Brighton’s season opening victory at the self-dubbed “Theatre of Dreams” was their first there in the club’s history, a remarkable day, and a piece of Albion history.
But not as remarkable a victory as it may first appear. This was actually Brighton’s 4th win over the Red Devils in the Premier League, the equal most wins by Brighton over any team in the Premier League, the others being Arsenal, Newcastle, Watford, and West Ham.
Leaving the only existing and continuous Premier League team that Brighton have failed to beat in a Premier League match as Chelsea, with Albion’s record against them currently standing as 4 draws, 6 defeats. No doubt a record Mr Potter will have an eye on, but that’s one for another day.
Pascal Gross got the much-deserved headlines for his two goals in an impressive performance, but one of the lesser spoken of elements from last weekend’s win was the impact of the lesser seen combination of Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana. Two players with histories of injury troubles that have limited their respective game time since joining the club in 2020.
Welbeck and Lallana played a total of 1,478 minutes and 1,561 minutes of Premier League football respectively last season, out of a total of 3,420. With their on-pitch minutes totalling a respective 1,545 and 1,596 during the previous 2020/21 Premier League season.
However, when they do play, particularly together, Albion are a better team. A fact demonstrated by their points per game averages from last season with only four Albion players averaging higher. (Points per game: Lallana 1.5, Welbeck 1.4, Brighton’s average 1.34)
Not that you’d realise it from the reaction on social media to Adam Lallana’s selection in the starting line-up. Criticism that would soon be made to look absurd and highlight just how undervalued the 34 times capped ex-England international really is amongst large portions of the club’s support.
The introduction of additional substitutions this season will give Graham Potter the flexibility to use Welbeck and Lallana in more games, whist potentially maintaining their limited number of minutes across the season, which could prove to be a huge bonus.
The reality is that as the season goes on, both Lallana and Welbeck will likely have to be used sparingly. Meaning the likes of their second half replacements Undav and Mwepu, alongside the likes of younger prospects Ferguson and Alzate, will all need to step up and fill the holes they have left.
One of the four players who did have a better points per game record last season was Moises Caicedo. Since he has come into the team for the win over Arsenal at the Emirates in April, Brighton have achieved a points per game average of 2.22. The equivalent of 84 points over a 38-game season, which would have secured 3rd place in the Premier League last season.
Even more astounding is that seven of those nine games were against teams who finished in the top half of the Premier League last season and included wins away to Arsenal, Spurs and wins both home and away against Man United.
If we include the goalless draw with Norwich at the beginning of April, that’s 21 points accumulated from the last ten matches, an astounding total, and a good enough sample size to suggests something has really clicked for Graham Potter’s side of late.
The bigger picture of course is that form is temporary, and class is permanent. Let’s not get carried away, Brighton aren’t in the same class as the teams competing at the top end of the table. Demonstrated by Albion’s club record breaking losing run in the topflight of six consecutive defeats falling immediately prior to this good run of form.
The remarkable thing about last season wasn’t just the terrible home form contrasting with the amazing away form, which we regularly discussed, but how relatively bad the results were against the teams at the bottom end of the table. That run of six straight defeats included a 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa and a 3-0 home defeat to eventually relegated Burnley, as well as a defeat away to next weekend’s opponents Newcastle.
In fact, of the eleven teams they finished above in the Premier League table last season, Albion beat just two at the AMEX, newly promoted Brentford as well as eventually relegated Watford, losing four and drawing the other five. If they are going to keep up the momentum and optimism from their recent good fortunes, that will have to change.
It wasn’t long ago Graham Potter was making a frustrated comment in a post-match press conference advising fans to take a history lesson in response to what he felt was an unfairly negative reaction to a goalless draw with Leeds.
The AMEX crowd has shown itself to be a harsh critic in recent seasons, and as Graham Potter admitted himself in an interview with the Athletic last season “reputations change quickly in football”. Keeping the home fans onside may not appear like a big job currently given the recent run of good form, but they’ve experienced a lot of frustration in recent years, and a few more results like the defeats to Villa and Burnley last season could quickly change perspectives.
As I have discussed before, if Graham Potter were managing one of the club’s Brighton are competing against with the same record, he would have been sacked a long time ago. But because the club see that the bigger picture, they afford him more leniency, and have so far been proven wholeheartedly right. But that’s not to say more frustration isn’t ahead.
As Talking Tactics said this week on Twitter, “I think it is important to point out that the board and fans allow Potter this freedom to experiment. He may get it wrong in some games, but it doesn’t really matter because he will learn from the defeat and adjust accordingly. That is a fantastic space in which to work.”
It comes down to your attitude to risk. The Premier League is such a huge financial behemoth that it makes many clubs primarily plan to minimise the risk of relegation, whereas Albion have shown themselves willing to take more risks if it increases their chance of victory.
In an interview with Melissa Reddy after the win over Man United, Adam Lallana spoke about the team having “a lot of courage” and “being brave”. Many teams of Brighton’s stature, particularly on opening day, would have gone to a place like Old Trafford to defend for a point, or minimising the scale of a potential defeat. Not Graham Potter’s Albion, and their resultant away record speaks for itself.
One much spoken about aspect that may count against Albion this season are the two key players the team lost over the summer in Bissouma and Cucurella. Players who as it stands will be replaced with a combination of promoted development team players and returning loan players.
Whilst much of the talk has been about how much Albion will miss Cucurella due to the lack of left sided defensive options, last season’s record suggests the loss of Bissouma shouldn’t be understated. They won just once without Bissouma starting last season in 13 Premier League matches, compared to 11 wins over the 25 Premier League matches he started in. Whilst the additions of Mwepu and Caicedo alongside the reinvigoration of Gross and Mac Allister in slightly different roles, appears to have given Albion’s midfield a new lease of life in these post-Bissouma times. We will have to wait and see if that materialises into sustained success across the season.
The lack of big-name replacements and additions to the squad may frustrate some supporters who are looking for some transfer window excitement, but it’s something we will have to get used to. As Paul Barber said at the recent fans’ forum, the club’s long-term strategy is to develop its own players and avoid paying big transfer fees in order to compete with the more financially replenished club’s.
As various reports have stated, the club may venture into the transfer market to buy a left-back, something the lack of a number 3 in the first team squad numbers hints to an intention towards. But with nearly £100m worth of player sales in one transfer window (and counting), you may get the impression that the club is going to splash some serious cash, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Some would say there is no excuse to not spend money. Well, how about £120m of cumulative losses from the last two reported financial years? Or that the club has only made a profit once since Tony Bloom took over as Chairman-Owner, whilst the club’s debt to him has steadily grown, and all whilst the club strives to become financially self-sufficient.
As I said in a recent piece on the club’s finances, their 2021 accounts showed transfer expenditure had increased significantly since promotion, with the club now having spent £241m in the last 5 years, but which is still one of the lowest totals in the topflight. Reflective of the stature of the club rather than its ambition.
Despite some high profile exits all the soundings from the club are that they are happy with what they have got, and happy with the model they are following. As Graham Potter said at last week’s fans forum “we have to find a strategy, we have to go on a path that won’t be straightforward. But if you believe in it enough and work hard enough, then I think you can achieve it…. I would never want to lower supporter’s expectations, you just hope they can see the bigger picture and the challenges that you have”.
This approach is relatively novel amongst the mostly big-name, big-spending reality of the Premier League transfer window. It is not without its risks, but with Tony Bloom steering the ship you know it will be a calculated risk backed up by reliable data and the brain power of the senior management at the club.
As strange as it may sound, Brighton will face tougher challenges as the season goes on than they did at Old Trafford last Sunday, as their squad depth is tested and as they look to overcome some of the issues they have faced at the AMEX in recent season.
But last weekend’s win over United showed that whilst Albion may be starting the season with a familiar look, there is a newfound vigour and a greater threat as a result. If the team can sustain this over a prolonged period and demonstrate it at the AMEX more often, continuing the success of last season is achievable despite the high-profile departures.