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Graham Potter's Brighton project is at the crossroads
Brighton are winless in 2020 and facing the prospect of relegation under Graham Potter. Has the gamble backfired? Adam Bate argues that the changes have been positive but acknowledges that the project could now go one of two ways...
Last Updated: 03/03/20 7:22pm
Brighton were ruthless with Chris Hughton last summer, sacking him the day after the season ended. One week later, Graham Potter was confirmed as his replacement and optimism was high. Brighton chairman Tony Bloom spoke of wishing "to build on the solid foundations" that had been laid in the previous two seasons in the Premier League.
In particular, Bloom referenced Potter's "excellent record of developing teams with an attractive style of play" and thus set out the chief reason for the change of course.
In some respects, Potter has delivered on that remit. Only the top four teams in the Premier League have had more possession than Brighton this season. So swift was the turnaround in style that Potter was rewarded with a two-year contract extension just six months into the job.
But Brighton have won only one of their last 14 matches. They are the only team in the Premier League without a win this year.
The 1-0 home defeat to rivals Crystal Palace on Saturday added to the growing tension on the south coast. Is this what progress is supposed to look like? Brighton supporters would be tempted to take a repeat of last season's 17th place finish now.
With confidence drained, belief in the project is shaken and those on the outside have been quick to offer reminders that the club should have been more careful what it wished for.
In that sense, Palace were appropriate visitors at the weekend. They had ambitions of their own in appointing Frank De Boer in the summer of 2017 but abandoned the idea in record time after starting the season with four consecutive defeats. Palace turned to Roy Hodgson's brand of pragmatism and are now having their best ever Premier League season.
There will be those who argue that Brighton should cut their own losses. The point will be made that there is too much at stake to risk the club's Premier League future. But, for now at least, Brighton are entitled to hold firm in the belief that they are on the right path.
There is still plenty that is right about their game.
Potter praised his team's performance against Palace and while Brighton supporters have had to hear that too much after dropping points this season, he had a point. Neal Maupay squandered a clear chance to break the deadlock and also contrived to block a header from his captain Lewis Dunk that appeared destined for the corner of the net.
Brighton had 66 per cent of the ball and 24 shots - with most of those coming from inside the Palace penalty box. The build-up play was promising but the finishing touch was lacking and that's a familiar tale under Potter. Opta's expected-goals model suggests that Brighton should have scored five more goals than they have based on the quality of their chances.
The underlying numbers are those of a much more successful side.
Indeed, they rank eighth for sequences of ten passes or more and seventh for the number of those sequences ending in a shot. For both metrics, the teams above them on the list are all in the top half.
Potter's side are arguably the most expansive team in the Premier League. Opta's advanced metrics also reveal that they have the most absolute width of any team - that is to say the distance that a ball travels from the centre of the pitch in any passing sequence.
To illustrate the scale of the transformation in style of play, Brighton were down in 14th for absolute width last season and among the bottom four for both passing sequence metrics.
Take something as simple as passes per game. On average, Brighton are making 140 more of those in every match than they did last season under Hughton. That is an extraordinary stylistic shift to implement in one summer, by far the the biggest change in style of any Premier League side.
A recent study showed that Brighton went from taking 6.4 per cent of their goal-kicks short under Hughton to taking 75.8 per cent of them short under Potter. That is some adjustment for this squad.
Naturally, that brings with it challenges. It is awkward when Glenn Murray, at 36, remains the team's most reliable finisher and Shane Duffy still has so much to offer at the back. Hughton had built this squad with a view to playing a very different brand of football.
Potter's initial plan appeared to be to sideline both. But the replacements from the Championship have been unable to do the job. Maupay's wastefulness has proven costly. Adam Webster, a £20m signing from Bristol City, has endured a miserable first season.
That both Murray and Duffy earned recalls was testament to them but also an indication that Potter's vision has not been clear. There has been an uncertainty at right-back all season, while Dan Burn, a 6'7" centre-half being played at left-back, hardly fits the brand.
Retaining the faith is a test for the fans. Only Norwich have played a greater percentage of their passes inside their own half this season and there were groans on Saturday when Webster passed the ball to his goalkeeper rather than launch it into the box late on.
Potter addressed this subject head on in his programme notes against Bournemouth over the festive period.
"Sometimes you may see a pass go backwards or sideways instead of forwards," he explained. "You will see misplaced passes. But these are all part of the process and the mistakes that we make will be made with the intention of developing our way to play, our identity and our belief. They will also be essential in getting us to where we want to be."
This is why there are two ways of looking at Brighton's perceived lack of progress under Potter. The changes have not improved their standing. They are 15th in the Premier League table just as they were at the same stage of last season. There is every chance that their points situation would be very similar had Hughton stayed at the club.
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Had that happened, it would have been no surprise. That would match the club's highest Premier League finish. It is only because of the ambition for something more under Potter that this season is viewed with such suspicion. But there is a false dichotomy at play. This does not need to be a choice between progressive football and survival.
Brighton have chosen the greater potential that comes with playing the football to which bigger clubs aspire. Stay up and they can hope to be a team that quality players want to join. Keeping the ball with Potter might be more appealing than chasing it with Burnley. It is not just the climate that could see prospective signings prefer Brighton to Newcastle.
Potter will be acutely aware that there is much still missing from his team. But the prospective return of Ben White after a fine season on loan at Leeds could make a big difference. There is hope that Alexis MacAllister, the 21-year-old Argentina international who has been recalled from his loan spell at Boca Juniors, might be able to make an impact even sooner.
He will need to bring in players who are more comfortable with his possession football. Pace would be good. Forwards who can finish the chances that they are creating would be a huge help too. A lack of goals continues to undermine their best efforts and that needs to change.
But before they can build a better future, they must take care of the present and the task of keeping Brighton up is becoming trickier. Six of the next seven games are against top-half teams. Increasingly, for all the solid foundations of which Bloom spoke, the club's Premier League future is in the balance. The Potter project is at the crossroads now.