Three wins out of three, but how good are this Brighton team?

The past two weeks have seen a near perfect start to the season for Brighton. Two wins out of two in the league, through to the 3rd round of the league cup and they go into Saturday’s home match against Everton with the opportunity to go top of the league with a win if other results go their way.

It’s the sort of start to the season that has all but stopped the panic from supporters for the club to sign a new striker… well almost.

But these are very early days and we do have to acknowledge that it was only Burnley, Watford, and Cardiff that Albion have racked up these wins against. A bit of a reality check could go a long way right now.

Yes, as has rightly been pointed out after the win over Watford, these are games that Albion weren’t winning last season. However, beating the teams below you doesn’t indicate progress in terms of league status, despite it still being a sign of improved consistency from Graham Potter’s side.

In contrast, Brighton secured survival last season by picking up wins and points in games many didn’t expect, such as at home to Man City and away to Liverpool. Repeating such successes this season will be tough, so improving results against the teams below them such as the in last two matches will help to safeguard against regression rather than securing progression.

Ultimately the aim of this season, as it has been in the four previous, is to survive relegation, whilst showing further signs of progress. To be able to achieve the club’s long-term goal of an established top half place, far more time and progression is required. This may be the stated aim of some Albion players this season, but that is very different to it being a realistic expectation.

If we look at the team’s Albion would be competing with to achieve that, including Saturday’s opponents Everton, the lack of room for Albion to progress into quickly becomes apparent.

Most pundits seem to think the top 4 this season writes itself (Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United, not necessarily in that order), with the FA Cup and Community Shield holders Leicester City the only rare exception to some predictions.

In addition to that group of clubs, Arsenal and Spurs – the other two members of the “big 6”, who whilst having had their recent struggles, will know anything less than a top 6 finish would represent an underachievement.

Then there’s Saturday’s opponents Everton, who since the investment of Farhad Moshiri have gone from a team whose glory days appeared to be in the past, to one now reverting to a club aiming to break into the top 6. But whilst the managerial tenures of Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti promised much, the club hasn’t finished inside the top 6 since 2014 under Roberto Martinez.

Then there’s the likes of big spending Aston Villa and last season’s big overachievers West Ham, who both have stated ambitions to break into the top 6. For Albion the reality is finishing ahead of any of these sides in the table this season would represent an overachievement. Unfortunately as Albion continue to progress, so do the teams above them.

It seems a matter of time before this weekend’s opponents Everton get it right. According to Spotrac their wage bill stands a just over £81m a year, the 7th highest in the division, only a few million pounds short of Spurs and over £30m ahead of the 8th highest Leicester City.

It also reportedly stands at more than double that of Brighton’s wage bill, reportedly the 15th highest in the division, sandwiched in-between Watford and Southampton.

Wage bills aren’t everything, but they do have a huge say in a team’s performances on the pitch and as such the expectations we should place upon them.

The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski talks about the degree to which football clubs can improve their competitiveness by spending more money on player wages. It included a study that covered the period 1998 to 2007, which showed spending on wages explains about 89% of performance (Kuper & Szymanski, 2010), whilst a study for the period 2003 to 2012, the explanatory power was about 91% for the clubs in the two top divisions in England.

This isn’t just one study either, several other researchers also document that wage expenditures can explain from 77% to 90% of the variations in the performance of clubs in domestic league competitions (Forrest & Simmons, 2002; Gammelsæter & Ohr, 2002; Sperling, Nordskilde, & Bergander, 2010).

It’s not all bad news, Albion have in successive recent seasons continued to over-perform its financial status. Firstly, by getting into the topflight and then by staying there ahead of some more established clubs.

In part this has been achieved by attempting to out-think its opponents. Tony Bloom realised a long time ago that if the club were to achieve topflight status, let alone sustain it, he would have to find margins and gains on their opponents by being smarter rather than simply through financial stealth.

As Sam Cunningham described in an interview with Bloom for the Daily Mail in 2017, “Bloom talks — and thinks — in edges and gains, in fortune and favour. He pauses before answering questions, always calculating.” And this is how Albion build their squad and make every decision – carefully considering how they can gain an edge on their opponents.

A growing theme of Albion under Graham Potter is the success stories of so many players who’ve previously been written off. Be it Solly March, who signed a long-term contract extension this week, man of the moment Shane Duffy, the often written-off Neal Maupay, the regularly disregarded Dan Burn, or the perennially underrated Pascal Gross. I could go on, but you get the point.

Neal Maupay in particular is a player whom opinions of have flip-flopped more than most. Have a game where he doesn’t score and misses a big chance and he’s not good enough, but then score two games in a row and he’s Albion most important player and his potential injury is a crisis. Following the prevailing thought of football supporters and pundits can be exhausting. It’s a good thing Graham Potter and the senior leadership team at the club are above such things.

Where some like the Guardian have called Maupay a “flop” (the Guardian named him as one of the five flops of the 2020/21 season despite being Albion’s top scorer for the second season running), Albion see potential. Two goals in his first two games doesn’t make a successful season, but it’s a great start. His story of patient progress that has seen him break hit the 20 goal landmark in the Premier League, is a great example of how Albion are trying to build on their previous successes and progress to one day be able to compete toe to toe with the likes of Everton and Leicester throughout a season.

Neil Maupay has gone through tough periods in an Albion shirt, but the continued trust placed in him, and others alike, is a testament to their position as important members of this squad of players.

This isn’t just about Maupay, this is an entire group of players who’ve had question marks over them at one point or another. A couple of weeks ago most Albion fans had given up on Shane Duffy, but all of a sudden he’s now a hero again.

This time last year Pascal Gross could barely get into the team, whilst the same could be said of Yves Bissouma’s after a tricky first season with the club just two years ago. But both are now widely admired and have been instrumental to Albion’s continued success and progression on the pitch.

The reality of this progress however is that it will continue to be steady, the risk of relegation remains very real and the forecast for Albion’s season is that there will be a fair few downs to go with the ups of the last few weeks. But through it all the club will remain consistent in its approach, which has served it well so far.

We are very quick to categorise players or teams as either very good or very bad. The reality, as ever, is always somewhere in the middle. Albion’s good start does not make them shoe-ins for European qualification, nor would going top on Saturday. And even if this season saw a significant overachievement it wouldn’t suddenly make them an established top half side, as both Burnley’s and Wolves’s recent brief flirtation with European competition show.

But with the steady hand of Tony Bloom on the steering wheel, the steady progress of this team looks likely to continue.

As Graham Potter said after the victory at home to Man City towards the end of last season: “I’ve never really lost that support from Tony, to be honest. No matter what is said on the outside, no matter what people write or talk about on different things, I’ve never paid attention to it.”

But all that being said, how good actually is this Brighton team?

The reality is probably about as good as it’s wage bill suggests, somewhere floating above the relegation zone in the bottom half, but, with the leadership at the club as it is, the likelihood of continuing to outperform that status (within a reasonable margin) is good this season.

However, the degree to which the club does that may be less than some fans are hoping for. A European challenge is unlikely, but finishing a few places higher than last season’s 16th place and matching its best ever finish of 13th would be a fantastic achievement, especially if the team added to last seasons disappointing goals scored tally.

As the financial might of Saturday’s opponents shows, anything above this looks increasingly difficult and will likely rely on the clubs previously mentioned underperforming, combined with Albion consistently over-performing, which over the course of an entire season is incredibly difficult to see happening.

Yet another Albion home draw

Monday’s game against Everton started as a good opportunity to ease the club’s relegation worries and get back to back Premier League home wins for the first time in 17 months.

Whilst West Brom’s win prior to kick off was a reminder that Albion could not rest on their laurels on 32 points and still probably require at least another 5/6 points to be safe. So this match against an out of form and injury ravaged Everton team was an opportunity for Albion to get a much needed win.

It was a game that yet again highlighted Albion’s core strength in controlling games by building the play out from the back through its ball playing defenders. With Yves Bissouma sitting in front controlling the midfield and nullifying the opposition.

However, it’s Albion’s lack of quality in areas higher up the pitch which continued to cost it a victory in a game it dominated. As Albion created more missed chances from its strikers and more hesitant play from its creative, attacking midfielders.

That and a combination of brilliant defending from Everton means they were left with another draw, its twelfth of the season. Eight of which were at home, 50% of Albion’s home matches this season.

Teams seem to know how to stop Graham Potter’s team at home. This wasn’t the first time Albion have come up against an effective rear guard action at home and it works, as proven by the fact that despite dominating most of their 16 home league matches this season they have failed to score in 5, scoring a measly total of 16 in that time. More goals and more quality in the final third is required if they are to turn more of those draws into wins.

However, it’s too easy to just blame Maupay, Welbeck or Connolly for poor finishing, the whole process needs to be quicker. Albion’s play out of the back is often crisp, sharp and quick, but too often once the ball get into the opposition half players have hesitated on the ball, allowing the opposition to get into their defensive shape, which in turn allows less space and makes it harder for Albion’s strikers.

The Premier League’s record goalscorer and Match of the day pundit Alan Shearer said recently about Albion’s attack that: “it would definitely frustrate me as a player, because of that extra pass. The ball could come into the box a lot earlier.”

And he has a point, by the time the ball gets to strikers in the box it’s often gone side to side two or three times, allowing time for the opposition defence to close down the available space.

Albion have had more touches in the opposition third than any other team in the bottom half of the Premier League this season so far. With Trossard the king of touches in the opposition third, having had a total 631 touches in the attacking third this season or 22.5 per match.

However, whilst Trossard is a talented young player, this is not a stat I think he will be overly proud of. Albion often dominate the play, allowing Trossard more of it. But, he too often dithers on it, taking that extra couple of seconds and that extra touch or two, which allows the opposition defence to get into better positions and close the options down for Albion’s strikers.

Just as has been the case too often at home this season, once Albion did get the ball into a shooting position the space had been closed down by the Everton defence and the shooting opportunity diminished. Albion need to be sharper and quicker in the final third to win games like last night.

But, there were plenty more positives than negatives for Albion in a game where they were rarely threatened by the opposition. Everton came to defend and make it hard for us. They seemed happy with a point from the off, so it was always going to be a struggle to break them down. And so it proved.

But it’s a sign of the progress made under Graham Potter by this Albion side that so many teams now come to the AMEX to defend, expecting a tough game and believing a draw to be a good result. As opposed to what we saw previously where the opposition more often saw a trip to the AMEX as a chance to attack and win an easy three points. Unfortunately it’s that change in approach too that has largely been the reason that we have struggled to break teams down.

As the first half wore on and Albion pushed for an opening goal to break the deadlock, the game began to become worryingly stretched and open. If it weren’t for some good defensive exertions from certain individuals like man of the match Yves Bissouma, we may have been caught out.

But the second half saw Albion again dominate in a more controlled manner as Everton struggled to counter against a more disciplined and organised Albion team, whose clean sheet rarely looked in doubt.

In fact it highlighted an improvement in Albion’s defensive play, with it being their fifth clean sheet in their last seven home league matches since that wild 3-3 draw with Wolves. Lessons have been learned and the defence has been giving away less sloppy opportunities and goals to its opponents, the Palace and Leicester games aside.

Whilst there is an understandable level of frustration after yet another draw at home and yet another blank in front of goal, a point is a good result, which takes Brighton above Burnley on goal difference into 15th and edges them closer to that all important safety mark and a record 5th consecutive topflight season.

But if Albion are going to begin their push up the table in their quest for an established top half place, winning more of these games at home is the first place to start looking for progress. After picking up 3 wins in his first 6 home games as Albion manager, Graham Potter’s side have now managed just 4 wins and mustered 13 draws in the subsequent 29 home games.

Brighton v Everton (1924)

Brighton and Everton aren’t teams who’ve come up against each other much in their respective histories. Prior to Albion’s promotion in 2017, and aside from their other brief spell in the topflight between 1979 and 1983, you have to go back to 1924 when the sides had last met, in the second round of that years FA Cup. A game that saw one of Albion most famous victories prior to the Second World War.

Brighton had played their first season after the First World War in the Southern League in 1919/20 finishing 16th, before joining the expanded Football League with the rest of the Southern League’s best club’s for the 1920/21 season.

Charlie Webb, who had scored the winner in Brighton’s 1-0 1910 Charity Shield win over Aston Villa, had since retired and taken over as manager in 1919, a position he would hold until 1947. And his first task was rebuilding the team after the horrors of the First World War.

Webb was known for his shrewd transfers, but this was in part forced upon him due to circumstance because of a relatively limited budget at the club. Restrictions which at times during his tenure led to bad relations between him and the board, and which were made worse due to accusations of undue influence on team affairs.

Until the 1920’s, Football Managers had been little more than trainers who picked the side and did little to influence how they played. But this was the decade of the emergence of the modern manager, largely influenced by Herbert Chapman’s success with Huddersfield in the 1920s and later more notably at Arsenal in the 1930s.

However, at the time Everton were still managed by the club’s secretary manager Thomas McIntosh, and it wasn’t until Theo Kelly was appointed in 1939 that the club appointed their first manager in the modern sense. Whilst for Brighton, Charlie Webb oversaw a period of great modernisation in the role, but the tales of conflict suggest it wasn’t a quick transition.

Although consistently in the upper half of the Third Division South table, Albion’s chief successes during the 1920s and 1930s were in the F.A. Cup, with its first and one of its most notable giant-killing successes coming when they beat Everton 5-2 in the second round at the Goldstone Ground.

Albion had already knocked out higher ranked opposition at home in a first round replay in the form of Second Division Barnsley, and the visit of Everton brought a then record crowd of 27,450 to the Goldstone.

Everton were a regular in the top half of the First Division before the war, which they had already won twice. But the club’s performances since the end of the First World War and the resumption of the Football league had been inconsistent. Their 7th placed finish that season being one of their better seasons until the great Dixie Dean was signed from local Third Division North side Tranmere Rovers and transformed their fortunes.

Nonetheless they were strong favourites and named no less than six internationals in their line-up. So it was no surprise when they opened the scoring through John Cock and despite Tommy Cook quickly equalising the visitors were back in front through Wilfred Chadwick on 25 minutes. However, Albion were giving as good as they got and a Wally Little penalty made it 2-2 at half time.

After the break the game turned quickly in favour of the hosts as Albion dominated the second half. Tommy Cook scored two in the first twenty minutes to complete his hat trick, before Andy Neil made it 5-2 to add a bit of extra gloss on a magnificent result for the club. A display manager Charlie Webb described as “the best Cup exhibition of any Albion team under my management”.

The Sunday Post exclaimed: “Brighton surprise Everton.” Going into state that the result “was one of the biggest surprises of the round, but none would deny that it was deserved.”

The Liverpool Daily Post said “Brighton’s best were Wilson, at outside left, Nightingale, in the second half, at outside right, and Coomber [Albion’s captain], at centre half, together with the snap-chance artist Cook” The aforementioned Ernie “Tug” Wilson had joined the club in 1922 and spent twelve years with the club in the inter-war years going onto become Brighton’s record appearance holder with 566 appearances, a record he still holds.

And he wasn’t the only prospective club record holder playing that day. Albion’s hat-trick hero Tommy Cook would go onto become the club’s record goalscorer with 123 goals, once again a total yet to be beaten. He had joined the club on an amateur basis in 1921 and became a regular in the first team the following season. Part of the reason for Cook’s prolific record in front of goal was that this hat-trick was one of eight for the club, his first coming against Gillingham in only his third appearance, after which he never looked back until leaving the club in 1930.

Cook was described that day by the Sunday Post as “one of the most dangerous centres in England”. And despite playing for Albion in the regionalised third tier he went on to win an England cap, in a 2-1 win against Wales in a Home International in 1925. However, despite being praised he was never chosen again for his country.

The Liverpool Daily Post said of his performance that day “Cook did not stand out on his own in spite of his three goals. He just kept his position, kept the ball going, and shot instantly the chance showed itself. That was why Brighton scored so heavily.”

Albion went onto host another First Division team in the next round of the competition in Man City, but this proved one step too far as they were heavily beaten 5-1. They went on to finish 5th that season missing out on promotion to the Second Division by 8 points. And it would be another 34 years before they achieved their long awaited promotion into the second tier in 1958.

Everton and Brighton would have to wait 55 years before they met again, this time in the First Division, after Brighton were promoted into the topflight for the first time in their history.

Tribalism and half-and-half scarves

There can’t be many more annoying trivial discussions in football than all the faux outrage at half-and-half scarves. They have recently become common place at football stadiums around the country and many don’t like it.

As Evan Bartlett put it in the Independent “There is little else in modern football that draws as much ire as the half and half scarf: a piece of fabric bearing the emblems of rival teams, denigrated as the preserve of tourists and part-timers that no “proper” football fan would ever dream of wearing.”

Such was his distaste of half-and-half scarves, Dave Newbold created the protest company Half and Barf, which manufactures spoof half-and-half scarves mocking the concept, with scarves such as “Notts-Bovered” or “Sporting-No one”.

Newbold says the concept came to him as he says the scarves “always got on my wick”. Also saying he believes most are worn by “corporate Johnnies who are supporting no one and are just there for the freebie.”

There was further criticism of half-and-half scarves by Thom Gibbs, who wrote a piece in the Telegraph where he said that he thought that its rise in prominence was “a logical by-product of modern football”. He explained he thought that this was “because a great number of people were there just to experience English top-flight football… a half-and-half scarf says “I was there”. Merely being there, without proof, is an empty gesture in late capitalism. To just experience an event without also paying for something when there is an unconsummated relationship.”

This though is just the tip of the iceberg regarding half-and-half scarves, go online on any match day and you’re bound to see outrage at the sight of these things being sold. Even critic Dave Newbold says “It’s amazing how much vitriol you see online around them. But I’d rather make fun out of them than rant and rave.” However, many feel otherwise, and you will often see many calls to ban them, albeit with some of this being light-hearted.

But all this reasoning doesn’t explain the level of outrage that is directed towards half-and-half scarves. And the way I see it that level of outrage comes as a result of the culture within football in the UK of tribalism, with fans pressured into undying loyalty and a strong devotion to their chosen club. This means fans are often behaving in a way so as to be seen as a “proper” fan and gain a sense of authenticity amongst there peers.

Such loyalty to a fan’s chosen club means most importantly, to not support two teams. And in an article from the magazine When Saturday Comes about supporting two teams, Ed Wilson said “this one-eyed devotion to a single cause – beyond good sense and, sometimes, beyond even basic standards of decency – has acquired such weight as a measure of superior fandom that any deviation from its course represents something sinister.” This appears to be the generally required standard of behaviour for a football fan.

In contrast, in the book ‘Gullhanger’ (a must-read for any football fan) Mike Ward writes about his journey from a fan of giants of English football Arsenal to fan of the more modest Brighton, who were then playing in the even more modest Withdean Stadium.

He said: “I hope the club take the book in the right spirit. I do take the mickey because I think football deserves it sometimes. But ultimately it is an affectionate, upbeat, positive book.” But such was the books success that he was warmly welcomed by the club and its supporters and for a time was a part of the BBC Sussex radio coverage of Brighton’s matches. But often a story like his does not culminate in such a welcoming atmosphere, such is the seriousness which loyalty to your club is valued by other supporters.

This level of loyalty by supporters to their club has gone so far as to see any two clubs as completely contrasting entities. The guardian’s sports blog reasoned when discussing half-and-half scarves that: “A Venn diagram of Liverpool and Everton supporters would have a minuscule crossover.” But us football fans have much more that unites us than we realise. For instance, did you know many Liverpool and Everton fans live in the same city?

In fact us football fans have much more that unites us than divides us, after all the Merseyside Derby itself is known as the ‘friendly derby’. Long before many people in the country owned a car to enable them to support their team away from home, it was common place for football fans to attend one local team’s matches one week and another local team the next. Within my extended family I’ve heard stories of a great-grandfather attending Sheffield United one-week Sheffield Wednesday the next. And another grandfather who watched both Chelsea and Fulham on alternate weekends.

That said, tribalism in football isn’t new and in the UK it’s a trait that has created some of the fiercest and most entertaining rivalries in the game. But it’s this same tribalism that some have used to justify prejudiced behaviour in football stadium’s, prejudice of the type that those same people wouldn’t dare to justify outside of it. Too often a fans moral-perspective is hindered by their loyalty to their team with the culture of ‘he’s one of our own, he’s all-right’.

In fact, I’d say the outrage towards half-and-half scarves is sometimes akin to that of the level that is shown to incidents of prejudice in football, where in the cold light of day surely, we can all recognised that there is no comparison between the two.

And it’s not just prejudice, tribalism also in part gave way to the hooliganism that over-shadowed English football during the 70s and 80s. And it wasn’t just the traditional rivalries that saw this. During this period my club Brighton developed a particularly fierce rivalry with another not so local club, Crystal Palace. And whilst it is said to have been instigated by an infamous FA Cup tie and a personal rivalry between then managers Alan Mullery and Terry Venables dating back to their days as teammates at Tottenham, it is a rivalry that has perpetuated until this day, in no small part due to the constant violence and hatred between rival fans, simply for supporting the wrong team.

This rivalry isn’t for everyone. Former BBC Match of the Day presenter Des Lynham once said “Nothing irritates me more at home Albion matches than having to listen to that banal chant of ‘Stand up if you hate Palace’. Adding that, “hate has no place in football.” This was in 2012, so it’s safe to say that his calls for harmony were ignored and the rivalry continues as fierce as ever.

Whilst during a football World Cup all we hear about is the power of football and its ability to bring people together. Outside of it, it’s very good at separating us into individual groups of fans.

But football can also unite us outside of international tournaments, as the fan-organised protests at my club Brighton in the 90’s showed. The ‘Fans United’ game at home to Hartlepool in particular being an example of this where supporters of rival clubs from throughout the UK and beyond came to support the Albion fans fight to oust its owners.

Many football fans also have their own personal experiences of football being a uniting force rather than a dividing one. When I met my wife at university we forged a bond very quickly, in part through a shared love of football. And whilst not supporting the same team, football was a mutual interest that helped to create our lasting bond.

With her being a Chelsea fan and me a Brighton fan, our teams wouldn’t meet in a competitive game until 2017. And this is where I must put my cards on the table now, I own a half-and-half scarf. From Brighton’s visit to Stamford Bridge on that day, Boxing Day 2017.

I bought it as a souvenir, not as suggested earlier to avoid experiencing an event without also paying for something, but as a souvenir of a very special day. A day when the two teams that met were teams that my wife and I have special affection for. This wasn’t a match about tribal competitiveness, it was about two of the big passions in our lives coming together and the scarf was a way to remember that.

Half-and-half scarves were even discussed on BBC 5 Live’s 606 on Sunday 6th January and the presenter Alistair Bruce-Ball listed the only three occasions where he believes that it’s acceptable for you to buy a half-and-half scarf, which were:

  • A young fan attending his first game
  • A one-off occasion, if your team were playing in a game you won’t play in regularly, e.g. a smaller, lower league team playing away to one of the top sides in the country
  • Where your club is competing in a European game against an obscure team

I find this way of thinking depressingly narrow-minded, football means so much to people for many different reasons. Discouraging items like half-and-half scarves because of either loyalty to one club or by calling those buying them “corporate Johnnies”, just creates divisions in football that leads to bigger issues. It may appear like harmless fun, but this outrage and vitriol creates a culture of abuse and encourages the tribalism within football in the UK to perpetuate. The same tribalism which can lead to the problems that it in turn creates to therefore persist.