Looking for the good amongst the frustration

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

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

Albion’s goalless draw with bottom side Norwich City extended the clubs winless run to 7 games and their scoreless home run to 5 games. With games running out in Graham Potter’s third season in charge of the club he has still failed to win as many Premier league games at the AMEX as his predecessor Chris Hughton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Potter and the Diamonds of Universality

In Jonathan Wilson’s book about the evolution of football tactics – “Inverting the pyramid”, he ends it by foreseeing that the next stage of this tactical evolution would be universality within a team, leading to increased tactical fluidity and the end of set roles.

In particular he’s since spoken about the trend of the demise of the traditional goalscoring striker. A trend evident at Brighton this season since Potter’s arrival with his significantly lower utilisation of Glenn Murray. That said, Murray’s success of the previous two seasons does somewhat challenge this hypothesis, but that’s another story.

In Murray’s place has come Neal Maupay, who whilst similarly a penalty box goalscorer, is so much more besides. You won’t see it in his highlights reels, but his movement and energy when leading the line allows for more options and versatility in Albion’s build up play than we otherwise see. Something the goal against Norwich demonstrated as Maupay dropped deep to receive the ball, allowing space for others to run into and set the move on its way.

Part of the purpose for this was spoken about by JJ Bull after Potter’s first game in charge, a 3-1 win away to Watford last August. He outlined how when in possession the outfield players are tasked with “forming diamonds all over the pitch, with players fluidly moving into the appropriate positions depending on the phase of play and where the ball is.” This leaves Brighton’s current de facto centre forward Neal Maupay often moving out of position to enable this pattern of play. Going back to the goal on Saturday against Norwich, Maupay actually formed the deepest point in that particular diamond, passing to Mooy in an advanced position on Albion’s right wing, with Connolly and eventual goalscorer Trossard forming the other two points in the diamond.

One aspect of the demise of the traditional centre forward Jonathan Wilson spoke about was their potentially increased use as a “super-sub” when their team was looking for a goal. Something we’ve seen in Potter’s use of Murray this season, but to little effect. It’s seemingly a role he’s less familiar/suited to than he was starting games as the teams attacking focal point under Hughton, which his 14 substitute appearances generating no goals scored attest to.

Before the restart it appeared that Murray may be seeing a renaissance under Potter, with his only goal of the season coming in a start against West Ham in February, which lead to two further starts before he was dropped for the home defeat to Palace later that month. But one short substitute appearance post restart has suggested his marginal role in the team going forward continues to intensify, to my personal disappointment. Put the understandable tactical reasons to one side, I just love watching Glenn Murray lead the line in those Blue and White stripes.

Another huge part of Potter’s management this season has been the adaptability of his squad. In particular Steven Alzate, promoted this season from the U23 team and traditionally a central midfielder, has been asked to play in a number of positions. Starting with his debut where he found himself on the left side of the attack, Alzate’s played in most areas of the pitch, at one point playing a run of games at right back.

Then there’s a man traditionally thought of as a centre back, 6″7 Dan Burn, who’s spent most of the season playing aptly at left back. And it’s not been just the less established members of the squad who’ve been at it, with Murray starting the season being asked to play on the left wing before his prolonged absence from the starting eleven. In fact it was his injury that saw Steven Alzate get his debut away to Newcastle.

And it’s not just players starting positions that have been adaptable. It’s the roles they’ve played within those positions too. In particular Maty Ryan and Lewis Dunk who have had to evolve the most since Potter replaced Hughton last summer.

The change in style from a quite direct team who were happy out of possession, to one more comfortable in possession and better at retaining it, has seen Lewis Dunk move from the teams heading and blocking defensive battering ram, to a key figure in the starting point for much of the team’s attacks. And you only have to look at his involvement in the game this season to see that. Having averaged around 55 touches a game over the last two seasons, he’s now averaging around 79 per game, and with it his highest season average passing accuracy too at 87%.

A large reason for this is the nature of Maty Ryan’s distribution. Who is being asked to mostly play the ball out short to the centre backs, rather than long over the halfway line to the forwards. Subsequently being asked to offer a passing option to his centre backs when they then have possession of the ball.

This has meant Ryan has also seen an increase in his involvement in the game, particularly in games like the win over Norwich on Saturday that saw him have 56 touches. Around 20 more than his per game average under Hughton.

But this isn’t always the case. Like Potter’s ever changing team selections and use of formations, more recently Ryan has often been asked to play far more longer-balls up the pitch in order to relieve pressure from the opposition. Particularly against Leicester where he racked up a whopping 24 long passes, compared to his season average of 6 per game.

Like a lot of things about recent Albion performances, it’s been about doing what is required to get the points needed to avoid relegation. Potter’s seen his side collect 7 point from the 4 games since the restart, an upturn in results. Something required to ease the threat of relegation after a pre lockdown slump of just 6 points collected from the previous 9 games since the turn of the year.

If we compare Potter’s first season in charge to Hughton’s last, little has changed in comparison to results and league position overall. But the nature of how Albion has got there certainly has.

Whilst I personally don’t agree with a lot of the criticism he got, Hughton’s downfall was ultimately his perceived inability to evolve the team tactically into a more effective attacking side. With his much maligned experiment with a 433 unable to solve his problems. In contrast, this season Brighton are an effective, if often wasteful attacking outfit, now combined with the defensive robustness of the Hughton years that is still in place. If it weren’t for that wastefulness in the final third, Brighton may well be competing much higher in the Premier League table.

Graham Potter’s issues at the club were primarily balancing its short term goals of retaining its topflight status with its longer term objectives of improving the teams style of play and even loftier ambitions of establishing itself as a top half Premier League Club.

Getting through this first season with that topflight status intact and with the fanbase having bought into his management was always going to be key to enable the longer term success to materialise. With the prospect of further evolution of the team under Potter in the topflight next season, it’s a testament to him that those longer term objectives which felt quite speculative a year ago when they were announced, now seem more achievable.