This Sunday Albion face Southampton in what is already pretty much a dead rubber, with both sides sitting comfortably in mid-table, out of the way of both the relegation dogfight at the bottom-end of the table, as well as any loftier ambitions towards the top-end. And yet Albion go into this Sundays match at the AMEX with a lot to play for.
First and foremost, there’s the small matter of improving their awful Premier league points total achieved at the AMEX this season, small being the operative word. Having taken just 15 points from 16 games, only Norwich (20th) and Watford (19th) have earned less points at home in the Premier League this season.
And yet at the time of writing the club sit 10th, with a genuine chance of not just a club record high league finish, but a first ever top-half topflight finish following back-to-back wins in the capital over first Arsenal and then Spurs.
The key factor in those most recent wins appears to be that the team were not playing at home. With games running out in Graham Potter’s third season in charge of the club, he has still failed to win as many Premier league games at the AMEX as his predecessor Chris Hughton oversaw in just two seasons.
The atmosphere at the AMEX has been a regular point of contention in recent seasons, but particularly this one. No wonder however, given how bad the teams form has been there under Graham Potter, having won just 12 home games out of 54 in the Premier League.
But there has still been significant progress, albeit mostly away from the AMEX. Ahead of their trip to Man City on Wednesday night they have doubled their points return away from home compared to that under Chris Hughton, having won just 24 points from 38 games away from home under his tenure, 0.63 per game. Whilst they have won 64 from 54 games under Potter, or 1.19 points per game. And at the time of writing have the 6th highest points total away from home in the Premier league this season.
Albion’s poor home form under Potter isn’t without its improvements in many aspects of the team’s performance too, particularly ball retention. Something Chris Hughton failed to improve despite his numerous attempts to do so towards the end of his tenure, including a doomed persistence with a switch to a 433 formation.
Under Chris Hughton, Albion had the fourth lowest average possession, the fifth lowest passing accuracy and the second lowest shots taken per game in the Premier league’s 18/19 season. This season Brighton have the fourth highest average possession, the seventh highest passing accuracy and the sixth highest average number of shots taken. To put this into context, rather than these attributes being comparable with relegation contenders, these attributes are now more similar to title contenders.
But I doubt you need me telling you that it’s the key part of the performance that Albion are failing to improve on, as turning all that good work into goals has been the constant issue for Graham Potter’s Albion. In fact, in many ways the team have regressed at the AMEX in front of goal under Potter having averaged a fairly measly 1.00 goals scored per game in the Premier League at the AMEX, compared to the 1.13 averaged under the more defensive Chris Hughton.
To put that into context, this translates this to an average of 22.2 shots per goal scored from Graham Potter’s Albion so far this season at the AMEX compared to just 10.8 shots per goal at the AMEX under Hughton in 18/19.
Looking purely in this context it’s surprising Graham Potter has remained in the job for this long despite this poor home record, for many mangers your home league form is your bread and butter. Brighton aside, you have to go up to newly promoted Brentford (14th based on home results) to find a team who haven’t sacked their manager.
However, I am not for one minute suggesting Graham Potter should be sacked, but it’s important to appreciate that it’s hard to find many examples of teams with as poor a home record as Brighton’s who haven’t dispensed off their manager. And this is a record that has persisted for three seasons, not just one.
It does highlight both how much the teams away from has been the saving grace, how patient and trusting Albions board of directors have been and how much credit they should get for the teams relative success this season. But it does also help to explain and contextualise the frustration and at times toxic atmosphere you can experience at the AMEX.
The question is, does playing at the AMEX inhibit the team taking those chances in front of goal? That certainly seems to be the case since Graham Potter took charge and if the last home game vs Norwich is anything to go by, it’s getting worse.
Despite the teams potentially unprecedented league high finish in the club’s history, an atmosphere of frustration and anger caused by this poor home form has on more than one occasion this season even led to audible booing and jeering of the team.
It’s not just the team’s performance in front of goal where the fans get frustrated. All those impressive passing and possession stats may look good on paper, but often translate into a fair few moans and groans from the crowd as Albion recycle the ball from side to side without much forward penetration for long periods of the game. Patience is a virtue not held by everyone in the AMEX crowd it seems
Graham Potter’s recent comments about how some Brighton fans urging his players to shoot presents the players a “challenge” was taken out of context by some as a criticism of the crowd, something he later denied. But it’s fair to say that the team’s patient and possession-based approach doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Graham Potter’s tactical development of the team from a fairly direct and defensive side to a possession based, more attack-minded side has rightly earned its plaudits, but it doesn’t always get the same appreciation from the home support.
It’s often said whilst in other countries the crowd will get excited by an individual moment of skill or technical brilliance, British football crowds are more likely to get off their seat as a result of their team winning a crunching tackle or a corner.
Whilst the Hughton era ended up frustrating itself to death by not being able to retain enough of the ball, the Potter era (for all its achievements) is in danger of at least being diminished by the exact opposite, a perceived over retention of the ball with ultimately similar end results. Well, at home at least.
Amongst the frustration Graham Potter’s saving grace has been his ability to retain the team’s stability without the ball, whilst progressing the team’s performance with it. Something that’s been the club’s foundation throughout its Premier League tenure.
Whilst the recent dip in form has included 9 goals being conceded in the last 4 games at the AMEX, the 11 conceded in the 10 prior tells a very different story, particularly when you consider four of those were scored by reigning champion’s Manchester City, who were the only team to take maximum points away from the AMEX over that period.
Whilst not at the AMEX, last Saturday saw Brighton back to their defensive best, Spurs barely had a sniff. Indeed, it was a fairly quiet day for Albion’s goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who didn’t have to make one save.
This was a defence without record signing Adam Webster and without the recently sold Dan Burn, yet they produced one if the best defensive performances of the season.
Being realistic, with resources dwarfed by many top flight clubs, even many of those outside of the Premier League’s giants, bad runs are going to happen for Brighton in the Premier League and times of struggle are going to occur.
So, getting to 40 points this early in a season shouldn’t be an underestimated achievement. And getting results away to Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Spurs all in the same season shouldn’t be either.
The transformation in style under Graham Potter cannot be understated, but still needs time and patience to reach full fruition. The team have gone from one with a playing style more comparable to strugglers like Burnley and Newcastle to one more comparable to title challengers like Man City and Liverpool. Turning that style into substance consistently isn’t a quick fix, nor is it an inevitability, especially with the potential of much upheaval in personnel this summer.
As Jermaine Jenas said on BT Sport after Brighton’s win over Spurs: “I won’t have any talk about Graham Potter and his job… Brighton fans need to remember to an extent, they need to understand this guy is about to achieve something historical with this football club… they’re almost lucky to have him.”
Sunday’s match with Southampton is a great place to start turning the bad home results around. And it could be that the freedom of a supposed meaningless dead rubber and of not having the pressure that comes with the imminent threat of relegation, is exactly what Graham Potter’s Brighton need to shake the monkey of their underperformance at home from off their backs.
For all the talk of progress under Potter’s management, many of the great AMEX days in the Premier League era have come under his predecessor. Yet I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Brighton did go on a bit of a run, caused a few more shocks and picked up a fair few more points in the process this season, starting with Southampton on Sunday. And with the visit of Man United and West Ham coming next month, two teams Albion have surprisingly good recent records against, the opportunity for that first top half topflight finish is very much still alive despite the recent poor run of results.