A month of conflicting emotions

Albion end January invigorated after a month of success on the pitch, but this feel good factor has been challenged after a month of transfer speculation off it.

In the end the teams only major outgoing was Leandro Trossard, whilst teenage prospects Argentina U20 international Facundo Buonanotte and the recent debutant Swedish international Yasin Ayari the only comings in.

Roberto De Zerbi said on Albion’s transfer activity ahead of the deadline that: “I think I need some players in some positions. I spoke a lot of times with Tony [Bloom], he knows my opinion very well, because we are a good team but we can improve also from the transfer market window.

“We lost [Leandro] Trossard and if we lose Caicedo it can be a problem for us if we want to fight for a European spot or to finish high in the table. If we want to stay like this, we can stay but I don’t like [it].”

So whilst he hasn’t lost Caicedo, he will no doubt be disappointed that more new faces weren’t incoming over the past few days.

But aside from that, the major thing his comments highlight, (and from the sounds of it what Tony Bloom will already have learned) is that Roberto De Zerbi is far more outspoken and provocative than his recent predecessors.

There are shades of Gus Poyet in the way he handles the media. Let’s hope the club are prepared for that, and that it’s without Poyet’s habit of delving into controversy.

De Zerbi’s outspoken nature doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Gus Poyet was known as “Radio” for his loquaciousness, a trait which would often lead him into trouble. Whilst De Zerbi appears more to just be unafraid of speaking his mind, and that when he’s doing it, it’s to make a clear point.

Moreover, by expressing these views publicly he is showing that internally these ideas are being discussed and represented, and that not everyone is following the party line. A party line that has in recent times been consistently repeated by all at the club. But one that from reading a selection of Brighton fans views on social media during this transfer window, it’s clear isn’t universally held by those on the outside.

De Zerbi’s comments point to a common worry that Trossard hasn’t been replaced, particular given he still stands as Albion’s top scorer this season. But the introduction of Evan Ferguson and the continued excellence of Karou Mitoma will have allayed some of by those fears, with the likes of Sarmiento, Enciso and Buonanotte providing a good level of competition for places.

Albion’s bench on Sunday was youthful, including development team players Jack Hinshlewood and Andrew Moran, both players (the late in particular) threatening to be the next to breakthrough. And for the meantime both will benefit from their sporadic first team involvement.

As ITV commentator Clive Tyldsley said during his commentary of Albion’s FA Cup win over Liverpool last Sunday, it’s not just just the identification and recruitment of players that the club are so good at, but also when and how they choose to integrate those players into the squad that the club do so well.

As shown by the huge net profit made by the club on transfer activity last summer, you can’t judge the club on its transfer activity purely on one window. The club takes a longer term approach, ultimately aiming to avoid paying transfer fees at all.

The club will already have a number players within its ranks who are earmarked to replace Caicedo in the team when he inevitably moves on in the summer, whether that’s Billy Gilmour who was signed in last summer’s transfer window, Yasin Ayari signed in this one, or one of Albion’s many other top prospects coming through its academy and loan system.

Another notable exit this month was defender Shane Duffy who made his loan move to Fulham permanent. Long term readers will know I’m a huge fan of his, unapologetically so. He’s a player of huge talent and one of most important players of the Tony Bloom era. And I’m surprised he’s struggled for game time at Fulham.

As Graham Potter said on Shane Duffy upon his return to Albion first team in 2021: “He is a club legend. For what he has achieved at the club and helping the team get promoted and what he’s done in the Premier League. Everyone loves him at the club.”

In particular, his partnership with Lewis Dunk will go down as one of the greatest in Albion history. Duffy once said of that partnership: “I think you just click when you have something good. He knows what I’m good at and I know what he’s good at so we don’t try and compete with each other…it just works.”

It was Chris Hughton who brought Shane Duffy to Brighton and shaped his partnership with Lewis Dunk. Hughton spoke about the key to their relationship being continuity, saying: “If I’m looking at an edge they have, what the two of them have done is play a lot of games together,”

“If you’re looking at partnerships across the Premier League teams, on a lot of occasions that partnership is broken up, particularly with clubs that rotate a little bit more.

“These two would be as consistent as any, for the simple fact that they don’t miss many games and they’ve played a lot of games together over the last couple of seasons.”

Shane Duffy’s importance to this club shouldn’t be underestimated. He was a huge part of the team that won promotion to the Premier League and then kept us there.

His initial return to the team last season was spectacular and showed just what he offers. Whilst it didn’t quite work out across the season, he still had some great moments.

Shane Duffy’s Irish compatriot Aaron Connolly has been on the move again too, cancelling his loan in Italy with Venezia and going out on loan to Championship side Hull, scoring a brace on his first start for the club last Saturday.

Many have criticised Aaron Connolly for his attitude and professionalism, but to his credit he owns his mistakes saying to Hull Live recently: “I’m 23 next week, being 19 feels like a long time ago when I was playing in the Premier League regularly.”

“That’s down to me and that’s stuff I’ve not been professional enough about. That mindset has completely flipped and if I can take anything positive from that Italy move, it’s that side of the game off the pitch, I had to get used to a different environment and just work. There was a lot of running in Italy but I’m starting to enjoy that bit of it as well, the professional side”

At Hull under for Albion player Liam Rosenior, Connolly is well placed to move on from those mistakes and fulfil that huge potential of his. Here’s hoping we see the best of him as the season goes on.

It wasn’t just Connolly on the move, a number of Albion’s other youngsters were loaned out this month too, taking the clubs total number of loanees to 23. Many of whom will be hoping or expecting to get their chance to be the next player to breakthrough into Albion’s first team this summer.

Despite De Zerbi’s and others frustration, Albion continue to be ardently committed to focusing on bringing through future talent and avoiding paying large transfer fees for established talent, even if it does harm their short term ambitions.

The highlights of this window may currently be seen as the sale of Trossard and ongoing saga surrounding Moises Caicedo. But I suspect in hindsight, it will be just as well known, if not better known, for one or two of Albion’s prospective future stars.

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Brexit and Football (revisited)

It’s been over four years since I published a piece looking at the potential effects on football of the UK leaving the European Union, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit the subject and take a look at both the challenges and opportunities that football clubs face.

We are now three years on from the UK formally leaving the EU, and more than six years on from the UK voting to leave the EU, so we should at least have begun to see what the effects are on football, compared to what we anticipated at the time.

An overriding theme throughout my last piece was uncertainty, something that has continued to this day.

The UK government is still trying to implement many pieces of permanent legislation to replace much of the old legislation aligned with the EU, which has caused some concern amongst opposition parties over what they have described as “a bonfire of EU law”, but what government ministers have described as ensuring that laws inherited from the EU do not become an “ageing relic dragging down the UK”. You’ll just have to pick a side on that one.

Meanwhile disagreements over the Irish backstop have contributed towards a breakdown of the Northern Ireland assembly, which has led to concerns over a constitutional crisis, and has in many’s view contributed to recent reports of increasing levels of unrest in the country. So the uncertainty surrounding Brexit seems unlikely to end soon.

Brexit has so far had (and is expected to continue to have for now) a minimal impact on football clubs’ revenue sources. As Premier League clubs continue to dominate the list of the richest clubs in the world, with eleven clubs making up the top 20 in the recent Deloitte Money League study from the 2021-22 season.

Post Brexit clubs are instead more concerned with the possibility of further new regulatory controls in the UK, which may restrict their ability to bring in overseas players to join their squad.

Clubs are now not able to sign players freely from the EU. Players from EU countries who want to play in the Premier League or EFL are required to gain a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE), as was the case for all other overseas players without the right to work in the UK.

English football’s GBE is a FA and operates as a points-based system, which has been revised, where points are scored based on International appearances, club appearances and a ranking of the selling club.

The FA stated the new system will enable: “allowing access to the best players and future talent for clubs, as well as safeguarding England teams, by ensuring opportunities for homegrown players.”

However, Darryl Rigby warned in a blog for the World Football Summit about new post Brexit legislation, that: “the country’s divorce from the European Union has particularly added hurdles to talent acquisition, with new rules impacting the football industry in the transfer market.”

Going onto say the new rules make things more difficult for football clubs in some instances: “International player recruitment is now more complicated under the new laws as a result of Brexit ending the freedom of movement between the UK and the EU. This policy change added bureaucratic steps to international football transfers.”

That said, Europe still remains a large market where Premier League clubs’ source their players: since Brexit:

• No other league spent more on Belgian, French, Greek, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish or Dutch players than the Premier League.

• Only Bundesliga Clubs spent more on German, Austrian or Czech players than Premier League clubs,

• Only La Liga Clubs spent more on Spanish players than Premier League clubs,

• Only Serie A and Serie B Clubs spent more on Italian and Croatian players than Premier League clubs,

It is not all about added bureaucracy. Post Brexit, As Bill Gerrard said in the Economics Observatory “The new and much expanded points-based system will make it easier for British clubs to sign non-EU players who did not previously qualify for a work permit.”

As an illustration, figures taken from transfermarkt.co.uk earlier this month show that post Brexit, Premier League clubs have spent more on South American players than ever before. Spending €600m on Brazilian players and €257m on Argentinian players, more than any other league over that period.

In fact, in that period the Premier League has spent more on Columbian, Uruguayan, Ecuadorian and Paraguayan players than any other league. Becoming the main buyer of South American talent despite currently doing little business in Peru and Chile. Although I suspect that may change too.

Compared to the same length period pre-Brexit vs Post Brexit, Premier League clubs spending on South American players increased by 44% Post Brexit. Meanwhile spending on players from the major European Economic Area countries has remained at the same level since before Brexit.

Spending on South American players is now approaching around half that of spending on players from major European Economic Area countries, compared to only around a third pre-Brexit.

Albion’s own spending on South American players has been noticeable in recent years, but has only increased by 20% over the same period. Although this reflects in part the club’s move to buy lower-value younger players rather than more experienced internationals. A strategy that would have been much harder pre-Brexit.

Before Brexit, the majority of money spent on South American players focused on two high profile arrivals who had already spent time in Europe, Jose Izquierdo and Bernardo. However, Post Brexit Albion have bought a multitude of South American players, including players directly from South American clubs, including Moises Caicedo from Independiente del Valle in Equador, Facundo Buonanotte from Rosario Central in Argentina and Julio Enciso from Libertad in Paraguay.

Under FIFA’s rules, the UK’s exit from the EU will also mean that clubs will not be able to sign players from overseas until they are 18 whether from inside or outside the EU. Which will by necessity lead to a focus exclusively on home-grown talent up to that point.

Furthermore, as the newly introduced GBE still allows for the best talent from across the world to come into the country and compete, the Premier League will likely still see the best talent arriving from the EU alongside this increase of non-EU talent. With lower ranked countries inside the EEA likely to be the ones that miss out on Premier a league opportunities for their players, which is arguably more costly to them than the Premier League.

As Darryl Rigby said in the World Football Summit: “Transfer roadblocks can also be advantageous for young talent at home and the UK has the opportunity to improve its national teams by limiting foreign transfers and investing more on domestic players.”

But with the continuing and likely increasing arrival of the best talent from across the world, will it improve young players chances?

Albion CEO Paul Barber said at the recent fans forum “Brexit is complicated, not so much for younger players going out but more about bringing players in because the new rules will make it much, much, much harder to bring in young players from other countries where they don’t have the status that FIFA grants within the top positions of the football-playing countries in the world or the requisite international caps which invariably young players don’t have for obvious reasons.”

Going onto say: “So it is going to have more of an impact on us there. But again, although we didn’t foresee this for this reason, the fact that we have invested heavily in our academy really gives us a certain amount of protection from the new rules.”

“For a long time, we have been committed to developing our own young talent, developing young English players where we can, it makes absolute sense for us to do that.”

Meaning overall, through a combination of investing in a broad and increasingly praiseworthy scouting network overseas, and it’s own academy at home, Albion are probably set up (at least in the short term) to take advantage of the effects of Brexit better than most other clubs.

Aside from this, the effect of Brexit in football specifically appears to be, at first at least, fairly minimal. The Premier League is so internationally successful, and its clubs so internationally integrated with European and international bodies, that diverting too greatly from international norms and adding too many additional legislative restrictions, would likely be disadvantageous to the league’s competitive advantage. Especially given that English football and specifically the Premier League is one of the countries biggest brands across the world.

One subject that I previously discussed that has since gained greater prominence is the possibility of a European Super League.

It was fought off primarily by UK resistance. Resistance which was supported by the UK Government who claimed that Brexit helped stop the European Super League attempts. Although many, including Match of the Days presenter Gary Lineker called that statement “disingenuous” and many credit the powerful supporters groups for scaring the six English club’s into backing down.

As I said in the last piece about the potential of a European Super league “if Brexit were to harm the commercial viability of the Premier League it’s no doubt something that would become more of a threat.” As it stands, there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s on the cards as yet, but in terms of Brexit, these are still very early days. And the vociferous objection towards a European Super League appears to have put it out of the question for now at least.

The subsequent Coronavirus pandemic that has overshadowed every part of daily life does however make it hard to draw too many conclusions on the effects of Brexit and comparisons pre-Brexit

The first post-Brexit transfer window saw unusually low levels of transfer spending by Premier League clubs. But this was almost certainly due to the loss of revenues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is estimated by Deloitte that the Big Five leagues lost €1.9 billion (over 11%) of total revenue in 2019/20, largely because of the restrictions on spectators attending games.

It will take many years, possibly decades, to properly be able to fully analyse the effects of Britain leaving the EU. Partly because the UK government are still trying to agree and implement post-Brexit legislation four years on.

But what is clear from the increasingly dispersed nature of international player recruitment, is that there is little appetite from inside the football industry for further restrictions that would limit the potential success of sourcing the best footballing talent from around the world. As the increasing amount spent on South American talent by English clubs demonstrates, despite calls for clubs to focus more on domestic talent.

So far the legislation brought in that has effected football has only had a relatively small impact, mostly on the recruitment of players. But in a game of small margins, Brighton’s example shows that being flexible, proactive and adaptive to change (and as Paul Barber admits being lucky), can lead to a club gaining an advantage over the competition.

The Sellingest of Selling clubs

Thursday was a frustrating evening, as the soap opera that has been the future of Leandro Trossard’s came to a head as his pending transfer to Arsenal was all but officially confirmed, along with stories surfacing that Albion’s midfield talisman Moises Caicedo looked like he may well following him out the door too before the month is over.

As I’ve written about before, this is the transfer strategy the club has chosen, to date and it’s worked wonders. We just have to get used to this.

However, losing both Trossard and Caicedo would most definitely dent out hopes of European football that I ended my last blog dreaming about. However well we’ve already adapted to life without Trossard, and the array of talent that’s previously left before him.

But, whilst there’s a genuine opportunity for European football this season, or even a FA cup run, I don’t think the club are primarily focused on it, their focus is on the bigger picture. And begrudgingly we have to admit, quite rightly.

Paul Barber said to in the Argus last week when referring to European qualification, “We have not looked at it in a lot of detail.”

At the same time Barber named a number of clubs Albion are above in the table, stating their (in my view) greater publicly ambitions, contrasting that with Albion’s more realistic mindset. Saying he believed the fans were on board with that.

Sensible mindset, that’s how you run a football club at the top level, I guess? But it does go against the football fan mindset of constantly dreaming of better and ultimately, seeing your club win something.

It’s certainly true the club recognise it’s a possibility. With Barber also saying, “You can’t afford to come off the gas at any point because points are crucial if you have ambitions to play at the highest level.

And the highest level for us is winning silverware, obviously, or playing in Europe.”

But there are other clubs who are bolder and more explicit (publicly at least) with their ambitions. Something inarguable really when you look at club’s like Villa, Leeds and West Ham who have (inexplicably) talked about Champions League qualification.

Barber is realistic. But it can be rather dispiriting at times like these.

Some will say, we’ve just thrashed Liverpool 3-0, what have you got to be dispirited about?.. But moments like this are dispiriting BECAUSE we’ve just beaten Liverpool, look at what’s possible!

Does Caicedo now leave too? Well, all I’d say is we’ve seen this story before and we know how it ends.

After all, whilst we don’t have another Caicedo, we do have a number of options in in his area of the pitch, particularly since the signing Billy Gilmour, and soon to be reinforced with the return of Jakub Moder from a long injury lay off, and that’s not to mention the array of talented youngsters threatening to break through too or return from loan this summer.

Furthermore, whilst some say Albion will hold off for a better time to sell, Albion have 30 points on the board already, with little-to-no risk of relegation. So the board may in fact decide: what better time to sell, particularly if they get a ‘silly money’ offer…That’s my worry anyway.

And even if Caicedo doesn’t go, his head’s likely now been turned. The infamous Fabrizio Romano been reported earlier this week that he’s got himself a new agent… as I said, we’ve seen this story before.

Look at Bissouma last season after the club rejected a bid in January for him, there was a clear subsequent drop off in standard. And you could easily expect the same to happen again with Caicedo if we hold off on selling.

Are this weekends opponents Leicester City, currently struggling at the wrong end of the table, showing us the alternative? Here’s what happens when you do actually try to avoid selling players?

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said in the build up to this weekends game that there “have been challenges here that are invisible to people which you might not see unless you were working with them”.

“But it’s just about reinforcing the qualities of the players,” he added. “Some of them have been here a long time. Maybe some thought they would get moves to bigger clubs, but it hasn’t happened for whatever reason.

“My job is to work with the players and to maximise their talent. We’ve been able to do that for the majority of the time we have been here. It’s about consistency at this level. You need to be mentally ready and committed.”

The example of Leicester shows the other side of the coin. It is a warning to Albion of what can be a tricky balance of maximising the potential of the team in the short term and doing what’s best for the longer term. Something Albion have done pretty well so far to their credit.

Right now, it feels like we are the most sellingist of selling clubs. The reality is, like most clubs, we are a selling club, and always have been.

Name a great Albion player of the modern era, and there’s a good chance that they were eventually sold to a bigger club too…

But not to this extent. West Ham made £23m from last seasons European cup run, an amount by far overshadowed by Premier League TV & prize money. So whilst us fans would love to see it, when in addition you take account of the larger squad often required, and the challenges qualifying for Europe places on domestic commitments, the short term benefits of this from a “business” perspective start to look small.

Showing that while Brighton remain in the Premier League they can make far more profit from selling their players at peak value than holding on a bit longer in hope of making Europe or winning a domestic cup competition.

Just look at team selections for cup competitions, over the years us supporters have just had to learn to accept that clubs now see potential glory as less important and don’t share our priorities.

Many have said (once again) Albion latest sale represents good business from the club. Buying a player and selling him on for double that value in just a few years.

Fine. That’s all well and good, I don’t disagree that it’s good business.

But as another one of Brighton’s best player is sold, I can’t help but feel a bit of frustration. Is “business” what we want our club to be truly best at?

Ben White – a story of rejection and redemption

Ben White was previously profiled along with a number of Brighton’s other U23 team last summer by Tweeting Seagull contributor @seagullsacademy, which you can read here.

Like many footballers back stories Ben White’s begins with rejection. In 2014 the 16-year old born in Poole was released by Southampton. In such circumstances do many prospective football careers end, whilst a small selection of others are formed. Ben White fortunately falls into the latter category after he was given a second chance by Brighton. As he later said himself, “The club gave me a scholarship and took me all the way until now, so I’m very grateful for that.” 

For Brighton, 2014 was largely a disaster, instigated by some terrible recruitment over the year, along with the appointment of the soon to be found wanting new manager Sami Hyypia that summer. But the addition of Ben White would soon become a rarity for much of the club’s 2014 intake, in that they would begin to see the fruits of it.

White impressed so much in his first year as a scholar for the U18s that he was soon also involved with the U21s and by end of the season had earned himself a professional contract and a place in that summers 25-man first team pre-season training camp. After starting a first team friendly against Lewes, an injury halted any further involvement with the first team and he spent the remainder of the following season again in the U18s and U21s.

He was then involved as a substitute in a number of first team pre-season games ahead of the following 2016/17 season, including as a substitute in the club’s showpiece friendly at home to Lazio.

As the season started, with Albion struggling for number in defence because of injuries to Uwe Huenemeier and Connor Goldson, White was heavily involved with the first team squad. Being named as an unused substitute for the first four league fixtures of the season and making his debut in the first round of the EFL cup in a 4-0 win over Colchester alongside Rohan Ince in the centre of defence.

White impressed on his debut as a young Albion defence earned a clean sheet and he earned himself a second start in a 4-2 win over Oxford in the second round. But the signing of Ireland international Shane Duffy for a then club record fee and the continued progression of fellow Albion youth team product Lewis Dunk meant Ben White’s involvement with the first team was limited from then on and he spent most of the season playing for Brighton’s U23s in their inaugural season in Premier League 2 and helping the team get to the final of the Premier League 2 Cup, which they lost 1-0 to Swansea City.

As the 2017/18 season drew near White was again involved in first team pre-season training. But with opportunities in the first team continuing to be limited by the increased competition for places and Chris Hughton’s tendency to not make many changes to team selection, White was sent on loan to League 2 Newport for the season to get some game time.

Whilst there, he came up against England striker Harry Kane in Newport’s impressive run to the 4th round of the FA Cup, which saw them beat his future loan club Leeds in the 3rd round. A 1-1 draw in the original tie against Spurs saw White mark Kane admirably as Newport pulled off a shock draw at home to earn a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

Ben said of his time there: “The cup run was amazing, what we achieved and the manner in which we secured the game with Tottenham Hotspur was brilliant. Then we nearly beat them in the home tie, but to then play at Wembley Stadium was a dream come true. Facing Harry Kane was great for me and I feel like I more than held my own against him.”

White came to the attention of many clubs and many Albion fans during this loan spell at Newport. Whilst the club had finished a fairly underwhelming 11th place in the league, he had greatly impressed. Both to the masses in the cup run and the locals throughout the season, winning four of Newport’s player of the season awards, the Doc Heffernan Shield for Young Player of the Year; the Brian’s Tom’s President’s Cup Player’s Player of the Year Award; the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made.

After a successful loan Ben White received a new contract from the club until 2021, with Brighton manager Chris Hughton telling the club’s official website: “I’m delighted for Ben, and he is another example of a young player that has worked very hard to develop his game over the last couple of years. We have closely monitored his progress at Newport, and it is very pleasing to see him adapt so well to a very competitive standard of football in League Two. I was pleased to give him his debut for this club in the EFL Cup match against Colchester last season, and he thoroughly deserves this new contract.”

The following season, after White’s success at Newport, Hughton included White as a part of the 1st team squad, becoming the effectively now fourth choice central defender. At the start of the season Chris Hughton said of his central defence options beyond his top 3, “If I am looking within, the natural ones in that position would be Ben White” Going on to say: “Particularly in that position you would want as much experience as possible but on numerous occasions, not just myself but with other clubs, a young player comes in and surprises a few. So if that opportunity arose for him then you’d want him to take it with both hands.”

But unfortunately chances weren’t forthcoming. As after an injury ruled him out of EFL cup action, and the brilliant form of Shane Duffy alongside then vice-captain Lewis Dunk, plus the experience of new signing Nigeria international Leon Balogun meant he struggled to get a look in. Some were beginning to question by this point why the club wasn’t entrusting Ben with the back-up centre back spot, but as Hughton said in the earlier quote, his is a position where experience is key. And as many young talented English footballers have found to their cost, youth team football and one season in the lower leagues doesn’t fully prepare you for the rigours of the Premier League.

As a result, another loan move looked like a sensible option for White at the time. Especially with first team chances so limited and another centre back in Dan Burn being added to Brighton’s defensive ranks that January. So White that month was sent out on loan, this time to League One Peterborough. Chris Hughton said, “This move is one which allows Ben to play regular first-team football at a good level for his development. At this stage of his career it’s important that he continues to gain as much match experience as possible. He’s someone who we’ve had around the first-team squad for the first half of the campaign, but with competition for places increased with the return of Dan Burn from Wigan, this gives him the chance to go out and play regular football at a level higher than he experienced last season.”

It was a tough start to his loan stint, which saw a 5-0 defeat in a FA Cup 3rd tie away to Middlesbrough in his first game. But despite this White was described as “a ray of light amid the Middlesbrough gloom” by the Peterborough Telegraph and given a 7 out of 10. Once again whilst out on loan White impressed with his calmness, intelligence on the ball and awareness when defending. And as the season went on, he was a key player for Peterborough as they just missed out on the playoffs. Yet more signs of greater things to come.

Part way through that season Dan Ashworth was appointed Technical director at Brighton and soon started putting his stamp on the club. In particular with the club’s summer transfer business including a number of young talented English player to add to the first team competition for places. This included Adam Webster and Matt Clarke, both signed from Championship clubs adding competition to Ben White’s position at centre back. And with Graham Potter replacing Chris Hughton as manager and keen to not change too much too soon or introduce too many of Albion’s talented young U23s into the first team, another loan move for Ben White made sense.

And he would be one of a large group of youngsters at the club that were sent on loan that season. That summer Dan Ashworth, head of loans David Weir and head of recruitment Paul Winstanley attended an event as Stamford Bridge dubbed a “transfer speed dating event”, which they attended in order to promote its young loan players to other clubs. And given the clubs U23 team finished 3rd in the Premier League 2 and the team’s top scorer Aaron Connolly won the league’s player of the season it’s no surprise there was a lot of interest

But considering how well Ben had done at Newport and Peterborough there was no real need to advertise his availability, many clubs had already taken note of his talents. And a loan move to Leeds United in the Championship was agreed for the upcoming 2019/20 season. Like a number of clubs, Leeds had been tracking White’s progress for about two years, around the period of time which had passed since they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Ben White’s Newport County in fact.

White’s U23 boss Simon Rusk said of the loan: “This is an exciting move for Ben and one that make sense in his natural development. Ben will have to adapt once again, as he joins a new group of players and experiences an increased standard of quality and athleticism in the Championship.”

Brighton were only willing to sanction a temporary exit for White to Leeds, who were initially keen on a permanent move or a loan with an option to buy in 12 month’s time. To further protect their investment Ben White was tied down to a longer term deal until 2022, a big coup for the club given there was serious talk of Spurs amongst others being interested in signing the youngster that summer.

At Brighton it was the newly appointed head of loans David Weir who’d keep the club in contact with Ben. His role at the club is to manage the relationships with the club’s loan players. A role that’s been created by the significant amount of loan deals the club are sanctioning for its youth players to encourage their development with a view of them either being promoted to the first team or sold on at a profit.

David Weir said of his role: “It’s also about meeting people who might be interested in our players and find markets and clubs who might potentially be interested in taking our players. It’s a really good tool for me – to meet a lot of clubs in a relatively short period of time and open up some new avenues.”

Ben White’s loan was a real coup, not just for Leeds to get such a sought after player, but for Ben too. Having experienced mid table finishes in League’s 1 and 2, to now get the experience at a club in the Championship with the expectations that Leeds had was huge for his development. Having narrowly missed out on promotion the season before there were now increased expectations that the club would go one better the following season. Whilst being able to work with a manager of such global and almost mythical renown as Marcelo Bielsa too, it had the potential to be a massive season in his development.

So it turned out. It wasn’t long before heads were starting to turn toward Ben’s performances. He won widespread praise on his debut in a 3-1 win over Bristol City and never looked back. Sky Sports pundit that day Louis Carey described Ben White’s debut for Leeds as “one of the best Championship debuts I’ve seen.”

David Wier told the Athletic part way through season: “You could argue that he could play for Brighton now. He has got better and better, and has done better than anyone could have expected. He’s right up there in terms of the top defenders in the Championship. We’re all thrilled by how he is doing and the progression he has made. He’s a great example of a loan programme working well.”

And Ben White has been getting praise from far and wide for his performances at Leeds with Alex Stewart of the Athletic saying: “While White’s defending is intelligent and proactive, it’s his work with the ball that marks him out as an outstanding prospect.” Going on to say “What’s clear, though, is he has the skills to succeed almost anywhere.”

Ben White certainly left a lasting mark at Leeds United. As the fans celebrated the Championship title and promotion, Ben White joined his teammates on the steps outside Elland Road to join in the celebrations and Ben revelled in the moment as the fans urged him to join the club permanently. And the subsequent #FreeBenWhite social media campaign shows just how highly the young defender is thought of by the Leeds faithful. Something all those who have been involved in his development over the past 6 years at Brighton can take great pride in.

With the season now over, according to reports in the Brighton Argus, Albion have continued their stance that they held the previous summer by telling suitors that Ben White isn’t for sale. But just because of his recent success and hype, he isn’t simply going to walk into the Brighton first team next season. As David Weir said on the clubs official website recently, the reality that Ben White now faces at Brighton is: “Now he has to come back to us and prove that he is a Premier League player. He has shown that he is good enough to be promoted out of the Championship and be consistent.”

That said, the transfer window still has a long way to go and whilst Albion have said White is not for sale, every player has a price. Whether White is playing at Brighton, Leeds or another club next season, it’s almost certain that the Premier League will be his destination for the season ahead.

Whilst there is still plenty for White prove. If his track record tells us anything, it’s that he has continued to rise to every challenge he’s faced. It’s not been a completely smooth ride for him into English football’s top level over the last six years, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the 2020/21 season will see further success for Ben White.

The Tweeting Seagull EPL Season Preview – We Shall Overcome?

In the four Gospels of the Christian Bible, Jesus is said to have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And competing in the Premier League with one of the lowest budgets and least experienced squads against some of the behemoths of world football, can at times feel like Albion are attempting to repeat a similar sized feat.

Yes, the club are in the best financial position that they’ve ever been in and the amount of transfer money spent in recent years is at unprecedented level, and is expected to increase in the coming days. But as this is the same for every team in the topflight, any benefits that each individual club receives from the Premier League’s wealth tend to average out.

And it no wonder we are fighting against the tide, with the club 118 years old, it enters only its 7th season in the topflight. The club doesn’t have a historic right to claim a place in the top flight, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is here on merit after a long fought for promotion and two hard-fought survivals from relegation.

BBC’s Sussex’s Johnny Cantor said in his recent Brighton independent column that at the start of the new season “the slate is clean”. Whilst Davy Propper stated “At the moment, it is a kind of new start.” But at the same time with a new start comes many new challenges, just as Potter admitted himself in an interview with Tom Barclay of the Sun: “Whenever you start a new job, it’s always a bit daunting, the unknown.” And for Potter there are a number of unknowns that the Albion faithful will be hoping he has resolved come 3pm on Saturday 10th August.

In the Guardian 18-19 season preview Jacob Steinburg said: “Brighton look equipped to survive if they adopt the right mindset. Consolidation is the aim, with Bournemouth’s cosy mid-table life something to aspire to. Anything more will be a happy bonus.” But whilst this year the paper predicted relegation for the Albion, in many ways much the same could be said of the team a year on. And yet the amount of flux at the club since the end of the season coupled with the less than encouraging end to last season raises question marks over how well the team will manage all of this change whilst competing at the highest level with such relatively lowly resources.

First and foremost, the Albion need to address a lack of goals. In their two Premier League season’s so far they have scored just 69 goals in 76 games, with only Huddersfield scoring less over those two seasons in the topflight.

But Potter’s intention is to change this and bring in an attacking style of play that can please the eye. On his appointment he said that “We try and play football in a positive way.” Something the four-goal haul against Birmingham and the and five-goal haul against Liefering in pre-season demonstrated.

Andy Naylor said at the end of last season, “Albion cannot keep leaning so heavily on 35-year-old Glenn Murray to keep them afloat, admirable though he continues to be. The greatest need is more firepower.” And the pressure being taken off Murray’s shoulders will be mostly reliant on new signing Neal Maupay.

Maupay is exactly what the doctor ordered for Albion, a striker who has pace and scores goals, and is a player who played the central striker in Potter’s suggested formation of a 343 at Brentford.

Last season he scored 28 goals in 47 games, a record incredibly similar to Glenn Murray’s 25 in 48 in Brighton promotion season of 2016/17 and a record that won him Brentford’s player of the season. The question will be can he translate that form into the topflight as well as Murray has over the last two seasons.

But, we’ve been here before with Albion signing a new forward player for and big fee. The club’s transfer activity seeing all bar Knockaert of last season’s mostly misfiring attackers, suggests they feel the answers are more in Potter evolving the style of play and developing the players he has, much like he did at Swansea last season. And its early days yet, but new signing Leonardo Trossard’s statement that he was convinced to join the club after being enticed by Potter’s vision of attacking football is encouraging.

In addition to Knockaert leaving, another player whose been key in attack in recent season’s, Pascal Gross, appears to be looking at having a more diminished role. In part because it’s tough to see how Potter fits him into his favoured 343 formation. This is a real concern in my eyes given he’s the Albion player who we’ve been able to rely on to deliver the goods in attacking area whilst most others misfire. A fact that piles more pressure onto Trossard.

As well as Trossard, there could be some other new attacking players making the step up from the u23 team. One in particular is last season’s Premier League 2 player of the season Aaron Connolly who was picked out by the Guardian as the Albion ‘youngster who can shine on tour’. Unfortunately, despite impressing for Ireland at the Toulon tournament over the summer, he hasn’t made much of an impact, featuring only in a young Albion team that won 1-0 at Crawley via a Taylor Richard’s penalty.

The signing of Taylor Richards is intriguing, and whilst I didn’t cover it in my recent transfer window blog as he’s initially been signed as an u23 player, the signs are he is expected by the club to make some impact on the first team this season, rather than just being limited to the odd cup team appearance and u23 football. Richards said on signing, “I feel I’m at that stage now that I need to push on, I didn’t think playing 23s was helping me – I feel like I was stuck.”

As was pointed out by Andy Naylor in a recent Argus article, “before the start of the current transfer window fifteen of the 16 permanent outfield signings made for the Premier League (including the loaned-out Percy Tau and Alexis Mac Allister) have been foreign.” In contrast the signings of Richards, Clarke and Webster make it only one of four made this summer, but such a small sample doesn’t necessarily suggest a change in tact regarding transfer activity.

A potentially bigger issue to the success in Potter’s evolution in the Albion’s style will be the team’s poor ball retention. Not only did the Albion have the fourth lowest average possession in the league last season but also the fifth lowest passing accuracy. Whilst this was partly due to the team’s defensive and direct style under Hughton, they’re not statistics that suggest changing to a back-to-front, possession-based approach is suited. This could be the real area where Potter and his assistants coaching skills are truly tested.

But the most telling deficiency could be off the field, through the lack of Leadership and experience within the squad. Something increasingly evident since the retirement of last season’s Captain Bruno, the departure of Knockaert and the resultant decreased amount of topflight experience and leaders that remain at the club.

The squad is one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of last season showed. Brighton’s squad started last season with cumulatively the fifth lowest in terms of Premier League experience, totalling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated last season, with the only other side Wolves, unlike Brighton a team made up of players with plenty of topflight experience in Europe’s other topflight leagues.

As a result, the more experienced and long-serving players who remain at the club like Dunk, Duffy, Ryan, Stephens and Murray will now be required to step up and fill this void. It was clear morale nosedived significantly towards the end of last season during the club’s poor form, leadership will be important to ensure the feelings of frustration and negativity that remain at the club do not hang around for much longer.

There were certainly signs of a lack of leadership during the three successive defeats at home to Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, a run that spelled the end for Hughton as manager. But in the subsequent run of four games the team showed evidence of all the previously missing qualities. And if it weren’t for a spectacular, if speculative late winner from Spurs the team would have gone unbeaten in that run. A run that showed that there is plenty for Potter to work with.

The second half of last season aside, the club’s home form has been its saving grace over the last two seasons. But its poor Away form has been a real concern, having picked up only 24 points on their travels over 38 games. However, if the draw away to Arsenal in the penultimate game of last season showed anything, it’s that given the attacking freedom, the team can take points away from home. Potter’s job will be to instil the level of confidence shown that day more consistently and a new attacking approach could allow for that. Even if the team’s home form isn’t as good as it was under Hughton, if they can average around a point a game away from home, they should still be in a position to improve on last season’s 17th place finish, assuming the home form doesn’t deteriorate as drastically as it did towards the end of last season.

As this is being written, the squad for the season is still to be finalised. In particular there is talk of a central midfielder being added, with u23 players like Alzate and Baluta fall back options if the targeted deals don’t get done in time. But overall our squad is not dissimilar to the one that saw Albion survive two seasons in a row, albeit narrowly last season.

The mathematical football predictions site Forebet has forecasted Brighton to finish 18th citing the need for more Premier League quality players in order to survive. But as we know, mathematical models often prove wrong and a good coach and an organised and well-drilled team can be far more valuable than talented individuals. A quality that appeared to be working well for the team for 18 months prior to last season’s slump.

As the Guardian current season preview stated, “Brighton’s lack of business suggests they trust Potter to nurture young blood and eke more out of a flatlining attack.” And unless there is a flurry of late transfer activity, it is likely that this is what Brighton’s season will come down to.

Some are more optimistic. Especially those at Fantraxhq.com, who unlike many stated that “Brighton shouldn’t have any relegation fears come the end of the season.” But anyone who was reassured after regularly reading the same before the beginning of last season will know that it is likely to be far from the reality of a season-long relegation dog-fight.

All this talk of new signings and new styles of play reminds me of last season. With the talk of record signings and plans from Hughton for a more combative, high-pressing style of play, neither of which materialised as planned. And after a mixed start to the season the team reverted to the deep-lying defensive style Hughton was best known for. Time will tell if in contrast Potter will succeed, but those expecting a revolution will likely have to settle for a slow evolution in style, such is the priority for pick up points to ensure survival over entertainment.

Potter alluded to this himself to the Telegraph in a recent interview. “We want our teams to be able to entertain the supporters… At the Amex they’ll be very important for us. So we’ll try and entertain. At the same time I know we’re in the results business. I’m not naive.” In the Premier League you don’t often get second chances, Brighton need to grasp theirs with both hands. Here’s hoping the team can overcome the issues of last season in order to do so.

New season, new signings (again)

With a new season and the closing of the transfer window two weeks away new signings are a topic on almost every Brighton fans lips. The transfer window is something that has often been kind to Brighton fans over the last decade but with growing status comes growing expectations and in recent seasons the reception of the club’s transfer dealings has been mixed. As such this summer feels like a big one, but what has this summer brought the club so far?

Albion’s first summer signing was Matt Clarke, a centre back from League One Portsmouth. But with a heavy heart their 17/18 player of the season showed a keenness to make the step up to the top flight when he told The Portsmouth News: “As a boy, you dream of playing in the Premier League, and maybe it is time to give myself a new challenge… And unfortunately, with Pompey not getting promoted and me needing to take a step up, that was also a factor.”

It was a move that some suggested would instigate the sale of Lewis Dunk who is reported to have attracted strong interest from Leicester, but that transfer seems to have gone cold for now since talk of the Albion putting a £45m price tag on his head.

Nonetheless with Clarke now on the books along with other centre backs Dan Burn, Ben White (who is spending the season on loan at Leeds) and Nigerian international Leon Balogun the club have a plethora of readymade replacements if any rumoured moves for Dunk or his partner Duffy come to fruition in the near future.

The next new signing to join the club was the young Belgian international winger Leandro Trossard who was signed from Belgium League champions Genk. Trossard, who is the Albion sixth ever signing with an eight figure transfer fee, played 35 times scoring 15 goals last season as Genk won the Belgian title and was even given the captains armband towards the end of the season.

Trossard is a highly rated young talent in his native Belgium, which is evidenced best by him having played at youth level for the U16s, U17s, U18s, U19s and U21s. He has also been called up to the senior team squad on multiple occasions, but had yet to receive his first cap, which considering the competition is hardly a surprise.

But the signing of Trossard was not just a signing of a player of notable talent but one that signalled the sale of one of the current wingers at the club, which we will come to later.

But one key question on many Albion fans lips is can we trust the signing of Trossard to succeed given the club’s recent record in the transfer market? Well overall the club record is actually quite good despite what some might say.

Brighton have one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier League. In the 17/18 season, the most recent that we have figures for, Brighton had the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league with only Huddersfield’s being lower. And whilst the club’s gross transfer spend during the 18/19 season was estimated as the 9th highest in the country, it was done so whilst bringing in a whopping 15 players, making the average transfer fee per player estimated at around only £5/6m, which is a level of spending that doesn’t buy much in the current market at this level.

And whilst the club’s net spend since promotion to the topflight was the 6th highest in the Premier League this is also exaggerated by the fact that unlike much of the competition, the club didn’t have Premier League assets to sell to offset against their spending. In fact, the club’s total estimated transfer revenue was only £12m, half that of the league’s estimated average.

On top of that, the squad needed strengthening to meet the standards required to make the step up to the top tier. And as Fulham showed last season, even if you splash lots of cash it doesn’t ensure success.

It should also be considered that many of the players signed, like Billy Arce, Alexis Mac Allister and Percy Tau, wouldn’t have been signed with first team appearances last season in mind so their signatures should really bare no judgment on last season’s performance.

I, like many others, have been full of praise for Paul Winstanley and his recruitment team in recent years, and I’m not continuing to support them just to save face. This is praise that has been commonplace for a significant amount of time and I stand by my comments. In particular, the signings of Pascal Gross, Maty Ryan, Jose Izquierdo and Davy Pröpper, who were all crucial in our survival in our first Premier League season and that our top-flight status is continuing into next season.

As were many of the following summers signings such as Martin Montoya, Bernardo and Yves Bissouma who were all crucial during the last seasons relegation fight. Go as far back as 2015 and pre the appointment of Chris Hughton as manager, the Brighton Argus were already praising the appointment of Paul Winstanley, and it’s been largely plain sailing even since aside from the odd blemish.

Of course, there will always be signings that don’t work out, that is part of the competitive market we are working within. And it doesn’t help if that outlier is your record signing. But to say Brighton’s transfer activity has been poor is short-sighted and lazy punditry. And gives no reason for us to believe Trossard will not be a success.

One element in former manager Chris Hughton’s relationship with owner Tony Bloom that reportedly caused conflict was the club’s transfer policy, which is something that was discussed by Barry Glendenning on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast after Hughton’s sacking. And with the recent appointment of Dan Ashworth as Technical Director along with Graham Potter being given the job title of First Team “Head Coach” rather than “Manager”, it suggests a change in approach in this regard. The club may now have its ducks in a row. And let’s hope so, as expectations are now higher than ever

One of the key elements to the summer that the club does needs to address in one way or another is the retirement of Captain Bruno and the resultant decreased amount of topflight experience and leaders that remain at the club.

The squad is one of the most inexperienced in the division as an analysis produced at the start of the season showed. Brighton’s squad started last season with cumulatively the fifth lowest in terms of Premier League experience, totalling only 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle. More striking is that three of the four less experienced teams were subsequently relegated last season with the only other side Wolves, who unlike Brighton are a team made up of players with plenty of topflight experience in Europe’s other topflight leagues.

That relative inexperience has been increased since the retirement of Bruno, who along with other leaders in the dressing room like the also now departed Liam Rosienior and Steven Sidwell were all a huge part of the “good group of lads” that Hughton moulded first into a promotion winning side, and then into a Premier League side which will soon enter its third straight season in the top flight.

As a result, the more experienced and long-serving players who remain at the club like the previously mentioned Dunk and Duffy, as well as players like Ryan, Stephens and Murray will now be required to step and fill this void. It was clear morale nosedived significantly towards the end of last season during the club’s poor form, leadership will be important to ensure the feelings of frustration and negativity that remain at the club do not hang over the club for much longer.

Furthermore, the club’s transfer policy clearly has filling this void of leaders left behind in mind, with both Clarke and Trossard having captained their previous club sides.

But what about the practical element of Bruno’s departure and the cover at Right back? Well, Montoya has already in many people’s eyes established himself as the number one choice having made 25 league appearances last season to Bruno’s 14. As for back up, there is Bernardo, who whilst primarily a left back, can play on either flank or Leon Balogun, who again while not primarily a right back has played there prior to signing for the Albion. There’s is also potential for a return to Albion first team action for Ezequiel Schelotto, who after not being included in last season’s league squad has returned to the club after a loan spell at Chievo.

Another possibility in all areas where signings are deemed to be required, (and if you believe certain Brighton fans on social media there is a long list) is that some of Simon Rusk’s successful u23 team could step up to fill the gaps. Well those that haven’t been sent on loan that is.

But that isn’t the only first team departure. With the signing of Trossard it was inevitable that someone would make way and it turned out to be Anthony Knockaert. Firstly, let it be stated that like most Albion fans I’m devastated. When it comes to entertainment there have been few players who’ve worn the blue and white stripes in my twenty years of following the club who’ve provided so many bums off seats moments. But at the same time, I agree that the club have probably made the right decision to part ways and feel it will work best for both parties.

In team sports like football, teams need to choose the collective over an individual and too often over the last two seasons Knockaert’s own individual motivation has left the collective poorer as a result. Too often he’s chosen the wrong option in attacking areas, and at times seemed to be trying overly hard to impress as an individual over doing what is best for the team. You can tell after everything Knockaert has been through it meant a lot to him to repay the support he’d received from the club and the supporters, and at times this seemed to overspill into indiscipline and a sense of a very self-centred motivation.

Let’s take Palace away as an example. Yes, it was a game which saw possibly his finest moment in an Albion shirt, but were it not for an overly-lenient referee and an off-colour Palace, Knockaert could have easily cost the team victory well before that famous goal sailed into the top corner.

During this game almost every decision he made seemed rushed, lacking composure and it appeared inevitable that he would be replaced. In fact, Solly March was on the side lines ready to come in in his place as he stepped inside and scored the goal that won Albion a famous three point.

One of the notable trends last season is how few times Knockaert and March played together, since the beginning of October they started the same game only five times in all competitions. A remarkable fact considering they are two of Brighton’s most creative players in attack. They’re statistically very similar too and it begs the question can they play together? And so, it’s no surprise the club backed the younger and more disciplined March, especially considering the Home-Grown Player rules.

It’s always sad to end such a fruitful and enjoyable relationship, and Knockaert will go down as an Albion great. But, it’s probably the right time for both parties to part ways. The collective must always be valued above an individual and that is what is the case here.

Overall, it’s too early to make too many conclusions from the transfer window until it closes, especially as we are entering the period of most activity. But many of the question marks that were raised during the second half of last season remain. And it appears more and more that the club are hoping that at least some of the answers to those questions will already exist at the club, either with the players signed in recent transfer windows or the successful u23 team.

Whatever happens with those already brought in and the new Potter era more generally. The team and the new faces need to be given the space and time to fail before they can then thrive and progress. Change isn’t easy and is often correlated with growing pains and as such a tough season lies ahead, where patience will be required. But hopefully the club can find enough satisfactory answers to the questions that leaves the club matching its first two seasons of Premier League survival once again.