This Premier League season has thrown up many surprises, but perhaps the biggest has been the performances of the promoted teams. Newcastle United, Huddersfield Town and Brighton & Hove Albion came up from last season’s Championship and weren’t given much of a chance of survival.
But they have defied expectations. Newcastle, remarkably, are on course to finish in the top half while Huddersfield sealed their Premier League status for next year after two hard-fought points away to Manchester City and Chelsea in the space of three days.
Brighton, meanwhile, made sure of survival in style, beating a limp Manchester United 1-0 at the Amex Stadium to wave goodbye to jump clear of the drop.
It means all three of the teams who were promoted have survived. That’s only happened twice before in the Premier League era, testament to how difficult life can be for newly-promoted sides.
And while Newcastle and Huddersfield have won new admirers along the way, Brighton have skilfully navigated the treacherous waters of the league’s bottom half, guided by the experience and nous of Chris Hughton.
To acknowledge their fine performance, we are delving into the stats to reflect on the Seagulls’ maiden Premier League voyage.
Heroes at the back
One of Brighton’s most impressive stats is that they have spent just eight days of the entire campaign in the bottom three. That spell was in August, meaning that they have managed to keep their heads above water since then, ultimately leaving them just one point off the top half of the table with just a game remaining.
Key to that form has been a sturdy defence. Hughton has established continuity with a trusted rearguard who have stood firm under the most intense pressure. Brighton have only conceded more than two goals in a match four times this season – to Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Crystal Palace – which is a striking illustration of how the Seagulls have been a tough nut to crack.
Indeed, the 50 goals they have conceded is the fewest of any side in the bottom half while only Burnley and Newcastle have better defensive records of the clubs outside the top six.
At the centre of it all for Brighton has been the familiar partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. With Hughton’s men averaging just 45 per cent possession, they have had to do their fair share of defending this season.
However, in Dunk and Duffy they have found a you-shall-not-pass partnership willing to throw their bodies in front of shots and stand up to the Premier League’s most menacing attackers.
Duffy towers above his peers in the clearances stats. With 317 this season, the Irishman is 50 ahead of West Bromwich Albion‘s Ahmed Hegazi. Dunk is also ranked in the top ten with 217 to his name. Between them, Dunk and Duffy have made five clearances off the line, proving they are an effective last line of defence for the Seagulls.
Both centre-backs have been strong in the air too. Duffy has won 5.5 aerial battles per 90, the second-highest average in the league, while Dunk boasts 3.24. Dunk and Duffy have been critical in ensuring that Brighton have conceded six less than their expected conceded of 48 (excluding own goals and penalties).
But, at 37, Bruno has been the vastly experienced leader at the back. The captain, in his sixth season at the club, has missed a few games through injury but it’s no coincidence that he has started every single match in which Brighton have kept a clean sheet.
The Spanish right-back is in the autumn of his career but Brighton’s recruitment team could search all four corners of the globe and still not find a figure so naturally suited to the club.
It seemed fitting that Pascal Groß scored the goal that got Brighton over the line, the German netting the winner in a momentous win over United. Groß was as good a man as any to down the Red Devils given his level of performance since arriving from Ingolstadt last summer.
Costing Brighton just £2.5million, Groß has proven one of the Premier League’s most efficient playmakers and leads the team in big chances created, assists, xG assisted and expected goal contribution (xG + xA). So it was no surprise to learn the 26-year-old was named the club’s Player of the Year.
Groß has scored goals, some in big games, like the winner against United or the equaliser in the draw with Tottenham Hotspur.
However, he has mainly served as the creator-in-chief, supplying the excellent Glenn Murray with incisive passes. Murray will be 35 in September but he remains as sharp and hungry as ever.
Murray’s tale has been a redemptive one. Twice deemed surplus to requirements at Premier League clubs (Crystal Palace and Bournemouth), he joined Brighton on loan at the start of last season – signing permanently in January – and fired 23 goals to guide the Seagulls to promotion.
Sceptics doubted his top-flight credentials but Murray has routinely exceeded expectations, scoring 12 goals to ensure safety and even enter him into the conversation for an England call-up.
Murray has outperformed his xG by 1.49, placing him inside the top 20 in that category to make him one of the season’s surprise packages.
Ryan the rock
No assessment of Brighton’s season would be complete without shedding light on Mat Ryan. The Australia international joined from Valencia last summer and has been a hit at the Amex Stadium, his sure-handed displays between the sticks proving a massive asset in keeping teams at bay.
Ryan has commanded his area well, claiming a total of 37 high balls to place him sixth in that category. With 118 total saves, only three stoppers have managed more. Ryan has also saved two of the three penalties he’s faced this season.
Where do they need to improve?
It’s been a fine campaign but Hughton will have identified areas in which to improve. While Davy Pröpper and Dale Stephens have forged a reliable partnership at the heart of midfield Hughton would ideally have like a healthier supply of goals from that position. Pröpper and Stephens have contributed seven assists combined but don’t have a goal between them.
Of Brighton’s 34 goals, 27 have been scored by Groß, Anthony Knockaert, Murray or José Izquierdo. That’s 79 per cent and, while the burden of goalscoring should fall on those players, Hughton would prefer a more even spread across the team, especially if Groß or Murray were to sustain serious injuries or suffer a dip in form.
A considerable portion of Brighton’s pre-season work on the training ground will be spent on set-pieces, both defending and attacking them. As Football Whispers revealed recently, the Seagulls are the Premier League’s worst at defending corners, having conceded 12 goals from them.
They have also scored just three times from the corners they have had.
While they are creases which can be ironed out with some summertime graft, Brighton supporters have plenty of reason to be cheerful as they look forward to a second season in the top-flight. Of course, as promoted teams have discovered down the years, it doesn’t get any easier.