Ten games is traditionally the point in the season that the league table starts to take shape and become a meaningful barometer of a team’s performance. As such it feels like a good time to reflect on what’s happened so far this season. Brighton sit 11th in the table with fourteen points from those ten games, a points return and league position that is probably better than most predicted, so let’s take a look at how we got there and what it shows us.
Matchdays 1-3 – The bad, the good and the ugly
We started the season with a wave of optimism. Partly because of the number of new signings made over the summer, including record signing and last season’s Eredivisie top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. But partly because of the way safety was secured last season, earning four points in our final two home games against top four sides Spurs and Man Utd, including that unforgettable 1-0 victory over United.
So as we approached the first game of the season away to Watford there was plenty predicting an Albion victory. But instead what occurred was a 2-0 defeat, the Albion’s eighth 2-0 defeat on the road since promotion the year before and the fourteenth time the Albion had lost conceding more than once in the process, all that in only twenty-four Premier League games.
So, as the team lined up at Vicarage Road it wasn’t long before that optimism faded. Bruno was substituted early through injury and replaced by Bong, with new signing Bernardo moving to right back. Subsequently Bernardo had a tough day up against the former Juventus player Roberto Pereyra, who scored both goals that day and whose second was scored after Bernardo was found hopelessly out of position allowing Pereyra to double the Albion’s arrears. Bernardo’s poor performance and Bruno’s injury opened the door for another new signing Martín Montoya to cement a place in the team in the coming weeks at right-back.
I mentioned in one of my pre-season blogs that I thought Bernardo was being lined up as Bruno’s long term replacement. However, given the subsequent signature of Montoya and the subsequent events on the pitch, it appears Bernardo is seen as more of a left-back by Chris Hughton. So, given Hughton’s loyalty to Bong, a players who’s featured in every game this season, it’s likely Bernardo will have to patiently wait his turn to make amends for his poor showing against Watford.
The team didn’t make it a meaningful contest against Watford and despite promising substitute appearances from new signings Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Albion took few other positives from a terrible display, with Albion manager Chris Hughton describing his side as “off the pace”.
Thankfully this low level of performance didn’t continue. In fact, if this was the bad, the first three games were a case of the bad, the good, and then the ugly.
So, next up was the good and another victory over Man Utd, although it wasn’t all good for the Albion that day. After captain for the day Lewis Dunk came off injured early in the first half, he was replaced by the new signing and Nigerian international Leon Balogun. However, unlike Bernardo, Balogun was instantly up to the pace and the standard of the Premier League and played well alongside Duffy.
With Balogun a more than capable deputy, the Albion were able to press United with gusto, putting them under plenty of pressure. And it wasn’t long before this pressure told and the Albion got off the mark with a sublime chip from Glenn Murray. This is a goal that has to go down as one of his best for the Albion, whilst it was from close range, the skill and technique to flick the ball up and chip the ball over United ‘keeper De Gea was a sight to behold.
Whilst the Albion faithful were in a state of shock to be ahead, a second Albion goal from Shane Duffy sent the AMEX into a state of pandemonium. With Shame Duffy allowed an absurd amount of time to take the ball down he then rifled it home to give the team a two-goal lead. After Lukaku pulled one back with the Albion conceding another goal from a corner, last season’s Brighton player of the season Pascal Gross converted a penalty to regain the team’s two goal advantage going into half time.
As the first half ended it was hard to take stock of what had been a whirlwind of a first half. One where the Albion had played with a level of pace and intensity unrecognisable from the defeat to Watford the week before. Despite an improved display from United in the second half they rarely trouble the Albion defence, making the late penalty clumsily given away by Duffy and scored by Pogba a meaningless consolation for the visitors. In contrast to the game against Watford there were so many positives, none more so than the previously mentioned debutants Martin Montoya and Leon Balogun.
Nonetheless the two sloppy goals conceded were a concern. It was four conceded in two now from the Albion and there were more to come.
Which bring us to the Ugly, Liverpool away. Ugly because of the dreadful way the Albion gifted Liverpool the lead via an error from the otherwise impressive Yves Bissouma. After he was dispossessed by the evergreen James Milner in the Albion’s defensive third, Liverpool made no mistake and took the lead which they held onto for the rest of the game to take all three points.
Nonetheless this was a good Albion performance where they minimised Liverpool’s well-known attacking threat (particularly well-known by Albion who lost 4-0 at Anfield as recently as May) and could have nicked a point if Gross or Knockaert had beaten the keeper with good chances to score in the second half.
Matchdays 4-7 – A charitable donation of a 2-0 head start
So, it had been a mixed start for the Albion but one that gave hope for better things to come. But then followed a string of four games where the team gave all their opponents 2-0 head starts and took only two points from a possible twelve.
First up Brighton returned to the AMEX to face a newly promoted Fulham side in good spirits after their first win of the season, a 4-2 win at home over Burnley. But it was Brighton that started the stronger, earning an early penalty, but one that this time Pascal Gross failed to convert.
On this moment the game swung and Fulham took advantage taking a 1-0 lead into half time. Brighton’s defence was again looking shaky and with a newly returned Lewis Dunk looking as if he’d been rushed back too early from injury, the Albion soon found themselves 2-0 down after the aforementioned Dunk was outmuscled by Fulham’s new signing Mitrovic who put the ball past Maty Ryan and into the top corner.
It had been an incredibly frustrating first 60 minutes for the Albion and particularly for last season’s player of the year Pascal Gross. In fact it had been an underperforming start to the season in general for Gross, who was clearly playing through an injury. He was brought off on the hour and hasn’t feature since this season, such is the strength in depth that the Albion now has in its squad.
So Gross was replaced by Bissouma and with some added attacking impetus from his fresh legs and incisiveness, the game swung again as the Albion started an impressive comeback. First after a wonderful run from a reinvigorated Anthony Knockaert, he found Murray in space on the edge of the box to pull Albion back in it. Then after an inexplicable handball from Fulham goalscorer Mitrovic, the Albion were awarded a penalty. One which Murray dispatched to earn Albion a draw.
Next up was Southampton on one of those weird Monday night games Sky Sports insist on organising. And it took Brighton 45 minutes to get their head in the game as what followed was the worst half of football the Albion has produced so far this season. It was reminiscent of many other away performances since promotion, one with poor ball retention, a lack of tempo and intensity in and out of possession, leading ultimately to a lack of attacking intent.
Southampton took advantage, first through a spectacular long-range strike from Hojbjerg. Then after the Albion gifted the opposition another penalty, this time via a clumsy foul by Gaetan Bong, Southampton striker Danny Ings scored to make it 2-0.
So the Albion found themselves once again needing another great comeback and a remarkable improvement materialised. The midfield pushed up, the full-backs made more forward runs and the Albion created multiple opportunities to score. And after Duffy scored again from a set piece, Murray scored a late penalty to make it 2-2 in the second consecutive game.
Next up it was Spurs at the AMEX, who were on a three-game losing streak meaning there was optimism of an upset. But after a third sloppy concession of a penalty so far this season, this time via an inexplicable Murray handball (a matter of feet away from the spot where Mitrovic conceded a penalty via the same fashion as in the last home game) the Albion were 1-0 down at the break. Then Erik Lamela finished off a wonderful team move to give Spurs a 2-0 lead. The Albion rallied and attempted another unlikely comeback but could only muster a late Knockaert consolation goal. If only he’d taken the chance he had from only a few yards out earlier in the second half with the game at 1-0. Ultimately, the game swung on moments of skill and good decision making that goes to show the quality the Spurs squad has in greater supply to the Albion.
A trip to Champions Man City followed where an ever-greater supply of quality players was on offer and it was like Albion were lambs to the slaughter. That said, having put five past Burnley and Cardiff and six past Huddersfield, despite losing two-nil the Albion can take many positives from the performance if not the result. In conceding twice despite having only 20% possession the defence had to dig in and concentrate for long periods to avoid a thrashing, which they did, and it was a sign of things to come.
So although ending match-day seven with two consecutive defeats, the City game was still an improvement on the performances away from home that we’d seen previously given the standard of opposition the team were facing.
In fact considering the calibre of opposition the Albion had faced in the first seven games, (which included playing all of last season’s top 4 and an in-form Watford side) a five-point tally coupled with some good performances against the top teams was satisfying. However, taking account that the only win came against United at home rather than against Fulham at home or Southampton away it suggested a certain amount of missed opportunity and meant the next three games, two at home with the away game to winless Newcastle, had a bit more riding on them than they should have.
Matchdays 8-10 – 1-0 to the Albion, defensive solidity at last!
So if the first seven games showed signs of a team with a habit of conceding soft goals. The next three games that followed demonstrated the team were capable of the exact opposite. There were two 1-0 home victories courtesy of Glenn Murray’s 99th and 100th goals for the club, which were sandwiched between a hard fought 1-0 victory away to struggling Newcastle.
This run made it seven one-nil wins since promotion for the Albion, and thirteenth clean sheets, a good record all things considered. Hard-fought one-nil wins have been a regular feature of Hughton’s tenure at the Albion, with six coming in the promotion season alone.
The first of the three consecutive wins was one of those special Friday nights at the AMEX. A night where we welcomed West Ham, a team the Albion convincingly beat twice last season and a team we would beat once more.
Wins over the teams around you at home is always important in a battle for survival from relegation, but in a game like this where the Albion were under pressure from West Ham attacks for so much of the game it is all the sweeter.
Hughton started with a changed midfield, with Stephens and Gross out, Kayal and Propper started in deep lying central midfield roles and Knockart and Jahanbakhsh played on the wings with Solly March surprisingly getting nod to play in the number ten role in a three behind Murray. And it worked for much of this and the following two games, with Stephens replacing Propper and Izquierdo replacing Knockaert in the following two games.
It was a sign that the impressive player recruitment the Albion have continued to make since winning promotion is paying dividend in the form of options for and unpredictability in Hughton’s team selection. We rotated mainly between the same 15 or 16 players throughout most of last season with no decent back up in many positions. In fact we have already used 18 players this season and whilst this is comparable to the total this time last season, it’s no doubt that the standard of the second-string players has improved significantly. With the remaining players from the squad like Florin Andone and maybe the odd development squad player likely to be used at some point in the near future, there are real signs of the added options and strength in depth available to Chris Hughton.
This is most true in attacking areas and that night against West Ham the adapted system meant the three behind Murray provided lots of threat through runs on and off the ball, with March particularly causing the opposition lots of problems. This left space for others to exploit. Something which Kayal did exactly that for the goal, finding space on the left wing to cross the ball to Murray in space at the back post.
The return of Izquierdo was a welcome positive, but the three games were dominated from an Albion perspective by the return to powering dominance of the centre-back partnership of Dunk and Duffy. Who were no doubt buoyed by the good display in the previous game at the Etihad. Before the West Ham game it was announced they both signed five years deals and if performances like this continue over that period, they should go down as the best centre back partnership the club has ever had.
A week later the team travelled to the North East to face a Newcastle side who’d lost all their four previous home games this season, and Albion would make it five with another hard fought 1-0 win.
After Murray came off injured with a nasty looking head injury, Kayal opened the scoring by deflecting an Izquierdo shot past the Newcastle ‘keeper. What followed was another display of defensive solidly from the Albion as Duffy and Dunk once again showed why the club had just extended their contracts, whilst Maty Ryan made multiple saves to earn his second clean sheet of the season.
Then came the third win in a row and it was becoming a case of Groundhog Day for the Albion. Another 1-0 home win, another Glenn Murray winner, more great defending from Duffy and Dunk, and some reliance on a few top saves from Maty Ryan to keep the clean sheet.
It wasn’t just any old 1-0 win though, Glenn Murray cemented his place as only the second ever player to score one-hundred goals for Brighton. He also becomes the highest post-war goal scorer, taking over from Kit Napier on 99 goals.
And he did it in typical Glenn Murray fashion. He spoke in Nick Szczepanik book ‘Brighton Up’ about how he would often find space in the box by standing still, whilst others moved around him. This day was no different, as the ball fell to Bruno on the right side of the box the Wolves defence shifted in his direction. In the same motion Murray stayed almost stationary but alert to find himself in acres of space at the far post to score his century goal.
But that day and in fact across the last three games it wasn’t vintage Albion. Hughton admitted after the Wolves game that the team were not at their best, citing the problem of poor ball retention that has been a bad habit throughout the first ten games of the season.
As centurion Glenn Murray stated after the win over Wolves it was ‘back to basics’ for the Albion. Keeping it tight at the back by defending deep and not giving too much away to the opposition and then relying on taking the odd chance you get at the other end. Whilst this worked over the past three games and was a system that kept us safe last season, there’s plenty of flaws in this tactic.
For me, the biggest example of this is the amount of draws last season that could have been wins. We entered the final third of last season having been hammered by Chelsea and mainly as a result of all those draws, relying on winning the home games we had left. We did this emphatically and partly through allowing the team more attacking licence and creating more chances to score. Swansea and West Ham at home being the best examples. But given the amount of sloppy goals conceded in the first seven games a back to basics approach was required.
A ten-games in summing up
There is plenty to be pleased with out of the first ten games, nothing more so than the points tally. But let’s not get carried away it’s a tally of 14 not 40, and none of Albion’s wins were emphatic. What the first ten games have shown, as we all knew before the season started, is that there is very little difference between all the teams that will fill the bottom end of the table.
One stat that’s been mentioned a lot since the Albion’s recent run of wins is that the team have conceded the second most amount of shots in the Premier League this season, whilst having the least amount of shots ourselves. But stats are sometimes misinterpreted and given the way the fixtures have fallen and the easier run of games ahead for the team, I suspect that both statistics will revert to a similar level to last season.
As we quickly approach the winter period of the season, one thing that has proved founded, despite the early bump in the road at Watford, is the wave of optimism from back in the summer. Many of the new signings have given the squad a strength and versatility that was not on offer last season. These additions have allowed the Albion to make changes in personnel and tactics more often as well as making changes during games that have helped towards achieving the points total amounted so far.
The idea the team could have coped with the absence of Dunk, Stephens and Gross for long periods in the first ten games, whilst playing such high calibre opposition and find themselves with the outcome they have so far this season, would have been unthinkable this time last season. Whilst this season has been and will continue to be a scrap, the investment in player recruitment made by the club and led by Paul Winstanley and his team in the recent transfer windows, looks to be making the difference for the Albion. Long may it continue…