The Season So Far
Brighton and Hove Albion’s campaign has been more-or-less the best that could have been reasonably expected given their status as a newly promoted club with a modest budget, a Championship squad and a manager famous for being nice but ultimately not quite good enough at this level.
They have battled gamely against the odds and they have snatched wins where possible, the undoubted highlight being the comprehensive 3-0 win away to West Ham. There have inevitably been lows and there isn’t quite the optimism that there could be among the fans going into the second half of the season, but any Seagulls supporter would have taken being 13th in the table now, with a four-point cushion between themselves and the drop zone.
One senses that Brighton could have done more by this point and that Chris Hughton’s famous cautiousness may have cost them more points than it’s won them. The recent 5-1 home defeat against Liverpool underscored just how far away the Seagulls are from being a proper Premier League team, and the scars from that experience will take a while to heal. Worse still, the last time Brighton won at home was in September, and they played a rudderless Everton side, a goal-shy Southampton, a painfully average Stoke and a hapless Crystal Palace in that time. One hopes they don’t live to regret not picking up points when they were most available.
The Season Ahead
First and foremost, Brighton need to find a regular source of goals and if they are to survive. With clear-cut chances at a premium in Hughton’s uber-defensive setup, a poacher of Glenn Murray’s calibre isn’t quite good enough, even if Murray has punched well above his weight again this season.
The wingers need to be liberated from defensive duties if they are to perform to their maximum ability in attack: Anthony Knockaert, for example, was routinely described as the best player in the Championship last season and was tipped to make an impact in the top flight, but, weighed down by defensive duties, he only has one goal and one assist so far this season.
Looking ahead to the festive period, Brighton’s fixture list could be far worse. If Hughton can simply let his attacking players play and trust them to deliver the goods, and his defence can hold strong, they can pick up the points they possibly should have gotten earlier in the season. If Hughton keeps the handbrake on, however, one suspects Brighton will end up going down without having put up a real fight.
Chris Hughton is a highly respected coach, well regarded throughout the British coaching community and by the journalists who’ve gotten to know him well over the years. He’s undoubtedly a good manager at Championship level and any club looking to achieve promotion to the Premier League should at least strongly consider hiring him. That said, once Hughton has achieved promotion his tactics have tended to become overly conservative, and his sides have been inevitably hindered more than helped by such extreme caution.
He took Norwich City back down to the Championship without ever really giving his players a chance to keep themselves up and Newcastle United brought in Alan Pardew to stop the same happening to them, and it’s probable that he’ll once again do the same with Brighton. A territorially sensible, non-aggressive and rigid 4-4-1-1 with carefully balanced long-ball counter-attacks isn’t the worst thing in the world, but there’s a fundamental imbalance between defence and attack in this team, which in this era often means increasing the odds of defeat – and that’s just bad management.
Anthony Knockaert will be really good in the Championship next season and the fee Brighton receive for breakout star and analytics community hero Pascal Groß will stand them in good stead for the next few years. Davy Pröpper and Shane Duffy are young enough to come back to the Premier League and make a proper go of it, should Brighton go down. Glenn Murray still knows where the goal is and has a happy knack of finding the net without having had a proper sniff of goal.
To win games of football, generally speaking, a team has to actively try to win the game in the first place.
No Premier League team has played more football in its own final third, nor less in the opposition’s final third, than Brighton this season. No team has taken fewer shots on goal and only one team has had fewer shots on target. Only two teams have attempted fewer dribbles, meaning Brighton’s only realistic route forward is long balls, making them very predictable and easy to dominate. No team has been fouled less often, meaning they have very few chances to get defenders forward and mount assaults from set plays, an area of play in which they are actually rather effective.
At the other end, only six teams have allowed more shots on goal than Brighton this season (though many have faced more shots on target). No team has conceded more goals from set pieces. Only four teams have made fewer tackles and yet only one team has been dribbled past more often. No team has scored more own goals.
It’s harsh to blame this all on Hughton and of course it’s true that his squad is very short on Premier League quality, especially in attack. We return to the case of Anthony Knockaert however, a player of whom big things were expected this season. Knockaert was among the Championship’s most creative and effective attackers last year, and yet this year he’s playing as a defensive winger with little licence to show what he can do, performing considerably more defensive actions game (1.6 tackles, 0.8 interceptions and 0.8 fouls) than attacking ones (he has taken just 1 shot per game and created 1 chance per game). If Brighton end up going down, Hughton’s excessive caution will be as big a reason as their relative lack of quality.
We’re into heavy rotation season now but Brighton don’t really have a wealth of talent available, so we should probably expect a familiar eleven.
Spurs just have to win this, even with a host of changes likely to be made to Mauricio Pochettino’s starting eleven. Brighton’s parked bus will make it hard, but an early goal would open the floodgates. 4-0.