After a successful World Cup campaign for Europe in general (not including Germany, sadly…), the domestic leagues are finally back in full swing. It seems all those players involved in the world cup are finally getting 90 minutes at a time of competitive fixtures under their belts. One club that surprisingly has three World Cup players in their squad is Brighton and Hove Albion.
To many they were the surprise package to survive in the Premier League for another season alongside their fellow promoted counterparts Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town. It was expected that a club as big as Newcastle would certainly be safe come the end of the season. However, both Huddersfield and Brighton were not backed by the public with the same confidence. Instead, at the start of the season, they were both the favourites to be relegated. Interestingly, the odds on backing all three promoted sides to survive the 17/18 season would have returned you more than betting on Leicester City winning the Premier League in the 15/16 season.
Regardless of the pre-season predictions, Brighton now start their second season in the Premier League with three players in their squad who competed at the world cup as Balogun was brought in as a free agent after his time came to an end at FSV Mainz. The 30-year-old, Nigerian international, played every game in the group stages at Russia. Signings like these show the level of quality that Chris Hughton is aiming for when improving the depth at the club. Not many predicted Balogun would be starting for Brighton anytime soon, but after an injury to Lewis Dunk in the game against Manchester United, he came on and then played 90 minutes the following week against arguably the best attacking force in the Premier League in Liverpool.
In the lead up to the Liverpool game it seemed like a recipe for disaster. The ingredients included: the splitting of the Duffy-Dunk partnership, sprinkled with a new signing who has not played 90 minutes yet and having to play against a team who had scored 19 goals across 4 games against sides managed by Hughton in the Premier League. Yet Balogun proved his worth and although Brighton lost 1-0, the result could have easily been a 1-1 draw with Alisson having to pull off a fantastic close-range save from Pascal Gross in the dying minutes of the game. Balogun is just one of many significant signings made by the seagulls this summer transfer window. Other notable signings include Alireza Jahanbakhsh at around £17million (good luck to Soccer Saturday trying to pronounce this name), Yves Bissouma at around £15million, Bernardo at around £9million, Martin Montoya at around £6million and Florin Andone at around £5million (all signings on undisclosed terms).
The signing of Jahanbakhsh marks the third time in two seasons that Brighton have purchased a player from the Eredivisie. Last season, Davy Pröpper was signed in the summer while Jurgen Locadia was signed in the winter transfer window both from PSV Eindhoven. It is unusual to have so much faith in a league that is not part of the European top five. Especially when you consider players like Memphis Depay, Siem de Jong, Jozy Altidore and most recently Vincent Janssen have all flopped in past Premier League seasons. Unfortunately for fans, the transfer record-breaking Iranian, at the time of writing, has only played 90 minutes of competitive football. This was against Southampton in the second round of the Carabao Cup, where the Saints won 1-0. He has so far failed to make an immediate impact and fans are hopeful that when he does play his contribution to the team is more like a Davy Pröpper than a Jurgen Locadia.
Yves Bissouma signed from Lille and has now started against Liverpool in the league and Southampton in the Carabao Cup. With similar game-time to Balogun, it is difficult to tell exactly how his season will pan out. However, as a 22-year-old he certainly has huge potential. The Malian international is used to defending as he was part of a Lille side that narrowly escaped relegation last season (by a single point). Yet, he is also aggressive when going forward with the ball, as shown constantly in the game against Southampton. In addition to this, he can take free kicks in a manner that strangely draws a resemblance of how Rickie Lambert used to take his penalties – hit it as hard as possible on target and it will go in. Unfortunately, Bissouma is yet to score a free kick in a competitive game but goalkeepers should be wary, as he scored a great free kick against Birmingham City during pre-season.
Turning the focus to the newest fullback additions, Bernardo was signed from RB Leipzig. Similar to Bissouma, Bernardo is a younger player (aged 23) with a lot of potential and has also played two games so far. Although he is Brazilian, his flair is yet to be shown but his technique is impeccable. Defensively he has also made no major errors and looks very solid. Perhaps he will not get too much game time, due to competition with Gaetan Bong who has played very well so far. Moreover, the Seagulls are now out of the Carabao Cup yet his solid performances so far have already earned him a chant replacing ‘Fernando’ with ‘Bernardo’ in the famous song by ABBA (we all know the one).
Montoya, on the other hand, boasts a wealth of experience having played 45 times for Barcelona. As a product of the famous ‘La Masia” academy, he eventually moved to Valencia after not featuring regularly enough at Barcelona. After spending almost his entire career in La Liga, he now finds himself in unfamiliar Premier League territory yet has been utilised by Hughton for two of the biggest games so far this season; against United and Liverpool. So far he has impressed with his passing ability and rarely put a foot wrong. He does not have years ahead of him but he is not too old (aged 27) to have a successful playing career in England. As an experienced fullback, he seems an astute bit of business by Brighton in the short term.
The aforementioned signings are a statement of intent for Chris Hughton and marks an ongoing process to improve the squad quality and depth. Unfortunately, it includes getting rid of some outstanding players that perhaps cannot quite cut it in the top division such as Connor Goldson, Uwe Hünemeier, Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock (big names I know). For those that do not recognise these players, they were instrumental in the promotion push from the Championship. Many do not realise that Duffy and Dunk did not always play together at the back and it required cover from Goldson and Hünemeier. You also have to remember Hemed scoring 30 goals since joining in 2015 and that Baldock scored screamers at the most critical points of the season. In fact, after Hemed’s recent loan move to Queens Park Rangers (with an option to buy), it took him only 35 minutes to score on his debut, proving his Championship ability.
Brighton struggled last season but the biggest highlight was beating Manchester United in the last home game of the season and consequently secured survival in the Premier League. Now Hughton needs to be careful not to fall victim to second season syndrome, an unfortunate circumstance that has occurred for 12 different teams since the Premier League began. Similar to José Mourinho’s third season syndrome second season syndrome refers to newly promoted teams surviving one season but then getting relegated the next. Perhaps they are lulled into a false sense of security and believe they are established in the premier league too quickly. Symptoms include: spending too much on big names like Middlesborough in the 96/97 season, losing big money seasons to injuries like Ipswich in 01/02 and cup-runs diverting focus from the all-important domestic league like Birmingham 10/11 season.
Of course, the reasons for relegation cannot be placed on a single factor yet these are the standout teams that have fallen from grace. Hughton will have learnt many lessons from these teams that did not make it past two seasons and he would have also learnt a lot from his relegation battling time at Norwich and no doubt will be on guard for complacency. Even though it will be a tough season once more, Hughton has the full backing of both the club and the fans. It is critical that both of these groups do not get ahead of themselves and keep their feet firmly on the ground. This is why the aim of this season will again be to avoid relegation and perhaps (for the sake of the nerves of the fans) to do so without having to beat a top 6 club in the penultimate game of the season.