The Season So Far
With nearly half the season gone, Brighton are closer in points to Manchester United than the relegation zone. Even with United’s slump into miserable Mourinho malaise taken into account, that’s above and beyond the expectations of any Seagulls fan and manager Chris Hughton, widely respected throughout the game, can expect to be given the freedom of the south coast should this form continue.
The highlights of their season have been the home wins against Man Utd and Crystal Palace, which almost took the roof off of the Amex, while a three-game 1-0 winning streak in October propelled them into comfortable mid-table position from which they have yet to fall. Glenn Murray, whose career began the Triassic Period, is equal fourth in the Premier League scoring charts, behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane. That’s some company to be in, especially at his age.
That said, it hasn’t been all plain sailing: defeats to Burnley and Cardiff show that Brighton still have serious problems against teams who are willing to fight all-out-defence with all-out-defence, while failure to beat Southampton and Fulham while both were in freefall may come back to cost Brighton dear. Meanwhile, the likes of Pascal Groß and Anthony Knockaert haven’t hit the heights expected of them as attacking forces, and record signing Jürgen Locadia seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth. Hughton has to find some way to get more attackers to produce the goods as soon as possible.
The Season Ahead
The next few weeks look absolutely brutal for Brighton, so it’s round about now they’ll start to regret failing to beat some of the teams below them. By the end of January, the Seagulls will have faced Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool and Man Utd, which is a whole lot of nil points to pick up in a short space of time. Things will hardly be much easier against free-scoring Bournemouth and West Ham, leaving their trip to Fulham on January 29th looking like their next very winnable game. It could be a very long winter.
Alternatively, Brighton could keep playing above themselves, riding their luck and grinding out wins against far more powerful and talented outfits.
For the entirety of Chris Hughton’s coaching career he’s had a template and he’s almost never deviated from it – even when it was clear that the paralysing boredom and predictability of his football was going to get his Norwich team relegated, he still stuck to his guns, got sacked and sent Norwich down.
His teams have until recently always played 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with a very traditionally British, defensive mindset. They are all about sitting deep, staying compact and keeping their opponents at arm’s length. Their attack is organised around quick transitions from defence to attack using long balls and set plays. There is very little to please the eye.
Hughton is not interested in having the ball if it means his team will lose their shape or leave themselves vulnerable at the next transition. Only three Premier League teams have averaged less possession this season, while no team has played more football in their own final third or less in the opposition third. This is the anti-Sarriball.
In recent weeks there has been a switch to 4-3-3 with three forwards, phasing Glenn Murray out of the side and bringing in the hard-running Florin Andone in his place. Presumably the idea is to make Brighton a bit more dynamic in open play, allowing the likes of Groß and Knockaert to click better with a striker who, as well as finish from close range, can actually run.
Hughton knows that his team would get destroyed in open games against almost all other Premier League sides, so it’s all about making things as scrappy as possible in the middle and then overperforming in both boxes.
In attack, only four teams have fewer Expected Goals than Brighton, but the Seagulls have scored more than eight sides in reality. No team has attempted fewer crosses this season, but only four teams have created more chances with crosses and only two have scored more goals from set pieces. No other team has spent the majority of the season with a 35 year-old Football League journeyman playing as the lone striker, and more fool them.
In defence, Brighton are very organised and hard-working; their defensive actions stats are exactly as prolific as one would expect and it’s clear that they’re letting opponents play around their box while presenting them with relatively few opportunities to score: only Burnley have blocked more shots; only two teams have blocked more crosses; only five teams have made more clearances.
Only two teams have higher Expected Goals Against figures than Brighton and yet only 22 goals have gone in against them so far this season, giving them the tenth best record in the league, while their goalkeepers have been called upon less often than Arsenal’s and Tottenham’s and only marginally more than Man Utd’s.
It’s attrition, it’s dour, it’s the very definition of unglamorous, but it works.
Even if it’s part of your plan to get dominated, you’re still getting dominated. Only Burnley have allowed more shots on their goal this season, while Brighton have conceded the most penalties in the league and, even though they’re overperforming against the third worst defence and the fifth worst attack, they still have the fifth worst Expected Goals total and the third worst Expected Goals Against figure. They can’t overperform so spectacularly forever.
With their fixtures about to become fiendishly difficult, we are probably about to see a very drawn out and painful regression to the mean.
Shane Duffy is out suspended for the home side, so Leon Balogun will come in. Glenn Murray has recovered from the shoulder problem which has been plaguing him in recent weeks but could find that Florin Andone has made the striker’s spot his own.
As for Chelsea… yeah. We all know now.
The gulf in class is just too big. Brighton 0-3 Chelsea.