaining teams were glad to avoid, facing the reigning Premier League Champions Manchester City.
And in many ways it was the game that everyone expected. City had 70% possession, made almost three times the number of successful passes and had almost three times the number of shots on goal, they were dominant. But whilst the Champions were dominant, their challengers Albion were resolute in defence, limiting City to just the one goal. All the more impressive when you consider City have scored on average 2.6 goals a game in the league this season and many expected them to notch a few more today.
There was so much to admire about the Albion performance, but before the game started there was plenty of inspiration to take from the atmosphere in the west end of the stadium. It was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase, personally though I was too nervous to take it all in fully. However, it was hard not to notice the relative sparseness of the City support, which was far less inspiring, something that was a shame on such a big occasion for our club.
For me it was the discipline of the Albion performance that was most impressive. An attribute that was required as this was a game against as Chris Hughton said in the match program “perhaps the best team in the world”. This discipline was illustrated best by the full backs who often sacrificed attacking duties in order to limit City’s attacking threat. And whilst, some in the Albion end like the man I was sat next to shouted, “push up”, Brighton kept their shape and remained patient.
Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for Brighton, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the team managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.
But for most of the game the lack of support from the Albion full backs in attack put more pressure on Anthony Knockaert to provide the attacking spark, and he did so at almost every possible opportunity. And the fact he was given the sponsors Man of Match award despite not being on the winning side, says a lot.
However, the problem Knockaert had was when he got into dangerous positions, there was little in support to worry the City defence. But he kept trying and was more often than not effective, with 60% of his dribbles being successful. It was a fitting Man of the Match award for Knockaert in a competition that has been a big part of him being revitalised at the Albion of late. After all, it was his goals against Bournemouth and Derby that helped get Brighton here. The one against Derby in particular which he celebrated by gesturing lovingly to his son in the stand was wonderfully captured by the Argus photographer Simon Dack. It’s well documented that it’s been a tough couple of years for him since promotion, but the club and Hughton stood by him and supported him, and it’s good to see him having turned things around in such a big way.
Whilst Knockaert stood out, Albion’s top scorer Glenn Murray struggled to make an impact on the game. Against a stern City defence, his lack of mobility and pace was highlighted more than ever and contributed to halting many attacks that the Albion had.
On the left wing Jahanbakhsh also struggled, with Kevin De Bruyne to keep an eye on as well as his attacking duties this was probably a game too far for Albion’s record signing. And when he was finally brought off for a former predecessor of that title Joss Izquierdo there were loud cheers around me, many of which were in part maliciously celebrating the departure of the Iranian.
As the game developed, it became clear that Izquierdo for Jahanbakhsh and Andone for Murray were the obvious changes for Hughton to make but with City ahead, there was little space for the subs to exploit with their pace. And so it’s no surprise that the City defence held onto what they had, blunting the Albion attack. As the BBC rightly said Brighton “lacked a killer touch”, which is a fair summary of our season at times. And with Brighton missing two of their biggest creative threats in Solly March and Pascal Gross it’s no surprise. Without them and a lack of pace to be a threat on the break, the Albion were weak in attack at times, much like in the fourth round tie at home to West Brom, which Gross and March were also absent from and which ended in a stalemate.
As I say it was a game that was too big, too soon for Jahanbakhsh but it’s unfair to write him off as a flop so soon into his Albion career after just 20 appearances, including only 13 starts, particularly considering the injury problems he’s had. And aside from a tame shot on goal, Izquierdo showed little more attacking threat in his short cameo than Jahanbakhsh did during his time on the pitch.
Defensively it was a classic Hughton-Albion performance, which was typified by the brilliant centre back partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. And as their success continues it looks more like a partnership that may go down as the best centre back partnership in club’s history. This was another day to remember for them, between them there were 3 blocked shots, 15 clearances and the majority of aerial duals won.
Whilst conceding the early goal was far from ideal, the shutout from that point on was very impressive. After a period of intense and continuous City pressure straight from kick off, centre back Laporte played a great cross-field pass that caught the Albion defence off-guard and meant Kevin De Bruyne was able to find space on the edge of the box. In this moment he swung a cross to the back post for Gabriel Jesus to head home in between Duffy and Montoya. And its hard to fault Duffy here, as Martin Keown said in his BBC commentary, “you can’t defend that ball.”
This was another case of last season’s Manchester City player of the season De Bruyne showing again why he won that award. And with last season’s Albion player of the season Pascal Gross out, the Albion were missing the player in their team that could provide this kind of delivery, particularly from from set pieces. And it showed, 87% of the Albion’s crosses were unsuccessful, which was further exemplifying the lack of quality and killer instinct in the final third. Whilst Glenn Murray continues to show that he has it in abundance, he relies on the good deliveries of others to show it, which is all the harder against City without your best creative force.
Luck wasn’t with the Albion. As well as the absentees, the key moments didn’t go for them. In the second half with Duffy heading the ball towards goal, instead of falling onto Murray’s toe for him to poke it in, it fell just short and was cleared by the City defence. This was the second of two key moments the Albion would rue. Midway through the first half after a tussle for the ball between Kyle Walker and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Walker took exception to Jahanbakhsh’s aggression and attempted to headbutt him, in an action many have said since should have caused him to see red but instead both party got a yellow card.
Those voices were including Brighton manager Chris Hughton who said “in my opinion it was a red card. We ask players to be honest and Alireza doesn’t make a big meal of it, when we certainly would have seen in the past players going down clutching their heads and rolling on the floor. [I have looked at it] and there would have been numerous circumstances where that action would have got someone a red card. I think there was sufficient force in the action to warrant that.” One of those numerous examples Chris Hughton might have been thinking of was Shane Duffy’s red card against Palace earlier in the season.
Despite the decision being referred to VAR it wasn’t overturned. But I’m not sure how the Video Referee can decide that this isn’t a red card worthy incident. Surely this is a great example of the exact type of decision that VAR is designed to rectify. On moments like this, trophies are won and lost. And not overturning it only encourages players to go over easily in future. If VAR doesn’t rectify these decisions, what’s the point of it?
Ultimately the Albion ended as gallant losers to Man City. Their manager Pep Guardiola recognised the close battle his side were in, saying: “It was tough because they defended incredibly well and they were well organised.” It also speaks volumes of his attitude and respect towards the Albion that the three subs he brought on were all defensive ones.
For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feat applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.
These were post match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.
For Brighton, this FA Cup run can be more to the club than a collection of good memories and a few keepsakes for the scrapbook. It can be a springboard for the rest of the season, in particular for the two key home games coming up against Bournemouth and Cardiff. As Hughton said himself after the game: “To run City close takes a huge effort so it’s a very, very tired changing room. We are happy but on Monday morning we’ve got to get our Premier League heads on. We have got a fight on our hands.” This isn’t a case of one story ending and another beginning, the season is far from over and for Albion the fight goes on.