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.