It felt like they had done too much. It felt like bringing eight new players into their Premier League squad after a survival season was too revolutionary. But on Tuesday night, Brighton ended a quite brilliant 3-1 victory over their great rivals Crystal Palace with five of those new signings on the pitch. Chris Hughton has managed this transition perfectly; it is now impossible to see the join between the old and the new guards.
When Brighton beat Manchester United in August, only one of the Seagulls’ new signings started the game, Martin Montoya taking over from Bruno at right-back. When Brighton beat Crystal Palace in December, Montoya had been joined by left-back Bernardo and central midfielder Yves Bissouma, with Leon Balogun and Florin Andone coming off the bench not only to contribute but to score. This is now a 20-man squad, the strength of which is reflected by Brighton’s place firmly in the comfort of mid-table. This feels sustainable.
This season, the 20th man on Brighton’s Premier League ‘minutes played’ list is Romanian international Andone, scorer of goals in his last two appearances and a player who makes a Glenn Murray-less Brighton a rather less blunt object. Last season, their 20th man was Connor Goldson, now at Rangers along with fellow Brighton fringe player Jamie Murphy. That neatly sums up the difference made by a £60m summer investment and a manager in no rush to make wholesale changes.
Even last month, eight of Hughton’s starting XI against Everton were part of the squad that got promoted in 2017. “Of course if the team is doing well enough – and we have started okay – you don’t make those changes. But I fully expect the new players we brought in to play a big part this season,” said Hughton. Two more winless games later, he began to integrate more of those new players against Huddersfield and now Palace.
Andone has been the greatest beneficiary of that sea of change, starting against Town on Saturday as Hughton enjoyed the unfamiliar territory of being able to tailor his team towards the opposition, explaining: “We have a squad that is really pushing and we made a decision to play him today. Huddersfield play quite a high line and we felt we might benefit from having Andone’s runs in behind.” The result? A first Premier League win of 2018 without Murray in the starting line-up.
While Andone made way for Murray against Palace, £15m man Bissouma kept his place and was magnificent, making nine tackles in a man-of-the-match performance. Meanwhile, Montoya kept Wilfried Zaha quiet, while Bernardo was excellent either side of a goal-saving clearance to keep out Luka Milivojevic. Substitute and scorer Balogun – the actual sponsors’ man of the match – was imperious barring the penalty concession, while Andone was outstanding in both performance and finish when he came off the bench. Five new players with five magnificent contributions. Even a month ago that seemed highly unlikely.
“I think there becomes more pressure because you have improved the squad,” said Hughton back in August when he must have been among those a little worried that Brighton had done too much. So far the pressure has produced results and mid-table never felt so good.
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