Albion start the season with a familiar look, but a newfound vigour

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.

Progression vs Financial Sustainability

Following Brighton Mens team’s first ever top-half topflight finish last season, attentions have quickly turned to bettering that next season. Former Albion striker and current club ambassador Bobby Zamora recently said of the club’s prospects on TalkSport that “their aim next year has got to be Europe… There is not a year when they have gone backwards in the last five, ten years… As a club and where they are aiming to be, there has been a progression every year.”

Progression certainly has been the name of the game since Tony Bloom took ownership of the club in 2009. The previous season had seen one of the greatest relegation escapes in the club history as a run of five wins from their last seven overturned an eight point deficit to avoid relegation back to the fourth tier of English Football. The club even went into the final day of the season still needing points to be sure of safety.

But there was an instant upturn in fortunes when Tony Bloom took over, largely associated with the investment he provided to fund building the new stadium, which was opened two years later. After winning League One in 2011, the club were denied a return to the topflight just four years after Bloom took over, losing to Palace in that playoff semifinal. And despite then manager Gus Poyet saying that season was “now or never” for the club’s Premier League ambitions, and a further two playoff semifinal setbacks which followed, the club hasn’t looked back since.

But whilst it’s great talking about ambition and we’ve become accustomed to Albion’s aims of pushing on each season coming to fruition, fulfilling the club’s latest goal of establishing itself within the top half of the Premier League table, whilst working within their sustainable financial ambitions, will be tricky given how much the other Premier League clubs are spending.

If we look at the club’s finances, you can see that Albion have one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier League and a relatively low Wages/Turnover ratio of 72%.

Realistically, I think the club would need to increase their wage bill and up their Wages/Turnover ratio to over 80%, or about another £15m per season in wages to be able to meet those ambitions, which would help the club to keep its existing talent and add to it with additional quality. But that’s unlikely to fit within their important plans for financial sustainability.

The club managed to finish in the top half last season, but as have the likes of Burnley, Leeds and Sheffield United in recent seasons. And as their examples show, achieving that over a consistent period is far tougher and often takes serious investment. Investment of the level which I doubt the club is willing to meet, and for good reason.

The club hasn’t registered a profit since the financial year covering its first Premier League season, 2017/18 (it’s first since 1996/97, a financial result skewed following the sale of the Goldstone Ground), whilst Paul Barber has spoken publicly of the club’s financial target to be breaking even and decrease the reliance on owner Tony Bloom’s ever increasing loan to the club in order to make ends meet, a rather common-sense ambition you would think? But this is Professional Football we are talking about, an industry where common sense is often in short supply and where emotion and ambition often take over.

These financial targets will most likely instead require a reduction in costs, unless there is a significant increase in turnover. Particularly when you consider that in 2021, the club posted a whopping £53.4m loss (which was preceded by a £67.2m loss in 2020), admittedly exacerbated by the pandemic reducing some income sources. Plans to overturn a loss of this extent shows the club can’t expect to rely on additional income alone to achieve a break-even position.

That said, increases in prize money can help to fill that hole. Last season’s 9th place finish saw that increase by £27.5m to £135m. But, the club’s well-known generous performance related bonus structure will have eaten away at some of the additional revenue generated.

Paul Barber has also spoken about increasing other forms of revenue, with increases in revenue from player sales in particular being targeted. This can be seen most prominently with the recent sales of Yves Bissouma, Dan Burn and Ben White, which have all contributed to total player sales of around £100m over the past year, and will no doubt lead to a huge increase in profits from player sales compared to the £15m generated over the previous five years.

However, amounts spent on incoming transfers since promotion to the Premier League more than outweigh that amount and a significant portion of the increase in revenue will be earmarked for future purchases rather than just filling the hole in the bottom line. As Albion’s former Finance Director David Jones said to Andy Naylor for a piece in ‘The Athletic’ “going forward, to reduce the deficit, clearly, player trading needs to be part of the business.”

It is also important to point out here that whilst further increases in player sales could in theory fill the financial gap, it’s questionable whether selling your best players and replacing them on the cheap is a sustainable model to establish yourself in the top half of the Premier League.

As clubs like Southampton have shown, not really. In reality, you need more of a balance and to hold onto some of your best players, whilst replacing those that do leave ahead of time. As Brighton are finding out this summer, the higher you go up the Premier league table the more interest there is in your own players, and the more costly that replacement process becomes.

Ryan Adsett of ‘Seagulls Social’ said on Twitter recently that: “Think fans need to realise that Brighton are not what they once were. The high-quality links suggest we are aiming higher, and because we can now! To progress, the bar must be raised.”

Whilst I think he is right; the problem is I don’t think Albion’s financial model fits with the kind of signings some expect, and the signings that some transfer rumours have alluded to. In the Premier League, money ultimately talks.

So far Albion have managed to reduce their financial deficit and overcome their financial limitations with some smart player purchases. The 2021 accounts showed how transfer expenditure had increased since promotion to the Premier League, with the club now having spent £241m in the last 5 years, but which is still one of the lowest totals in the topflight. Further investment, particularly in attacking areas, will no doubt be required for the club to take that next step.

The issue is of course, that’s the most expensive area of the pitch to recruit for. Recent rumours have linked Brighton with the signing of former loan player Jesse Lingard, which would make sense, particularly with him being out of contract this summer meaning the club could arguably justify the higher wage demands due to a lack of transfer fee. A scenario not dissimilar to Albion’s signing of another former England international, Adam Lallana. But with the likes of West Ham and Newcastle also reportedly interested in Lingard, the prospective deal would be a difficult signing to pull off.

As the reported £41m spent on Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Jurgen Locadia, Florin Andone and Percy Tau is evidence of. You can’t always rely on big money transfer solving your problems.

The club’s other ploy in reducing player transfer spend is to purchase young attacking talent and develop them (via its academy and various loan spells) into the attacking talent the club requires, with this summer’s new signings Julio Enciso and Simon Adingra the latest additions to a long list of young attacking talent, all of whom have yet to reach fruition in terms of first team impact.

That model will probably be tested properly for the first time this season with some of Albion’s returning loanees expected to bolster the first team attacking numbers.

In a recent piece for ‘The Athletic’ Andy Naylor discussed our old favourite subject of taking chances as part of a piece on required areas of improvement, saying: “The additions of Undav, Mitoma and Enciso could help Potter’s side to both create more chances and score more goals.” And along with those three names there’s plenty more aside in terms of potential future attacking talent at the club.

But, whoever you pick off that growing list of names, it’s hard to find a player that you’d hang your hat on for the upcoming season, outside of Albion’s existing attackers. Time will tell if the likes of Sima, Ferguson and Zeqiri will become Albion first team regulars in the future. But the problem for the club in the meantime will be, if the likes of Maupay, Trossard and/or Welbeck leave, then they are relying on those others being ready (or in some cases even capable) of making the step up. The amount who weren’t even involved with the first team last season suggests that many are not. And if not, then an unavoidably large financial outlay would still be required to sign a necessarily established replacement and maintain the club’s level from last season in the short-term, which given the financial constraints is hard to see happening.

The South American football correspondent Tim Vickery has been full of praise for Albion’s transfer strategy of signing young (mostly South American, Vickery’s wheelhouse) talent with a view of developing them into future stars and selling them on at a huge profit, comparing this to the models established by Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto. A model recently seen most prominently with the purchases by Liverpool of Luis Diaz from Porto, and former Albion target Darwin Nunez from Benfica for a combined total of over £100m.

The difficulty Albion have in this area is twofold. Firstly, as the club’s fruitless pursuit of Darwin Nunez showed, their lack of European football makes the club less attractive to some players compared to other clubs from across the continent. And secondly signing younger players with the potential to have the first team impact means, particularly due to the rigours of the Premier League relative to the Portuguese Primeira Liga for example, these players will inevitably spend much of their initial time developing out on loan or on the fringes of the first team.

As the example of Ben White shows (admittedly a youth team product rather than a bought in talent), once Albion’s young talent is up to Premier League standard, if good enough, it won’t take long for them to be of interest to the top clubs, meaning they don’t stick around for long and so only have a short period of impact on the first team. A factor that again raises questions over this transfer strategies impact on the long-term sustainability of first team performance.

Some will say the example of Alexis Mac Allister tells a slightly different story, and that sustained and long-term first team impact is achievable with this approach. But of course, he isn’t primarily filling a position at the very top end of the pitch, being responsible for, as Graham Potter puts it, the hardest thing to do in football, score goals.

As Football finance expert and Albion fan Kieran Maguire spoke about in a recent article for ‘The Business Magazine’, Brighton have provided a financial model for Premier League survival, through expert oversight, cohesive management, a culture of steady, realistic improvement, and a healthy supportive atmosphere.

But to do more than just survive and achieve the club’s long term aim of establishing itself in the top half of the topflight, the club will have to continue to outsmart their opponents and find what Kieran calls “marginal gains”.

The club’s wage budget is currently in the bottom six, and with aims to balance the books at the club coming alongside a culture of spend, spend, spend among many of its Premier League competitors, it’s hard to see that changing.

The Premier League, financially at least, is the most competitive in the world. So, whilst ambitions of continuing to challenge for and become established amongst, the top ten remain,expectations on performance at the club will no doubt stay more grounded.

Whilst the progression has been the name of the game at the club since Tony Bloom became owner in 2009, probability is the likely trajectory of the club going forward could well be downwards from last season’s 9th place rather than upwards. And that relegation, or at least a relegation struggle is very likely in the near term.

There is some cynicism of the recent praise in the national media that both Graham Potter and the club has widely received for what these cynics see as fairly moderate achievements. But with the club’s financial limitations in mind, Albion continue to defy expectations and achieve progression beyond what many have deemed possible, time and time again.

If recent history shows us anything, it’s that Tony Bloom has built a structure and a financial model at the club which is giving the club an edge over its competition. Going forward as ambitions for further progress grows, the club wIll have to make some tough decisions as to how they balance those ambitions with the importance of the club’s financial sustainability.

Frustration and promise, with Albion set to break multiple records

Last weekends draw with Leeds in many ways reflected the story of the season for Graham Potter’s Brighton side. An impressive performance, being much the better team for the majority and yet coming away with less than they deserve.

Yet another draw that could and probably should have been a win. The 15th draw of the season, equalling a club topflight record from 1979/80. Not the club topflight record we were hoping to get on Sunday.

However, there is plenty reason to celebrate. As well as extending the club’s good run over Leeds, that could be the point that secures a record high topflight league finish for the club. And whilst the early season talk of European qualification soon petered out, results elsewhere also mean a win on the final day against West Ham would be enough for a top half finish. Which given our good record against them, is very possible.

Either way, it is also a point that gives Albion a total of 48 points, which as well as being a Premier League record, means they now have achieved their highest ever points per game average in a topflight season. Less than the 52 gained in 1981/82, but that was in a 42 game season.

And Albion’s good end of season is more than just positive for the sake of a few records and statistics. It gives a more positive glow on the season than there was just a month and a half ago when the club drew at home with bottom placed Norwich after a run of six straight defeats.

The subsequent introduction of Moises Caicedo in particular has been revolutionary, with Graham Potter even admitting he made a mistake in not giving him a chance earlier. A player whose presence has greatly diminished the panic surrounding the seemingly inevitable departure of Yves Bissouma this season and the long term injury to Jakub Moder.

Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck’s supreme leading of the line flanked by the ever-improving Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister have all meant even the seemingly endless panic surrounding Albion’s lack of depth up front has somewhat diminished.

However, it does raise other question marks. Particularly about the future of two young players in those areas of the squad, Steven Alzate and Aaron Connolly.

Both were introduced into the first team by Graham Potter back in 2019 and had meteoric rises to prominence, but have both since struggled to maintain that upward momentum.

Steven Alzate was signed from League 2 Leyton Orient in 2017 and loaned to League 2 Swindon in 2018. But soon after his first team debut the following year was called up to the Columbian national team, then ranked 10th in the world and soon became crucial to both his club and national team.

But his 9 appearances (including just 5 starts) in the Premier League this season is his lowest since his promotion to the first team and he subsequently wasn’t even named of the subs bench for Columbia’s World Cup qualifiers in March.

His former development teammate Aaron Connolly’s impressive home league debut, which saw him score twice against a desperately poor Tottenham side, also saw Connolly called up by his national team, Ireland. But he has also struggled to make a consistent impact for both club and country since, on the pitch at least. And even a loan period at Championship side Middlesbrough, where he scored just twice in 21 appearances, has seemingly failed to relight his promising career.

The momentum behind Connolly that saw him become one of the hottest youth properties in the country after an impressive 2018/19 season with Albion’s development team which saw him beat Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah to the Premier League 2 Player of the season award, has truly been halted.

But where some fail, others may prosper, and there are many other members of Albion’s loan army who will return this summer with renewed vigour after impressive seasons.

Arguably most notably is defender Jan Paul Van Hecke, who was named Blackburn Rovers player of the season, and returns south with his fellow Blackburn loanee Reda Khedra who has also shown plenty of promise. Meanwhile eyes will also be on Karou Mitoma, Kacper Kozlowski and the recently added Dennis Undav, whose joint part in the recent success of Tony Bloom’s Belgian side project USG has seen them all earmarked as possible Albion stars of the future.

And that selection of players is merely the tip of the iceberg when it come to potential first team additions next season from

the clubs bulging roster of existing options. As Graham Potter has shown in the past with the likes of Robert Sanchez, he isn’t afraid to pluck a player from obscurity to fill a first team place. So I won’t even try to cover all the bases.

Just seven weeks ago, Albion’s long list of out of contract first team players, both this and next summer, being coupled with their poor run of form was giving us Albion fans mounting concerns for next season. But, oh how a few wins can change your perspective. As the club has settled nicely into the calm of mid table obscurity with games to spare, this space has allowed for the opportunities of the future to come to the fore, of which there are many.

This is in great contrast to the club’s previous record high topflight finish of 13th in 1981/82.

Then Albion manager Mike Bailey, who’d only taken over from Alan Mullery at the begging of the season, had set the team up playing an uninspiring defensive style of football that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, including chairman Mike Bamber. And whilst it at first produced results, with a landmark 1-0 win at Anfield leaving the team 8th in the league, a subsequent run of ten defeats in the last 14 games of the season meant the club finished in 13th. 

After the slump at the end of the season and along with the negativity surrounding Bailey’s defensive tactics, the club started the following season in unsettled fashion. This wasn’t helped when club captain Steve Foster handed in a transfer request, telling the press at the time: “It just seems like the chairman doesn’t want to move forward.”

It’s fair to say that Bamber had a lot on his plate, with the club financially unstable and reportedly losing £6,000 a week, he needed to get people coming back through the turnstiles to turn the financial tide in danger of crashing against the club.

These were dark days in English football’s popularity and reputation and attendances were falling. Albion’s were no different, at times were falling under 10,000. As far as Bamber was concerned: “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football,” he said in August of that season.

The following season the club was relegated and after mounting debt from the excesses of those glory years, the club went on a downward spiral to almost falling out the football league and out of existence just over a decade later.

Recent examples of the likes of Leeds, who finished an impressive 9th last season gaining plenty of by plaudits, show us not to be complacent about Albion’s recent success. But we can also be glad of the comparatively vastly greater structural and financial stability at the club than in their previous topflight jaunt.

The modern reality of the club is very different. Yes this season has seen it’s fair share of frustration. But amongst all that frustration last weekend was another example of the best thing about this season from a Brighton perspective, how much scope for improvement there is despite being on the verge of a club record league finish.

And even if things on the pitch do take a turn for the worse, with the backing of Tony Bloom the club is in safe hands to be able to withstand a setback and come back fighting, unlike in the aftermath of the clubs previous record breaking league finish.

Progress under Potter yet to be seen at the AMEX

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.

Looking for the good amongst the frustration

As the final whistle blew on a cold spring afternoon at the AMEX stadium, the boos rang out across the South Downs. Boos heard from many of the remaining hardy souls who had braved the chill, not that of the spring breeze but that of Albion’s recent poor form.

There has been many voicing their frustration over the home support at the AMEX this season. But given the rudderless nature of Albion’s otherwise admirable attacking play for much of Graham Potter’s tenure, that so many still come to support the team with hope of better and are renewing their season tickets for next season despite the uninspiring nature of much of the football on show, actually in contrast says a lot about the dedicated supportiveness of the AMEX faithful.

Albion’s goalless draw with bottom side Norwich City extended the clubs winless run to 7 games and their scoreless home run to 5 games. 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.

Under Graham Potter Brighton have won just 12 home games out of 52 in the Premier League, still one less than under Hughton did in just 38 games.

For all the talk of progress, Graham Potter’s Albion statistics are in many aspects quite comparable to that of his predecessor, whose achievements he was brought in to build on and surpass. Albion have averaged a fairly measly 1.00 goals scored per game under Graham Potter in the Premier League at the AMEX, compared to 1.13 under the more defensive Chris Hughton.

And yet there has been tangible progress, particularly away from the AMEX where Albion have doubled their points return compared to that under Chris Hughton. Brighton won just 24 points from 38 games away from home under Hughton, 0.63 per game, vs the 58 from 52 games under Potter, or 1.12 points per game.

And despite all the frustration, the style of football and quality of possession from the team has noticeably changed for the better under Potter’s tenure as many statistics will tell you, aside from the ones that really count of course, goals scored, and points accumulated.

The frustration of the Hughton era hasn’t gone away, and if anything, this season has reached a new nadir in that regard. Despite some irritation towards this frustration, it’s not entirely unreasonable. According to whoscored.com Brighton have scored just three goals from open play at home in the league all season. That’s the equal lowest in all of England’s top four divisions along with Gillingham and is dramatically behind their average across their previous four Premier League seasons of 13.

Gloomy stuff, it seems like it was a long time ago that we were talking of top half finishes and dreaming of a European tour. The club right now is full of ambition, but at the moment there’s a growing feeling of unfulfilled ambition. A factor creating an environment of frustration, anxiety, and despondency. The perfect recipe for depression

But amongst all this gloom it’s worth remembering where the club is right now and comparing that not just to its entire history but particularly to where it was when Tony Bloom took over as Chairman back in 2009.

As a reminder, having narrowly survived relegation to the 4th tier on the last day of the season (by beating Stockport County 1-0, who by contrast are currently playing in the National League), Albion had finally got permission to build their new stadium in Falmer, but due to the global economic crash and credit crunch, they suddenly had no way of paying for it.

So, in stepped Tony Bloom and as the saying goes, the rest is history. Within two years the club were League One Champions and had moved into their brand spanking new stadium. Six years later they were a topflight club for the first time in 34 years.

What a whirlwind, in hindsight it was probably the best period to be an Albion fan in its history. That level of success, progression and excitement will probably never be matched again. The club literally went from living out of portacabins to being “Premier League ready” in just a matter of months, it truly was a dream come true.

So, it’s understandable that the subsequent and inevitable flatlining of that progress has led to significant frustration. Frustration that when comparing the team’s fortunes at home and away has clearly seeped into the teams’ performances at the AMEX.

To a degree it’s the natural process for many football clubs. Success and joy, followed by a natural flatlining and then subsequent regression back to the mean amongst an inevitable environment of frustration.

How many club’s supporters describe themselves as a “sleeping giant” with “lots of hidden potential”? I’d say a good chunk of the football league, but for every winner there must be a loser.

Despite this, in his relatively short time as chairman Tony Bloom has uncovered the potential in the club that had been hidden for most of the over a century worth of history prior to his ownership. It’s the type of story most clubs and fans dream of, we have lived that dream.

In 2013, less than two years after the AMEX had opened its doors, manager Gus Poyet said it was “now or never” for Albion to win Premier League promotion due to the effect of FFP on the Championship. But despite the club losing in the playoffs that season they continued to compete, losing again in the playoffs the season after that, and again two years later, before finally achieving automatic promotion to the topflight in 2017. It’s fair to say we’ve become accustomed to the club excelling our expectations. But that can’t always happen, and continuous progression is not sustainable, especially in such a competitive environment as the Premier League.

Frustration and feelings of gloom are a natural part of life, as it often has a habit of reminding us. But recent life experiences have made me realise that even in the most difficult times there is joy and hope and that we must appreciate that for all its worth. Otherwise, the bad can swallow you up and there can seem like no way out.

I’m not one of motivational quotes, but in the low times you’ll try whatever you can to achieve some solace. One quote that does help me on those occasions is: “life is full of beautiful possibilities”. The problem is we are often too concerned with the adverse possibilities to fully appreciate it when the beautiful possibilities come to fruition.

In that spirit (and I know it’s obvious and boring to say) we really should appreciate Albion being in the topflight whilst it lasts, because it won’t last forever. Tony Bloom is quite obviously a genius, but even his genius has its limitations.

Drab, uninspired and winless in eleven

What has happened to the team that were one win from going top not that long ago? It’s been just 8 points gained in the subsequent 11 games, a worrying run and one that has seen Albion progressively get worse in terms of its performances.

Wednesday night saw Brighton fall to a 1-0 loss to Wolves. As Brighton chased the game in the second half, they had 63% of the possession and didn’t even manage a shot on target. Whilst Wolves had three, despite just 37% possession and already having a one-goal lead. A sign of the lack of ingenuity shown from the team that night.

Brighton’s problem in the past hasn’t been creating chances, it’s been taking them. But in more recent games creating those chances seems to have become more of an issue, and compounding Albion’s existing problem of scoring goals.

Shots per game are marginally down this season to 11.9 from 12.8 last season, despite possession being significantly up from 50.7% to 56.8%.

The quality of those opportunities does also appear to have decreased marginally too, 37% of shots this season have been from outside the box, compared to 34% last season. Whilst only 4% of shots this season have been from inside the six-yard box compared to 6% last season. That may seem small, but small margins make all the difference in this game.

As a result, the goalscoring issue has not gone away this season, with Brighton scoring 14 goals in 16 games this season. And rather than improving on last season’s woeful goalscoring record, the stats suggest this is actually becoming more of an issue. With the chances created being less frequent and of a lower quality. All of which is compounding the existing issues of poor finishing.

Part of these issues in some recent matches can be put down to the injuries to key players. On Wednesday in particular, four further enforced changes were required to an already weakened team, with key figures Dunk, Duffy, Gross and Maupay not just dropping out of the starting eleven but the matchday squad entirely.

However, injuries will happen and injury crises like this will occasionally happen too. Nonetheless, this is an expensively assembled and talented Brighton squad that should be able to manage these type of situations. The 14 players who featured against Wolves were all senior first team professionals with varying amounts of topflight experience, this was not a group of development team players. So, I think we have good reason to still be incredibly disappointed with what we saw.

Following the boos after the draw at home to Leeds and audible frustration from the stands in recent home matches, something that goes back to even pre-pandemic times, Graham Potter asked for supporters to back the team ahead of the game. And whilst we didn’t get any boos at the final whistle, the combination of the number of empty seats, the number of early leavers and the audible frustration heard in many moments during the game showed his message hadn’t been taken on board by a significant number of the AMEX faithful.

Of course, the ongoing and fastly growing concerns over COVID-19 will have led to many of those absences, but the apathy felt by supporters shown in recent matches at the AMEX and the new season ticket sharing system will certainly have played its part.

I won’t go over old ground in that regard but will instead point you to a recent piece where I discuss this. However, I did hear some (including the person sat behind me) go in hard on the individual criticism, particularly towards Mwepu and Connolly who both struggled against Wolves.

But, in my view that’s not a fair reflection of the night given it was such a terrible all round team performance. One that was disjointed and lacking creativity, so blaming one or two individuals is missing the point.

This individual criticism is a further sign of how fractured and toxic our supporter base has become. And further evidence of the greater patience and understanding required at times by the AMEX faithful.

Let’s take Connolly as an example. Yes, he was poor and showed some petulance in the second half against Wolves. But he’s been out of contention for a while, has one brief decent substitute appearance against Southampton and then is thrown in from the start due to a lack of other options, against a team who defend deep and don’t particularly suit his skill set.

That’s not to say either player or the team don’t deserve criticism, they certainly do. But let’s be reasonable, rational, and proportional in the way in which we hand it out. Rather than shouting and screaming at them simply to release the frustration.

I thought Aaron Connolly’s slow walk off the pitch when he was substituted off in the 61st minute summed up the team’s performance as much as it did his own frustration and petulance, such a lack of urgency.

A performance summed up by not taking the opportunity to catch Wolves out of position on the few occasions that we could have done and instead slowly playing the ball sideways, waiting for an opportunity that wouldn’t come.

Maybe it’s revisionism, but I’m starting to think that it’s been like this, to an extent at least, for much of the season and all those late goals have masked some of these issues and given the team’s performances an rose tinted glow.

Six of Albion’s 14 goals in the Premier League this season have come in the last 15 minutes of games. Five in 13 if we ignore Mac Allister’s consolation goal against Man City. Either way it’s not far off half of the team’s league goals this season and led to 7 of the 20 points accumulated. Without those late goals that have at times masked poor performances, Albion would be just two points off the relegation zone.

One increasingly apparent fact is that the team haven’t won a game since Danny Welbeck’s injury. Demonstrating how having him up top alongside Neal Maupay gives the team a greater variety and menace going forward. Further backed up by only 7 goals being scored in the 11 games since. A further sign of the team’s lack of depth in attacking positions as much as Welbeck’s importance to it. Not having either against Wolves was a massive loss.

All making the lack of use of Alexis Mac Allister a little perplexing. Despite making 11 appearances in the league this season, including 2 goals and an assist, he’s started just twice. Particularly given he has shown himself to be a player who can both score goals and create chances. He’s accumulated a respectable 10 shot creating actions this season, or 2.77 per 90 and is a player with a fairly consistent rate of creativity, averaging 2.42 SCAs last season and 2.81 the season before. All the more impressive considering he’s rarely had a consistent run of games in the side.

All being said, it is good to remember that there are plenty of other teams with issues. And as the old saying goes: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The Premier League is tough, and the table shows Albion are doing ok despite their poor run and ongoing issues, sitting on 20 points after their first 16 games and 9 clear of the relegation zone.

Whilst we’ve not won in 11 matches, we’ve only lost 3 of those, one being against top of the table Man City. This Albion team may find it hard to score goals, but they don’t concede many either.

As a result, my glass is still very much half full. But Albion do need to eventually address the goalscoring issues and be careful not to fall behind the run rate required of points accumulated if they want to avoid getting themselves into another relegation dogfight.

The Boos are back in town

You will probably be aware that Albion’s last home game, a goalless draw with Leeds United, ended with a smattering of boos being heard coming from the home support, which has led to widespread discussions on the subject. But before we get into the weeds of the discussion I want to first take you back to February 2008.

Then Albion captain Nicky Forster urged Albion fans to stick with the team after the atmosphere around the club had diminished and recent crowd figures had dropped below 5,000, culminating in a then record League low at Withdean of 4,395 for a match against Cheltenham Town.

That day the crowd were unafraid in letting the team know of their frustration, until that is goals in the final minutes from Glenn Murray and Joel Lynch earned them a 2-1 victory. Us supporters are a fickle bunch.

Nonetheless, the season ultimately ended in frustration and disappointment with what many saw as an underwhelming, if respectable 7th place in League One. A position which saw the team just miss out on the promotion playoffs and the then Albion manager Dean Wilkins sacked.

That summer saw a hugely exciting appointment brought in with a view to get the crowds back and boost spirits. This came in the form of the return of former Albion manager and fan favourite Micky Adams, who returned to the club with a wave of optimism, talk of promotion and a host of new signings, but what followed was dramatically worse than what came before.

For those who don’t remember Adams’ legendary team of the early 2000’s, a modern equivalent would probably be Brighton getting relegated to the Championship and reappointing Gus Poyet. However, the season was nothing less than a disaster, with Adams’ job saved for a period only by sentimentality and a Football League Trophy cup run that saw the club only just miss out on a trip to Wembley after a penalty shootout defeat to Luton in the semifinals.  

Inevitably Micky was finally given his marching orders in February 2009 and the club would have fallen into League 2 weren’t it for the near miracle of a great escape from relegation that followed. An upturn in fortunes led by Adams’ less fashionable replacement Russell Slade, who had recently left Yeovil Town, after leading them to the League One playoff final two years before.

Back up to date, it’s been a week since the goalless draw with Leeds and I don’t think we should let the euphoria of the late equalisers against West Ham and Southampton that followed, or the teams impressive league position, paper over the cracks that have been shown in the fractious atmosphere at recent home matches. 

What we saw (and more importantly heard) at the AMEX after the draw with Leeds was not new. There is a significant amount of disgruntlement amongst a fair number of Brighton supporters, which has been growing for a while. Something anyone who follows the club on social media will be aware of that.

In Andy Naylor article for The Athletic following the Leeds game, he said the boos were “indicative of the way Potter has raised expectations.” But it is more than just the relative success under Graham Potter that has done this, the groundwork was being laid well before this success began. 

In fact, in one of Graham Potter’s first public outings as manager at the club’s fans forum in the summer of 2019, Albion Chairman Tony Bloom spoke with great enthusiasm about the club’s latest goal to establish itself as a top ten club in the topflight. Ambitious for a club that had finished 17th the season before, arguably only surviving relegation because of the incompetence of others around them. Even more ambitious for a club whose best topflight league finish is 13th, and that was in 1982.  

After a difficult second half of the 2018/19 season, disgruntlement amongst supporters had begun to grow. So much so that in his programme notes before the final game of the season the Deputy Chairman and CEO Paul Barber felt the need to remind everyone of the reality of the club’s status and how the survival from relegation that had been achieved should be seen as a success, saying: “we have only played six seasons in our 118-year history at the highest level.”… And yet the club still saw fit to relieve manager Chris Hughton of his duties the very next day. A decision that appeared to be pre-planned, but one that Hughton (among many others) seemed shocked and surprised by.

Whilst I cynically point out the contradiction, I do agree with the sentiments of Paul Barber’s statement, even if others at the club were less convinced as their actions suggest. Whilst it can be harmful to focus too much on your history, it is important to remember and learn from it.

For example, the demise that followed the club’s success in the late 70s and early 80s is an important reminder to not let opportunity and prosperity go to your head. And to always balance short-term opportunity with long-term security.

Back in the early Eighties, with dwindling crowds and mounting debt, the club were in a mess largely of its own making, even during that record breaking 1981/82 season. Owner Mike Bamber at numerous points during that period complained about the poor attendances and lack of support on the terraces that the club was receiving, no doubt in part because of the consequential hit to revenue. Saying in the summer of 1982: “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football.”

Soon after manager Mike Bailey was sacked in a bid to improve the team’s entertainment factor. And whilst Jimmy Melia certainly brought that with a team full of goals along with the fantastic FA cup run which saw the club get to the 1983 final, the club’s fortunes in the league severely suffered and relegation from the topflight followed. A relegation that it would take the club 34 years and three stadium moves to reverse.

Both the cases of reappointing Adams in 2008 and ousting Bailey in 1982, were in part examples of knee-jerk decisions made largely to win favour with supporters that ultimately cost Albion in terms of its performance.

In contrast the current management wouldn’t do anything as hasty. The decision to sack Hughton may have appeared so to outsiders, but it was clearly a pre-planned decision, one that subsequently has been proven to be wise. Tony Bloom later admitted that he was close to sacking Hughton earlier in the season, but held his nerve as he thought it may prove counterproductive at the time.

The ownership of the club in the 80’s was far less strategically minded and the subsequent loss the Goldstone Ground in 1997, the two exile years in Gillingham and the twelve limbo years at Withdean Stadium that followed are a constant reminder to appreciate what we have and to take nothing for granted. But also, a reminder of how far the club has progress in that time.

However, whilst all that is true, as Scott McCarthy of Wearebrighton.com pointed out in the Brighton & Hove independent, the club is not the same anymore and so should be judged on its current standing. Talking about Graham Potter’s wry comment after the draw with Leeds that he possibly ”needed a history lesson” to understand the boos from some supporters, Scott discussed how criticism should be viewed in its modern context. That we can’t simply say things have been worse and adding that “in the Albion’s case, that means the team would have to drop to 24th place in League Two before complaints could be justified.”

The difficulty the club has is whilst preaching solidarity and realism on one hand, it also preaches ambition and optimism on the other. As the sacking of Hughton shows, they are not afraid to be ruthless and unsentimental if they feel it’s in the club’s interest in terms of on-pitch outcomes.

So whilst I don’t agree with their argument, I can at least understand why many Albion fans find themselves frustrated at times. Particularly in that context with the club’s relative lack of haste in signing a striker, a position that the world and his wife have been telling the club to strengthen since promotion to the Premier League in 2017.  

Manager Graham Potter clearly recognises and senses the frustration. Saying in the week after the Leeds game: “I just think sometimes we need to communicate and say, ‘Can we be better?’ If we want to be a top-10 team, can we be a top-10 environment at the Amex? And that is why I said what I said after the game.”  

However, one thing the club does have is a top ten ticket price for supporters, having one of the most expensive season tickets outside of the “super six”. Demographics and relative size of stadium of course play a role here, as does demand for tickets (the club is always keen to highlight the size of its season ticket waiting list), but with bigger prices naturally comes bigger expectations.

If you spent more money on a TV and it was no better than your neighbours who’d spent half the price then you’d be pretty miffed I expect. And the bigger the expectations, the more likely you are to end up with disgruntled supporters, especially if you’ve spent the last few years talking about working towards a top ten league finish. 

Common sense tells us that disgruntled supporters don’t often create a constructive winning environment. And the lessons of Albion’s past tell us that the grass isn’t always greener, despite your existing frustration things can easily get worse.

But in 2021, Brighton are a very different club, with very different resources, different expectations, and a far greater level of support. A club that is competing, holding its own and aiming to progress at the very highest level. In truth, there are a fair longer list of reasons to take pride in the club and to be grateful of what we have but that doesn’t stop some from finding reasons to be frustrated, nor does it necessarily make them wholly unreasonable.

Take its resources into account for example. There is of course the absurd statistics about how Brighton’s transfer spend the summer before it began its first Premier League season in 2017 was more than in the entirety of transfer spend in all its prior history. Or that the number of TV viewers watching its first Premier League game at home to Man City was more than for all other TV games in the entirety of its history combined.

Brighton isn’t just a club with a new stadium going through a successful period. In many ways it’s virtually an entirely different club to the one it was prior to the decade spent at the AMEX.

The onus is on the club to use that success and create a constructive atmosphere in a way that wasn’t possible in the Withdean years or previously due to the club’s limited resources.

But instead, they have spent the past few years seemingly focusing harder on trying to increase as many commercial revenue streams as possible to enable further progression on the pitch, but has it come at a cost to the atmosphere?

In my view yes. So much so that sitting in the top half of the league with over a third of the season gone isn’t enough for some fans to placate their frustration of another goalless draw at home. Nonsensical to most, but infuriating enough for a significant amount to see for to boo the players off the pitch.

This is where the club is right now. But of course history shows us to a degree that supporters will always strive for success and during the difficult times frustration will naturally boil over in some form. It’s part of the fabric of football supporting.

But what has changed significantly is the supporter base at the club and how they interact with it. Most notably in the historical examples mentioned is the apathy when compared to the recent hostility seen at the AMEX.

In the Withdean years many in attendance were hardened souls who had helped to oust the previous ownership and felt a great sense of pride and ownership of the club’s very existence. Furthermore, football has changed greatly too and the type of sentimentality that Albion showed in decision making in the past, in part to keep supporters on side, simply won’t do any more. As Albion have shown themselves under Bloom’s ownership, to be successful you have to instead be pragmatic and sometimes make unpopular decisions.

But in order to go from a club attracting attendances of 5-6 thousand to a club regularly attracting over 30 thousand, you have to accept that means a large proportion of supporters don’t have the same investment or loyalty to the club. Mix that with the high cost of entry and no wonder you have a high degree of over expectant and hostile supporters less willing to easily accept every difficult decision the club sometimes has to make.

We now have a very different club and a very different supporter base with a much more varied range of connections and commitments to the club. Throwing around Withdean or older references in order to undermine the majority of supporters opinions who were not part of those days, is simply counterproductive.

Social media fan-led content providers like Seagulls Social, have a growing following of supporters, including many who are barely old enough to remember Albion playing at the Withdean let alone the Goldstone or Gillingham. Or even if they were simply weren’t interested… anyone who has sat in the cold and the rain at Withdean Stadium for two hours on a Saturday won’t blame them.

This doesn’t make these supporters opinions any less valid, but means their opinions have been shaped by a different, more consistently prosperous Brighton & Hove Albion than the one many of us remember. And with that success comes the expectation of more. Whereas supporters who were there for some of the more challenging times mentioned, will naturally be more cautious with their optimism. 

Like any large group of people, Brighton’s fan base is a coalition of a broad group of people, ideas, and attitudes. The bigger that grows, the broader that coalition becomes. And sometimes with growth can come cracks in the exterior and growing pains.  

The club’s role now is to show the kind of leadership that Nicky Forster did in the example shown at the start of the article and bring all those groups together. Rather than continuing to create an environment that focuses primarily on exploiting on field success for monetary gain above all else. After-all, Albion’s history suggests that the good times won’t last forever.

The club needs to start operating more as the kind of club it promotes itself as, a community club. If not, this chain of events will continue to slowly see its fan base pull each other apart during the less prosperous periods. Because when the hard times truly do come (inevitably sooner than we all expect) a united and supportive fan base could make all the difference.

More frustration as Albion’s lack of a killer touch cost them another win

It was another frustrating draw at the AMEX on Saturday for Albion, after what was a brilliant and entertaining performance with Lamptey and Trossard really impressing down the flank. But it was through the middle where Albion’s problems persisted.

Sometimes you have days like that where those chances just don’t go for you, unfortunately for Brighton it’s happened all too often over the past few Premier League seasons.

At the other end of the scale there is Jurgen Locadia. I don’t like to call players out too often, but what an awful performance. Possibly the worst I’ve seen from a senior, permanent Albion first team player.

In 22 minutes, he managed 5 touches, 1 pathetic shot, lost possession twice and was generally a waste of space… Can we finally give up on him now?

Before anyone tries to come to the defence of Jurgen Locadia, a reminder that the club reportedly paid PSV a transfer fee of £15m & subsequently have paid him a reported £45k a week salary for nearly 4 years.

The problem is Albion arguably don’t have the options to finally give up on him. Locadia’s appearance was just another sign of Albion problems up top. And that letting both Tau and Zeqiri go in the summer was a little reckless without a suitable replacement ready.

It may have also been a subtle message from Graham Potter to Paul Barber and Tony Bloom to try to convince them to get that striker deal done in January. But that would be a little cynical in my opinion.

There is also the fact that Evan Ferguson’s absence from the U23’s on Friday suggest he was seemingly in contention for a place in the first squad too and also a sign of the degree to which Aaron Connolly has fallen out of favour.

When you combine all that with Welbeck’s injury and Maupay’s sudden, repeated loss of form, it’s a crushing combination of factors in an area that was already an issue. And so it’s unsurprising that Albion have struggled for goals and wins of late.

Jokes about Xg underperformance and barn doors have become all too common place at Albion over Graham Potter’s tenure. Add to that the club’s seeming continued lack of hurry in their search of a striker who could solve this problem, along with the somewhat overly lenient refereeing on display at times on Saturday and you have a reasonable guess as why some Albion fans felt the need to boo at the final whistle, despite the obvious reasons not to.

Of course, when you look at the broader picture the boos at the final whistle were pretty embarrassing.

Given we ended the day 8th in the Premier League (5 places above the clubs best ever topflight finish), the club seem to have been proven right in thinking they could afford to be patient in getting the right striker in rather than just any available striker with topflight potential. We certainly can’t afford another flop like Locadia, as the drop in performance upon his introduction against Leeds proved.

As I said over the summer, we should trust the club with its transfer business, and I think that has broadly proven to be the case so far this season.

As I discussed over the summer, I suspect the theory behind Albion’s patience in their striker hunt is that scoring more goals from midfield could be the short-term solution to the sides goalscoring issue.

In particular, the recent signings of Moder and Mwepu are for me a clear sign of that, and the selection of Moder over Lallana against Leeds is a sign that the Pole is seen as one of the potential short-term goalscoring solutions.

But if Saturday is anything to go by that isn’t the case. During the 82 minutes he spent on the pitch against Leeds, Moder attempted 5 shots, none of which were on target. Taking his total in the league this season to 12 shots, 1 on target and 0 goals. Early days though.

Shane Duffy’s absence from 2 of the last 5 league games hasn’t helped either in my opinion. He has proven himself to be back to his best and is one of the team’s biggest threats in the box. Only Maupay and Trossard have a higher shots per game average (Duffy – 1.5), a fairly damning stat for many others in and of itself. Add to that his average of a goal every four shots, very good for a defender.

So, Albion’s search for a solution to their goalscoring issue continues. But whilst Maupay will get the brunt of the criticism after another goalless draw (criticism he somewhat deserves), it’s worth remembering that this is a problem throughout the squad, not just with one position or player.

Albion continue to prove their doubters wrong.

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.

Deadline Day Recap: How badly do Albion need a striker?

Based on what I’ve read on social media in recent days, some Brighton fans appear to have a great deal of animosity towards the club’s summer transfer business. So much so it has at times been akin to a bitterly scorned partner feeling like they got the worst end of a divorce settlement. If you aren’t aware this is mostly drawn from a frustration over the club’s failure to sign a new first team striker to give a boost to its goalscoring woes.

We were all pushed to the point of frustration at times last season as Albion missed chance after chance and let a number of potential victories slip away. But for some that frustration has turned to desperation. I’ve even seen some pleading for the club to sign the likes of free agent Daniel Sturridge, a player whose historic struggles with injuries are worse than even Danny Welbeck and who hasn’t played professionally since February 2020, when his contract at Turkish side Trabzonspor was terminated after he was banned for four months for breaching the FA’s betting rules.

That said I do understand the vast majority of people who are concerned about not adding additional quality to the attack. I’m not a huge fan of the way xG is often used to definitively analyse a team’s performance, but when you are consistently underperforming a statistic as much as Brighton did last season it clearly shows there is something not going right.

The absence of the arrival of a striker is not without effort. Many well sourced journalists have been reporting Albion’s attempts to sign a number of targets like Nico Gonzalez or Darwin Nunez, but unfortunately the deal couldn’t be done. If the right player was not available within the club’s budget, then so be it. Especially given its well documented financial difficulties in recent times combined with the absurd state of the transfer market at this moment, especially for Premier League clubs.

Ultimately, the club has to be run sustainably; we can’t keep expecting Uncle Tony to pay off the overdraft every year.

That said, despite criticism over the club loaning out younger talents and reducing the team’s numbers in attack, I don’t think that’s something we should be as concerned about. The reality is Albion tend to play with just one central striker and have three senior specialist options for that one position, which is more than for most other single positions in their system.

And if Graham Potter wants to play two up top then the likes of Gross, Trossard, MacAllister, Richards and Lallana have all played in varying forms of second striker roles. We may have less options in terms of the pure number of players, but are in a far better position in terms of versatility. Something that in my eyes more than compensates and better suits Graham Potter’s style of coaching.

Of course, his main striker will continue to be Neal Maupay. A player not in everyone’s list of favourite Albion players of all-time, but he’s started the season well and if he can improve on last season and hit double figures again that will go a long way towards helping the club achieve its goals.

For me, a key part of bringing in a new striker is can you also fit Maupay into the team. If not, you’re not only losing 20 of the team’s goals (more than 1 in 5) over the past two-and-a-bit seasons, but also a player who is key to the teams build up play. Put simply, when he is missing Albion struggle to create chances. So, you need a certain type of player that can play alongside him.

Maupay has come in for a lot of flak. As a part of their 2020/21 end of season reviews the Guardian were quite typical in the national press’ distain towards Albion’s top scorer. Going in hard on Neal Maupay by naming him as one of the “Flops of the season”.

Yes, he’s missed big chances and should probably have scored more goals in his time with the club, but if he was the perfect striker he wouldn’t be at Brighton.

It is also worth noting that he’s scored 24% (20) of Albion’s goals since joining the club, whilst taking around 20% of their shots. Maupay isn’t blameless, but Albion’s problems in front of goal don’t lie entirely with him. Others also need to step up to take the weight of expectation off of the Frenchman’s shoulders.

His fellow striker partner for some of last season Danny Welbeck showed a similar level of threat in and around the box at times, but injuries have held him back from getting a sustained run in the team. Something that forced him to miss the start of this season. However, he showed toward the back end of last season that if he remains fit, he is a top striker and a good back up option to Maupay should the Frenchman be unavailable or in need of a rest.

Then there’s youngster Aaron Connolly, who looks to be currently sitting third in the pecking order. I’ve written recently about how this season is a crucial one for his prospects with the club and it’s a shame Maupay had an injury scare the other week that led to Connolly being rested for the League Cup tie and so limited his game time so far this season to just that 45 minutes in the second half against Watford.

This showed in his performance against Portugal for Ireland the other night. It was a lively performance, where he again showed he’s a huge threat if given space to run in behind. And one where with better finishing he could have put Ireland out of sight, a feeling us Brighton fans know all about.

But as opposed to the scorn often thrown his way on social media, I have sympathy for Connolly and feel that with a bit of sustained game time under his belt he would have taken at least one of those chances. So, it’s odd that given the club’s tendency to send its young players out on loan, that Connolly hasn’t had another loan opportunity since he returned from that short and largely unsuccessful, injury-hit spell at Luton.

Some will question why we are even sending players like Andi Zequiri or deadline day signing Abdallah Sima out on loan at all rather than keeping them as a further back up options. But take Zeqiri as an example. He’s been at Albion for the best part of a year and has barely played.

I understand the will for the security that increased squad depth brings, but as the example of Connolly shows, what value to these players is there staying at the club and not playing when they can go out and play regular football at a very high level? Something that is vital at this stage in their careers.

The only big disappointment of all the outs for me was Percy Tau leaving, a player I thought could give us a different option in attack this season following his bedding-in period in the first half of 2021. But I can only assume given the pressure and expectations on him from his many followers from his home country of South Africa, that he felt he could no longer wait to earn the regular football that Graham Potter couldn’t assure him of.

With these options in mind and only one place to fight for, I do find all this panic a bit silly. If it gets desperate there’s always the option of playing the likes of Leandro Trossard through the middle too, something he’s done before. Or if Potter prefers, he could give one of the development team squad a run out.

This includes Evan Ferguson who made his Albion debut the other week in the League Cup against Cardiff. He may be just 16 years old but has scored 3 goals in 3 appearances in Premier League 2 this season and is probably being considered as an option of last resort.

Evan Ferguson is one to watch having signed from League of Ireland side Bohemians in January. It would be ahead of schedule if he was used, but he’s caught the eye with both the U18s & the U23s and was described by his old boss at Bohemians as “one of the country’s brightest prospects.”

Despite being so young and featuring for only part of last season, FB Ref ranked Evan Ferguson in the top 200 players to feature in last season’s Premier League 2 and is inside this season’s top 100 for the first few of rounds of fixtures this season.

Fans of Irish football will have been following Evan for a little while. He became the youngest player in Bohemian’s first team history, debuting at just 14-year-old vs Derry City in September 2019 having made a substitute appearance in a friendly vs Chelsea earlier that year. 

Evan has already represented Ireland at u17 level, was this week selected for the Ireland U21s and will no doubt hope to copy fellow Albion development team graduates Jayson Molumby & Aaron Connolly in representing the senior national team, which could be sooner rather than later if he continues on this rapid rise

One of the common themes among many of the players already discussed and that is being forgotten in all the Deadline Day lack of a striker panic, is that Albion’s transfer policy of buying young & investing in the academy builds in year-on-year improvement amongst the existing squad and the potential for replacements from the academy.

So, do Albion need a striker? I think I’ve demonstrated that there is a reasonable level of cover for what in reality is just one position in the starting eleven.

Yes, its arguably the most important one and there is a good argument to say that added quality would be beneficial. Unfortunately, despite efforts to add this quality, the deal seemingly couldn’t be done within the club’s budget, and we have to accept that unlike sides like Aston Villa or Everton, Albion are working under very different financial restraints.

The striker is the most expensive position in football, and for good reason as Graham Potter says himself, scoring goals is the hardest thing to achieve in football. But the club have taken a different approach to some in this area, buying a crop of young talented strikers and hoping they can improve into the players that the team requires in order to take it to the next level.

For that patience will be required and accepting that the frustrations in front of goal from last season may reoccur, if hopefully less frequently. But this is a team that is nonetheless in a good place to improve on last season’s performance and goals scored tally. For me, the biggest factor that may hold them back is our lack of belief in them. So as Micky Adams used to say, Keep The Faith.