You may have noticed that Brighton & Hove Albion beat West Brom 3-1 this weekend, picking up their first win and first goals of the season. (Crystal Palace fans certainly noticed.) Their manager is all-around good guy Chris Hughton, and he now looks as benign as he sounds after shaving his beard. But even good guys can have something to prove, and in Hughton’s case, it’s that his cautious approach can ensure survival in a most unforgiving league.
With no goals and only one point in three games, he might have been tempted to play more aggressively at home to West Brom, maybe press a little higher, up the tempo somewhat. After all, the Baggies would probably play conservatively. But except for the slightly more front-foot approach teams always take at home, there was no change.
With a few minutes left before the break, it looked like the wrong decision. Without really exerting themselves in attack, West Brom had still managed to create the two best chances of the half. Brighton were dominating possession, but taking shot after shot from outside the area without any real hope of scoring. Ben Foster tried to help out by dropping one hit right at him, but Shane Duffy was well offside when he put in the rebound.
The game was meandering toward nap-time when the Seagulls scored their first goal of the season. Pascal Gross sent a fine cross-field ball to left winger Solly March, who ran at Craig Dawson and lifted a cross to the back post. Allan Nyom misjudged it and it fell to Gross, who went to his left and shot. It deflected off Jonny Evans and in.
After the initial pass, nothing about the goal had been impressive. March’s and Gross’s first touches hadn’t been clean, the cross had been more hopeful than anything else, Gross had put the ball too far to his left and had slipped as he shot, and the deflection had been severe.
But here’s the thing: when the game resumed after the break, Brighton were dominant. The game was inevitably more open, and without needing to change their approach, the home side took complete control. It was deservedly 3-0 before a late West Brom flurry caused a fair amount of nervousness. But a statement had been made: given confidence, we can play good football in the Hughton mould.
They’ll need all that confidence in the months to come. They’ll also need to play pretty well. First and foremost, they’ll need consistent strong performances from their leaders.
In attack, that’s last year’s star man Anthony Knockaert, the diminutive twisty left-footed winger who plays from the right side. He was injured at the start of the season, but is now up to speed and clearly capable at top-flight level.
Judging by the game against West Brom, he’ll be joined by Gross. A bargain at ₤2.55m from relegated Ingolstadt, he’s a number 10 who’s deft with both feet. He was nothing short of awesome in the second half, powering in a long-range goal with his right, assisting another on a perfect cross with his left, and generally doing everything an attacking midfielder should. He won’t play that well every day – in fact, this was his first good game – but having found his feet he’ll be an important asset.
In defence, top man is Lewis Dunk, who has a good all-around game and can send long diagonal balls like Ashley Williams in his prime. He likes to get forward, too, if not quite as audaciously as Harry Maguire. He’s decent but not great in the air, shown when he was beaten by Dawson on a sequence that might have resulted in a goal. But he’s Premier League level too.
After those three, the side have several players with potential, but who will have to prove themselves over the course of the season to contribute sufficiently.
One is March, pacy and a solid crosser, also willing to track back. At the moment he’s a bit timid in attack: twice in the first half he chose to cross instead of taking on his man and possibly getting into a better position. He’ll need careful coaching to blossom.
Then there’s José Izquierdo, the record signing from Club Brugge. Like Knockaert he’s an inside-out winger, but from the other side. That means he plays the same position as March, and unless Knockaert or Gross is out, only one can play. He arrived late in August, and we’ve only seen him for a few minutes so far.
A third is Davy Pröpper, central midfielder acquired from PSV, who cost nearly as much as Izquierdo. To be honest, he hasn’t yet looked the part. Just about every area of his game has been too inconsistent to suggest he’ll be a fixture.
Last in this group plays the most important position of all. Mathew Ryan looked anything like an international keeper in his first few games, but came up with two fine plays against West Brom, one a reaction save and the other coming out quickly to block. He still seems a bit uncertain when to come off his line, and with veteran Tim Krul now in the squad, he won’t have much margin for error.
After that, the – looks like a set of journeymen, at least at this level. Duffy, Dunk’s centre-half partner, is very good in the air, less certain in other ways. Dale Stephens, who plays in front of the back four, has some passing ability but doesn’t stand out. Left-back Markus Suttner, another Ingolstadt acquisition, looks OK in attack, substandard in defence. The grand old man of the side is captain and right-back Bruno, who at 37 can still defend, but won’t often be a difference-maker. He’s backed up by unknown quantity Ezequiel Schelotto. Chelsea loan man Izzy Brown, injured now, might help out in attack, but we can’t be sure.
And attack is the big problem, specifically striker. Glenn Murray throws a mean elbow, as Grzegorz Krychowiak found out on Saturday, but he’s a Championship-level forward. Tomer Hemed showed good movement to slip inside Evans and drill a near-post header for the second goal, but seems in the Murray mould: hard worker, good in the air, strong and slowish. It’s telling that the club were ready to sell him in the summer if they’d been able to recruit a replacement.
It adds up to a side that will have to be more than the sum of its parts, and that’s where Hughton comes in. Newcastle were of course the big favourites in the Championship last season, but Albion not only achieved automatic promotion, but were only a couple of agonizing minutes away from taking the league title. Hughton’s trademark, besides conservative play, is fostering togetherness in a team. The calm patience he showed against West Brom will serve the Seagulls in good stead.
Will it be enough? I don’t know. Their low-scoring profile is similar to Middlesbrough’s from last year, and that isn’t encouraging. But they’ve already done something Boro did only once last year, score three times in one game. And with expectations low and a popular manager, if they do go down, it’ll almost certainly be with good feeling. That’s enough for now. Crystal Palace fans can only wish they felt the same way.