Hiring Graham Potter was viewed as a masterstroke by many, and sure enough within the first few weeks of the campaign his aesthetically-pleasing football was taking hold as Brighton won 15 points from the first 11 matches of the season. The Potter revolution was going swimmingly, so much so the club even gave him a new six-year deal in November.
Fast forward to March 2020 and things feel a little different. Potter still has support for the time being, and yet alarmingly Brighton are the only club in the Football League to have not won a single game of football this calendar year.
Surviving the drop was the manager’s only objective for the campaign and so, sitting just above the dotted line, Potter and Brighton are technically doing just fine. There’s just one problem. On 29 points from 29 games, the Seagulls are four points worse off than at the same stage under Chris Hughton in 2018/19.
Season so far
Potter’s team no doubt play attractive football but they have seriously lacked a cutting edge throughout the season, consistently drawing against opponents despite looking superior over the 90 minutes.
The season has been defined by near misses, by lacking ruthlessness when it counts. As the manager said after a disappointing draw with Aston Villa, ‘You can’t just win by playing well, you have to be able to suffer’.
Coming back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 at West Ham in February briefly suggested Brighton had turned a corner in that regard. They’ve since scored two goals, and won three points, from four league games.
But nobody is turning against the manager just yet. When their finishing improves, and bringing Glenn Murray back into the fold has already helped, then Brighton can get back to their early season form.
Murray is not the only fringe player brought back recently. Solly March has also come into the fold, while Potter’s usual 4-2-2-2, in which the wide men tuck inside to become playmakers, has given way to a more traditional 4-3-3. In short, the manager is making concessions while the going is tough.
Everything positive about Potter’s tenure so far can be found in their 3-0 victory over Tottenham in October, when Brighton played with an exuberant energy and tactical complexity that made fans dream of a top-10 finish. Aaron Connolly and Neal Maupay formed a phenomenal partnership up front while Pascal Gross and Aaron Mooy played the winger/playmaker roles perfectly.
Brighton didn’t get near those heights again, although a 2-1 win at Arsenal in December will live long in the memory. Potter’s diamond 4-4-2 cut through the heart of the Gunners’ vulnerable midfield, showcasing the best of his tactical acumen, as Maupay’s 80th-minute goal sealed a vital three points. Brighton have only won one game since.
Aside from improving on their finishing in the final third, Brighton’s main weaknesses this season have been in central midfield, where Potter can’t seem to find a winning combination, and central defence. Here, he has made the decision to play £20 million signing Adam Webster more regularly than Shane Duffy, an unpopular decision made worse by Webster’s frequent errors.
The worst performance on the pitch was perhaps the 1-0 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, although a recent loss by the same scoreline to Crystal Palace will have hurt more. In terms of individual performances both Mooy and Gross have fallen short of expectations.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Brighton are two points above the relegation zone and despite slipping badly throughout 2020 many would still predict them to outperform the likes of Bournemouth and Aston Villa, especially given that Potter’s side have become draw specialists. They rarely collapse and are always competitive, meaning drawing their way to safety – 38 points or so – is the most likely outcome.
Their relegation odds of [5.0] with Betfair Exchange reflect the likelihood of another year in the top flight, particularly with a kind run of games to be played should the Premier League get back underway. Their final three are Southampton, Newcastle, and Burnley, all of whom will have nothing to play for by that point.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Brighton need a goalscoring forward to lift them next season because Murray surely doesn’t have another year in him. Mooy has done okay but an upgrade on the flanks is called for, particularly with record signing Alireza Jahanbakhsh taking another step backwards. He has played only twice this calendar year.
Clearly the board believe in Potter and, with a six-year contract having only just started, the aim for 2020/21 is surely to consolidate tactically while scouting for young prospects ready to be sculpted by the manager. If they can avoid a relegation battle it will be deemed a massive success.
Not many managers can bring worse results than a popular predecessor and still maintain faith from both boardroom and fan base. It is testament to Potter’s tactical aestheticism that Brighton appear to be moving in the right direction even as they drift ever so slightly backwards.
Should the season reach its conclusion and Brighton stay up, however narrowly, then undoubtedly 2019/20 will be viewed as a solid debut campaign – and the start of something much, much bigger.