Graham Potter and Brighton are being lauded. Despite their lowly league position, the only team on a longer unbeaten run in the Premier League are leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola recently declared Potter to be the best English manager around.
Speaking before the A23 derby against Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football, Potter seemed uneasy at all the praise. “We live in a simple world where if you win you are good and if you do not win, you are bad,” he tells Sky Sports. “People only care about the result.”
Except that is not quite true. Brighton were always the exception and the recent upturn in form certainly does not explain Guardiola’s admiration. It was the passing and pressing, playing through the thirds, the creativity and organisation, that highlighted his work.
Even when the results were not there, the performances were on point. Brighton outplayed Manchester United but lost a five-goal thriller. A draw at home to Liverpool flattered the champions. Nine games without a win was a worry but they never lost belief.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the man who once came up with the culture academy during his seven years in Sweden can look beyond the result, but Potter is more than an aesthete. He insists that it takes him up to 48 hours to overcome the darkness of defeat.
Maintaining belief throughout that run was his toughest task.
“I think that is the biggest challenge of high-performance elite sport. It is so competitive. You can do a lot right and not win. That is what makes it such a great game. The challenge is to understand your process and to know what you have to do to get consistent results.
“It takes courage to believe that if you carry on down that path, you will get those results because it is not guaranteed. It might be that the opposition do things well and they win.
“It is about articulating that to the players and articulating it to the supporters because everyone wants to win and they are disappointed when we don’t. The nature of football is that there is always going to be negativity and criticism. It is how you respond.”
It is easy to say now that Brighton are on a run of six games without defeat but the analytics experts would have happily told you it was coming. According to Opta’s expected-goals model, the Seagulls’ performances rank them as the fifth strongest side in the Premier League when comparing the quality of chances created to the quality of chances conceded.
Even their most recent result, the goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, saw them fashion opportunities that would – on average – have yielded 2.23 goals per game, while ceding chances worth – on average – just 0.14 goals at the other end. That is dominance.
Potter is well aware of the metric.
“Expected goals is a piece of information that tells us about our performance,” he explains. “We know that the most important statistic is the score at the end of the match. We are all trying to score more than the opposition.
“But you always have to look at performance.
“Even if you win the game, how many times would you have won it if you had played the game 10 times? That enables you to look at performance and work out how to improve.
“It does help if you are not getting the results that you can cling to your performance and take some sort of comfort from that but at the same time, you know that it is about results.
“I don’t think you can just say we are performing well. Thankfully, there are enough people here, enough people internally, who understand performance can lead to good results.
“Ultimately, winning football matches is how you convince people. But I have to say that I have had fantastic support from the club and our supporters have been amazing with us.”
That support stems from what they have been seeing on the pitch.
The transformation in Brighton’s underlying numbers is remarkable.
They have gone from a team that was being outshot by their opponents to consistently creating more chances and they have done it in a style clearly identified in the advanced metrics.
There is the passing.
Only the current top four, the champions Liverpool, and Arsenal, have had more sequences of 10 passes or more lead to a shot or a touch in the opposition area.
There is the pressing.
Only Manchester City and Liverpool turn over possession with 40 metres of the opposition goal more regularly, with only City having had more of those turnovers ending in a shot.
Brighton have become a front-foot team with more in common with the elite sides than their fellow strugglers. “You have to be a top side to play that way,” says Guardiola, but, in a way, Brighton prove that you don’t. It is not only the elite who can commit to this style.
They have established an identity.
Again, Potter is keen to caveat the praise. “Identity and style does not get you three points,” he says. “It does not guarantee you anything. You should never lose sight of that.”
He revisits the theme soon after. “We have always said here that we are not better or worse than anybody else.”
But after a little more probing, he concedes that having that clarity has underpinned his previous successes and is the basis for what he is attempting to build at Brighton too.
“If you lose football matches, people want something else and pretty quickly things can unravel. You have seen it many times before. People change playing styles and want to go down a different direction. But that does not always work in a positive way.
“I witnessed in Ostersund how an identity, how a clarity, can give you alignment with everything and that can give you a significant advantage over a period of time.
“I think that can be the case with Brighton and Hove Albion.”
Crucially, everyone at the club is in agreement.
“If you are going to grow, there are a couple of ways you can do it. You can spend money – and I am talking 100, 200, 300 million pounds – and there are no guarantees that way either.
“Or you can ask yourself what a Brighton team looks like and how to improve it. How can we use the resources that we have – our academy, our recruitment – and align them with a clear idea that enables you to achieve results better than you would expect?
“That is not an overnight process. There are no guarantees with it. But that is the path that we are on and a lot of people understand what we are trying to achieve, that we are trying to integrate young players into a Premier League squad and that isn’t easy to do.
“Again, we are Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League. It is not an overnight thing that we will automatically get those results and overperform our finances and history. But that is the challenge and that is what we are fighting to do. We are up for that challenge.”
One key aspect that should not be overlooked is another highlighted by Guardiola. “I like watching Brighton play,” he said. “When I was a football player, I would love to play in this team.”
Playing a brand of football so recognisable to players at top clubs, and players who aspire to move on to those top clubs, is a competitive advantage for Brighton over their immediate rivals. It gives them an edge in pursuing signings temporary and permanent.
Tariq Lamptey found the transition easy. Players from abroad know that if they impress at Brighton then the biggest teams will be able to envisage how they might slot in there.
Yves Bissouma is being tipped to make a major transfer before too long and Potter has said that Brighton should not fear that process. Alex Mac Allister took time to settle but is beginning to show his vast potential. The hope is that Moises Caicedo can be next.
“The clarity helps with everything,” says Potter. “Once they can see how it all aligns, once they can see that they are not just fighting for three points, they are bringing their attributes, they can see where they fit in and how they can help this team.
“That is where you have to align your recruitment process and understand what you are producing in the academy too. That is where you start to get one plus one equalling three.
“You get that bit extra.”
Brighton are now starting to see those synergy benefits. There is cautious optimism that of all the teams at the wrong end of the table, they might be the most upwardly mobile. The club’s best-ever league finish is 13th and came almost 40 years ago. It is within range.
Potter, who went through an array of gardening analogies during the press conference that preceded this one-on-one interview, clearly believes that he has planted seeds in fertile soil at Brighton, and he is now seeing green shoots that he hopes will grow and grow.
“You have to understand there is an identity, there is a direction we want to go in, a path we want to go on that will help us grow as a club, but also know we are fighting for the next match for three Premier League points. We have to balance both of them.
“But I think that by definition if you are on that path to improve then, even if the path is not direct, you should be getting better.
“I think we are getting better.
“We are playing as well as we have ever played. We are attacking and defending as well as we have ever played since I have been here. That is across the whole season but clearly of late, the results have been better for us and that gives everyone a bit of confidence and a bit of belief and a bit of positivity towards what has been happening.
“We have done a lot of work off the pitch to bring people together in terms of how we act as a group, how we conduct ourselves every day, how we want to support each other and understand each other’s troubles and challenges.
“So we have got a group that is competitive and wants to play but at the same time they are ready to support the team when they are not playing. I think that is why we are in a good moment. It is credit to the players that they stuck at it during those difficult moments.”
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