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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Gross at Left Back really such a crazy idea?

We are 45 mins into the new Premier League season and Graham Potter has already started receiving criticism for his team selections, so far so normal. However, after some changes at half time, a remarkable second half turnaround followed and many have subsequently claimed this as a Graham Potter tactical masterclass by the end of the 90 minutes.… really? I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to criticise Graham Potter’s team selection after a victory, but neither am I going to suggest he’s some kind of tactical genius after a comeback from near comprehensive defeat in the first half. The reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle.

It’s going to be a long season; 45 minutes shouldn’t be enough for us to class him totally right or totally wrong. This is all part of a bigger picture in terms of the process of management that is required at our club in order to succeed at the highest level.

I’ve seen a fair few people suggest Graham Potter was mad for playing a few players in less familiar positions on Saturday… because he has never done that successfully before?

Playing Pascal Gross at Left Back in the first half caused the largest consternation and proved to be a short-lived experiment. But was it really such an awful or unexpected selection?

Yes, it was unsuccessful, but we should also consider why he played Gross there before we all lose our minds after just over 1% of the season has passed.

Setting up against Burnley’s front 2 with a back 4 makes sense tactically and is something Potter has often done to match teams who play a 442, rather than use his favoured 352. Partly I assume, because of the well-known advantages down the flanks that a 442 has over it.

So, then you are looking for someone to play at Left Back, and we know we are short in that position, especially with Burn out injured and with Albion’s transfer target Cucurella not having been secured, in part due to his participation at the Olympics with the Spanish national football team. And I wouldn’t be surprised is the unexpected absence of Joel Veltman changed the plan too, a player who has filled in at Left Back and Left Wing Back in the past.

Then you’re left with the fringe and development players (those who haven’t already been sent out on loan that is). None of whom I would think would ideally want their debut to be away to Burnley on the first day of the season. Probably the most prominent of these options is Michal Karbownik, young, inexperienced, and yet to make a Premier League appearance. I can understand Potter’s hesitation in using him, but his inclusion on the bench suggests Potter wanted him available as a backup just in case.

So, then you’re looking at other options, those to be played out of position. And you’re looking at players with a degree of positional intelligence and versatility. For this you need look no further than Pascal Gross.

A huge part of Potter’s coaching since he arrived at the club has been the requirement asked of his squad for adaptability. In particular the likes of Pascal Gross and Steven Alzate, who have both been asked to play in a number of less familiar positions during that time, just as they were on Saturday.

Last season Gross played in most areas of the pitch, including at one point playing a run of games at Right Wing Back, so you can understand why Potter would turn to him as an auxiliary option in this area of the pitch.

Ultimately, Potter took a few risks in his team selection, sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But it’s taking those kinds of risks and being slightly unconventional that makes him the coach that he is.

For example, playing Solly March at Left Wing Back or Dan Burn at Left Back were similar risks in that area of the pitch which paid off. And helped both players go from fringe players who were being spoken of having possible exits, to crucial members of Albion’s squad over the past two seasons. Unlikely turnarounds seem to be the mark of the Potter era in change of the first team.

I suspect this higher level of tolerance to taking risks and trust in his players are also part of the reason why the club appointed him. The club has long realised it isn’t likely to succeed by fortitude alone and needs to out-think other clubs in various ways, not just on the pitch each Saturday afternoon.

This goes back to examples like the investment in the academy and the recruitment team back in the Championship days. This isn’t all about Graham Potter after all, it’s about the club as a whole, and the culture it is trying (and successful achieving) to implement across the entire club.

This culture goes right to the top, with Tony Bloom’s wealth originating from the gambling industry. As Sam Cunningham described in an interview with Bloom for the Daily Mail, “Bloom talks — and thinks — in edges and gains, in fortune and favour. He pauses before answering questions, always calculating.”

Tony Bloom is a discreet person, but is widely considered to be a risk-taker by nature, but a calculated risk-taker. By all accounts this appears to have been where Bloom and Potter’s predecessor Chris Hughton didn’t quite see eye to eye, particularly in terms of recruitment. Bloom knows what he wants and is willing to change if he’s sure it’s necessary.

No matter what I say, I’m sure us football supporters will continue to critique Graham Potter’s team selections, like some kind of annoying backseat driver. Particularly every time something goes wrong. And that’s ok to a degree, no one is exempt from criticism and all supporters, particularly those who’ve invested years of their time and money into following the club, deserve their opinion to be listened to.

But we also need to consider the wider context of the decisions that are being made and the thought-process behind them before we throw criticism towards senior management at the club, especially the highly scrutinised Graham Potter.

Some have likened Graham Potter’s team selections to a Roulette Wheel, but in line with the culture set down by owner Tony Bloom it is less Graham Potter’s Tactics Roulette and more Graham Potter’s Tactics Poker. This is not a random spin of the wheel, but a calculated gamble based on the limited number of cards he has in his hand. And just as in a poker game it isn’t all about one hand, in a football season is not all about one game. Sometimes you have to accept a beating for the better of your chances in the longer-term.

Risk taking of the type which saw Pascal Gross start at Left back on Saturday are part of the modern culture that the club continues to practice and will likely continue despite both the extreme disapproval of many supporters when experiments like this go wrong or the extreme praise when they work.

Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But as they say, don’t trust anyone who hasn’t failed.

Brighton Premier League Season preview – do Albion already have the solutions to their goalscoring issue?

Albion approach a ground-breaking fifth consecutive topflight season amongst an air of frustration. Expectations are arguably higher than ever, but the lack of a new striker being signed has caused some concern, whilst a 2-0 defeat to Getafe in the now traditional final friendly of pre-season at home piling on further concern.

Concerns can quickly lead to complaints and pressure being heaped on the club and the manager. But I suspect how quickly that pressure begins to mount if the season starts slowly will depend on what business the club does between now and the end of the transfer window.

If the squad stays as it is, I doubt Graham Potter will be under pressure from the board to achieve much more than a similar performance and league position to its previous two seasons, but if the club gets a few more big signings in, particularly that highly coveted striker, then expectations will markedly rise.

But that is something which could be a double-edged sword. Realistically even if Albion do sign their reported number one target in Darwin Nunez, he’s unlikely to have much impact in their first half of the season given that he is currently out injured and when back will require some initial adaptation time. More likely is that this Albion team are where they were last season.

There has been some talk, including from Albion players, of aiming for a top half finish, but to me this feels like classic over-optimistic pre-season talk.

Anyone who has read the magazine “When Saturday Comes” will be familiar with its pre-season preview supplement with sections written by a fan of each Premier and Football League club. And will also be aware that rarely to supporters predict the type of 15th – 17th placed finish for their club that Albion have achieved in each of their past four Premier League seasons.

So, Albion currently we enter this fifth consecutive Premier League Season with a sense of Deja Vu, as yet again it begins with high expectations mixed with a sense of panic over the club’s lack of a new striker so far in the summer transfer window.

I am sure the club realise the value to the squad of adding another striker could bring to it, particularly a proven goalscorer. But it’s not as simple as just going to the supermarket and buying whatever it needs, just as so many of the ventures into the market for a striker show down the years.

Add to that the fact that most teams are looking for the same thing and it makes for a small group of highly sought-after players pushing prices to an at times eye-watering level.

There are very few players outside the top six teams that score 15 or more goals in a league season, players like that are hard to find and often the players that do are the anomalies rather than the norm.

For example, Danny Ings, who’s recent £25m move to Villa raised some eyebrows, has actually only done it just once, with injuries and form halting further profligate seasons.

Meanwhile last season’s breakout star Patrick Bamford plays in a team at Leeds United that are an outlier in terms of their style of play, creating and missing lots of chances, whilst giving away plenty at the other end. Being able to afford to do so in part, because of manager Bielsa’s well-known high expectations over his team’s highly intense working rate.

Whilst the likes of Jamie Vardy, who has turned down at least one opportunity to move to a top six club, and Raul Jimenez, signed by Wolves for £34m in 2019 (a fee then beyond most teams outside the top six, let alone a newly promoted club), are outliers in terms the quality of strikers seen at lower ranked Premier League sides.

Moreover, the example of Christian Benteke at Palace shows that a high fee and wage package along with short term success, doesn’t always lead to long term profligacy in front of goal. After signing on an initial four-year deal and scoring 15 goals in this first season for a fee of £28m in 2016, he has since scored just 16 goals in 101 appearances over the subsequent four subsequent seasons.

Rather than it being the case that spending £30m-£40m on a striker is always the solution to a goalscoring issue, examples like Benteke show that lower ranked teams and player more often than not tend to struggle to score goals either way. And it can work against you in the long run, leaving a player draining wages and stunting potential for improvement.

The average goals scored in a season by a bottom half Premier League team that has survived relegation over the last four seasons totalled 44, only four more than Brighton’s total of 40 last season. Something which was more than compensated at the back with Albion conceding just 46 goals last season compared to the 59 goals conceded on average by bottom half Premier League teams that have survived relegation over the last four seasons.

Instead, Brighton’s issue over the last season or two was more about the key moments in games too often going against them, with the team’s lack of experience often counting against it. Whether that was dropping points through late goals conceded like at home to Man United, Palace or Leicester, or whether it was key missed chances like the two penalties missed against West Brom.

In fact, it’s when in front that Albion have proved their most wasteful at both ends of the pitch, with the 25 points it dropped from winning positions being the most in the Premier League last season.

Ill-discipline comes into this too. Since being promoted to the Premier League Albion have led the way in terms of two statistics, own goals, and red cards. Red cards in particular is a worrying issue, with 14 being racked up to date, three of which coming from the club captain and talisman Lewis Dunk. The latest coming away at Wolves toward the end of last season where Albion threw away a 1-0 lead, ultimately ending with a 2-1 defeat after Dunk was sent off with Albion in the lead. An example of where their ill-discipline has cost them a lead and three potentially crucial points.

This is of course to be overly harsh on Lewis Dunk, who for a long time has been the club’s most reliable and consistent performer. A player whom without Albion would not be in the topflight. But it shows that at times we can over emphasise one issue over others and forget that even our better player make big, costly mistakes.

Nonetheless, missing goalscoring chances is clearly a big part of that conundrum and whilst I don’t think we’ve ever fully solved the issue in that area, we are now in our fifth straight Premier League season. An achievement that slightly undermines the “we need a striker” cause as it also now enters its fifth summer.

Would a 10-15 goal a season striker improve the team? Probably. Do we “need” one? No.

Yes, all the stats show Brighton don’t take as many of their goalscoring chances as they should. But assuming that one player coming in solves that issue is simply naive. Top half teams have multiple regular goal-scorers. Whereas Albion only really have Maupay. That’s the bigger issue.

In his first season Maupay looked like a player who was rough around the edges, but hungry for more and bursting with potential. But in his second he more often looked like he had the world on his shoulders, and no wonder given the poor finishing of most of his teammates.

People focus on the team’s and more specifically Neal Maupay’s underperformance against the expected goals statistic (xG), but this only really tells you part of the goalscoring tale. For a player like Maupay to have a high xG even if he underperforms against it, he needs to have the intelligence and execution in terms of movement and positioning to be in the right positions at the right time to earn those chance. Something that xG doesn’t measure and us average supporters under-appreciate, because we are too busy watching the ball.

As the past examples above show, even if Albion had scored more goals, can you rely on this team to hold onto those all leads? Probably not. So £30m-£40m on what could be a nil-sum gain is a huge financial risk for the club to take on, especially after such an unexpectedly difficult period financially.

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 18 of the team’s goals (more than 1 in 5) over the past two 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.

Albion’s end of season win over Man City is the exception to this, but City were down to 10 men for most of a game which for them was meaningless, making it a difficult situation to draw definitive conclusions from.

The other four games that Albion played without Maupay last season (Fulham away, Spurs away, West Ham home and Arsenal away) saw the team struggle going forward. In all those 4 games the team created less shots (average across those 4 games was 7.5 shots pg) than the season average shots per game (12.8), scoring just twice (half their average goals per game rate).

So, a new striker is not without its trade-offs and its potential to unbalance a team that is making great strides forward in so many areas of the pitch. So, to sign a striker to replace Maupay or anyone else, it needs to be the right player not just any old striker.

As I said at the end of last season, if we look at two teams Albion have been competing with in previous seasons that managed to lift themselves up the division last season, Aston Villa and West Ham, neither had one player on 15 goals, let’s alone 20. Instead, they had multiple goalscorers on smaller tallies, for Albion its really only Maupay. Others need to step up to take the pressure and attention off his shoulders.

It maybe that Albion already have the answers to its goalscoring problems in its midfield. If Lallana can stay fit, he has the potential to add to his goal tally of one last season. Whilst the recently added Moder and Mwepu both look like having the potential of adding goals to Albion’s midfield where others have failed to do so.

Whilst admittedly in lower standard divisions, both Mwepu and Moder scored at a high rate for their old clubs, with Moder averaging 0.3 goals per 90 and Mwepu averaging 0.22 goals per 90 in their last seasons with their previous clubs. Managing even half that rate would put them ahead of pretty much all of Albion’s misfiring midfield.

To their credit, this team tends to control more games it plays in than it doesn’t. Whilst it could have achieved more over the past two seasons with a bit better execution and decision making in both boxes, the 14 draws achieved in both of Graham Potter’s two Premier League seasons in charge at Albion show that he has made this team harder to beat whilst playing far more on the front foot, a feat that shouldn’t be undervalued.

A big part of that is how he has evolved the defence. With the signings of Adam Webster and Joel Veltman two example of how that has been achieved, by providing Albion’s back line with more capability with the ball rather than being more comfortable without it as it was under Hughton’s reign.

Ben White’s sale to Arsenal is a loss but given the depth of Albion’s squad in that area they should be able to cope without a drop in performance levels, especially given the return of Shane Duffy adding competition for places.

It may be that Duffy still leaves before the end of the window, but following his challenging exploits at Celtic I wouldn’t be surprised if he was now more willing to settle for a role as back up rather than fly the nest in search of a regular first team place. As I said last January, despite having his critics he has plenty still to offer this Albion team. His experience and know-how could be just what Albion need to resolve some off the issues it has had in throwing away leads last season.

Going into the new season with what is currently largely the same squad and front line as last season, may underwhelm some who see greater potential in this team than has been achieved over the past four seasons. But as comparisons to the teams around them show, their struggles in front of goal are far from a novel issue nor an easy one to solve.

What Brighton do have is a team packed full of talent and potential, one that has a growing amount of experience and belief in itself at this level and a coach at its head that has the ability to get the best out of it. A mix that makes for one of the most exciting seasons in the club’s history.

Finding a purpose

It’s been an odd season and one where the very purpose of football has been questioned in the light of the restrictions that have been placed on all of our liberties in order to protect public health.

As the Pandemic surged over the winter, football persevered, despite many, including the manager of the ultimately relegated West Bromwich Albion – Sam Allardyce, calling for the season to be halted.

But the season continued, initially amongst a succession of postponements due to Covid outbreaks at various clubs, and this Sunday we now find ourselves at the final round of matches after a season like no other. One that many of us will be glad to see the back of.

For Brighton it’s been an odd season on the pitch too, one that has constantly promised so much improvement, but one that as we go into the final day will most likely be delivering another 15th-17th league position finish.

Let’s not pretend survival is anything other than a success for Albion. But for the first time there is genuine reason to believe, barring a disaster of a summer transfer window, that this Albion team can push on next season. It has so much potential.

For all teams outside the established seven topflight clubs, at the beginning of a new season relegation is a very realistic possibility. But for Albion it feels like loftier ambitions than just surviving are now too a very realistic possibility.

Over the last two seasons, Graham Potter’s management has improved performances at the Albion markedly, but it is yet to achieve a consistent improvement in results and lift the team up the table towards its long term goal of established top half status.

But, whereas in previous seasons we’ve just been grateful to not be in the bottom three, this season that feeling is mixed with an increased frustration not to be higher up the league table.

Most prominently this season leaves me with a feeling of what if and not just because of all the missed goalscoring opportunities that we’ve all ranted and raved about throughout the season, but also because of Albion’s inability to hold onto a lead.

In fact Albion have led in 19 of their 37 games so far this season, but won just 9 times (as many as they won in each of their last three Premier League seasons) and dropped 25 points from winning positions, the most in the Premier League this season. And those matches don’t include a further 9 draws, many of which could have been turned into victories with better finishing. And you can add to that a fair few additional hard luck stories like the last minute winner conceded at home to Palace or the two penalties missed in the 1-0 away defeat to West Brom. I could go on…

And yet amongst the difficulties, Albion are clearly making progress. They currently hold the longest run of any team in the top two divisions without losing a game by more than one goal (28 matches). Manchester City (17) and West Ham (17) are the next nearest Premier League sides to that current streak. Chris Hughton always used to say that at 2-0 down you are still in the game, but at 1-0 you are just a moment of magic away from improving your outcomes and with it your league position.

Yes there are big issues to resolve, but there are far more positives than negatives to take from this season. In particular having a manager in charge of the club of such increasing renown as Graham Potter.

He said recently of Albion’s difficulties in front of goal. “As a coach, my number one business is to try to help the players that we’ve got to improve and that’s always where I’ll look to start. Then, as with everything, we want to try and get better, so we have to think about what we need to do to get better, but firstly it’s about improving the players we have here.”

It’s encouraging to have a manager who puts such faith in his players. This is in contrast to many other Premier League managers who are quick to talk down and criticise their players in search for an excuse to hide behind when things go wrong. This includes Scott Parker of Fulham, who has regularly publicly criticised his players this season. So it should come as no surprise that by the end of it many of them looked like they had completely lost all confidence. In contrast Graham Potter has shown great leadership this season and this has no doubt played a huge part in Albion’s survival.

Pablo Picasso once said “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Football is often an industry focused purely on results rather than the bigger picture. But listening to Graham Potter this season gives me belief that at Albion there is a bigger goal than that, creating a football team that we all can be proud of.

In a year where mental health discussions and awareness have become more prominent. I’ve had my own struggles due to personal problems and for me football has often offered a salvation from the difficulties of everyday life. Something positive to focus on and to help punctuate the gloom.

Life throws up obstacles and challenges, it rarely goes as planned and most of us go out of our way to ensure no one knows we are struggling. Empathy and thoughtfulness for others are priceless qualities that can go a long way. Graham Potter has shown in the way he has carefully and consistently defended his player that he has this in bucketloads.

In football, as in life, when someone wins someone else has to lose. So creating an identity purely around winning is always likely to lead to an identity crisis, as the recent history of clubs like Arsenal show us. An identity crisis heightened by the recent bid to join a breakaway European Super League.

In a society that feels ever more fractured and divided, the global pandemic came at a difficult time and heightened those feelings. And as our communities were closed down we became more isolated and as a society we became increasingly divided. So moments like the return of supporters to the AMEX this week for the game against Man City are so important in rebuilding those communities in a (hopefully) post-pandemic society.

In the days leading up the game I thought it would feel poignant to be at the AMEX again after over a year away, but it was in fact more like pulling on a comfy pair of slippers you’d had stuck at the back of the cupboard over the summer. Throughout the evening I felt a heightened sense of excitement and joy. Even when Albion went 2-0 down and looked to be heading towards certain defeat I couldn’t help but continue to smile.

Being part of a community of fans that brings such joy for something that is in reality quite trivial, is a reminder that together we are all stronger.

Many will depict this season as one of missed opportunities. Both on the pitch for Albion and off the pitch for us supporters who have gone so long without our matchdays. But it has also been an opportunity to assess, and if the match against Man City is anything to go by, I think we will be making the most of things from now on.

Yet another Albion home draw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhausted by xG?

An economics professor at my university once stated in a lecture that “economic forecasts are only right half of the time, so we may as well just flip a coin!” Whilst this was a throw away comment meant not to be taken particularly seriously, the comparison between complex statistical models used to measure probability and pure chance is a compelling one and one that I often think back to when I see statistics used in such a definitive way as they have often been to analyse Albion’s Premier League woes this season.

Albion’s season is one where the narrative has become overwhelmed by one particular complex statistical model. xG, A model used to show the expected goals scored by each team, but one that has often not been matched by the end result in Albion matches this season. There have been multiple games that xG predicted that an Albion victory was most probable, but which wasn’t achieved. Mostly because of so many missed goalscoring opportunities and a fair amount of sloppy goals given away at the other end.

This was most dramatically highlighted in Albion’s home defeat to rivals Crystal Palace who beat Albion 2-1 after managing just 3 shots, 2 of which were on target, compared to Brighton’s 25 shots yielding just one goal. That this defeat was then followed up with a defeat to West Brom where Brighton missed 2 penalties and a host of other guilt edged chances after their opponents scored early on from a corner, one of only two shots they managed on target, only increased the attention on Brighton’s misfiring strikers.

Furthermore, Brighton have had an xG advantage over their opponents of more than 1 expected goal 7 times this season, but have only beaten their fellow relegation strugglers Newcastle (twice) by a winning margin of more than one goal. The numbers tell a clear story, Albion have underperformed in front of goal this season.

We could pull these kinds of stats out about many more of Brighton’s games this season till we are blue in the face. But I’ll stop there because you’ve probably read this kind of stuff a number of times before. And yet it keeps getting discussed, mainly because it’s an easy explanation as to why Brighton have looked so good during much of the season, yet this isn’t reflected in the league table

However, despite Albion’s lack of clinical edge in front of goal, goalscoring isn’t actually a massive issue relative to its nearest rivals. After 29 games plays Brighton had the second best goal difference, had scored the third most, conceded the least and lost the least times of all the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table.

But whilst these stats highlight some positives and improvements in Albion’s play, it is not being seen in an improvement in points gained and league position. Despite xG suggesting Albion have been better than they have managed to achieve in terms of results, they remain in their common Premier League standing just above the league’s bottom three. So the consistent and dramatic deficiency when compared to XG is raising some eyebrows, but possibly points to a deficiencies in the model itself.

We could go into detail about the ins and out of the model itself, but I don’t know how much value that would have. But in general I think that Albion are showing up the flaws of placing a lot of merit in a weighted probability model such as xG to measure the likelihood of goals being scored in a low scoring game such as football. And to a degree the weight we place on statistics generally in football.

We can all get pulled in by data analysis at times, especially when they argue for a point that we believe to be true. The increase in the use of statistics and analytics has helped us to understand the game in ways we previously didn’t. But they don’t often tell you the full story of an event, or the full reasons as for why a team dominates a particular game or a particular period of play. Maybe an early goal, an in-game injury, a number of minor tactical shifts, physical conditions or the connotations a certain result has on their league position, or simply individual errors makes a team change its approach. There are many things these generic weighted probability models simply don’t account for.

For Albion, their accumulated xG performance after 29 games puts them better off than Man United and West Ham and 4th in the xG table. In reality they are 22 points and 12 league places worse off. However only five of the 20 Premier League teams sit in their xG projected position, with 9 more than 2 positions different than this projection. Including Everton, who according to xG would sit 17th rather than their existing 8th position.

So it’s not just Albion’s whose variation compared to xG is far from accurate. But many have taken these statistical anomalies and run with them. Some have said that simply if Albion signed a £40/50m striker then they would start taking those chances and qualify for Europe, which is a huge simplification. Especially considering Albion have thrown away 17 points from winning positions this season. Albion’s problems go much further than simply not scoring enough goals.

In reality Brighton have constraints in terms of their aspirations. In particular its wage bill, which has consistently been one of the lowest in the league during its time in the topflight and yet they have spent most of their time at the top level out of the relegation zone and are not far from securing a club record fifth consecutive topflight season. Focusing on individual statistics like xG can at times mask the bigger picture. One which shows in reality Albion and Everton are probably about where they should expect to be rather than at opposite ends of the table.

Whatever the opinion, statistics don’t tell you how to solve a problem, at best they tell you how it was created. And that’s only if they data has been collected and analysed accurately and is then interpreted correctly. Much of which leads into areas of judgement and subjectivity rather than fact.

The solutions for these problems the data highlights are created by the experts. The creative minds like Graham Potter and his regular tactical switches. Minds that most football fans deep down wish they could pit their wits against, but in reality are greatly inferior to in this context.

Football is a game of opinions, not statistics. Moments of ingenuity and creativity, moments that aren’t created by data analysis of historic points in time alone, but by the invention and astuteness of those at the very top of their profession in the moment.

Whatever the data does show, the fact that Albion are sitting six points and two places above the Premier League relegation zone in their fourth consecutive topflight season should be considered an overperformance rather than an underperformance. We should stop focusing on xG and focus more on what a remarkable period of Albion history that we are currently watching.

Dan Burn – conveniently unconventional

He may not be the most technically gifted player in the team and probably doesn’t get into the Albion’s first eleven when everyone is fit, but Dan Burn has been pivotal for Brighton this season.

He is one of only five players to have featured for Brighton in all six of its league wins this season (along with Yves Bissouma, Lewis Dunk, Ben White and Neil Maupay). And he is also the only Albion player to have featured in all nine of Albion’s wins in all competitions that were inside the normal 90 minutes.

Some may be surprised to hear of his record, but it is a sign of Burn’s positional and tactical versatility, which gives Graham Potter something most others in the squad do not. An attribute that makes him so important to the squad, especially for a manager like Graham Potter who regularly alters his teams system and approach.

In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of football’s tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles. Graham Potter’s management approach and Dan Burn’s adaptability are good examples of this beginning to come to fruition. Burn’s positional adaptability under Potter has turned him from a rarely used fringe player under Hughton to a key member of the Brighton squad under Potter.

Even during the early periods of the current season where Burn spent much of his time on the bench for league matches, he was often brought on as a substitute. Being used by Potter to switch the formation and adapt to the issues that were arising in the match.

But of late he has taken advantage of the opportunity that injuries to other teammates has given him, starting the last eight games in a row, his best run since last season where he was near ever-present, starting 33 of the 38 league matches.

The first of those eight matches was a perfect example of his versatility, which was used to the team’s benefit to surprise the opposition in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield. In that match, rather than in the more defensive role he is accustomed to, he was used more as wide target man/left winger.

Jurgen Klopp said after the match that his team struggled to deal with Albion’s attacks which he described as “Chipping the ball to Burn and go from there.” It certainly wasn’t a role Burn had played often before if at all, so it’s not a surprise it caught Liverpool out and was so effective. And Burn’s role in subsequent matches has seen him stay in that position further up the pitch than he’s played previously, filling in for the absent Solly March.

This trend goes back to Albion’s defeat at home to Southampton during the early stages of the 2019/20 season, when after starting the season in a back three alongside Dunk and Duffy, he was switched to left back after Florin Andone was sent off and Potter switched to a back four. Despite the defeat, his marauding and effective full back performance was a real positive and was a role Potter went onto use him in for much of the rest of the season.

Former Fulham manager and Man United coach Rene Meulensteen said of Burn last season: “He’s an ideal player for a manager because he can play in multiple positions. He’s decent on the ball with his feet for a big, tall lad. Skill-wise, he’s very well equipped.”

However, it’s not been plain sailing for Burn this season. Most notably his first half performance against Wolves when he struggled to deal with Wolves winger Adams Traore so much that he gave away a penalty, got booked and scored an own goal as Albion trailed at half time 3-1 and he was eventually subbed off part way through the second half as Albion recovered to draw the match 3-3.

But Potter was defensive of his utility man saying after the game: “Dan Burn a couple of years ago was at Wigan in League One. Rather than being critical of Dan Burn, we should be proud of him. He puts himself there, he gives his best every day, gives his best every match. It’s easy to be critical in this world and he is a fantastic professional, a fantastic person.”

Graham Potter is clearly conscious of the criticism his players are getting, particularly after making mistakes whilst being asked to fulfil at times unfamiliar roles and take big risks defensively, such as the amount of space sometimes left in defence by Burn’s marauding runs forward. And is keen to not be overly critical of his players.

But Burn is a player Potter has regularly had to come to the defence of, saying after his eye-catching performance away to Liverpool “Anyone that criticises someone like Dan Burn doesn’t understand football… I wouldn’t listen to them. It’s irrelevant to me”.

As well as the criticism, Burn has drawn praise from many areas, not just from his manager. Last season Premier League pundit Adrian Clarke said “Burn does not look like a left-back, but he has taken to his new role wonderfully” Going into say “He is comfortable moving the ball through the lines…Meanwhile, his height and defensive ability are assets out of possession.”

Even prior to March’s injury which saw him return to the left hand side, he had made the left back role in a back four his own last season and has often been used in games this season as a left sided centre back in a back three able to switch to a left back in a back four if Potter makes one of his regular in-game formation switches. An adaptability that has regularly allowed Potter to save using a substitution.

Indeed he has had to adapt and find a less conventional route throughout his career to get to the point of playing regular Premier League football. He was initially on the books of Newcastle United but was released at the age of 13 and had to work his way through a more obscure route via the youth team Blyth Town and onto Blyth Spartans. From there he was picked up by League Two Darlington before moving to Fulham in 2011.

Whilst at Fulham two loan spells followed in between a handful of appearances for the club in the Premier League. Before playing more regularly for them in the Championship after their relegation in 2014. A move to Wigan followed in 2017 where he caught the eye of the Albion scouts despite their relegation to League One and was signed by Brighton under then manager Chris Hughton in 2018.

Hughton described Burn upon joining the club as having “a wealth of experience” going into say “He’s an imposing figure and had an excellent season helping Wigan to the League One championship”. And yet Burn was initially loaned back to Wigan for 6 months before being used sparingly by Hughton mostly in cup matches, as he favoured the tried and tested partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Indeed it’s been a long road for Burn who admits he initially struggled during his time at Newcastle, saying: “I wasn’t very good… I was struggling to grow into my body and a little bit all over the place.” To add to the difficulties he faced whilst he was still growing into his body, he also lost one of his fingers on his right hand, when it caught on a spike while he was climbing a fence.

Yes there are many things about Burn’s development and career that are unconventional, which in many ways makes him very suited to Graham Potter’s Brighton side.

Graham Potter’s own route into Premier League management is similarly unusual. Having started as a lower league footballer, he studied at the Open University and then at Hull University before working as an administrator for Ghana’s women’s team at the 2007 women’s World Cup. He then had his first chance in management in the Swedish Fourth Division, where he took Ostersunds into the top tier and then into European competition before he moved to Championship side Swansea and then onto Brighton in 2019. An experience which means he is clearly not overly influenced by a players track record, as his treatment of Burn shows.

It’s often the case that criticism of individuals in team sports comes from the audiences confirmed bias of that individual and an ignorance of the bigger picture. I think this is often the case when it comes to Dan Burn.

For example you hear it said a lot that “Dan Burn can’t win a header despite being so tall”. This simply isn’t true. Dan Burn has won 71 aerial duels so far this season, the most in team and the 19th most in the division. Whilst last season he won 141 aerial duels, again the most in the Albion team and the 10th highest in the Premier League.

The Secret Footballer has spoken about how ignorance from supporters often leads to unfair criticism of players, including how on many occasions when a misplaced pass is made, it’s often that a teammate didn’t make the right run off the ball rather than the player passing the ball being at fault.

Potter’s Albion are a team that takes more risks than many of its competitors, particularly the players in Burn’s current role at wing back. Graham Potter seems unafraid of his teams making mistakes and is happy to place his trust in those who have made them on multiple occasions previously. In fact, it would be hard to find a player in the Brighton team that hasn’t made a few mistakes this season. But at 6”7 and playing as an eye catching marauding wingback, Dan Burn stands out more than most when they do occur.

When players reach their late 20s as Burn now has, it isn’t unusual for them to reinvent themselves positionally to adapt and maintain their position in the game. However, it isn’t as commonplace that you see a centre back doing so as an attacking wing back, let alone one that is 6”7 tall. But if history has taught us anything it’s that neither Graham Potter nor Dan Burn are conventional.

Monday musings – Mistakes and mentality shifts

Saturday’s home match with Leicester saw another good performance from Albion in an entertaining game at the AMEX. But once again, a positive result was snatched at the death by opponents Leicester City after yet more mistakes from Albion when defending set pieces.

And it was yet another game that highlighted how this Albion team is so close to being very, very good, and yet dangerously close to being relegated. But those are perils of topflight football.

Just look at Southampton. They were top in November. Then at the start of February after losing 9-0 to Man United they were beginning to look over their shoulders and worrying about getting dragged into a relegation battle until their win on Saturday.

The defeat to Leicester did show once again however that this Brighton team is more suited to playing the better, more attacking teams in the division. It was a game in contrast to the recent defeats where the opposition dominated possession, with Albion having only 37%, but where Albion were arguably closer to winning than some of those recent games where they had nearly double that proportion of possession.

In fact, in the games Albion have won lately they have played a hugely contrasting style to the three matches prior to Saturday’s defeat, which saw them pick up just one point. Brighton’s average possession in those 3 games was 68% but their average possession in its last 3 Premier League wins was comparable to Saturday at 38%, again almost half.

Albion have had over 60% possession four times in a Premier League game this season, and yet they have failed to win all four, accumulating just 2 points.

Meanwhile, they have had less than 40% possession 4 times, winning 2 and accumulating 6 points.

The trend is arguably more striking when you look at the bigger picture. With the team having had more possession than their opponents 14 times this season, winning just one (away to Newcastle) accumulating 10 points in that time, an average of 0.71 points per game. When they have had less possession than their opponents (10 times this season), they’ve won on 4 occasions and picked up 14 points, an average of 1.4 points per game.

Fortunately, our fixture list means there’s a fair few games left where we can expect the opposition to take the game to us and Albion can play a style that has been more fruitful for them in terms of points this season.

Unfortunately, they are the teams in the division that will punish you just like Leicester did on Saturday.

Especially if you drop off as Albion did in the second half on Saturday. As Adam Lallana said in his post match interview “If you drop your levels you get punished, it feels like we didn’t perform well enough.”

A big part of that was Albion’s lack of attacking thrust as the game went on, which has been significantly hampered since the injury to Solly March that has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Since Solly March came off in the 67th minute in the win over Liverpool, Albion have scored just three times in 563 minutes of football, losing 4 and drawing 2 of those matches.

I think it’s easy to assume now, that if Albion are to stay up we need to beat Newcastle. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case given who we’ve beaten this season and the record outlined above. I would class that match as a must not lose instead.

But there is still plenty of hope on the remaining eleven league fixtures. The Newcastle win earlier in the season now seems more of an anomaly, with all of Brighton’s other league wins coming against teams currently sitting 6th-11th in the league table. So I’m more optimistic about some of the later fixtures against teams who will come at us more, rather than that return fixture against Newcastle in two weeks time.

However, this style isn’t fool proof and didn’t see Albion pick up any points on Saturday, with the Leicester winner another example of Albion’s risk in throwing in so many youngsters this season.

These are the players who more often have been culpable with errors at the back. First there was Sanchez’s flailing punch, then Alzate losing his marker. It’s been a running habit of the season and to be fair to those mentioned above we’ve seen many others like Ben White often similarly culpable from defending set pieces. It is a part of the process of blooding so many youngsters unfortunately. But one the team really can’t afford to have many more examples of if they are to survive this season.

Whilst I like Alzate, I don’t think bringing him on late in the game with the score tied made much sense. With the game as it was our midfield needed a bit more stability and experience, but he is a player that Graham Potter has shown plenty of trust in during his tenure, maybe before he is quite ready for it.

I would have preferred Davy Propper to come on instead, a player with a little more nous and plenty more experience. The Dutchman’s lack of playing time this season remains a real puzzle to me and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him figure more than Alzate in the run in.

If you can criticise Graham Potter for one thing this season, it’s his over reliance on the young players. It’s admirable and exciting to see, but I think that he’s shifted out the likes of Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray whilst barely using Propper when fit has been a huge factor in the key moments that have gone against the team.

That said, this is the route the club has chosen to take and whatever happens, I really hope we keep hold of Graham Potter and stick to it. As I discussed at the beginning of the season, this mix of youth and experience was always going to be a tough balancing act for Potter and is one he isn’t always going to get right. But let’s wait until the end of the season to make a final judgement.

Two days on we’re all still reeling from that late Leicester goal, but nonetheless let’s take a moment to appreciate what a player Adam Lallana is. He was fantastic against Leicester, his first Premier League start since the draw away to West Ham in December. If he stays fit I think we’ll be fine.

Fulham’s win over Liverpool has since left Albion only above the dreaded dotted line only on goal difference by a mere three goals. Albion’s time in the Premier League has partly been defined by its ability to avoid being in the relegation zone, but that may have changed by the time we next play.

It will be a huge shift in mentality for this team from constantly keeping the bottom three at arm’s length to being in it. What is clear is that unlike in the 2018/19 season, when Cardiff City failed to take advantage of a faltering Albion team, this time we cannot rely on the bottom three to get us out of trouble.

This season began with many talking about progression rather than just mere survival for the team after Graham Potter’s first season in charge saw green shoots of hope in that direction. But for this progress to continue mere survival is imperative.

I suspect 38/40 points will be required for that after this weekend’s results. That’s just over a point a game from here on, which is very achievable, but this bad run needs to end fast.