Tottenham Hotspur’s managerial ‘will-they-won’t-they’ predictions have died down since the early and nearly hourly rush of information regarding potential suitors like Nagelsmann and Erik Ten Hag. Alasdair Gold has shared a few updates, sure, but for the most part the smoke has died down.
Through all the smoke - one figure seems to be ubiquitous, that of Graham Potter. Brighton and Hove Albion have not had a stellar season by any means, as they find themselves in 17th place with 3 matches left in season. But success is contextual for any club - and in fact this is the earliest that Brighton have secured a place in the following year’s Premier League. Dive a little further and there are some encouraging numbers in the background as well.
Potter seems to be a very real option for Levy. The objective of this article is to break down BHA’s systems of play to understand why he’s a candidate for the position vacated by Jose Mourinho at Spurs.
Style of Play
Brighton typically play in a 3-4-3 formation, with Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster being the heart of defense and one wingback, typically Ben White or the experienced Joel Veltman, slotting in beside them. The tandem force of Pascal Gross and Yves Bissouma make up their midfield pairing, while Danny Welbeck plays a traditional striker role and Neal Maupay and Leandro Trossard have more creative freedom with their positioning. Defensively, they are a high pressing side, but are well trained to withdraw into a medium or low block. When in possession, they build up from the back but can make use of long raking passes from the backline from time to time - more often than not however, their players are looking to create diamonds in the middle and final third and pull off small, quick combination plays.
Brighton in the Defensive Third
It wouldn’t be completely out of line to expect a side placed 17th in the league to have a subpar defensive record. A quick look at the Premier League table’s Goals Against column is the first sign that there’s more than meets the eye in this side - the Seagulls have conceded 41 goals, the same amount as Spurs. Surprisingly, you have to look up to all the way to Arsenal’s 9th place to see a number lower than 41 goals conceded, and their number is only three lower.
In fact, Brighton have conceded less than both Leicester and West Ham, both of which are battling for European spots. Although their number equals that of a chaotic Tottenham side, the sides are different in one key way - BHA have a clear defensive plan they execute every matchweek.
Their 3-4-3 typically turns into a 5-2-3 during the defensive phase.
Here we see Brighton in their defensive shape as Leeds attack down their left. There’s space between the lines that Leeds players are looking to exploit but the 5 at the back system nullifies any potential numerical superiority across the defensive line. Gross and Bissouma are relied on to shift and cover inside passing lanes, and much the same is expected of the three forwards.
Moreover, having five at the back allows BHA to have flexibility and plug gaps when necessary. If a player between the lines receives a pass on their wrong foot, back to goal, or in an isolated position, one of the backline can step up to pressure and harry while a midfielder makes up the ground.
Five at the back can typically give Brighton a defensive advantage, as the box becomes so crowded that there is limited space for the attacking team to properly create a chance. The numbers back this up as well: Brighton have an extremely low xGA, 36.64 with only City and Chelsea having a lower expected goals against tally. For comparison’s sake, Tottenham this season have a woeful 56.69 xGA - worse than Fulham’s - and are quite lucky to have only let in 41 goals this season.
For Brighton though, their back five is both figuratively and literally their last line of defense. They are the fourth highest pressing team in the league, with only Chelsea, Liverpool, and Leeds allowing fewer passes per defensive action. Their press in man-oriented and looks to disrupt any build up from the back.
Similar to Christophe Galtier’s Lille (and frankly, most high pressing sides) which I wrote about last week, they push the ball towards the flanks to utilize the sidelines as an extra defender.
This type of high press necessitates the defense not only to be switched on for any potential long balls, but also actively involved in squeezing the pitch. Indeed, when the opposition goalkeeper decides to kick it long, Brighton remain compact in order to create numerical superiority and have higher chances of winning the second ball.
Brighton’s solid defensive structure gives them the proper platform to regain possession across the entire length of the pitch, in which case their attacking patterns become apparent.
Brighton’s Attacking Systems
One of the main reasons that Brighton find themselves just above the relegation zone is due to their frustrating finishing. They have the lowest percentage of shots on target in the league, with only 31% of their shots troubling the opposition goalkeeper. Most frustrating for Potter has got to be their vast underperformance in regards to expected goals - having only scored 36 goals out of an expected 60.31. Spurs, on the other hand, have 61 out of 52.96 xG - no doubt due in large part to Kane and Son’s top tier finishing. This is not an argument that BHA’s attack is better than Spurs; however, the numbers indicate that the Seagulls are better at systemically creating opportunities that are not finished, while Tottenham only create a few goal scoring opportunities but are ruthless with their finishing.
Much like Tottenham, Brighton like to build from the back, using a three-at-the-back system to outnumber the pressing opposition players. The three at the back can be a bit of a red herring, as the Seagulls are also very comfortable with building with two centerbacks and their goalkeeper. One of Bissouma or Gross, typically the latter, drops deep to create a diamond. The other midfielder, typically Bissouma, stays higher, giving Brighton vertical depth to progress the ball.
Both Gross and Bissouma are essential in this build up, as they actively make themselves available for a pass (something that both Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele could take notes on.)
Their wingbacks typically start a move high and wide to pin back opposition wingers and maintain width. If the central options are closed off, the wingbacks are available through a long pass.
Indeed, one of Brighton’s main strengths is their ability to perpetually have either equal numbers or numerical superiority during each phase of play. They defend in numbers but further up the pitch, attack in numbers as well, frequently transforming their shape into a 3-2-5.
As mentioned before, both Trossard and Maupay have the license to drop and act as a #10 to linkup with teammates and create dangerous situations. This style of play can create constant tension for the opposition, as both are great at timing their movement to cause confusion. This is one of the two main ways that Brighton are able to create chances centrally.
Their second way of constantly creating opportunities is to create diamonds and triangles at the very top of the box. Although this constricts the space, Potter and his players back themselves to have the vision, creativity, and tight control to create opportunities at goal. Once again, Bissouma is instrumental.
As noted, when they are blocked off centrally, Brighton typically have the ball far winger and wingback to rely on for recycling possession or crossing.
Clearly, there’s more that meets the eye for the 17th placed team in the Premier League. Much like xG and xGA is not the whole story, neither is their final place on the table. Under the hood, Brighton’s engine is not perfect but it’d be hard to argue they deserve to find themselves near bottom of the table. Perhaps the most encouraging facet of Potter’s work at Brighton - regardless of their table position, his players have clearly bought into his high energy system, and that kind of player buy-in is desperately needed at Spurs whomever the next manager is.
In the upcoming days I will analyze how Potter might implement his system at Tottenham, who would be Spurs’ key players for him and who might be transferred out.