They say you earn your luck. Brighton & Hove Albion head coach Graham Potter regularly talks about “margins”, but the south coast club have been so extremely on the wrong side of them for almost a year - until now.
The Seagulls have enjoyed their best ever start to a top flight season with four wins from five matches, lifting them to fourth in the Premier League. It took them 19 games to reach 12 points last season, and 21 to record as many victories. But look at the numbers over the past year, and the reality is this has been coming.
Back to expected goals (xG) later, because Albion’s rise is better than a story of ‘what ifs’. This is a progressive club, owned by a lifelong fan whose grandfather was also a vice-chairman. The money Tony Bloom has poured into Brighton since taking over the future-securing work of Dick Knight and his team has led to an impressive stadium and top of the range training ground. The investment has continued, and the women’s team now has its own wing with just as impressive facilities.
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On top of that, the appointment of Dan Ashworth as technical director after he oversaw the ‘England DNA’ project with Gareth Southgate at the Football Association was a serious coup - and the club are very publicly aiming to establish themselves in the Premier League’s top 10. These are the foundations on which Brighton’s progress is built, inspired by almost losing it all in 1997.
Then, under the stewardship of Bill Archer and David Belotti, the Goldstone Ground was sold to be redeveloped into a retail park and Albion were homeless, staring at relegation. Only a draw at Hereford on the final day of the season saw them stay in the Football League - defeat, and Brighton almost certainly would never be in the position they are in now.
The Potter era is the latest step of a long journey - and he is fully invested. Just six months after succeeding Chris Hughton in 2019, the former Ostersunds and Swansea boss was given a new contract through until 2025. The hierarchy were impressed with the early impact made by a coach who is different to his peers. A former defender at clubs like York, Macclesfield and briefly, Southampton, Potter has a degree in leadership and emotional intelligence and he is clearly a popular figure among his players.
The change in style from the former regime was instant. Hughton is still regarded as a great by Albion fans, but Potter immediately implemented his own identity - based on tactical fluidity, intensity and fast build-up. Over the past two years, he has patiently assembled the squad that he wants - only Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Solly March remain from the side promoted from the Championship in 2017.
At times last season, it was exhilarating and frustrating to watch at the same time. Brighton occasionally overplayed, they dominated, but could not finish their chances. There was no better example than the two games against Crystal Palace, recording a 1-1 draw away and a 2-1 defeat at the Amex. In those matches, Potter's side accumulated a combined 45 shots, while Palace scored three times with their only three attempts on target. According to Understat, Albion would have finished fifth if all clubs in the division had finished on their expected points, a measure calculated by xG for and against.
Brighton’s xG became a running joke by the end of the campaign, but their form was not completely unnoticed. Ben White eventually earned a place in England’s Euro 2020 squad, and subsequently a move to Arsenal. Potter was linked with the vacant job at Tottenham, although given the instability at the time - and the reasons outlined above - it is unlikely it was the right time to move on. The outstanding Yves Bissouma was somehow overlooked by all of the top clubs.
Graham Potter has transformed Brighton
Image credit: Getty Images
Naturally, it is assumed that Brighton needed a striker to make all of this right, but the summer came and went with plenty of names linked and no forward arrived. In fact, old faces were recycled and given a second chance. Duffy found his way back into the team after a nightmare at Celtic and made an instant impact, while the expensive and so far disappointing Jurgen Locadia has made the bench after a poor loan spell at FC Cincinnati.
Suddenly, the team are taking their chances and are laughing in the face of xG by outperforming it. Last season, it felt like all the luck was not going their way. Now, (as Leicester fans will know) it feels like it is all being paid back. When luck comes on top of consistently promising performances, a run like Brighton’s will be the result.
Can Albion sustain this form?
The exciting thing for Brighton is that things could get even better. Bissouma has stayed, and given Bloom is a poker player by trade, he is unlikely to let him go this season.
The explosive and exciting Tariq Lamptey was back on the bench for the win over Leicester, having not played a game through injury since December, and he will make his first-team return in the League Cup against Swansea this week. The former Chelsea defender will soon be back in the top flight team, and on the left side, Marc Cucurella (who played in the Olympics for Spain) looks like an outstanding signing from Getafe based on his first two games.
Adam Lallana looks fit and with his natural football intelligence, he is orchestrating the midfield with Bissouma. Neal Maupay is best as a second striker, but a new fluid front line involving Leandro Trossard and Danny Welbeck has really clicked.
If there are injuries, players like Jakob Moder, who was arguably Poland’s best player in the 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with England, is ready to come in, as are Alexis Mac Allister, the ever reliable Pascal Gross, and summer signing Enock Mwepu, despite his shaky performance off the bench against Brendan Rodgers’ men.
Fans are not getting carried away, but thoughts of relegation could be swiftly dealt with. The shackles will then be off, and that dream top 10 place could be a reality. And if the ‘margins’ continue to fall on Albion’s side, trips to Europe could even become a possibility.
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