Premier League

Brighton Gamble On Returning Hero Ulloa Can Pay Off

 • by Tom Bodell
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Returning to your former club is a risky business, as Brighton & Hove Albion forward Leonardo Ulloa is about to find out, three-and-a-half years after leaving the Seagulls the first time.

Never go back, they say. Heroic homecomings tend to go oe of two ways. Players either hit the ground running and reaffirm their iconic status, or they stink the place out, do irreparable damage and leave supporters questioning why they ever worshipped the ground they walked on.

Ulloa, having signed from Spanish side Almería in January 2013, bagged 23 Championship goals in 47 starts for the Seagulls in two play-off campaigns before joining Leicester City for £8million following the Foxes’ ascent to England’s top flight.

Since leaving Sussex the Argentine has seen the lot. In his first season at the King Power Stadium Ulloa top scored with 11 goals from 29 starts to help Nigel Pearson‘s side pull off the great escape.

As if that wasn’t enough, he chipped in with six the following season – five of them in the second half of the season and three in the final four games – as Leicester pulled off a fairytale title win against all odds under the affable Claudio Ranieri.

But the Foxes have, finally, moved on without the 31-year-old. Claude Puel, already Ulloa’s fourth manager at Leicester, has made no secret of the fact the Foxes have too many strikers and Ulloa is one of those to make way.

Limited to just four brief cameos in the Premier League, Ulloa has had to do with run-outs in the cups, totalling just 251 minutes. So returning to Brighton and Hove Albion, where he is fondly remembered, was a no-brainer for the South American.

“It’s special because I played just one and a half years here, not five or ten, but it was very intense,” he told The Argus. “So I hope to keep that feeling but I know I have to do my job. I have to show them that I am still good and try to help the team. After that we’ll see what happens but I hope we can keep our relationship.”

But is it such a good deal for Brighton? On the face of it the deal could be seen as an emotional one; a move struck in the hope Ulloa will replicate something like the form he showed first time round and score the goals to keep Chris Hughton’s side in the top flight.

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With his minutes on the field dwindling in recent seasons as Leicester reached new heights – going from winning the Premier League against all odds to reaching the Champions League quarter-finals – it is easy to forgot what a vital role he played in the Foxes’ successful relegation battle in 2014/15.

Five of his 11 goals that season came in the run-in, including the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Swansea City, a brace in a 3-0 trouncing of Newcastle United and a final-day strike in a 5-1 demolition of Queens Park Rangers.

His experience of scoring goals for Albion might be at the top of the Championship, but his top-flight trade has been keeping Leicester heads above water, something he believes he can help his new club do in the second half of the season.

“If I didn’t believe that (Brighton came stay up) I’m not here,” he told The Argus. “This group plays well and they have character. And character to play, not just defend the box all the time.

“They try in the Premier League to fight and to play but with a philosophy and that is very important, to continue what they did in the Championship.

“Try to play the same football. They create chances, they play football. Okay, you can lose but you play one way, you don’t change every time. I believe Brighton can do this.”

Scoring goals has been the blot on Brighton’s copybook this season. With just 17 scored in 24 Premier League fixtures the Seagulls have only netted more than bottom-of-the-pile Swansea City (15). They are averaging 9.3 shots per game – the division’s fourth fewest – and that is something manager Hughton has moved to address after failing to land a striking upgrade in the summer.

The £15million acquisition of Jurgen Locadia from PSV Eindhoven represents something of a gamble given the hit-and-miss nature of strikers moving from the Netherlands. For every Ruud van Nistelrooy or Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink there is a Alfonso Alves or Vincent Janssen, after all.

Ulloa, then, is meant to be Brighton’s sure thing. Or as close to it as possible.

It is hard to read anything into his stats for this season as he has only been afforded 18 minutes of first-team action with Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki, Kelechi Iheanacho, Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa all on the books at the King Power.

However, a quick glance at his numbers from his first two seasons at Leicester – 2014/15 and 2015/16 – where he was regularly involved under Pearson and Ranieri give an encouraging indicator of what he can do in the Premier League.

In his first top-flight season with Leicester, Ulloa scored 11 goals and supplied three assists, meaning he was involved in a goal in the Premier League every 172 minutes, just better than once every two games – not bad for a top-flight rookie in a struggling side.

Even in his second campaign, when his minutes dropped drastically from 2,409 to 970 thanks to the emergence of Vardy and Okazaki as a pairing, Ulloa scored six, assisted a further two and, therefore, chipped in with something every 121 minutes.

Perhaps most encouragingly for Seagulls supporters, his xG (expected goals) for the 2014/15 campaign was 8.92, meaning he overachieved on that number by 2.08. That suggests that he took chances he would not have been expected to, a quality worth its weight in gold in a struggling side who do not create many gilt-edged chances.

He did so by averaging 1.8 shots per 90. In the current Albion squad, only Glenn Murray (1.9) and winger José Izquierdo (2.6) better that figure per 90 minutes. You have to buy a ticket to the lottery, they say, and that is fitting.

Brighton are owned by professional gambler Tony Bloom who has put up the stake for his manager to gamble his club’s Premier League survival chances on Ulloa. Previous history suggests it will be a safe bet.

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