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Chelsea vs. Brighton and Hove Albion, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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It’s a battle between the Premier League’s most injury hit teams. Whose walking wounded can finish the other’s off?

Newcastle United v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The Season Just Gone

Brighton and Hove Albion’s 2018-19 was the long, slow, drawn out end of a cycle. As the season drew to a close, it was obvious to all observers that the popular but overly conservative Chris Hughton’s time as Seagulls boss was over. He had done great things as Brighton manager, and no-one will ever forget or begrudge him the success he had in winning promotion to the Premier League and establishing the club as a top-flight side, but it was time for something different. As managers like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have found before him, Hughton discovered that it’s not enough for teams to avoid relegation year after year. They have to enjoy their football, and the fans have to enjoy watching them, or else there’s no point to any of it at all.

That’s not to say it was a season without positives. They beat Manchester United in a home thriller early in the season, and also claimed the scalps of West Ham, Wolves and Everton at the Amex Stadium. They did the double over hated rivals Crystal Palace and reached the FA Cup semi-final. The evergreen Glenn Murray was among the highest scoring English players in the league and while the season ended under a thick, black cloud, Brighton were never in any danger of going down. Their eventual 17th-placed finish was due to a combination of tough fixtures late on, tiredness and the fact that they could clearly lose all of those games and still stay up — and they gave it a damn good shot.

They failed to win any of their last nine league games, drawing three, losing six, conceding an average of two goals per game and scoring three in total. Their final goal difference of -25 was the worst of all non-relegated sides, and they scored at least seven fewer than any other team to stay up. Hughton could argue that, well, they stayed up: job done. But this tale of grim, unwatchable result-ball had been the story at Brighton for too long, and no-one wanted things to continue that way for any longer.

The Transfer Window

The most important arrival at the Amex was new manager Graham Potter, appointed a week after Hughton’s sacking and bringing with him the promise of more exciting, innovative and financially sensible management. One of the reasons Hughton had to go was his poor use of money: all of his big spends seemed to be on players he had little interest in using, or in players he deemed not good enough once they’d arrived.

Brighton can’t afford to throw away eight-figure sums like that, so Potter, who made his name managing in Sweden and returned to the UK to work at cash-strapped Swansea, can surely be trusted not to waste Brighton’s cash. So it has proven: having splurged on Leandro Trossard, Neal Maupay and Adam Webster, Potter has made them regular first-teamers. Additionally, Aaron Mooy was loaned in from Huddersfield.

Of equal importance was shifting out the enormous quantity of deadwood in the squad. As ever, modern Premier League wages mean that selling underperforming players outside the league is easier said than done. Only three players left on permanent deals for transfer fees, while a further 21 (twenty-one!) were loaned out.

The Season Ahead

The season looked to be starting in promising manner. A thumping away win at Watford was followed up by an encouraging and unlucky home draw to West Ham. The football was good, the team was gelling and the fans were having fun again. Things haven’t continued that way.

Having gone down to ten men in the first half against Southampton in their third game of the season, they were picked off in the remaining hour and then summarily destroyed by Manchester City in the next game. Injuries then began to mount, and it’s been harder and harder since to play as Potter had hoped or achieve the results he’d have aimed for. Hard-fought if frustrating draws against Burnley and Newcastle represent points Brighton may end up cherishing if their luck continues in this vein.

They come into Saturday’s game with nine first-team players unavailable through injury and during the week, their second string was absolutely dismantled in a traumatising home defeat by Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup. Chelsea couldn’t ask for better opponents to face right now.

Tactics

Potter has used a 3-4-2-1 formation exclusively since taking over at Brighton, preaching patient, triangular passing football at times and lightning fast vertical transitions down the flanks when the opportunity presents itself. It’s certainly a far cry from Chris Hughton’s dire 4-4-1-1, which made the Seagulls obdurate but ultimately blunt and painfully predictable.

As Chelsea fans will know all too well by now, the 3-4-2-1 system allows for two inside forwards to exploit pockets of space behind the opposition midfield line and in front of the defence, and then link up with overlapping full-backs to supply the front man. With quality wing-backs in the form of Martín Montoya and Solly March, not to mention the injured Ezequiel Schelotto, this approach makes sense on paper, at least, and also accomplishes the stated aim of making the football more attractive for the fans.

When their first-choice players were available, this has largely been the case, and but for a few instances of bad luck against West Ham and Burnley, and but for Florin Andone’s senseless red card against Southampton, Brighton would surely have many more points than they do now. With so many players out for Saturday’s game and with Chelsea looking hungry for goals, they’re surely set for another bad day at the office.

Strengths

Their change of style to become a proactive, possession-based team has been effective and noticeable, and in time it will bear fruit. Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay have looked instantly at home in the Premier League and it surely won’t be long before Montoya and March start getting cut-back assists for them on the counter.

At the back, Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Dan Burn are all better than their previous Premier League experience under less adventurous managers has shown them to be, and Webster is another defender comfortable enough on the ball to thrive in Potter’s passing system.

Weaknesses

More than any vulnerability, a repeatable pattern of play or in-game situation, Brighton have been undone by one-off moments of bad luck. They’ve yet to concede from a counter-attack, a set-play or a penalty this season. They’re not unable to deal with crosses or particularly vulnerable to balls over the top, or anything like that.

The Watford win aside, what Brighton have most shown so far this season is an Arsenal-like propensity to suffer the worst possible event at the worst possible time: a first-half red card in a crunch game against Southampton, a last-minute equaliser against them from Burnley, an injury crisis ahead of a long trip to fellow relegation battlers Newcastle and a crushing midweek defeat against a newly promoted side.

They come to Stamford Bridge with most but not all of their key players available and the rest of the squad made up of freshly thrashed reserves. They come with the possibility of another unfortunate collapse in the back of their minds.

Expected XIs

Chelsea have a raft of injuries of their own, so right now it seems like the teams will simply put out the only players they can.

Prediction

Chelsea will surely win here and win big.