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The curious case of Graham Potter’s Brighton

There were times during an eventful 1-0 win over Leeds United in January that Brighton looked like a design years in the making.

The technical yet physical components of this machine, were clearly no accidental ensemble. For the untrained eye, Graham Potter had assembled a team in his image and philosophy.

However for the 2020/21 season, and even the year previous, Potter and Brighton’s sword has been a costly one to live by. A joy to watch without consistent results to irrefutably validate the approach. At the time of writing they are seventeenth in the Premier League. Only the three sides beneath them have won fewer games.

So why have the club stuck by Potter? What evidence has been uncovered to suggest of better times ahead? In the case of Brighton and Hove Albion, this is a case study of results being only skin deep.

2020’s results are an ugly mottled chrysalis that will soon fall away to show the healthy butterfly beneath.

Bare Brighton Bones

For any discussion of Brighton being anything more than relegation strugglers, the Premier League table has made for grim reading for the Seagulls.

Since Matchweek 6, Brighton have moved no higher than sixteenth, with the occasional slip to seventeenth. The desperate form of Sheffield United and West Brom, and the inconsistencies of Fulham have been their only saving grace.

Having won only four of their twenty one league fixtures, only the aforementioned bottom two have fewer victories. For any observed green shoots of recovery, to win this few matches is highly worrying.

Yet for this gloomy reading, even the casual observer can spot irregularities in Brighton’s predicament. Their eight league defeats is better than nine other sides. For context, Chelsea lie seventh after sacking their manager, with six defeats.

By Matchweek 15, Brighton had lost six games. Bottom placed Sheffield United had lost thirteen by this point, despite only being four places below. Arsenal by this point had lost eight games and were one place higher in the standings. Both Arsenal and Leeds have lost more a fortnight further forward.

Telling of their plight is in the volume of draws. Brighton have drawn nine fixtures, two more than any other side. With seventeenth position to eleventh separated by just eight points, it is permissible to imagine the Seagulls being considerably safer further up the table.

Deeper dives into the underlying numbers of Brighton’s season suggests an even greater juxtaposition. The lower half of the table could even be deemed harsh on their performances.

Reading between the lines

To point blame entirely at the feet of lady luck in football is unwise. It can also appear to be driven by narrative, rather than the harsh facts that over prolonged periods, performances will eventually reap rewards.

Brighton’s case and point in this regard however can claim unjust recompense. There are numerous measures to suggest that Brighton have been unfortunate, in both attack and defence.

By measure of expected points, taking into account the goals they should have scored, and should not have conceded, Brighton should be sixth in the Premier League. An astonishing eleven positions higher than where they find themselves.

Only Sheffield United have an expected goals deficit greater than Brighton’s -8.13. With nine draws to date, those additional eight goals would go a long way to turning stalemates into victories. Additionally only Crystal Palace and West Brom have a greater expected goals against differentials. This metric of -4.30 makes up for nearly a further five goals conceded, that frankly they should not have. A twelve goal swing is enormous for a team so low in the table.

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Since 16th December 2020, Brighton have won two games in nine in the league, drawing five and losing twice. Of those drawn games, xG adjudicates that they should have won a further four. A 0-0 draw against Fulham had an xG of 2.29-0.51 in their favour. A 3-3 draw at home to Wolves? 2.42-1.82. Finally a 1-1 draw versus Sheffield United had expected goals at 2.90-1.04 to Brighton.

There are of course reasons behind this indifference to suggested performances. The consistency of these statistical indifferences however is remarkable.

Issues at both ends

These detailed statistics alone show that Brighton have been dogged by defensive and attacking irregularities. A degree of this can be left at goalkeeper Matt Ryan’s door.

Of goalkeepers in the league, Ryan ranked twenty first for prevented goals per ninety minutes. In his 1067 minutes of play, Ryan prevented -0.38 goals per game. In other words, every game the Australian was allowing 0.38 goals that should not have been allowed.

Ryan was replaced on 1st November by Robert Sánchez. In his subsequent 867 minutes of Premier League action, the Spaniard is performing at a rate of +0.14 to Ryan’s -0.38. By no means a huge save rate, but still over half a goal saved per game more than Ryan, despite facing more shots per game.

At the other end, striker Neal Maupay has contributed to this underperformance. Seven goals and an assist is not a disastrous return in a team that has scored only twenty three times. Again referring to expected goals and assists however, Maupay should be operating at a higher level.

10.57xG is the league’s fifth highest. An xG/A per 90 of 0.79 is behind only Kevin De Bruyne and Jamie Vardy. Throw three scored penalties in (plus one missed) and a return of five combined goals and assists is paltry.

Their lack of clinical finishing cannot be entirely left with Maupay. Only the Frenchman is attempting over one shot on target per game. Behind his seven goals, the next highest scorers are five tied players on just two goals. If there was more collective scoring effort behind Maupay, his underperformance would appear less glaring.

The league’s endearing force

This feature is by no means a pity party. We are not here to mourn ifs and buts, longing for a just world where Brighton are fighting for European football. This would be every bit as short term as looking merely at the league table, and condemning Brighton of immediate fate.

In Graham Potter they have a young, progressive coach looking to inspire the club. Their survival in the Premier League since 2017/18 has gone far above expectations upon their promotion. Yet in sacking Chris Hughton in 2019, the intent was for the club to be more than a hair’s breadth from the chop.

Potter symbolised that ambition. His own route has been unconventional, coaching university teams as well as being technical director of the Ghanaian women’s team before his stints at Östersund, Swansea City and Brighton.

For any observer of the team since his arrival, the brand has been clear. Fast, transitional attacking football that utilises physicality in defence, and technique and ball playing in possession. Barren spells have occurred aside from their proximity to the relegation zone. A winless home streak of 225 days, ended by the 1-0 win over Tottenham on Monday, was an alarming trend.

Whilst other sides have parted with their project leaders, axing objectives in favour of the quivering panic button finger, Potter remains. Brighton fans may have pointed to the disparities between their table position and their performance level. The narrative could have been painted as faithful, or of doom to never self-right.

This is the league’s fourth youngest side after all, with the third youngest manager. The model on which they operate is highly impressive, with a style to match.

Physicality in possession

Taken out of their playing context, Brighton’s centre back roster do not bring to mind visions of passing proficiency. Adam Webster, Lewis Dunk, Ben White and Dan Burn are all huge specimens, seemingly built for the ruggedness of the English game. That they are, but it is what they do on the ball that attracts interest.

Potter arranges his side with a combination of three of these four centre backs in a back three, or with White pushed into midfield to host all four. Rather than this be a negative attempt to lockdown the game however, it is a means to speeding through ball progression whilst protecting themselves in defence.

In playing a 3-4-3, the central midfield is sacrificed for greater width through wing backs. This system simply does not lend itself to hoarding central possession with only two designated central players. The centre backs are therefore required to hold the ball deep, recycling it between themselves, before breaking the lines aggressively. This may be through carrying the ball past the press, or in hitting long passes. Emphasis here is on long passes, aiming to expose a high or mid block, not just a means for clearing their lines.

That Brighton make the fourth most long passes per ninety (46.8) but only complete 53.9% shows this fact. Were they to have a target man to hit with these passes, that accuracy would likely increase, not that this implementation would be entirely conducive to their philosophy.

Brighton are ranked fourth for touches inside their their defensive third, fifth for inside their own penalty area, and sixth for the attacking third. They fall to tenth for touches in the middle third, showing that they transition quickly and directly from one end to the other. This competence on the ball is what allows White to operate in central midfield alongside Yves Bissouma. In the win at Leeds in January, the Englishman would screen and shuttle against the rotating Leeds attack. Upon winning the ball he would seemingly part the sea and surge centrally in the counter attack single handedly.

This is Potter’s idea. That the most defensive players are capable of carrying attacking actions by themselves without compromise on defensive work.

The Brighton Break

Whilst Brighton exercise transitional breaks to expose the opposition’s possessional shape (and they are great at it), it is not a traditional type of counter attack. Many teams that will defend in a low block will use pacey attackers or wingers to spring forward, set free by a long pass from the low block. Newcastle’s use of Miguel Almiron and Allen Saint-Maximin are examples of this.

Potter sets Brighton to transition differently. Rather than rely on springing the trap with a launched ball upfield, Brighton use the central midfielders to rotate and move the ball quickly out to the wing backs. On the left is Solly March, a resourceful convertee to the role who combines well with the midfield to cross.

Tariq Lamptey is the right wing back. A devastatingly fast ball carrier, Lamptey utilises his small frame to blister upfield and drive balls across the goal face. It is these two that facilitate the transition, with the forwards feeding off the quality of their service. Not only does this show greater use of resources than a cruder counter attack, but also allows it to be practised and carried out more effectively.

That Brighton’s cross success rate is the fifth highest in the league reiterates this fact. So too does their ranking of twentieth for touches inside the penalty area. It is the wingbacks creating from wide to feed high quality chances for the forwards. Little directive is given for creating or fashioning chances within the box itself. Missing these chances is what creates such an xG differential.

That Leeds fixture, and the role of Ben White in single handedly bullying through the middle having won the ball, shows the versatility of this approach. Any side attacking Brighton are wary of the threat posed by the wing backs and of the central defenders and midfielders in winning the ball and countering. A more reliable strike force would go some way to elevating this method beyond the playbook.

Penetrative passers

That described attack of vertical line breaker before crossing for a tapped finish, has been Brighton’s signature. It is enabled by the brilliance of Lamptey and March, in delivering varying cross types.

However it is also the product of clever creative attackers that drop deep and pull wide. Recently this has been Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister behind Maupay. All are short, nippy operators with an eye for a supporting runner.

When one pulls to the ball, collecting from Bissouma, the other will run into space beyond the ball. Maupay rarely leaves the parameters of the six yard box in these scenarios, waiting for the simple finish. Again the key here is for the ball to be moved quickly, so to expose space left by the tracking defender. Wingers who carry the ball instead of looking for that release do not benefit this rotation.

Brighton are one of the league’s lowest dribblers, yet rank fourth for dribble completion. Incisive team actions over individual actions.

They also rank fourth for passes into the penalty area, utilising the attacking players’ ability to receive and either pass or shoot quickly. Pascal Gross is the perfect enabler of this action. Recent games such as the win at home to Spurs have seen Gross play as Bissouma’s midfield partner. The German is more of a creative midfielder than is typical in a 3-4-3’s midfield. Yet his passing and incision from deep allowed Bissouma to be more destructive defensively, and prompted off the ball running form those ahead of him.

As well as an assist, five key passes, seven progressive passes, three shots and eight shot creating actions show Gross’ influence in this game. That he attempted twice as many passes as his Malian midfield partner indicates the split roles assigned.

The Brighton Resurgence

When suggesting that cold, hard results are not everything in football analysis, derision always awaits. This idea that underlying numbers can point to metamorphosis, even if results are still yet to upturn, jars with the traditionalist.

Far from being a team of just ‘vibes’, Brighton are putting distance between themselves and the drop. Rightly so, their performances have warranted it, as does the Potter project itself.

There is the nucleus of a young vibrant team. White, Bissouma and Lamptey in particular are exciting, versatile talents with great potential beyond Sussex. This is no slight. The recruitment and long term planning at the club will be wary of this fact, with contingency in place to carry forward their work.

The win over Tottenham on Sunday put Brighton seven points clear of eighteenth placed Fulham. That coupled with breaking the home win hoodoo has given them deserved breathing space. Perhaps this is the springboard moment. For the club and their ascension up the league, and Potter himself towards deserved recognition as one of England’s brightest managerial talents.

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