Brighton Had More Points Last Season – but Are in a Better Place With Graham Potter
Hands up who thinks Brighton are giving off a strong whiff of Crystal Palace? Specifically, of Frank de Boer’s Crystal Palace? Remember them? In 2017 Selhurst Park bigwigs got it into their heads they should jazz up their playing style, so they hired a former Ajax maestro and ordered him to make Palace swing. What followed was a tuneless farce. De Boer was ushered to the exit before a stripy band of misfits had even finished jamming.
Brighton engaged Graham Potter last summer on a similar mission. Unlike the Dutchman, Potter started impressively, his team dancing around Watford en route to a 3-0 away victory on the opening day of the season. But now, as Brighton prepare to host Watford in a textbook relegation six-pointer, doubts about the wisdom of sticking with Potter are being aired on the south coast.
Brighton have done more than just stick with Potter; whereas De Boer was jilted after five games, Potter was handed a new six-year contract after 13 league matches. When he was given that deal in November, Brighton were five points clear of the bottom three and looking up. Now they are two points clear and seeking their first win of 2020. In times of uncertainty, people can get nostalgic and, just as Palace turned to steady ol’ Roy Hodgson after giving De Boer the boot, some Brighton fans are pining for the days of Chris Hughton, whose Brighton team had more points (27) at this stage last season than Potter’s do now (26). But do not be misled by that last fact.
Hughton’s team were not only boring, they were decomposing. They won none of their last nine matches and, even though they eked out enough draws to survive, they did not look like a team who could ever win again even if they actually tried to. It was more likely their temporary solidity would crumble. By contrast, it is not hard to imagine Potter’s creative side playing their way back into the top half of the table. There is no cause to abandon the revolution. But a couple of short-term compromises could be made to stop a team in transition from falling before they really find their stride.
Above all, Brighton need to improve their finishing. In many matches they have dominated with swish authority but let points slip because their failure to convert chances has had the twin effects of inspiring opponents and making Brighton jittery. Fightbacks should have been resisted better but, instead, an evolving team have become ragged too quickly when things have started to go against them. Some players have not coped well with pressure. So, while the statistics show that Brighton have conceded fewer goals and faced fewer shots per game than under Hughton last season, there have been sudden outbreaks of sloppiness that have created an illusion that Potter’s whole enterprise was flawed from the start. It is a mentality thing. “You can’t just win by playing well, you have to be able to suffer,” said Potter after last month’s home draw with Aston Villa, another game in which Brighton seemed in total control before goofing. There was no trace of greater resolve the following week when they pitched up at Bournemouth and flopped to a 3-1 defeat.
Last weekend’s draw at West Ham, on the other hand, may have been a turning point. Firstly, because it represented a trend reversal: this time it was Brighton who fought back, recovering from 3-1 down to salvage a point. That owed something to West Ham’s haplessness but it was also because Brighton summoned the sort of gumption they will have to continue showing for the rest of the campaign.
Secondly, Potter made significant personnel changes, most obviously giving Glenn Murray a first league start since September. Murray scored a precious equaliser. The veteran is not as ingenious as Neal Maupay nor as dynamic as Aaron Connolly but he is a sharper finisher than both and, since Brighton did not sign any strikers in January and last season’s supposed long-term replacements for Murray (Florin Andone and Jürgen Locadia) have been farmed out on the grounds of inadequacy, the 36-year-old should play a significant role in firing Brighton to safety, not necessarily as a constant starter but certainly used more regularly than he has been so far this season. It is not easy to gauge when Murray’s relative coolness in front of goal will make him a better option than younger alternatives who will make bigger all-round contributions but, now Murray has got his first league goal of the season and a new contract, Potter seems likely to get the judgment right more often than not.
In central defence, too, Potter has a big decision. One of his boldest moves this season has been to break up the partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy in order to deploy his £20m recruit Adam Webster, who is a better passer than Duffy but has been prone to lapses in his first term in the top flight. Potter believes Webster will develop more consistency but the risk is Brighton will run out of Premier League matches before that happens. Duffy should play a significant part in the relegation fight, either instead of Webster or alongside him in a three-man backline. The manager has shown he is willing to alter formations when the situation demands it and, what is more, a back three would enable him to play Tariq Lamptey, the club’s main January recruit, as a wing-back.
In central midfield the permutations are slightly different. Dale Stephens has been out of form and there is a good case for starting Yves Bissouma or the gifted 21-year-old Steven Alzate, who will one day dictate operations from the middle but has been used mainly on the periphery.
So Potter has options, though probably not as many as he would like and none of which are guaranteed short-term successes. But Brighton are at least as likely to stay up under Potter as they are under any other manager whom they could draft in now. And if they survive this season, they can expect to thrive under Potter in the near future. This is a time for everyone at the Amex to hold their nerve. They are four points below Hodgson’s Palace but, all things considered, in a much better place.
The Guardian Sport