Are Brighton Too Conservative?
Brighton and Hove Albion are odds on to stay in the Premier League for a third season. This is the best it has been for The Seagulls since the early 1980s. All good, right?
Upon winning promotion to the Premier League in 2017, Brighton manager Chris Hughton had a plan. Keep it tight, play a compact 4-4-1-1 system, get players behind the ball, and rely on grinding out enough low scoring wins to avoid relegation. He already had a well organised core of players from the Championship, with a sturdy defensive shape that was supplemented by adequate additions. It just needed a little sprinkling of quality to let the defence do its thing. Thus, it was the signing of Pascal Gross that proved to be key. Bought on a £2.7 million (per Transfermarkt) release clause, the German attacking midfielder put up the best expected goals and assists per 90 for any player outside the top six not named Riyad Mahrez. He led Brighton in open play passes into the box. If being the key to all the side’s attacking work wasn’t enough, he also led the team in pressures per 90. It’s hard to understate Gross’ importance to this team.
So, with an emphasis on strong defensive organisation met by an attack powered by Gross, Brighton were able to do enough to stay in England’s top flight. 15th place and 40 points was an entirely respectable end point, though it perhaps undersold things a touch, with the team slightly underperforming xG at both ends.
In the summer, Brighton looked to continue in the existing vein with interesting, analytics-friendly signings, largely from outside England. The aim here seemed to be both to recruit long term replacements for ageing members of the squad as well as helping balance the attack and decrease the reliance on Gross. The two most expensive signings, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Yves Bissouma, were in the latter category. As I wrote at the time, “Jahanbakhsh should diversify their options in this regard and help share the workload”, while Bissouma would offer creativity in deeper areas, “considering how little Brighton’s central midfielders were able to progress the ball last season”. Overall, I was very optimistic about Brighton’s business, believing that “all of this seems like a switched on recruitment process, looking in the right places for value players with potentially high upsides”. The signs looked good for a really positive season, taking the good defensive work done and adding more attacking firepower, building a side that wouldn’t need to worry too much about relegation and push for a midtable place.
And how have things gone in reality? Well, not bad, but not quite as hoped. Hughton’s team sit in 15th place, just where they finished last season, an adequate 5 points from the relegation zone with a game in hand. FiveThirtyEight estimate that their odds of going down are just 5%. But the way they’re doing it has not shown much evidence of a team moving forward with a long term plan. When looking at the xG trendlines, it’s obvious that the team suffered a horrible slump in the first half of this season that they are only just now recovering from, with both attacking and defending output taking a hit.
An important piece of context here is that Gross suffered an ankle injury at the start of September that kept him ruled out until late November. In the 8 fixtures the German missed, Brighton generated just 5.01 expected goals, or 0.63 per game. Since Gross’ return, this has ticked up to a not great but at least adequate 0.94. For Brighton to attack at all, it seems like the main man has to be there doing his thing. Gross now finds himself with a hamstring injury, and while Hughton insists it is not too serious, the team will need to find a strategy without the attacking midfielder if these problems are to become not infrequent.
But what of the players brought in to help mitigate the Gross overreliance? It’s hard so see any successes. Jahanbakhsh, the club’s record signing, has been Hughton’s least used outfield player this season. In the limited time when he has actually been on the pitch, there hasn’t been too much to suggest it is where he belongs.
And Bissouma? While he has also failed to become a regular starter, he is at least getting a reasonable volume of minutes. It seems clear that Hughton does not trust him to form part of a double pivot, instead generally switching to a three man midfield to accommodate the Malian. When comparing this season to his last at Lille, not only is he offering less in terms of ball progression, but his (possession adjusted) tackles and interceptions have fallen. What he is doing instead is pressuring the opposition a lot. This might sum up Hughton’s approach at Brighton. In its most charitable reading, he is having his players sacrifice their own styles for the greater good of the team. In its least charitable reading, he is constricting everyone’s performance in favour of extreme caution.
Further up the pitch, 35 year old Glenn Murray is still leading the line. It’s certainly impressive that Murray still scores goals at his age in such a conservative side, even when you consider the number of penalties he takes. Like everyone else, though, Hughton is making him defend. A lot.
Typically one would expect a mid-thirties striker to do as little as possible outside the box. The “Jermain Defoe role”, so to speak. How long Murray can keep doing all this hard work before his body gives way is an open question. In Jürgen Locadia and Florin Andone, Brighton have alternative strikers whose record at previous clubs suggests they should be capable of stepping in but, as has been the case with many players, have struggled for minutes under Hughton.
It is of course the case that we have no idea what is happening within the club. Hughton is working with all of these players every day and it is not unreasonable to think that he has his reasons for the decisions he makes. Players are obviously human beings, and perhaps those brought in last summer generally aren’t settling in well. Perhaps the overly conservative set up is shielding frailties in certain defenders that would be consistently exposed in a more open style of play. Maybe he’s simply making fair assessments of the players’ ability, and Solly March really is just a better wide option than Jahanbakhsh.
There is also the view less charitable to Hughton that would compare him to Brendan Rodgers’ time at Liverpool. Like Brighton’s recent recruitment, Liverpool’s business at the time was often driven by the “transfer committee” looking to make analytics favoured purchases often against the logic traditional managers go by. Rodgers found this approach very frustrating and often froze out signings made by others that didn’t fit his own plans. Plenty of those players have since failed at Liverpool or other clubs, such as Lazar Markovic and Javier Manquillo, while others like Luis Alberto and Roberto Firmino have shown themselves to be very good footballers. What might be more damning about Rodgers’ approach is how Liverpool have doubled down on the transfer committee approach since the Northern Irishman left, promoting Michael Edwards to sporting director. Under Edwards’ stewardship, Liverpool have been widely credited as among the shrewdest operators in the transfer market, a far cry from the disorganised mess in previous summers. It’s more complicated than simply saying that Rodgers was wrong and the committee was right, but what the situation made clear is that a consistent process where everyone is on the same page is one of the key changes Liverpool made.
Perhaps the same might be true at Brighton. Hughton clearly has very specific ideas about what he wants from his team, while the recruitment seems aimed at something slightly different. Dan Ashworth has joined the club as director of football, and one of his first tasks should surely be to coordinate the transfer process better so that everyone is on the same page. Perhaps there needs to be a better sense emphasis in getting the specific requirements Hughton needs, but that should then be accompanied by a greater willingness to play new recruits.
Or perhaps, and whisper it quietly, the style of football Hughton wants has a ceiling. Perhaps bringing greater talent to the attack will not significantly change the team when they do so little attacking anyway. If this is the case, and it is not certain that it is, then Brighton should possibly think about moving on from him in the not too distant future. One way or another Brighton’s mandate is to improve, not merely tread water slightly above the relegation zone. If they can do that by improving the players within Hughton’s system then great, but if they can’t then they should be bold enough to make more dramatic changes.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association