Every Monday, NewsFromSport’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Brighton & Hove Albion sought a realist instead of an idealist in the summer. Last season, Maurizio Sarri stubbornly clung to his 4-3-3 Napoli shape at Chelsea despite lacking a Dries Mertens-esque frontman, a presence like Marek Hamsik in midfield, and a full-back with Faouzi Ghoulam’s energy. By comparison, Graham Potter simply worked to devise a system on the south coast that suited his players rather than himself following his appointment for the 2019-20 term.
“You have to look at the attributes of the players and play to their strengths,” Potter said in May. “I’m not expecting a massive amount (of business in the summer transfer window). There are some good players here, and a lot of good work has already been done. My focus has always been on trying to help the players who are already here to improve.”
Potter is overseeing a radical departure from the style of his predecessor, Chris Hughton. Brighton used to play on the opposition’s terms, defending deep and relying on Glenn Murray’s finishing to glean enough points for survival. Albion finished two points above the relegation zone in 2018-19.
Now, the Seagulls are trying to control games. The passing begins deep in the lineup, they can counter or patiently craft attacks, and there is youthfulness and versatility throughout the squad. Potter believed there was enough ability in his ranks for a possession-based approach, and his beliefs are even upheld in away trips to the division’s supposed giants.
2018-19 away matches at ‘Big Six’
|Home team||Brighton possession||Brighton passes|
|Averages at ‘Big Six’||30%||285|
2019-20 away matches at ‘Big Six’
|Home team||Brighton possession||Brighton passes|
|Averages at ‘Big Six’||47%||513|
To enable this switch in philosophy, Potter bravely rid Albion of their most distinguishing feature: the agricultural back-four foundation led by center-backs Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.
In Brighton’s two complete Premier League campaigns, the pair combined for just three fewer blocked shots than Watford. Duffy unsurprisingly led the top flight for clearances in each of those seasons. Brighton wouldn’t be a Premier League team without the unrefined defending of Dunk and Duffy.
But Potter wanted more than survival. The team’s rearguard didn’t need to be defined by brawn and bludgeoning balls onto the A27; they could instead break lines with their passes and carry the ball forward. Potter felt the defense could set the tone for the rest of the team, and he gave Dunk the opportunity to propel his new ball-playing model.
It turns out Dunk is a better player than we thought. In the 3-0 win at Watford to begin the campaign, Dunk measured a through-ball between Hornets midfielders Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure and defenders Craig Cathcart and Craig Dawson that then rolled into Neal Maupay’s feet. Even the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold are unlikely to issue better assists this term.
Then, in Saturday’s 3-0 triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, Dunk did it again. His assist wasn’t as awe-inspiring as his Watford effort, but his decision to bypass Spurs’ frontline and midfield with a searching ball down the left for Aaron Connolly – when Brighton were already 2-0 ahead – reflected the ambition Potter has instilled at the club.
Duffy, meanwhile, has shifted to the periphery since Dan Burn and Adam Webster established themselves in the starting XI. Burn and Webster regularly flank Dunk in a back-three and are given permission to move upfield in a similar way to Sheffield United’s celebrated overlapping center-halves. Burn, who only made his league debut for Brighton on opening day, has attempted just one fewer take-on than Bernardo Silva this season.
Potter’s defense can move from back-three to back-four – they neutralized bulky Burnley last month with a strapping quartet of Webster, Dunk, Duffy, and Burn until Jeff Hendrick’s injury-time leveler – but the identity always remains the same: this a bottom-half team that’s here to play.
Potter is furnishing his reputation as one of the finest British managers in the game. The swift shift from Hughton’s dreary conservatism is impressive, and so was Potter’s initial restraint. Sarri arrived at Chelsea with a system, and tried to cram players into his ideal; Potter arrived and took time to assess the players he inherited before determining a style.
It’s just Brighton fans’ luck the squad fits an approach so pleasing to watch.
Corbyn strikes a chord
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed thousands of Geordies at Newcastle’s City Hall on Saturday evening and shared his party’s wish to “bring democracy into football.”
“Football shouldn’t be just a business,” Corbyn said. “Football is our lives, our community, and it’s the place where people go to socialize and enjoy each other’s company. Let’s take the beautiful game away from the billionaires and hand it to the fans instead.”
His words came three days after fourth-tier Macclesfield Town became the latest club to ask the English Football League for help paying wages to players and staff. The financial gap between the Premier League and England’s other divisions is widening.
Traore’s end product
Wolverhampton Wanderers took advantage of Manchester City’s toothlessness in attack and erratic defending to fashion a deserved 2-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Adama Traore is regularly knocked for lacking an end product, but scored two breakaway goals to engineer the win and has doubled his output on accurate crosses this season. Traore is only 23, so he has plenty of time to develop into an important player for Wolves.
Jack in the box
Jack Grealish finally found his form in a more advanced role as Aston Villa romped to a 5-1 success against Norwich City. John McGinn and Tyrone Mings have outperformed Grealish over the season’s opening weeks, but the gifted midfielder finally had a telling influence on a match with a goal while registering more touches and passes in the Norwich half than any of his teammates. Grealish is good enough to replace Ross Barkley in Gareth Southgate’s England plans.