As Brighton trooped off the Amex pitch at half time against Wolves, things were looking pretty grim for Graham Potter and his players.
The Seagulls were 3-1 down, had won just two Premier League matches all season and were about to record a 13th home league game without victory, setting a new and unwanted club record.
To make matters worse for Potter, it was a tactical switch from the Brighton boss which had caused Wolves to surge ahead. Dan Burn was just about coping with the threat posed by Adama Traoré thanks to the defensive cover provided by Solly March, until Potter decided to move March over to the right flank and brought Leandro Trossard over to the left. Trossard would struggle to tackle his way out of a paper bag and with Burn now ruthlessly exposed against Traoré, the entirely predictable outcome was the 6’7 left back conceding a penalty to gift Wolves their third within a couple of minutes of Potter’s adjustments.
The most concerning aspect of that first half against Wolves was that Brighton did not look up for the fight. Yes, the Seagulls could play pretty passing football at times but beyond that, this was a side who either lacked the required characteristics to do the hard and dirty work or did not want to. Something had to change if Brighton were to get out of the relegation battle that was creeping ever closer upon them.
And something did change. Whatever Potter and his coaching team said at half time against Wolves had the desired impact. Brighton dug in and battled their way back to a very good point, drawing 3-3. They could battle. It was the start of a much improved run and since then, the Seagulls have lost just once in the Premier League, a 1-0 defeat at Manchester City.
They have picked up 11 points out of 18, ending that barren home run with a 1-0 victory against Tottenham and following that up with a win at Liverpool three days later by the same scoreline. From sitting just a couple of points above the relegation zone at the start of January, Brighton are now 11 clear with eyes firmly fixed up the table. Potter has even been nominated for his first Premier League Manager of the Month Award.
The turnaround has been quite extraordinary and Potter deserves a huge amount of credit for instigating it. Here’s how Brighton have gone from having two wins in 18 matches to sitting second in the top flight’s form table.
Given all the praise that has come Brighton’s way for their possession football since Potter took over from Chris Hughton, there is something quite telling when you look through the statistics from their five Premier League victories in 2020.
Four of them came in games where the Seagulls had less of the ball. In the final nine games of the 2019/20, Brighton beat Arsenal, Norwich and Burnley with less possession than their opponents. Their win at Aston Villa in November followed the same pattern. The only fixture which they secured three points from when dominating the ball was September’s 3-0 win at Newcastle.
This Brighton team are better when they are less possession-obsessed and concentrate more on getting into areas where they can hurt opponents quickly. Players like Alexis Mac Allister, Leandro Trossard and Pascal Gross are fast thinkers and want to play on the front foot. It is not a surprise that all three have been superb since Potter ditched sideways passing and keeping the ball at all costs in favour of being a little more direct.
Brighton have been here before. Post-lockdown, Potter instigated the exact same change in approach and it helped to turn around a run of two wins in 18 to deliver a record top flight points haul for the Seagulls. He then reverted back to wanting over 60 percent possession every week in the first half of the 2020/21 season which, with rather lovely symmetry, yielded only two wins from 18 again. The latest switch to a more pragmatic style is proving even more successful than last summer did.
Not many managers are willing to compromise on their style or beliefs and that sort of stubbornness can be costly. Potter has now deviated from the way he thinks the game should be played twice during his time at the Amex and Brighton have looked much the better side for it. He should be praised for that – and if the Seagulls stick with this new brand of Potterball, then the indications so far are that very exciting times could be ahead.
Brighton fans joked throughout the first half of the 2020/21 season that Potter selected his team using a roulette wheel as there was no other way to dissect how he ended using so many players out of position.
Ben White had stints at centre back, central midfield and right wing back. Gross was in the midst of a blistering run of form in November when Potter decided to use him as a holding midfielder at Leicester. Brighton duly lost 3-0 and the German playmaker was dropped for being so poor. Incredibly, Gross also had a stint at right back away at Spurs and left back Bernardo finished the home game with Arsenal in central midfield.
Speaking of Spurs and Arsenal, Trossard was told to put his Hobbit-like stature to good use as a lone striker at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and when the Gunners visited the Amex sitting just one place above the Seagulls in the table, Potter used Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Alexis Mac Allister as a front two, neither of whom are strikers.
With such inconsistency in selection and so many players playing out-of-position, it is little wonder that individuals have struggled to find and maintain form. It cannot be coincidence that Brighton’s much-improved results have come since Potter has settled on what most observers would agree is his strongest available XI, nearly all of whom are now being used in their natural positions.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Potter unceremoniously ditched Brighton’s number one of the past three-and-a-half seasons Mathew Ryan in favour of 23-year-old Robert Sanchez in mid-December, a goalkeeper who began the season as fourth choice and whose senior football experience extended to nondescript loan spells with Forest Green Rovers and Rochdale.
Sanchez though has proven a revelation. No Brighton goalkeeper had ever kept four top flight clean sheets in a row before his shutouts against Leeds United, Fulham, Spurs and Liverpool. A record of 11 goals against in 12 matches goes a long way towards explaining why the Seagulls are suddenly winning games.
When Brighton were struggling, much of the attention was focussed on their strikers. According to xG, the Seagulls could have been as high as fifth in the table at one point and so the obvious department to apportion blame for the club’s position in the bottom five was the attack for underperforming.
That only told half the story though. Ryan and his defence were letting in so many poor goals that Brighton found themselves needing to score two or three every game just to be in with a chance of taking a point. Set pieces were a particular bugbear, with over half the goals conceded with Ryan between the posts coming from corners and free kicks.
Sanchez has revolutionised Brighton’s capability to withstanding aerial balls into the box. Whereas Ryan would rarely stray from his line, the 6’5 Spaniard confidently claims virtually anything pumped into the penalty area. The sight of Sanchez coming through a crowd of players to collect a Liverpool corner ten yards out from his goal in the final seconds at Anfield was nearly as beautiful as Steve Alzate’s winner against the champions.
Having a goalkeeper with such presence has relieved a lot of pressure from Brighton’s defence and suddenly they are keeping clean sheets for fun. You cannot lose games of football if you do not concede and Sanchez has made the Seagulls a lot harder to score against.
Or perhaps Brighton’s upturn in form has nothing to do with playing style, team selection or goalkeeper, and is simply down to Potter’s change of attire?
Since the start of 2021, Potter has ditched his tracksuit and begun wearing a series of fashionable jackets alongside a scarf which, although it appears to have been designed with an elderly woman in mind, is proving to be extremely lucky.
Potter told local Brighton newspaper The Argus about his new look: “I thought I’d change from my bad tracksuit to my own bad clothes! The boys could see me on the side, they look at me in my shocking gear and my terrible haircut and my horrible face and think, ‘well, it’s not too bad out there!’ I fancied a change, 2021. I am going to be myself, wear my own clothes, I am fine with that.”
Is Potter’s scarf magic? Brighton are yet to lose a game in which he has worn it. If it carries on delivering results, then it might just overtake Russell Slade’s baseball cap which saved Brighton from relegation to League Two in 2009 as the most popular piece of managerial fashion in Seagulls history.