Matchday 29 and FA Cup Quarter Final- Two wins that will go down in folklore
The final ten games started with two wins that will go down in Albion folklore. First it was a trip to Selhurst Park for the seemingly unpopularly named ‘M23’ Derby (something Jonathan Pearce pointed out in his Match of the Day commentary), followed by a trip to Millwall for an FA Cup quarter final.
It was an early start for the trip to Selhurst Park, with the game kicking off at 12:30, and it was the first top flight game between the sides that had been picked for live TV coverage. Crystal Palace away is a fixture I have little good memories of, the only time we’ve won there in my memory was in 2005 when I was stuck in a hostel in the Lake District with little communication with the outside world. That was in fact the only win the Albion have experienced over Palace at Selhurst Park since 1986.
It felt like this might be another bad day there for the Albion when Andone, who was picked to start ahead of Murray, was injured in the warm up. So Murray started once again against his old club looking for his 100th league goal for Brighton, but it was the hosts that dominated the early passages and more doom was feared by the Seagulls faithful.
But despite not being the aggressor, Brighton started the game by making sure Palace knew they were in for a battle. And in doing so almost instantly made Milivojevic a marked man. First Anthony Knockaert went in overzealously for a tackle and caught the Serbian studs high in his private area, then just as the pain was starting to subside Bissouma caught him painfully on his ankle.
Whilst this sent a message to Palace that they were in for a battle, with Knockaert and Montoya already on yellows up against Zaha, and Bissouma on a warning the Seagulls were walking a tightrope. But nonetheless they kept Zaha quiet virtually all game. Palace’s star man and top scorer from open play had only two shots, neither of which were on target. Whilst he attempted 9 dribbles only three were successful (a 33% success rate compared to his average of 50%). His passing accuracy was 70% compared to his average of 77%, which included three crosses, none of which were successful.
Many pundits adore Zaha when he’s good, and at the Albion we know to our cost how good he can be. But this was the other side of him, ineffectual, impatient and petulant. Montoya had him under control all game and even when Zaha switched to the right at 2-1 down after Solly March was introduced for Knockaert he was just as ineffectual.
He did create one good moment when one of his crosses was blocked but was deflected back into box to create one of the best chances of the game. But the Albion held firm as Duffy’s headed clearance was followed up by a Dunk block in a moment that personified the Albion back line. Dunk in particular was brilliant that day, as it seems the targeting he got from the Palace supporters from the start spurred him on.
The scoring was opened by that man Glenn Murray to achieve another landmark. After James Tomkins unintentionally flicked the ball into his path, Murray volleyed the ball into the bottom corner with aplomb. This was only Tomkins second error leading to goals this season, both of which he saved for Brighton, cheers James. Aside from these two games, he’s been fantastic for Palace, but such is the way of the football gods that he made his two errors in the two big derby games.
But the Albion would only hold the lead until the 50 minutes mark when Davy Propper gave away a penalty and the Albion’s marked man Milivojevic retaliated by putting it away to draw Palace level.
But the game wouldn’t stay level. And it was a moment of magic from Anthony Knockaert that settled the game with a goal reminiscent of his 2017 Championship player of the season winning form. A goal that would end up winning the premier league goal of month award and the Albion’s goal of the season. As Knockaert ran away in glee Glenn Murray held his hands over his face, presumably to hide the glee and shock of the goal from his former employers and their supporters, but we all knew.
This is one of the moments that would lead to these two games in eight days going down in Albion folklore. And it was a moment that perfectly demonstrated the contrasting elements of Knockaert’s game. One minute his enthusiasm is getting the better of him and he almost gets sent off, the next he wins the game with the goal of the season.
At full time the Albion sat on 33 points and eight clear of the bottom three, which with their far superior goal difference was effectively nine. But in the 3pm kick offs, Cardiff, Newcastle and Burley all won and the gap between the Albion and the bottom three remained at 5 points. There was still work to do but with the FA cup quarter final away to Millwall up next we could all take our minds off worrying about the relegation battle, for now.
Then came a game that summed up 2019 for the Albion. At times awful, at times heroic, at times let down by the officials, at times just chaos. But ultimately just about doing enough. The win at Millwall, and specifically the moment Solly March’s overhit cross was dropped into the goal by Millwall’s veteran ‘keeper David Martin will be a moment that will live with all the Albion fans that witnessed it for a long time.
This was an epic cup tie and one where Brighton were on the backfoot from the off. The great Millwall atmosphere was intimidating, which was whipped up by a team huddle at start and continued by the noise created by the Millwall fans that was less a football chant and more a communal grunt. And if the Brighton team weren’t intimidated by then they had to contend with being left to wait on the pitch in the middle of this ferocious atmosphere for the Millwall team to return to the pitch after half time.
This clearly affected the Albion in what was a largely disjointed and timid performance until March replaced Knockaert on 67 minutes. But until then the Albion showed little of their Premier League status Hughton called on them to call upon before the game. A particularly prescient example of this was every time Millwall won a corner, something met with roars of delight from the home crowd and a large degree of panic in the Albion defence of the like seen by the team last season.
And this paid dividends for Millwall when Alex Pearce scored from a corner after being left unmarked at back post when his marker Murray was blocked off during an ever effective Millwall routine.
Knockaert was as poor as any Albion player that day and was clearly affected by the circumstances. Every decision was rushed, lacking composure and it was inevitable he would be replaced. In fact in these last two games Knockaert had played badly in both, and a wonder goal aside left the Albion right hand side quite diminished until Solly March was brought on.
When O’Brian put Millwall 2-0 up with just over ten minutes to go even the most optimistic of Brighton fans wouldn’t have expected what was to come. And as the minutes ticked down all hope seemed lost. And as Jonathon Pearce said in his commentary Brighton were heading out unless there was a late miracle.
But when Solly March’s impact down the right finally paid dividends after he rounded the Millwall defence and found fellow super sub Locadia who swivelled and fired it home to make it 2-1. Then after Brighton won a free kick mid way into the Millwall half, Solly March’s equalised with his miss-hit cross.
From here the Albion had the momentum, and despite having a perfectly good goal disallowed in the dying moments of extra time and then Murray missing the first penalty of the shoot out, Brighton won 5-4 on penalties.
And as the Seagulls fans in South London went mad, so did the team. This truly felt like a momentous occasion. Even Hughton said excitedly after the game “Now the draw has been made we are so excited about a game in which we will obviously be big underdogs, but what a challenge.”
Match day 30 – 33 and FA Cup Semi Final – 5 big games, 5 big defeats
So after two big wins, the Albion entered a key and exiting section of the season with a trip to Stanford Bridge and an FA Cup Semi Final sandwiched in between three important home games against fellow relegation candidates. Five games that promised much but delivered little but heartache.
First up was Southampton at home and a 1-0 defeat, which piled the pressure on the team. Some suggested the players had ‘taken their eye off the ball’ due to the FA cup distraction? But this was ignoring the fact that thing hadn’t been going right for the team for a while.
Much like Huddersfield it was a poor first half that Southampton edged. But unlike Huddersfield the second half started much the same and got worse when after Bissouma was caught in possession, Nathan Redmond pounced and drove forward with pace and found Hojbjerg who scored his second goal against the Albion this season.
It was a goal that illustrated the issues with the Albion performance. Too slow in possession and too easily disturbed by the good Southampton press. Southampton, who’s switched from their usual back three to a back four to best combat the Albion’s front three were the better organised and saw out the game with reasonable ease. Whereas Albion were struggling to make their much derided 433 formation work effectively.
It wasn’t until March (for Jahanbakhsh) and then Locadia (for Propper) came on until the Albion looked dangerous. This was another example that without March stretching the defence and another attacker (in this case Locadia) adding an extra penalty box threat, Brighton are too reliant on set pieces and Glenn Murray for goals.
For long periods Murray looked isolated and had to drift wide to find space leaving little to no penalty box threat. This combined with the lack of willingness of midfielders to make forward runs to compensate, then you can see why we only managed one shot on target all game. And this was a trend that continued on this run and the deficiencies that this system caused would be further exposed in upcoming games against the far superior opposition of Chelsea and Man City.
That said, if Duffy had connected with Knockaert’s free kick, or Bernardo had done better when free at the back post from a corner, or Jahanbakhsh‘s shot had clipped the underside of the bar and gone in then it could have looked different. But these are the small margins which games are decided on.
With the trip to Chelsea sandwiched between the Southampton game and the FA cup semi it was almost like the visit to the home of the three times Premier League champions had been forgotten. Somewhat surprisingly for a London away game, the away end didn’t sell out with many Albion fans saving their hard earned pennies for Saturday’s FA Cup Semi Final. And this summed up the feeling around the club since the Millwall win, the focus was all on Wembley.
And with Hughton’s plan for Brighton to shut down Chelsea’s attacking threat and create a forgettable game the ones who stayed away probably made the right choice. But whilst it was frustrating to watch and the 3-0 defeat suggested otherwise, his plan largely worked. A bit of a freak first goal followed by two wonder strikes (one from Hazard, again) won Chelsea a deserved lead but on another night we could have sneaked a draw.
In many ways it was a disciplined and impressive performance, in particular Dale Stephens’ positional awareness was making things tough for the home team. Whilst primarily doubling up with Propper on Hazard. Dale also filled in for Bissouma when required when the Malian tried to drive forward
Dale Stephens always divides opinion. But a look at his stats from that night back him up. Defensively he was good, his tacking was as good as ever. Going forward he was also one of the better ones, with an 88% passing accuracy 5% up on his season average.
Our defensive shape that night was quite good in general and Stephens held it all together. Something we’d need again at the weekend.
All the defensive shape and discipline practice would come in handy for playing City in the semi final that I described in more detail here. But rather than focus on the game here I want to focus on the day, and what a day it was.
Yes we lost, but the day never was about the result, it was about the club and its fans enjoying a historic day in the club’s history. Brighton fans filled pubs all over London, from Marylebone to Mayfair, from The Globe in Baker Street to The Green Man in Wembley. And pre-match the atmosphere in the west end of the stadium was a sight that could have put a lump in the back of the throat of even the less sentimental from within our fanbase.
For me the best moment of the day was still to come. At the final whistle 35,000 Brighton fans stood on their feet applauding and cheering their side. Proud of their efforts and appreciative of what had been a memorable cup run for the club, it’s second best performance in the FA Cup and the best for 36 years.
These were post match celebrations that will live long in the memory. I, like I’m sure many others, felt quite emotional at the end, maybe it was the weariness from the battle, maybe it was the sound of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” ringing around the Stadium, a song that has become synonymous with the club, or maybe it was sharing such a momentous day with family and friends. Either way it had been a second half performance from the team to be praised. Whilst chances were few and far between, this Albion side had pushed possibly the greatest team in the world right to the end. And after a few post match drinks to savour every drop of the day we went home satisfied that we’d made the most of it and the team had done the City proud.
Whilst some would criticise this as a typically negative performance from Brighton, including the BBC’s Jermaine Jenas who called it as “missed opportunity” for the club, they were up against a great team. And you only have to look at the final ten minutes where Brighton did throw players forward in attack to see what they were up against, a period in which the Albion managed to create no clear cut chances, whilst City created the best of the game on the break, which Raheem Stirling struck tamely into the hands of Brighton ‘keeper Maty Ryan.
The club hoped this would be a springboard for the two key home games coming up against Bournemouth and Cardiff. As Hughton said himself after the game: “To run City close takes a huge effort so it’s a very, very tired changing room. We are happy but on Monday morning we’ve got to get our Premier League heads on. We have got a fight on our hands.”
But rather than a springboard for that fight, in preceded the most damming week of the season and probably that of the AMEX era. The was on the receiving end of its worst home defeat in 47 years and then lost to their direct relegation rivals Cardiff a few days later.
Tired and drained from the culmination of the cup run? Restrained by a lack of confidence and the pressure of the occasion? Or just out-fought and out-thought? Whatever the reason, Brighton were second best on both occasions.
Albion’s FA Cup heroes returned to the AMEX for Premier League duties knowing that avoiding defeat in both games would likely be enough to see them secure another season in the top flight. But instead they quickly became villains as they were taken to pieces by an out of form Bournemouth and then comfortably beaten by a struggling Cardiff who’d only won twice away from home all season before that win.
For me this was the week that the excuses for the bad performances really had to end. In both games there was plenty of evidence of a placid stand-offish approach from the Albion, which was maybe in part as a result of a hangover of the approach from the Chelsea and City games. But it had become ever more a habit as the season went on and the team’s form deteriorated.
Ultimately you can’t defend in the same fashion against Bournemouth or Cardiff as you do against City and get away with it here. Two sides whose strength lies in fast counter attacking picked off an Albion team caught in two minds of whether to go out and attack or defend in numbers, ultimately managing neither.
The terrible defending for the first goal is an example of this. As a defensive unit they, much like against City and Chelsea, sat deep and let Bournemouth pass around then. But without the same back tracking from forward players and without the same effective defensive shape, Bournemouth walked it though the large gaps in the Brighton defence.
After half time it got worse as Fraser scored a spectacular second when he caught an off-colour Ryan out of position. And it got even worse than that after Knockaert was red carded for an awful tackle. A moment that could be put down as trying too hard, but in reality was a moment stupidity.
After that the team seemed to give up and the third, fourth and fifth goals just added to the embarrassment. As well as the heaviest home defeat since 1972 it was the heaviest defeat under Hughton. As described by the Talk Sport radio commentator that day, it was an “absolute humiliation”.
Such was the humiliation, many fans left at 4-0 with ten minutes to go, early even by AMEX standard. And it’s hard to blame them, after all the talk of creating more chances since the change to a 433, the team had mustered only had 2 shots on target over the last 2 home games.
So with the Albion facing Cardiff on the following Tuesday it felt like a reaction was needed. And the team started like a house on fire, but it was Cardiff who took the lead via a spectacular strike from Mendez-Laing on the break.
It was he who drove the visitors forward with a pace that the Albion lacked, after winning the ball in midfield from Propper, also showing a determination that the Brighton team lacked. With Propper caught out of position, Mendez Laing was given too much space by Stephens and he rifled it into the top corner.
At half time some initial boos were drowned out by cheers and chants of Albion to encourage the team. But what followed in the second half was even worse. In attack the team looked rudderless, whereas Cardiff looked constantly dangerous on the break with the pace of their attack.
And after the returning Pascal Gross gave away a free kick Morrison headed home Camarasa’s cross to give Cardiff an unassailable two goal lead.
As a result of the predicament Hughton brought on Izquierdo and Andone and they showed some intent, but it created little chances on goal and a 2-0 defeat is how it ended. This was now three straight defeats at home to non-top six sides and eight goals conceded without reply.
Whereas this was once a team that whilst struggling to control games were good in both boxes, this was now a team that was seemingly good at nothing and needed to go back to basics to find any kind of winning formula.
This was a run that had tested the squad and that supposed strength we spoke about earlier in the season had been found out as weak, in attacking areas at least. With Murray’s goals drying up and Gross injured, the rest of the team had failed to fill the hole they left and this is certainly something that will need addressing in the summer. And in particular the pressure was now on Jahanbakhsh to show in the remaining games why the club paid so much for a player with so little impact, albeit only in his first season. Pressure that he was struggling under.
Much of the criticism for the last two performances was fair, but to say this team was passionless demonstrates a very short memory considering it’s track record. As Maty Ryan said “We dedicate and sacrifice our lives – not just the players but everyone in and around the club – by working tirelessly day in and day out to maintain our status in the Premier League.”
Many suggested that this result was terminal for Brighton’s survival hopes. And with Cardiff now holding the momentum and a run of winnable games compared to Brighton’s much tougher run-in, there was certainly good reason for concern. But the team reacted with a run of performances that removed any anxiety and answered many of the questions raised over these two games of the team’s attitude and aptitude at least.
Matchday 34 – 38 – Battle, bottle and fight, or crawling over the line depending on your perspective.
But if the defeat to Cardiff looked terminal, the draw with Wolves that came next brought the team back to life. If the team lacked passion and battling qualities against Cardiff they were here for everyone to see in this game and it was a point that felt huge with Cardiff losing to Liverpool the following day increasing the gap to three points and with the Albion also having a far better goal difference, it meant Cardiff needed more than one win to go above the Albion even if they gained no more points. The pressure was now truly on Cardiff to get a result.
It was a game where we showed little attacking threat, underling the need to add pace and composure in attacking areas to the squad next season. But, some absolutely brilliant defending brought a well earned clean sheet and the solidity of the defence has ultimately proved our saviour this season.
It was a performance that was just what the doctor had ordered. It was only Brighton’s second clean sheet of 2019 & the second clean sheet away all season. But the only shame is that we had to go back to basics and take a step back in our tactical progression to get it.
And the trip to Tottenham that followed this during the following week was a repeat performance only spoilt by a spectacular if speculative winner from Eriksen to give Albion yet another defeat. It was a second game running playing a very defensive 451 with little to no attacking intent.
However, when the teams were announced many were surprised to see both Bernardo and Bissouma start in a game like this. They’re both more attack-minded than Bong and Kayal who instead started on the bench in a game which the team would be doing a lot of defending. But they wholeheartedly proved us wrong.
Defensively we were very good against a very dangerous team. With Dunk and Duffy doing their usual job of blocking everything coming their way, whilst Bernardo had a very good game at left back too.
But this was more evidence of how the team needed to work on that final ball when they do get in the right areas. Everyone’s latest scapegoat Jahanbakhsh was trying all the right things, but with nothing coming off.
My ultimate feeling was of pride despite the deflation of the late goal conceded. If Brighton were to be relegated from here, it won’t be because of this result. It will be because they haven’t put in a 90 minutes full of that kind of commitment, discipline and resolve enough times since the start of the year.
So then came Newcastle at home. Realistically, the best and possibly only chance of the win that would see off the threat of Cardiff once and for all. But before the game, news came through that Cardiff had lost away to Fulham and unless there was a huge goal difference swing in their favour, they now needed four points from their last two home to Palace and away to Man United to go above Brighton. A win here would therefore all but secure safety, whereas a draw meant Cardiff needed to pull off an improbable two wins.
Following that news there was much relief in the stands at the AMEX. Personally I thought that was it as I couldn’t see Cardiff winning one, let alone both of their final games. But this game still needed to be played and preferably resulting in a long awaited win and morale boosting performance, not to be, certainly in the first half.
Albion started against an already safe Newcastle side with an unusual looking 442. Gross started on the right and Andone and Murray were up top. But after not working well and Newcastle talking an early lead they switched back to the 433, with Andone moving to the right of a front three and Gross into the midfield three. A change which was made little difference to a terrible first half performance. Tactics have been the talk of the terraces since January and after trying it in the second half against Cardiff and then it lasting less than half an hour here, the option of playing a 442 looked as dead as a dodo.
But this was less about systems and more about personnel. In the first half they looked like a set of players scarred from conceding 4 to Fulham, 3 to Burnley and 5 to Bournemouth. Afraid to press, afraid to take the risks required to created chances and devoid of any confidence. As the teams trudged off to a chorus of boos, it was hard to see us turning this around.
Pascal Gross admitted after the game that “not everybody has the biggest confidence.” This is something that’s been evident for a while and especially since that 4-2 defeat to Fulham. The confidence in themselves and their teammates has clearly been diminished and too often the easy option was taken, either when in or out of possession.
But the second half was a much better performance and they did turn it around to get a draw, another example of the team’s great mental strength in adversity. One main reason for the change in performance was half time substitute Solly March, who was the game changer. He gave the team the energy to attack and get the draw which allowed Cardiff a stay of execution.
Another change at half time was to the system (again). Back to the tried and trusted 4411 with Gross behind Murray as the number 10. And who’d have known that playing Gross in the role he was so successful in last season would mean we would create chances to score? This change also helped Murray, who looked so much more effective on his own up top.
And it was these two who combined for the equalising goal. Murray heading down a Bruno cross for Gross to score. And it was almost three points when Murray headed over from a near perfect Knockaert cross in the last minute.
A miss that many wondered whether it would it prove costly with Cardiff still able to go above us with two wins. But as Palace did us a favour and beat Cardiff before we played next, another season in the Premier League was secured, just about.
So the game away to Arsenal which was the Sky Sports Super Sunday game and Arsenal’s last home game of the season as they searched for Champions League football was one with little but pride riding on it for Albion.
But it was hard to tell that after a good first half of football from both teams that was only spoilt by a rash tackle from Jahanbakhsh who gave away a penalty to give the home side a 1-0 lead at the break. Yes, it was a soft penalty but it was a naive tackle from behind from the Iranian, which is always a risk and left few Albion fans arguing with the decision.
Jahanbakhsh was subbed at half time, with Knockaert replacing him. The Frenchman seemingly forgiven for his misdemeanour against Bournemouth. And with that it was same again for the next 45 for the Albion who looked a great attacking threat on the break.
And Brighton deservedly drew level when Glenn Murray converted a penalty given away by Granit Xhaka, another silly tackle, another soft penalty few argued with. This was a landmark goal for Murray, his 200th career goal in his 400th career games. A great return.
And after a number of good chances were missed by both sides the game ended level. This was Brighton’s first away goal in five matches, and it earned them their first point at the home of a top-six team since promotion, a breakthrough moment. It’s just shame it came after the point in the season when it didn’t actually matter.
And despite the impressive performances from the team, on The BBC’s Match of the Day, Jermaine Jenas and Ian Wright were scathing of Albion’s negativity during the season as a whole. With Jermaine Jenas saying that Hughton “needed to show the club and his players that he can do it another way and that they can be more entertaining.” With Wright adding: that Hughton was “very negative”.
They in particular highlighted the fact that Brighton had their most touches in an opposition box away from home all season here (28). But that was in part due to the gung ho approach of the opposition here. For example against a similarly attacking styled team Fulham, Brighton managed 27.
Brighton have been too negative at times this season, yes. But the players deserve as much criticism, if not more, than the manager for this. The players need to show more confidence and be braver at times, this was an example of what happens when they do that. It’s easy to blame Hughton, but it’s harder to recognise that bigger issues exist that are harder to spot by the untrained eye.
That certainly wasn’t the case here as Brighton counter attacked with intent at every opportunity, but why was this game different to recent games such as City or Spurs where they struggled to do so? Despite their 30% possession Brighton had 11 shots, 5 of which on target. Compare this to the recent games with Spurs away 6 shots, 1 on target, Wolves away 5 shots none on target, and City in the Cup Semi 5 shots 2 or target.
The pressure being off will certainly have given the players the confidence to go forward and take risks. Whilst it’s also fair to say that playing a team like Arsenal who will not track back in the numbers that most other teams do would have helped. But another big reason was the good use of the 433, in particular the two central midfielders Bissouma and Gross getting forward to support the attack. Something not seen enough when it was used at other times in the season.
The formation change has come under great criticism in the second half of the season but this performance was in part the fruits of Hughton’s labour in persisting with the change. Whilst nominally continuing with the 433, out of possession it became more of a 451, but in possession it was more of a 343 with Stephens sitting deep to join the back line and the fullbacks pushing up to join the attack.
When we talk about confidence and bravery, this performance was an example of it in an attacking sense. This was a great performance, probably the best away from home since promotion, unfortunately it finally came when the pressure was off, and that is a concern for next season when the pressure will be very much back on.
With City playing to win the league the Albion played second fiddle in their final home game of the season. And it was an emotional day as the club said goodbye to captain Bruno, retiring after his seven years with the club. And unbeknownst to everyone at the time it would be Chris Hughton’s last game at the club, after he was sacked by the club the following morning after 4 and a half years in charge of the club.
After a lively start it was Albion who took the lead via Glenn Murray’s brave header at the near post from a corner. After he landed in a heap on the floor, maybe slightly bruised but unharmed and clearly showing no hesitation after the nasty head injury he received earlier in the season.
But this only awoke the beast as City went on to justify their Champions status. City’s equaliser came immediately after, 83 seconds after to be precise. It was a wonderful pieces of ingenuity from David Silva to flick it round the Albion defence and put Aguero clear who scored past Ryan
They then quickly took the lead when Laporte headed in from a corner unmarked after leaving Glenn Murray in his wake. Then in the second half they upped their game some more and finished Albion off with a great strike from Marhez from the edge of the box and another from Gundogan from a free kick.
With the game and the season petering out, Hughton made one final substitution, bringing off captain Bruno who received a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground and shared a poignant ‘changing of the guard’ moment when he passed on the captain’s armband to his successor Lewis Dunk.
And with that the season and another home defeat ended. But there was no shame losing to this City team, one of the best club sides English football has ever seen. For the club to be involved in such a game and see City lift the Premier League title gave a shine to an otherwise mostly dreary end to the season. And it was a reminder of the success of achieving Premier League survival.
But we should recognise the failure here too. The win over Palace, was the only league win against a team outside the bottom three in 2019. In fact, Brighton went into 2019 with 26 points from 20 games and then took only twelve from the remaining 18, including only 2 wins. That’s a points average for a team that would be lucky to not finish bottom of the league most seasons, let alone survive relegation.
So in a way losing here was a fitting end to a disappointing second half of the season. Whilst we may have ended the first half thinking we were a mid-table team, we ended the second half just glad to be a top flight team.
And the next day the club announced it had parted company with Chris Hughton. A sad end to a brilliant tenure as manager, arguably the greatest that the club has ever seen. It was a decision Chairman Tony Bloom described as “one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion“.
My initial feelings were that of shock, sadness and a little anger that at least Chris should have been given the send off he deserved, one similar to that of Bruno’s. But, football is an unsentimental business. And if Bloom has proven himself one thing since becoming chairman of the club, it’s a shrewd and unsentimental businessman who knows his own mind.
Summary – A Job well done, just about
So with all that Brighton ended the season 17th with 36 points. All in all a success, but a diminished return from last season’s 15th placed finish with 40 points. And it should be stated that 36 points would only have been enough to survive the drop in 50% of the time since the Premier League changed to a 20 team league in 1995/96. Ultimately we were lucky that Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff were as bad as they were.
And there was plenty of evidence that pointed to a year on year demise. The City defeat made it eight home defeats this season, double the total from 17/18. Games at home to Burnley, Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, ones we wouldn’t have lost last season, are the cause of that year on year diminished points return.
Last season we lost at home to three of the top six plus Leicester (and Leicester got lucky that Murray missed a penalty). This season saw defeats to four of the top 6 plus the 4 games mentioned above. A huge negative in the year on year comparison. Add to that the relative lack of progress in the teams away form and the lack of success in the tactical progress that initially promised so much, and you have plenty of reasons to look on this season negatively.
But what is the reason for these problems?
Firstly, this is a very competitive division. Four of that top six are European cup finalists, whilst another accumulated 198 points over the last two seasons. Even relegated Fulham spent £100m on new players before the season started.
But nonetheless, this Albion team had promised so much more in 2018 but all that promise collapsed in 2019. A collapse that coincided with the attempts to play more offensive football since January. Tactics that played against our strengths and it’s clear now that it was done without the required quality in the squad to do so on a consistent basis. This needs addressing in the summer.
This was a team that for a season had been hard to beat, losing only 16 games last season, not bad for a newly promoted side when you consider Fulham lost 26 this season whilst Cardiff lost 24. But Brighton lost a total of 20 games this season, in a season where we were hoping for progression we instead got regression.
The turning point of the season in hindsight looks like when the Albion threw away those two 2-0 leads at both West Ham and Fulham. At the time with the run that directly preceded it they were easier results to write off as bad days at the office. But ever since then the team has looked scarred from those experiences and as a result were frightened to take risks, the sort of risks that are required to be made if the offensive tactics are to work. It was only really since the second half vs Newcastle where that changed, by that point it was ultimately too late to save our season from a feeling of disappointment and Hughton from the sack.
But as Paul Hayward said in the Telegraph: “Those fans who said there was “nothing to celebrate” about the club’s survival may care to reflect that Liverpool and Man City will be traveling to Brighton and Hove again next season. The summer offers hope of a review and improvements. That process would be a lot less fun in the Championship.”
And as Paul Barber pointed out in his Man City programme notes, “we have only played six seasons in our 118 year history at the highest level.” A comforting bit of realism that makes Hughton’s sacking look hasty.
And there are plenty of positives to build on from this season: The improved squad strength is evident, no less shown in that wonderful cup run that papered over the ever growing cracks in our league season. And this is a squad that has been far more tested to its extremes this season with its ability to manage far more injuries & suspensions that have occurred.
Furthermore, the far more consistently competitive performances against the top 6 is also a big positive (Champions City aside perhaps). Whilst in the 12 played the club only accumulated 5 compared to the 7 points from last season, we’ve been in virtually every game bar Chelsea and City away conceding only 22 (27 last season) scoring 9 (6 last season) and picked up the team’s first away point against a top 6 side, at Arsenal.
Many of the signings made have contributed to this progress. At the back Button, Steele, Burn and Balogun were all clearly signed as back up and when asked have done a good job. Whereas Bernardo and Montoya have had largely good seasons and can now rightly be considered first choice full backs going onto next season, an area of the team that needed strengthening.
The club’s problem in the transfer market have instead been in the areas further up the pitch. Whilst Bissouma was signed for a large fee this is in part based on his potential, he’s 21 and the club wouldn’t have necessarily been expecting him to be first choice in his first season. But he has nonetheless shown lots of talent and in the second half of the season has been picked to play in most of the big games, to admittedly varying success.
there is also Andone, who was signed after a great deal of excitement, but injuries have limited his impact. Yet, he’s also done enough to be considered another good addition and would have played more were it not for Glenn Murray’s continued goal scoring form.
But it’s Jahanbakhsh that has received much of the ire and yes he has struggled. As the season has gone on and the pressure to get results has increased his performances were ones which noticeably suffered. Whilst established players like March and Knockaert have shown relatively consistent impacts in the attacking third, Jahanbakhsh has shown a consistent lack of impact.
This coupled with the continued struggles of Locadia and the constant injuries of Izquierdo, one of the key players last season, has made things much harder in this area. Between the three of them they have contributed just 2 goals and 1 assist in the league this season.
It’s easy to criticise the recruitment. But much like with Bissouma, all of these players would be considered players purchased with the future partly in mind as well as this current season. Unfortunately, this progress has been too slow, for Hughton at least.
But it was Hughton who underlined this when asked about the limited contribution of Andone and Jahanbakhsh. Saying: “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’ve brought a player in and you have other options. A lot of players that don’t settle into that first season can or possibly could argue that if they had played more regularly, they would have worked through it. But that’s trying to get that balance between what you feel is your best team at the time. With the players mentioned, I’m sure there will be more from them next season.”
Whilst we used less players this season, 21 compared to 24 last season. There was less reliance on a core set of players. Last season seven players played in all bar three games, whereas this season there were only four. Moreover three players played a part in every game, whereas this season the only man to do that was Glenn Murray, a stat that underlines his importance to the team.
But as well as the above three, it’s also Gross’s injuries that have meant the team struggled in the final third. Compared to last season we lacked both Izquierdo’s pave and Gross’s composure to create chances. Gross in particular, who scored 7 goals and made 8 assists last season, compared to 3 goals and 3 assists, which tells its own story.
This left the team reliant on a combination of Glenn Murray and set pieces for goals. And set pieces are a real area of year on year progress. Last season we scored only 5 times from set pieces, whereas this time it was a total of 14. And this progress occurred at the back too with us conceding just 10 this season compared to a whopping 21 last season. A real sign of the good work Chris Hughton and his team were doing on the training ground.
Whether this was down to a lack of quality in the squad or the players not being utilised to their appropriate skill set, time will tell. But to a degree, this was always the case. The win over Man United, when playing them at a fortunate time, meant we could ignore the terrible performances against both Watford and Southampton it was sandwiched between. And those slightly fortunate three back to back 1-0 wins in matchdays 8-10 have been what gave us the cushion that ultimately kept us above the dotted line all season. A run of wins built on the foundations of our strong defence and won by the clinical finishing of Murray and a slightly fortunate deflected winner from Kayal at Newcastle via one of those a set pieces. The luck eventually evened out and the lack of chances created by the Albion has led to a lack of goals, with only 5 goals scored in these 11 games in league and cup.
And as the season went on not only did the goals dry up, as did the ability to keep clean sheets with only two achieved in 18 league games in 2019. Whilst goals conceded the from set pieces were decreasing, goals from open play were increasing due to a combination of poor defending and individual errors.
A football season isn’t defined by a continuous consistent narrative, but instead in hindsight by a number of moments that explain its conclusion. A conclusion that on paper, I suspect most Brighton fans would have been happy with in August. Survival is a success, however it is achieved.
But it’s a conclusion that leaves questions to be answered and work to be done over the summer. The club has now not only got to add to its limited attacking threat in the squad but now also bring in a manager who can match the growing expectations that ultimately told for Chris Hughton. Expectations that a man considered possibly the best manager in the club’s history could not match, so good luck to his successor.
What next? After a season which saw the club’s 4th highest ever league position and 2nd best performance in the FA cup, a season preceded by the club’s third highest league finish and equal third best FA cup performance, the board of directors decided it was appropriate to dispense with the services of the manager. A manager in Chris Hughton who is admired not just at our club, but across the country.
But, whether to agree with the decision or not it shows an incredible ambition to progress in tough circumstances, but a decision that may yet prove foolhardy if the club appoint the wrong man.
Whatever happens over the summer, I feel that the team and whoever is appointed manager need to hit the ground running. A replication of the performance from the team seen against Watford on the first day of this season could spark another collapse in confidence and optimism in a clearly damaged and fragile squad of players that need to be restored to the much higher standards they set throughout 2018. As well as causing more tension amongst an already strained fanbase.
But despite the negativity. There is room for optimism and joy. We go into this summer of no doubt much flux and uncertainty as a Premier League club. And with many great memories from a season to remember, for both good and bad. That is ultimately what football supporting is all about.
Come August, we do it all again, and I for one cannot wait. Up the Albion.