Brighton and Hove Albion: Season Preview 2020-21
In two years since his return from Sweden, Graham Potter's career has progressed extremely well.
A stylistically eye-catching year at Swansea was enough to attract Brighton’s attention and the transition from Allsvenskan to Premier League was complete. A (young-ish) English manager had trodden an unfamiliar road before being (kinda) fast tracked to the top? What will the papers say?
Potter’s predecessor, Chris Hughton had brought Brighton to the Premier League and kept them up for two seasons. The remit to stay in the division had been fulfilled, at least, for all that the 2018-19 season cut it far too fine, with a run of no wins in the last nine games ceding control to those around them. You only need three worse teams, and there were three worse teams-- Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield--but effectively chance was the dominant factor that kept them in the league. Owner Tony Bloom, a man with a solid history in probability, will have noted bottom five metrics including a bottom two ranked attack. With some justification, one can imagine those involved in the decision making process envisaged future seasons of a similar ilk. The defensive onus brought by Hughton meant that scrapping in the bottom half was likely to persist, despite quite extensive recruitment.
So could the appointment of Potter change that dynamic?
It represented a clear gamble regardless. One thing was certain: Potter would get this team playing a different style of football to Hughton. Far more orientated towards possession and far less reactive. One thing was uncertain: would this change of style keep Brighton away from the trapdoor into the Championship?
The topline conclusion is yes.
A haul of 41 points was five points clear of 2018-19’s total and one ahead of Hughton’s first season, while a fifteenth place finish matched 2017-18. There were runs where the team struggled to win as six draws and zero wins in nine games pre-lockdown in 2020 testified but they never quite got hauled into the relegation mix. Nine wins overall was… the same as Hughton managed in both his seasons. So has Potter been a success?
The metrics have improved, but we do have to recognise that with five games to play, they were nine points clear of relegation, so all but safe, and soon after walked into Manchester City on a good day and shipped over five expected goals, a total only exceeded all season when City thumped Watford 8-0. The backend of the season saw metrics decline, but largely in fundamentally meaningless fixtures:
The broader picture is better. In raw terms Brighton’s per game xG differential worsened from -0.43 in 2017-18 to -0.50 in 2018-19 and at the point of safety in 2019-20 was improved at -0.24. There’s enough in that to suggest that Potter’s vstyle has had some effect, and we can see how the line between expected values for and against closed as the season progressed. It’s still far from stellar but it’s enough to feel Potter’s second season is deserved. He has made a small trade off in defence to give the team something to work with in attack, and when we consider that Hughton’s attack was close to league worst, we can understand the purpose here. Hughton's focus on defending was certainly reactive; witness the position of his sides in this table of blocked shots from teams in recent seasons:
...and see how Brighton's passes per defensive action has evolved away from a complete bunker under Hughton towards something more balanced under Potter:
For personnel, the transition from the first season in the league to the second was stark. Lots of relatively low priced players arrived from a wide variety of leagues in year one--and few made the team with any regularity. It was easy to wonder if Hughton, detached from recruitment, was interested in playing the players he rated rather than new signings, but Potter has followed a similar thread, and few of that first tranche, Dan Burn, Yves Bissoma and Martin Montoya apart featured heavily in 2019-20. Potter’s first summer saw more targeted signings and less variety with all but Leandro Trossard arriving from within the English game. Adam Webster, Neal Maupay and Trossard all featured heavily and validated their purchases while Aaron Mooy eventually converted from a loan and Tariq Lamptey was a neat January pickup who quickly featured.
Brighton have moved quickly again this summer adding distinct quality--with a sideline of injury concern and post-peak aging--in Adam Lallana. With Mooy heading for Shanghai, it appears reasonable to assume that Lallana will effectively take his place in the squad and overall this summer feels more like squad evolution than revolution. Joël Veltman arrived from Ajax for a tiny fee and the bones of Wigan were examined to take young midfielder Jensen Weir.
Veltman’s arrival, specifically, gave Brighton a wildly overstocked centre back department. Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk were the main starters last season with Shane Duffy as an alternative. Ben White spent the season starring on loan at Leeds, while Matt Clarke similarly had a great time on loan at Derby. Dan Burn converted into a left back to get game time, but negotiating this corps ahead of the new season is not easy, with all mentioned likely worthy of playing regular football at a level near to that which Brighton require. White finally signed a new contract recently while Clarke returned to Derby on loan and Duffy headed across the border to Celtic, but there's still a surplus here. Either another move is imminent or someone's going to miss out on substantial minutes.
Overall though it feels like there's a degree of continuity being sought. Investments in players of the right age to progress in the long term have been made over time. A good example is Neal Maupay who followed up his 25-goal Brentford season with 10 in the Premier League. He scopes out at around a one in three striker here, which is closer to average than you may think, and adds further value from the volume of defensive work he does leading from the front. He's an interesting reference point for other strikers making the step up in leagues:
Improved metrics under Potter have led to a projection of safety in the Sporting Index opening lines. They landed at around 42-43 points here which would represent a perfectly adequate return. However, one has to wonder what the long term plan is? It's still early days for Brighton in the Premier League, but projecting to low 40s still puts a team in the realm of risk for relegation. As such, it feels like from a performance evaluation perspective Potter may need to eke out further progress, if not this season then soon. His first season was entirely fine, and avoiding any relegation battle should be the target again, but Brighton aren't quite good enough yet to ease off the gas and naturally land mid-table security. In recent seasons, Bournemouth laid a useful blueprint for a smaller club playing a style that backed their on ball ability, but also their inability to adapt that over time eventually saw them vulnerable in a down year, and they paid the price. Brighton and Potter would do well to heed the lessons dealt out there.
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