The style and approach has changed drastically between managers, but the position hasn’t. It’s Brighton.
Best player: Lewis Dunk
There is a case to be made for Dan Burn, tallest of all the left-backs, but that in itself only reflects even kinder on Lewis Dunk. The captain has been a model of consistency alongside him, missing just two Premier League games – both defeats – all season.
The Seagulls would likely have been utterly flocked without him. That Brighton’s last league win without Dunk came in October 2016 underlines both his reliability and resilience.
His maturity, too, as no player has handled the transition between styles quite so seamlessly. There has been no drop in standards or quality from Chris Hughton’s regimented centre-half tasked chiefly with organisation to the calm and collected captain with no discernible weakness and a surprising contentment in possession under Graham Potter.
His defensive statistics have barely been affected, with Virgil van Dijk and natural central midfielder Sven Bender the only centre-halves across Europe’s top five leagues to have completed more passes.
As someone who also ranks joint-fourth for goals and level with second in the Premier League for assists for Brighton this season, he has been little short of indispensable and, as the club might discover to their detriment this summer, irreplaceable. Garth Crooks was right all along.
— TheOther14 (@Other14The) March 15, 2020
Biggest disappointment: Alireza Jahanbakhsh
The mitigating factors are important to consider. Alireza Jahanbakhsh had become a relative regular under Hughton in a difficult debut season, starting eight of Brighton’s final 11 Premier League games. But the appointment of a manager with a contrasting philosophy, albeit one that would seem to suit him more, has curtailed any progress.
A handful of small injuries and setbacks have also contributed to what Potter described as a “stop-start” campaign for a player who has spoken publicly of his difficulties in acclimatising to a new club and country.
The performance in a win over Bournemouth and sumptuous overhead kick against Chelsea in the subsequent game were rare highlights, only adding to the general sense of frustration at the struggles of an undeniable talent.
It felt as though a prosperous December would provide a platform, that a psychological barrier had been broken and the path to personal and team improvement was clear. But Jahanbakhsh has started two games in a miserable 2020 that has sent him back to square one.
The glimpses of promise have been tough to see for the fog of uncertainty and mediocrity. For £17m, and with those troublesome first steps taken towards the end of last season, expectations have been subceeded.
Best performance: Brighton 3-0 Tottenham
Reduced to a mere scene in the overarching plot of Mauricio Pochettino’s demise, Brighton were every bit as excellent as Tottenham were atrocious that October afternoon.
The opening-day win at Watford by the same scoreline was impressive and exceptional in its overall proficiency. Brighton had three shots on target at Vicarage Road and converted each, while Watford’s finishing was errant.
That was a professional, disciplined performance. The display that deepened Tottenham’s downward spiral was altogether more dominant: a sign of what Brighton could become with time, patience and fortune. And it had been in the post.
Potter hailed them as “magnificent” and “focused”. From Neal Maupay’s third-minute opener to Aaron Connolly’s second strike in the 65th minute, they exposed and punished a team that had played a Champions League final four months prior and were vibrant and expressive in doing so.
It has undeniably contributed to the relative exasperation since. Brighton have played well in plenty of games but translating that quality to victory has proved onerous. Here, they were impeccable in defence, excellent in midfield and lethal in attack.
Worst performance: Brighton 0-2 Leicester
The 3-1 loss to Bournemouth, who scored each of their shots on target while claiming 35% possession to end a six-game winless run, was Brighton’s season in a microcosm. What made the 2-0 defeat at home to Leicester worse is that they were barely recognisable in their inability to affect the game whatsoever.
Ayoze Perez scored a 64th-minute opener that was eventually compounded by Jamie Vardy’s retaken penalty in the closing stages. Brighton did not have a single shot on target and Leicester had almost three times as many efforts overall.
It was most stark for what it represented: a step back into an era that was supposed to have been left behind. Brighton had evolved from unambitious defending to a more expansive style but offered neither against Leicester. The game happened to them. It was just a coincidence that they fielded 11 individuals wearing the same kit at the same time another team was playing.
The Seagulls actually lost to the Foxes by that same scoreline at home in their first Premier League season. But there was a distinct difference between Glenn Murray missing a penalty and Leicester scoring twice in the last seven minutes in March 2018 to the absolute absence of resistance last November.
Not even a marked second-half improvement could paint it as anything other than drab. Brendan Rodgers was perhaps one more goal from declaring it “great for the public here to see us”.
Biggest VAR moment: Dan Burn’s armpit
Few clubs have benefited from VAR quite like Brighton, who have had nine such decisions given in their favour this season. The Premier League have long since admitted the award of a momentum-shifting penalty for Michael Keane’s aggravated assault on Connolly in October was unjust, but they have had a couple of moments go against them, too.
Most notable was their contribution to a watershed weekend of VARclays Premier League football. On the same day that Teemu Pukki and Wilfried Zaha were victims of marginal calls, Burn was surely the most unlucky of all, his armpit adjudged to have strayed beyond the last defender against Bournemouth.
🚨 We shall rename today "offside by a shoulder day" in the Premier League.
First it was Dan Burn, then Wilfried Zaha and now Teemu Pukki all have goals chalked off by VAR for being offside… pic.twitter.com/k4mxWZAtMI
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 28, 2019
It helped, if nothing else, persuade Arsene Wenger to be a bit silly.
Did their recruitment work?
In a sense, yes. Leandro Trossard has tailed off somewhat but done well. Maupay is in double figures for Premier League goals and assists. Aaron Mooy has helped shoulder the creative burden. Tariq Lamptey was a welcome nod towards the future. Even Adam Webster, the record signing who has often struggled to justify starting ahead of Shane Duffy, is starting to settle.
But they have spent over £35m on a striker, a winger and a midfielder to score marginally more goals, and £20m on a centre-half to improve slightly in defence. It worked in the loosest sense, certainly in comparison to last season, but recruitment remains a point of contention that requires improvement.
Dick move: Florin Andone’s red card against Southampton
Paul Merson described it as “one of the worst tackles you will ever see” and worth “five red cards”. Potter himself admitted it was “one we can’t defend”. On second viewing, few would want to.
It was a typical Brighton game: they had three shots to Southampton’s zero in the first half an hour and were looking as bright as the August sun. The mood was generally positive.
Then Florin Andone took it upon himself to jump into a knee-high challenge on Yan Valery to try and rescue his own poor first touch. There was an audible groan around the Amex, Solly March was the closest Brighton player to the tackle and immediately put his head in his hands, and Kevin Friend did not even wait for the striker to return to his feet before sending him off.
Brighton battled valiantly but Southampton took advantage of a foothold they scarcely deserved to win 2-0. Andone was sent out on loan to Turkey nine days later.
Manager’s job security
Brighton explained a desire to “build on the solid foundations laid by Chris Hughton” when appointing a manager with “an excellent record of developing teams with an attractive playing style, fierce determination and a strong collective spirit” last summer.
Given a four-year deal upon his arrival from Swansea, Potter said he was “sold by the long-term vision and passion” at a club on “an incredible journey” with “ideas and plans for the future”.
He even extended that contract by another two years in November after an impressive start, committing him and his staff to the Amex Stadium until 2025.
“In the summer we unveiled a new long-term vision for us to become an established top-10 Premier League club, and we feel even more strongly that Graham as a bright, energetic and innovative head coach, is the right man to lead us there,” said chairman Tony Bloom at the time.
So it depends whether those words were honest and forthright or hollow and meaningless. If Brighton really do see the 44-year-old as the leader of their “long-term vision” then relegation should not change that. If they stay in the Premier League, there will be no such decision to make, but the mere threat of returning to the Championship does strange things to previously sensible clubs.
Brighton were brave and admirable in pursuing genuine advancement by removing the safety net of Hughton and strapping themselves to Potter. It would be disappointing for them to lurch back from there, particularly after the unprovoked public vote of confidence a few months ago. His position seems secure.
What they need in the summer
A replacement for Dunk, most likely. It could be that Webster retains his place and is joined by Duffy, or Ben White returns from a prosperous loan spell at Leeds to walk straight into the first team. Perhaps Burn could even move back central from the left, in which case cover on that side would be sorely needed.
Outside of reversing the ageing process and winding Glenn Murray back a few years, at least one new striker is a must. Maupay and Connolly both offer something different but Brighton have a raft of forwards – Anthony Knockaert, Jurgen Locadia, Percy Tau, Jan Mlakar, Viktor Gyokeres and Andone – out on loan with few options left themselves.
As much as Mooy has helped fill the creative gap in central midfield, an alternative would be welcome. It could be that Alexis Mac Allister eventually serves that purpose.
The truth is that Brighton have spent so much since promotion that nurturing the forgotten players they do have, from Mac Allister to Jose Izquierdo, Tudor Baluta, Jahanbakhsh, Yves Bissouma and White, might take precedence over signing new ones.