Five games that define a great season…

Date published: Monday 7th May 2018 8:25

So Brighton & Hove Albion are officially safe. It not as big a deal as Stoke’s relegation, or Darren Moore’s posing for the statue they’ll build at The Hawthorns if he keeps West Brom up. But the only reason it’s not big news is that the Seagulls have looked safe for a while—and that’s big news itself.

The Brighton success story started in the summer, when management put together easily the best transfer window of the league, and one of the very best in recent memory. How many teams have brought in four summer transfers who became regulars and crucial contributors? Even more remarkably, all were outright purchases, not loans. In alphabetical order: Pascal Gross, José Izquierdo, Davy Pröpper, and Mathew Ryan.

You know about Gross: he’s the number 10 with the impeccable technique and the sweetest crosses in the land. Izquierdo doesn’t have quite the same press, but he’s prolific on the left wing (five goals, three assists), using pace and technique to discombobulate defences. Pröpper is the quiet man in the middle, shutting off attacks and moving the ball forward (three assists of his own). Ryan is the keeper, sometimes solid, sometimes brilliant. Izquierdo joined in August and took a while to get up to speed, but Pröpper (33 starts) Gross (34 starts), and Ryan (ever-present) have all been stalwarts from the start.

You’ll note there are no central defenders in that group. Brighton felt comfortable with the pairing of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, and the season showed why. Duffy is the old reliable, staying put and stopping /returning everything that comes his way. With two games to go, he’s the clear league leader in clearances. Dunk is the adventurer, getting caught out on occasion but making plays many other defenders wouldn’t. He’s 34th in the league in clearances, but fourth in the league among central defenders in tackles. There’s one thing they both do well: they’re 1-2 in the league in blocked shots.

The other key position where Brighton stood pat was striker, although not by design. They expected to sign Ghana striker Raphael Dwanema from FC Zürich, but he failed a medical. Then they were reported to be after Oumar Niasse.  Then a late bid for Deportivo’s Florin Andone was rejected. So they began the season with the uninspiring pair of Glenn Murray and Israel international Tomer Hemed. It didn’t take long before Murray was the most inspiring story of all. Sometimes things just work out.

Of course, you also need the right manager, as Stoke and West Brom found out. Chris Hughton had last been seen taking Norwich down, with unimaginative football to boot, and I admit I was among those who doubted him. But his calm approach, emphasizing structure and team unity, proved just the thing. It’s not as if the Seagulls breezed to survival, but they found themselves in the bottom three only once—and that was after week two.

In celebration of their achievement, here are five games epitomising an historic season:

 

September 9, 2017, Brighton & Hove Albion 3-1 West Bromwich Albion
The fourth week of the season, and Brighton had yet to score a goal. They had managed only a 0-0 draw at Watford despite playing 11 v 10 for over an hour. The team’s weak attack looked like a potential long-term problem. But Hughton stuck to his deliberate tactics, refusing to hurry the match. The Baggies were the better side for much of the first half, but just before the interval Brighton finally got the ball in the net, a scrappy but very welcome effort from Gross. It was just the confidence boost they needed. By the 63rd minute they were three up, with the German scintillating in attack. Still, they made heavy weather of the final minutes, and Ryan came off his line with a wonderful stop on James Morrison to keep West Brom at arm’s length.

 

October 20, 2017, West Ham United 0-3 Brighton & Hove Albion
For the struggling Hammers, this was billed as the match to assert themselves against a promoted side. Instead they were sliced apart in a classic away performance. Ten minutes in, Murray headed home from a perfectly weighted free kick by Gross. Just before halftime, Murray got behind the defence and Joe Hart made an excellent save—but in the ensuing sequence Pröpper sent Izquierdo free on the left, and he cut inside and scored on a curler Hart couldn’t keep out. Murray would finish with a brace, converting a penalty he earned after a clumsy challenge from Pablo Zabaleta. Duffy was dominant in the air in the second half, and the grand old captain of the side, 37-year-old right-back Bruno, shut down everything on his flank.

 

November 25, 2017, Manchester United 1-0 Brighton & Hove Albion
Albion would lose this match, the second in a seven-game winless streak, their longest of the season. But there was no doubt they had been the better side at Old Trafford. All the good midfield play came from the men in yellow, with Gross in fine form and Anthony Knockaert running free on the right. But the final ball eluded them all night, and David de Gea was never seriously troubled. United’s opportunities would come from set pieces: in the first half Ryan made a brilliant double save from Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, but in the second Ashley Young’s shot took a freakish deflection off Dunk and spun high into the net. José’s quote after the game: “You can say it was a bad performance. But it was bad because Brighton were very good from minute one to the last minute.” True indeed, and it showed that the Seagulls could play confidently in a setting that had intimidated many over the years.

 

March 4, 2018, Brighton & Hove Albion 2-1 Arsenal
Albion were on a tear, having thumped West Ham and Swansea City in their previous two home matches, and climaxed the run with a famous victory over the slumping Gunners. The Seagulls nearly blew Arsenal out in the first half hour, and were two up on a Dunk goal from a corner and a Murray header off a magnificent curling cross from Gross. Arsenal got one back before halftime through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Laurent Koscielny hit the post, but excellent second-half defence and Ryan’s fine save from Mesut Özil kept the visitors at bay. Izquierdo made Hector Bellerin miserable all afternoon, Duffy cleared and blocked, and Pröpper was superb repelling Arsenal’s midfield. The win put Brighton in 10th place with 34 points, seven above the drop zone, and from then on they were never fewer than five points clear.

 

April 28, 2018, Burnley 0-0 Brighton & Hove Albion
The Seagulls started the day with 36 points, but knew their final three opponents would be Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool. So a result was vital here. And this was Burnley, which meant graft might mean a good deal more than skill. The scoreline pretty much tells you what the game was like. In the first half Brighton rode their luck in a set-piece melee, as Ashley Barnes and Jack Cork couldn’t get the ball past Ryan, and Kevin Long hit the post when it was easier to score. Afterwards it was grind, grind, and more grind. But sometimes that’s the way you have to do it, and Burnley never seriously threatened afterwards. Stat of the game went to Duffy, who won 13 of 15 aerial duels.

And so a week later, against Manchester United, Brighton clinched survival with two games to spare. But let’s face it: United were on so many beaches they could have re-enacted D-Day at Normandy. The hard work had already been done. Yet it was fitting that the defining win came against a side they had outplayed, and lost to, back when all the games counted. Unfinished business.

Speaking of which, the treadmill starts again in a few months. You’re only as good as your last few results, and Brighton will start the season with survival again the primary goal. But there’s much cause for optimism. By and large the squad is at prime age. All four of the big summer signings were 25 or 26 when the season began. Duffy and Dunk are both 26. Glenn Murray will need help, but Jürgen Locadia, a January signing who’s looked lively in attack, is only 24. Knockaert is 26. With a little freshening here and there, Albion should look ready to compete.  How long till August?

Peter Goldstein


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