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Potterball: Magic or illusion at Brighton?

Another game-week has passed with journalists and bookies all starting to estimate clubs for the coming season. Some of the earlier predictions already look laughable with the promoted sides testing some of the best in the league and the well-established clubs struggling to pick up points. One difficult situation to gauge is down on the Sussex coast in Brighton and Hove Albion.

The sacking of Chris Hughton at the end of last season polarised fans from within the club and out. The board justified their decision due to the abysmal form that Brighton had in 2019, which culminated in only just avoiding relegation from the top flight.

Enough was enough it seems and Brighton hired a manager with a completely different style – Graham Potter. With a very long pre-season for a new manager, it was as if the anticipation for the opening game of the season against Watford mounted higher and higher by the day.

After a first glance of the team lineup on the opening day, it would have been easy to quickly judge the player choice that looked like a Chris Hughton prototype. However, upon closer inspection, the formation utilised five defenders including wing-backs.

The idea that there would always be three central defenders ready to sweep up the direct and bullish football Watford have been known to play worked a charm. With such a tough and brutish Deeney leading their attack alongside Andre Gray, extra cover is needed and Dan Burn at 6ft 7 made a great statement as to why he can compete with the Duffy-Dunk partnership this season.

While on paper, the extra central defender makes sense to counteract Watford’s direct attacking options, the more technically advanced and creative players (Hughes, Pererya and Deulofeu) also needed attention.

In fact, the press from players like Jurgen Locadia and Pascal Gross who played slightly behind and on the inside of Glen Murray forced any ball in Watford’s possession to only go down the flanks and never through the centre. By-passing the central creative force who played in a 4-2-2-2 formation was so detrimental to Watford that they restricted their chances greatly.

Yet ultimately, Brighton were fortunate to force Doucouré into an early mistake from which he never recovered. Watford still had their chances throughout the game and the Seagulls still relied heavily on the Dunk-Duffy partnership, underpinning just how much of a loss Dunk would have been had he left for Leicester.

After just 28 minutes into the game, Doucouré scored an own goal after some tireless work from Locadia down the left flank and a low driven cross from Groß was deflected past Foster. The move seemed destined for a goal anyway with Murray lurking just behind Doucouré, who would have had an easy tap-in for his 103rd goal in a Brighton shirt. Despite being kicked into action by the early goal, Watford failed to score. Shots were relentlessly blocked by Dunk or smartly saved by Ryan, which led to a rare clean sheet away from home for the Albion.

Above all, it was the fluidity that rounded off the plethora of changes that Potter has brought to Brighton so far. Hughton previously always played with such rigidity so as to avoid being caught on the counter-attack but it was at the expense of any continued spells of fast-paced and creative freedom.

In contrast, this season the Seagulls are allowed more positional freedom which naturally sees the central midfielders place themselves in a variety of more advanced positions, more often. Considering Watford’s talent, it was bold to implement such free-flowing football and there is no doubt Brighton will be punished heavily against the top 6 simply because of the lack of rigidity.

In fact, Brighton were easily undone by West Ham on the counter-attack in their first home game under Potter. Despite long spells of Brighton dominance, it was West Ham who scored first against the run of play. This may foreshadow what is to come for Potter as the Premier League is a long season and having to play deadly attacking forces such as Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham over a 40 day period across November and December will be telling.

But Brighton fans are unlikely to care about being beaten by the top-six because they understand their place in the league. Of course, everybody loves a triumphant underdog and Brighton have beaten Manchester United twice in two years under a tactical masterclass from Hughton. But they have also lost at home to Burnley, Southampton and Newcastle utilising a similar philosophy. These unacceptable losses may be in the past under new management and fans are all the more excited for it on the South Coast.

Not only have they won on the road once already, but they were unfortunate to draw against a West Ham side who struggled to create chances. A clinical finish from Hernandez showed why he could still be deadly in the Premier League this season but it was Brighton who would rue their chances.

Having 18 shots but only four on target made the draw almost feel like a loss for the hosts, especially when debutant Trossard had a well-timed volley ruled out by VAR. But no matter, it took the Belgian winger just four minutes after the Hammers scored to get his season off to a flyer. Finishing off a great driven shot to the left of Fabianksi just inside the box, Trossard repaid the faith of FPL managers who have backed the promising forward after an excellent pre-season.

With Maupay also scoring on his debut against Watford, it makes for exciting times down on the South Coast. It is a sigh of relief for many fans of the club who still are questioning the great fees paid for Alireza Jahanbakhsh and even Adam Webster with Dan Burn playing so well in defence.

Going into the third game week, Brighton sit in 5th place with a home game against Southampton as the upcoming fixture. Seagulls fans will be casting their eyes towards another winnable home fixture before a tough away game against Man City the following weekend. Even more encouraging times look likely to come in the near future as the Brighton board announced they are aiming for the top-ten in the coming years.

The chairman Tony Bloom justified his claims due to the new 12-year £100 million deal they had agreed with American Express. This deal alongside the shirt sponsorship puts them in the top 10 in terms of sponsors in the league and the board want to replicate the sponsor league table to the Premier League table. With Dan Ashworth (the man behind the FA’s recent success in international tournaments) now as the technical director at Brighton, the club looks close to being labelled as an established side in the top division.

Admittedly, predictions and estimations made from only two games into this season may also turn out to be laughable. After all, cautious steps still need to be taken by Graham Potter and a Brighton team who have struggled to remain in the Premier League since joining in the 2017/2018 season. So far this season, Potter has enchanted fans so keep an eye out for the Seagulls as they hope to soar above their previous finishes of 15th and 17th.

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