“A man without ambition is like a beautiful worm; it can creep, but it cannot fly”.
Tony Bloom, owner of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, is a professional gambler who owns Starlizard, a full-time gambling syndicate making its money from dishing out betting advice based on complicated statistical models. To successfully overcome the odds, men cannot do away with aspiration. Aligning himself with the words of a wise man in the 19th century, American social reformer Henry Ward Beecher who helped abolish slavery, Tony Bloom refutes the idea of merely inching on towards survival in the Premier League each season. Bloom craves sustainability at Brighton, which precedes the ability to hurtle forward in the aim of greater objectives.
Brighton crept over the line, securing their status in the Premier League for a third consecutive season in spite of a final day 4-1 defeat to champions-elect Manchester City. Football has never been a sentimental sport, especially when it comes to the future of a Premier League club. A dismal run in the calendar year of 2019 saw Chris Hughton’s side pick up just two league wins out of 18, picking up a meagre 11 points out of a possible 54. No denying, it was relegation worthy form, a string of results any top level club with some semblance of ambition would identify as a red flag. Sure enough, barely 24 hours after a fairly decent season came to its conclusion, Brighton wasted no time in releasing an official statement; Chris Hughton had been sacked, along with assistant Paul Trollope and first-team coach Paul Nevin.
The keyboard warriors instantly came out in full fledge, clamouring about the short-sightedness of modern-day football clubs, delusions of grandeur, disrespecting a manager that had delivered considerable success to a team that was bottom (92nd place) of the Football League pyramid just 21 years ago. Upon closer inspection, these same critics were the ones who supported other Premier League sides, who scarcely watched Brighton all season apart from the two games the Seagulls played their beloved teams home and away. On paper achievements-wise, it does seem like an absurd decision given Brighton survived the drop in the league, and went on an FA Cup run which was only halted in the semi-finals.
Hughton’s reign at The Amex started during the 2014/15 Championship season, with Brighton sat in 21st place, narrowly above the relegation zone. Since then, he led the club to a promotion play-off place in 2015/16, before eventually getting promoted in the 2016/17 season, finishing second with 93 points. A 15th place finish in a maiden Premier League campaign followed in 2017/18, whilst this season concluded in 17th position. It is no wonder the Brighton fans absolutely adore Chris Hughton, perceiving the former Norwich City manager as the saviour of their dearest football club.
It was a ruthless decision that had to be made. Hughton offers stability and security, as his track record with his former employers (Newcastle United, Birmingham City, Norwich City) suggests. He secured promotion comfortably in his first season in charge of The Magpies, before leading Birmingham to the play-offs in the Championship. His spell at Norwich saw him achieve a respectable 11th placed finish with the newly promoted Canaries. Yet, there was nothing more he could have offered to take The Seagulls another step forward. Brighton could have chosen to revel in his previous accolades, take the nostalgic route by pleasing fans in the short run, but Tony Bloom had other ideas. He is a visionary, a businessman with lofty ambitions to raise the club’s stature and to fall nothing short of the best they can be. In Bloom’s eyes, the squad deserved a manager with modern, innovative tactical schemes, in order to complement the board’s transfer plan and vision progressing forward.
Behind the veil cast by Hughton’s supporters laid an ugly truth. The former Republic of Ireland international showed signs his managerial approach was outdated, devoid of fresh ideas to win games. His old-school style of management did not seem to align with what the board desired; a divide that could not be reconciled. Bloom realised the most sustainable way to survive in the Premier League was to hire a flexible manager able to adapt and employ innovative solutions to various match situations, rather than only being adept at setting up in a deep block. It was the perfect time for the changing of guard. Chris Hughton’s legacy remains, as does his reputation for future jobs. His departure simply signified the severance of a successful partnership formed by chance; the end of an important part of the club’s rich history.
While Bloom would refer to statistical models to dish out betting advice as a gambler, the 49-year-old would similarly love to reference Gracenote Sports’ Expected Goals (xG) table to review his club’s performance over a full season as an owner.
“Expected goals” is a metric which assesses every chance, essentially answering the question of whether a player should have scored from a certain opportunity. Totalled over the course of a full match, the model decides which team deserved to win the game based on the quantity and quality of chances created.
Despite finishing on 36 points, 20 clear of Huddersfield Town a team renowned for being bereft of attacking ideas Brighton totalled a measly 22 points on Gracenote Sports’ xG table, on par with Jan Siewert’s Terriers. This exemplifies how poor Brighton have actually been the past season, lacklustre at best in their attempts to create more quality chances than their opponents. They struggled to take control of games against mid-table opposition discernibly even on paper, which are more often than not relegation deciders. While the jury might still be out on the credibility of Expected Goals metrics in accurately representing the 90 minutes on the pitch, an over performance of 14 points (a feat only matched by Unai Emery’s Arsenal) should not be taken as an anomaly.
Delving deeper into statistics on big chance creation, Brighton stands out as the worst performing team in the league. A paltry 38 big chances created is a testament to the reactive, one-dimensional football implemented by Hughton. In comparison, Manchester City created exactly three times that number (114), and even Huddersfield managed to create one more big chance (39) than the Seagulls. A conversion rate of 53 per cent merely papers over the cracks. Had they been slightly less clinical, a trip to Ewood Park or The Hawthorns in the Championship next season would not have been unthinkable. Going by these statistics, Brighton can count themselves lucky to still be among the 20 teams in the Premier League. All of a sudden, Chris Hughton’s achievement of ‘surviving the drop’ seems a little less rosy.
None of Hughton’s big money signings lived up to their expectations. After promotion in 2017, Brighton splashed out £40 million on three marquee signings. Jurgen Locadia and Davy Propper cost £27 million from PSV Eindhoven, while Jose Izquierdo was signed for £13 million from Club Brugge. Though Locadia only came in during the January window of 2018, a club record signing at that point of time, he was afforded few opportunities. The Dutchman eventually amassed a meagre six appearances (mostly off the bench) and one league goal to his name that season. The following 2018/19 season would see Locadia chalk up 26 appearances, netting just two league goals as he mainly played second fiddle to 35-year-old forward Glenn Murray. Jose Izquierdo was dubbed for big things when he signed in the summer of 2017. Though he got off to a flying start scoring a couple of spectacular goals he struggled to nail down a starting place due to his inconsistent form. The Colombian fell out of favour with the manager the following season, appearing in just eight league games without finding the back of the net.
Bloom dug deep into his funds to back Hughton once again for the 2018/19 season, bankrolling the £17 million signing of Iranian Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar. The Eredivisie golden boot winner with 21 league goals remains Brighton’s record acquisition till date. Invariably, Hughton failed to bring out the best from Asia’s crown prince. Making just 19 league appearances this season, Jahanbakhsh failed to net a single league goal, a colossal contrast to his scoring exploits in the Dutch league just the season before. Used on the left of Hughton’s rigid 4-4-1-1 system, the 25-year-old winger often found himself in unfamiliarly deep positions as Brighton were used to enduring long spells without the ball. It did not help that Alireza’s found most of his joy at AZ Alkmaar on the right flank, where he was allowed greater freedom in advanced areas to take risks and drive at defenders. It is clear Hughton had misused the talented Asian winger, held back by his defensive responsibilities in a tactically limited system.
In an attempt to arrest Brighton’s slide in form towards the end of the season, Hughton switched from his tried and tested 4-4-1-1 set up to a 4-3-3. In theory, this would give additional attacking output, by allowing the wingers to receive the ball in higher positions in possession. Yet, Hughton’s new system was poorly constructed, lacking organised patterns of play to progress the ball forward. Too much reliance was placed on overlapping fullbacks without proper connections to find them, resulting in more long balls played from defence and greater dispossessions further up the pitch. Brighton lost their defensive cohesiveness provided by the previous system, as his players struggled to adjust to their new requirements within such a short period of time. Hughton ran out of methods to improve Brighton’s attacking play.
In comes Graham Potter, Chris Hughton’s successor, the avant-garde option Tony Bloom desires. A fairly familiar face in English football from his playing days, Potter worked his way through the lower leagues of Sweden, spending 8 years at Ostersund, where he took the lowly team from the fourth tier to the Europa League by winning the Swedish Cup in 2017. The 44-year-old guided Swansea City to a 10th placed finish in the Championship thereafter. Youthful yet experienced, Potter is the emblem of a modern-day manager. Brimming with innovative ideas and armed with fearless ambition, he is the perfect fit for Tony Bloom’s Brighton. Unafraid to break traditional coaching norms, Potter’s progressive way of thinking allows him to adapt to many situations. Having already left a lasting legacy at Ostersund despite his young age (44 is considerably adolescent for a coach), he is well respected by many colleagues and players alike. Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa commented after playing Potter’s Swansea at the start of the season,
“He’s English, he’s a modern coach, he has new ideas, he brings new ideas. (Swansea is) a team that takes care of how they move the ball… in their style, the goalkeeper and defenders build from the back. And for me it’s the feature that you could underline from Swansea (under Potter)”.
This possession-based approach brought by Graham Potter will certainly be a welcome change to the usual unimaginative football on display at The Amex. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Potter has tapped on training methods from various people he has learnt from on his travels, including Roberto Martinez, Pep Guardiola, and even controversial Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen’s philosophy on tactical periodisation.
With the Premier League’s competitiveness at its peak in this new age of football, teams are doing their best to find as much competitive edge as they can, right to the smallest of details. Settling for mediocrity and the minimum will not be sufficient to survive in the world’s most popular league any longer, as recently relegated clubs have learnt the hard way. Tactical dinosaurs who fail to adapt to change are slowly being phased out of top-flight management. Gone are the days of Allardyce, Pulis, Warnock, McCarthy being the go-to options for relegation-threatened sides, as owners start planning for the future rather than looking for stop-gap solutions. Modern day managers need to be pro-active, come up with a myriad of solutions to stay one step ahead of the fierce competition.
Chris Hughton has run his course, as Brighton and Hove Albion take a brave step forward into the unknown with Graham Potter at the helm. Perhaps, the Seagulls will finally be able to fully extend their wings and soar towards longevity in the Premier League and lasting success.
Hughton image via Metro Newspaper UK
Potter image via 101 Great Goals
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Feature Image via Cartilage Free Captain