Marc Cucurella’s recent impressive performances aside, Albion’s summer incoming players have had limited impact so far this season. Meaning the team’s success has mainly been built on improvements in performance within the existing squad.
As Graham Potter said at the beginning of the season, on having more limited options in defence after the sale of Ben White: “we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We find solutions and be creative if you need to be.”
And many of the solutions that Albion have found during Graham Potter’s tenure are ones that I doubt many Albion fans saw coming.
Go back to last season and Albion’s issue between the sticks caused by the drop in form of Matt Ryan was solved by the unexpected introduction of development team promotee and recent Rochdale loanee Robert Sanchez. A player who went on to impress so much in his maiden topflight season, that he earned a place in Spain’s European Championship squad.
Going into this season, Albion still had a number of issues to resolve at both ends of the pitch. Issues that materialised in dropping 25 points from winning position in the Premier League last season. They led in a total of 19 games and won just 9 of those, less than half. The worst record in the league that season.
This season, Albion have so far dropped zero points from winning positions, maintaining a 100%-win rate from the 4 games in which they’ve taken the lead. It’s early, but there is a clear trend here.
But what has made the difference? One of the factors is most certainly the return of Shane Duffy, whose presence really has added that extra element of resilience, after a consistent spell of solid displays since his return from a loan spell at Celtic, one that I’m sure everyone is keen to forget.
Against Palace last time out he continued his good form and recorded 5 clearances, 3 interceptions, 2 tackles, won 3 out of 3 ground duels and won 3 out of 4 Aerial duels. Showing once again that he is a player who has mastered the art of defending.
It’s not just about defending leads though but extending them too: Duffy is a threat in both boxes. With him in the side Albion have so far scored at a rate of 1.33 pg, higher than in any of their other Premier league seasons.
Yes, the fixtures have been kind so far, but you have to take those chances, something Albion weren’t doing previously. Last season they won just 9 games all season, only 4 of which came against teams in the bottom half.
A big part of the reason for that, as Graham Potter has spoken a lot about, was key moments going against the team. There are few players I’d rather have on our side in those key moments than Shane Duffy and I’m not surprised to see that the teams luck has turned with him in the side.
Glenn Murray spoke about Duffy on BBC Sussex’s program ‘Albion Unlimited’ prior to the Palace game saying: “I think Shane will openly admit that he didn’t realise what he had when he was at Brighton, and he maybe took it for granted. And now we can really see him really knuckling down and proving to us all how good of a player he is, and how much he does actually love the club and how much he wants to be here.”
This isn’t to say Shane is the sole reason Albion find themselves 6th in the Premier League table. As Richard Newman spoke about in his recent piece for Eurosport, this success has been building for a while, with Graham Potter’s appointment the latest step on that progression. Saying “Potter immediately implemented his own identity – based on tactical fluidity, intensity and fast build-up. Over the past two years, he has patiently assembled the squad that he wants – only Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Solly March remain from the side promoted from the Championship in 2017.” Albion were playing well last season and have been largely a progressive, good team to watch since Potter’s appointment back in 2019.
Another huge improvement on last season has been Neal Maupay’s goalscoring rate, who’s contributed 4 goals/50% of Albion’s goals so far this season. Maupay’s finishing has been criticised by all and sundry, but he showed brilliant finishing ability to lob the Palace goalkeeper Guaita so calmly with one touch in the last minute of injury time to equalise against Albion’s biggest rivals. Even as a big supporter of Maupay, it’s hard to imagine him doing that last season where he struggled for long periods in front of goal.
For those who haven’t seen it I’d implore you to go watch Neal Maupay’s post-match interview on Sky Sports from Monday night. It was open and honest, with him rightly grinning from ear to ear like a Cheshire Cat throughout.
I did note that when he was asked about the club trying to sign a striker, he was clearly a little uncomfortable, but his inner self-confidence and belief shone through in his answer. Maupay has had his difficult periods and his critics, including some prominent pundits who’ve continually questioned his finishing ability. But, to achieve this turnaround whilst under that kind of criticism and pressure makes his performances of late even more admirable.
The stats really do demonstrate that he’s having a great season so far too:
In the 495 minutes he’s played this season, he’s had:
• 24 touches in opposition box,
• 11 total shots,
• 5 shots on target,
• Scored 4 goals.
That compares to 2,768 minutes in 2019/20,
• 177 touches in opposition box
• 96 total shots,
• 38 shots on target,
• Scored 10 goals
And compares to a total of 2,517 minutes in 2020/21,
• 190 touches in opposition box
• 71 total shots,
• 26 shots on target
• Scored 8 goals
What links Duffy and Maupay in particular is that the prevailing opinion of them was that they weren’t up to the standard required for Albion to rise up the table, which they’ve resoundingly countered so far this season.
As the example of Sanchez’s usurping of Maty Ryan shows, Potter doesn’t show loyalty to the existing group of players for loyalties sake, but that it’s more a case of Graham Potter working with what he has to find the best working solutions.
As I discussed last season when talking about the likes of Dan Burn and Adam Webster, this is a team built with a group of players who have all had their own failures, who have all been written off by supporters and pundits alike, but persisted and ultimately proven to be vital parts of this Albion team.
This is what Graham Potter’s Albion is all about, working with what they have and salvaging what they can, something that has been demonstrated in their performances this season.
This was shown notably at Selhurst Park on Monday night, where injuries severely hampered Albion. The absences of Bissouma and Webster were a huge loss. To then lose a further two players mid-game limited options further in terms of substitutions to salvage the game from a losing position, but they persisted right up to the very last minute of the game to earn a point.
The bedrock of Albion’s continued success under Potter is all about maximising the potential of what the club has and building on the strengths that are already in place. If we go back to that euphoric 3-0 win over Watford in his first game in charge in 2019, Graham Potter talked then about the foundations in place that have enabled his success.
In his interview on BBCs Match of the Day with presenter Gary Lineker, instead of talking up his own achievements he instead spoke about how he inherited a team where “a fantastic foundation had been laid, a lot of good work [had gone before]”. And then admitted despite the good result that “we haven’t found the answers today but it’s a nice start for us.”
In very much the same way this good start to his third Premier League season in charge falls under the same category. This success is very much built on the foundations laid throughout the club’s recent history. With a manager in charge who is unafraid to look for creative and unexpected solutions to build on those foundations, Albion remain in safe hands.