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How far can Brighton and Graham Potter go?

Brighton’s head coach Graham Potter, right, applauds fans at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, April 20, 2022.

Brighton’s head coach Graham Potter, right, applauds fans at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, April 20, 2022.
Image: AP

The question almost every soccer fan gets from non-soccer fans, which is healthy, is, “So which team should I support?” You never mind hearing it, because it means your friend/acquaintance/bookie wants to become a fan, but it’s also an impossible question to answer. Your football club usually finds you instead of the other way around. But given the slanting of TV coverage, if you advise them to just see what club speaks to them, you’re probably going to end up with yet another City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, or Spurs fan (let’s be honest, no one’s watched Manchester United the past few years and thought, “That’s for me!). It’s hard to convince someone to pay for Peacock if they aren’t ready to watch teams they’ve never heard of, though those goofuses are out there (a very close friend decided to support Everton a few years ago because he thought it would piss me off. You can visit him now on Saturday morning before 11 but please don’t mention the outside world at the facility).

But if you press me, and demand which team you should support that’s outside the top six, Brighton is the one I generally choose. They were the league’s biggest movers last season, going from 16th in the pandemic season to 9th, their highest ever place in their history. And they didn’t do it by taking Saudi or another type of blood/oligarch money (which is the same thing). They’re structurally one of the soundest teams around, as they weren’t lucky to finish 9th, as their metrics have the equal with United in sixth. A nudge here or there and Brighton could be knocking on European football, at least that’s the hope.

They’re managed by an under-the-radar genius in Graham Potter, an actual English coach in the Premier League, and one who cut his teeth taking a Swedish team from the fourth division in that country to the top level, everyone’s Football Manager dream in real life. Potter plays a pretty up-tempo system, especially for a team that is seemingly outgunned when it comes to talent. They’re usually in a 3-4-3, which doesn’t keep Potter from doing things like taking a normal forward like Leandro Trossard and playing him at wingback or a normal wingback like Marc Cucurella and playing him as one of the centerbacks or converting a former No. 10 into a defensive midfielder and having it all work (he’s done this a couple times and we’ll get to that).
But while Brighton can play some wonderfully artful soccer, it’s actually their defense that shot them up the table last season. They only gave up 44 goals last season, good for sixth-best in the Premier League, and their expected goals against states that that was no fluke. And Brighton did that while selling two of its defenders either before the season or during it in Ben White and Dan Burn.

Of course, this is the push-and-pull of supporting a team like Brighton, as their best players will be scavenged by bigger clubs every season, and the hope is that they can take that money and keep finding more players to eventually be hawked off to the glitterati in the following seasons. This season, it’s

Yves Bissouma who has gone to Tottenham, and he was the defensive shield that kept things safe from even entering the Brighton box last season. Potter, of course, has a solution for this, which appears to be the same it was with Bissouma once upon a time, and that’s converting a former attacking midfielder into a No. 6, this time being Alexis Mac Allister. That’s where the latter has lined up most in preseason, and his range of passing is greater than Bissouma’s, who preferred to carry the ball after winning it to get attacks going. Mac Allister is more in the bomb throwi…er, kicking role, firing off passes after winning the ball of varying lengths to kickstart the team up the field. Nineteen-year-old Moisés Caicedo might join him in central midfield, and he’s more steel than Mac Allister and has far better defensive instincts, and has a real “Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight!” vibe in his activity and sense of destruction.

Brighton’s issue under Potter’s watch has always been finishing, as Neil Maupay was their joint-leading scorer last year with just eight league goals. Maupay’s problem is that he can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo though, as he only got less than 25 percent of his shots on target last season. Potter appears to be trying to phase him out, looking to lean on Danny Welbeck for the seven minutes per month he’s upright and Belgian league hero Deniz Undav this season. The latter put up 25 goals in the Belgian league last year, but trying to figure out what that means to the Premier League is on the same level as reading sanskrit.

Does all of that mean that Brighton can push on from 9th? Going by the metrics, it’s not like they maxed out and got some finishing hot streak or had a keeper channel Anubis and keep an inordinate amount of shots out. They’re expected goal-difference was +0.4. They scored four less goals than their expected numbers say they should have, and they conceded one less goal. 9th might have even been a little low. Even when they finished 16th in 2020-2021, they had a +13.9 expected goals-difference, which was a Champions League place level. You could make the argument they actually regressed last year while finishing ninth.

It’s pretty well established that Potter will form a defense with whatever he has on hand. Bissouma’s departure is a huge hole, but patching holes is what well-run clubs like Brighton do. We know what Welbeck is at this point, and counting on him for more than just a goal here and there is folly. Undav is a huge question mark because he’s already 26 and has only ever scored in Belgium. They have a couple of teenage lottery tickets in Julio Enciso and Kaoru Mitoma, with the former really getting hairs standing up with his performances in preseason. They’ll need one to light it up and from jump street.

Still, where West Ham look more set to drop than rise, and questions about what Leicester or Aston Villa or Wolves are, and Newcastle not quite splashing their endless cash yet, a small rise from 9th is still there. So get on the Brighton bandwagon if you want to be a bit hipster about it. You’ll certainly be unique, and anyone else you find in the bar in Brighton gear is probably going to become a lifelong friend. 



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