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Defensively solid Brighton not exactly what the doctor ordered for still goal-shy Chelsea — opposition analysis

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Brighton’s survival may ultimately depend on an old dog learning new tricks.

Newcastle United v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

The Season So Far

Brighton and Hove Albion’s campaign has been more-or-less the best that could have been reasonably expected given their status as a newly promoted club with a modest budget, a Championship squad and a manager famous for being nice but ultimately not quite good enough at this level. They have battled gamely against the odds and they have snatched wins where possible, the undoubted highlight being the comprehensive 3-0 win away to West Ham. Now with one win in twelve, however it seems inevitable that Brighton will go down.

One senses that Brighton could have done more to help themselves by this point and that Chris Hughton’s famous cautiousness may have cost them more points than it’s won them. A 5-1 home defeat against Liverpool underscored just how far away the Seagulls are from being a proper Premier League team, and the scars from that experience will take a while to heal. It seems their modus operandi is to show up, work really hard without the ball, and lose without doing much attacking anyway.

Worst of all is their home form: Brighton have won once at the Falmer Stadium since September, and they’ve played a rudderless Everton side, a goal-shy Southampton, a painfully average Stoke, a hapless Crystal Palace, and off-form Watford and Bournemouth sides in that time. It’s obvious they could live to regret not picking up points when they were most available.

The Season Ahead

First and foremost, Brighton need to find a regular source of goals and if they are to survive. With clear-cut chances at a premium in Hughton’s uber-defensive setup, a poacher of Glenn Murray’s calibre isn’t quite good enough, even if Murray has punched well above his weight again this season.

The wingers need to be liberated from defensive duties if they are to perform to their maximum ability in attack: Anthony Knockaert, for example, was routinely described as the best player in the Championship last season and was tipped to make an impact in the top flight, but, weighed down by defensive duties, he only has two goals and one assist so far this season – one fewer goal-and-assist than he does yellow cards.

In the next month or so, Brighton’s fixture list could be far worse, and it is possible that they take the points to secure survival here. If Hughton can simply let his attacking players play and trust them to deliver the goods, and his defence can hold strong, they should pick up the points they possibly should have gotten earlier in the season. If Hughton keeps the handbrake on, however, one suspects Brighton will end up going down without having put up a real fight.

Tactics

Chris Hughton is a highly respected coach, well regarded throughout the British coaching community and by the journalists who’ve gotten to know him well over the years. He’s undoubtedly a good manager at Championship level and any club looking to achieve promotion to the Premier League should at least strongly consider hiring him. That said, once Hughton has achieved promotion his tactics have tended to become overly conservative, and his sides have been inevitably hindered more than helped by such extreme caution.

He took Norwich City back down to the Championship without ever really giving his players a chance to keep themselves up and Newcastle United brought in Alan Pardew to stop the same happening to them, and it’s probable that he’ll once again do the same with Brighton. A territorially sensible, non-aggressive and rigid 4-4-1-1 with carefully balanced long-ball counter-attacks isn’t the worst thing in the world, but there’s a fundamental imbalance between defence and attack in this team, which in this era often means increasing the odds of defeat – and that’s just bad management.

Strengths

Only Man Utd have conceded fewer goals from open play this season, but when this comes at a cost of making the team completely useless in attack it’s hardly something to write home about.

Anthony Knockaert will be really good in the Championship next season and the fee Brighton receive for breakout star and analytics community hero Pascal Groß will stand them in good stead for the next few years. Davy Pröpper and Shane Duffy are young enough to come back to the Premier League and make a proper go of it, should Brighton go down. Glenn Murray still knows where the goal is and has a happy knack of finding the net without having had a proper sniff of goal.

Weaknesses

To win games of football, generally speaking, a team has to actively try to win the game in the first place.

No Premier League team has played more football in its own final third, nor less in the opposition’s final third, than Brighton this season. Only three teams have taken fewer shots on goal and only one team has had fewer shots on target. Only two teams have attempted fewer dribbles, meaning Brighton’s only realistic route forward is long balls, making them very predictable and easy to dominate. Only Burnley have played more long passes this season and no team has been fouled less often, meaning they have very few chances to get defenders forward and mount assaults from set plays, an area of play in which they are actually rather effective.

At the other end, only two teams have allowed more shots on goal than Brighton this season (though many have faced more shots on target). No team has conceded more goals from set pieces. Only four teams have made fewer tackles and yet no team has been dribbled past more often. No team has scored more own goals.

It’s harsh to blame this all on Hughton and of course it’s true that his squad is very short on Premier League quality, especially in attack. We return to the case of Anthony Knockaert however, a player of whom big things were expected this season.

Knockaert was among the Championship’s most creative and effective attackers last year, and yet this year he’s playing as a defensive winger with little licence to show what he can do, performing considerably more defensive actions game (1.2 tackles, 0.6 interceptions and 0.7 fouls) than attacking ones (he has taken just 1.4 shots per game and created 1 chance per game). If Brighton end up going down, Hughton’s excessive caution will be as big a reason as their relative lack of quality.

Likely XIs

Brighton’s settled eleven should be expected here.

Chelsea will be short on bodies, on stamina and on rhythm after 120 midweek minutes against Norwich. This is Brighton’s only real hope of avoiding defeat.

Prediction

With such a gulf between him and the opposition, we should hope and expect that Eden Hazard is going to make short work of Brighton – provided Antonio Conte gives him the platform and the support to do so.