This is a path that has been trodden before. Mid-level team become unhappy with ‘grind it out’ style football, yearn for a more attractive style of play and eventually succumb to a poorly constructed attacking template and get relegated, otherwise known as ‘Mark Hughes Syndrome’ or ‘MHS’ for short.
This is what was supposed to happen to Brighton and Hove Albion when they appointed Graham Potter in July 2019. Only, that’s not how the narrative has gone with the former Swansea coach looking to equal the Seagulls’ best ever finish in the Premier League, currently sitting in 15th position, 6 points off Crystal Palace.
The appointment of Potter, who had arrived back in England after achieving domestic success in Sweden with Ostersunds FK, was met with the typical cynicism by much of the football fraternity who appeared dismissive of what Potter had achieved in both the Swedish Allsvenskan and the Europa League. However, Swansea proved an excellent base for the former West Brom full-back, stepping into an environment that mirrored his style of play. Potter took the South Wales club to 10th place in the Championship in his first season.
Whilst Potter was adapting to the English football landscape, Brighton were barely surviving in the Premier League under the cautious management style of Chris Hughton. Hughton had garnered plaudits for his simple, no-fuss style of play, but despite a solid defensive platform, his attempts to engineer a more expansive style of play did not prove fruitful. Brighton would finish the 2018/2019 season one spot above the relegation zone with the fewest shots on target per 90 of 2.91.
Assessing Hughton’s Brighton is a far cry from what Potter is attempting to craft. Put simply, without the creative talent of Pascal GroB, who arrived from Augsburg in 2018, Brighton were bereft of goal creating opportunities with Antony Knockaert failing to carry the creative impetus that he was capable of whilst in the Championship into the Premier League.
GroB’s signing is a clear indication of the direction in which Brighton’s recruitment is moving, with the further additions Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay fitting into the Brighton template, providing the team with greater creative nucleus. It is perhaps an indicator that owner Tony Bloom, was searching for a coach that was more aligned with an attacking, possession based approach.
Operating as something of an Eriksen-lite style of player with superb set piece deliveries, GroB has provided the bulk of goal creating opportunities over the last two campaigns, weighing in with 10 goals and 11 assists in his first two seasons. More importantly to Brighton’s overall play is Grob’s key passes and passes into the penalty area, averaging 2.43 key passes per 90 and 1.27 ppa.
This season under Potter, the team has developed a more dynamic system. They have a collective approach incorporating players like Maupay, Trossard who have excelled in Brighton’s new style.
Fish and Chips for Two : A Maupay and Trossard Tale
Maupay has now begun to show the talent that convinced Brighton to part with £19.8m to secure his services from Brentford last August. He has started alongside Trossard with greater regularity as the season has progressed. Between them, they contribute 0.84 goals and assists per game, 14 goals in total and have eased the move away from Brighton’s previous reliance on Glenn Murray as the target man.
The Frenchman’s time at Brentford established him as a penalty box forward, often finishing off passing moves or follow up saves from the opposition keeper, with all but one of his Championship goals coming from around the 6 yard box. He has maintained this style of play whilst at Brighton, often providing the focal point for Potter’s combination play.
Trossard, signed in June 2019, from FC Genk, is a more versatile forward who appears comfortable either driving at players or breaking into the box and arriving late for those byline cutbacks. Positionally, he likes to operate from the left flank, sometimes starting out up top with Maupay or further back in an advanced midfield two if Aaron Connelly is starting.
Both players have received the most touches in the box for Brighton this season, Maupay at 6.3 and Trossard 5.38. This is a dramatic increase from the previous season where Murray (3.69) and Sean Duffy (2.07) provided more static focal points mainly capitalising on set-piece deliveries from GroB. Potter has transitioned Brighton’s style of play to be far less focussed on dead-ball situations, favouring playing through the thirds and developing a sound attacking style of play.
With a more cohesive attacking unit, backed up by players like Aaron Mooy and the emerging Alexis Mac Allister (Argentinian not Scottish), Potter has convinced his squad to maintain their playing style throughout the campaign, irrelevant of opposition, averaging 17.3 shots per game against the Top 6 this season. Even against the newly crowned champs, Liverpool, Brighton were able to create 4 big chances and achieved 12 shots (albeit only 2 on target). At times, Brighton have come undone against stronger opponents and Potter will surely want to address this next season, hoping that scores such as losing 5-0 and 4-0 to Man City, home and away are a thing of the past.
Instead of ripping up all that was before him and dismantling the strong defensive base instilled by his predecessor, Potter has coaxed Brighton towards a more possession based game with a desire to ask questions of each team at every opportunity. One hopes this will be built upon over the summer and it will be interesting to see these exciting players perform next season. As for Potter, he’s not a wizard but appears to be a very good manager.