Premier League

Brighton’s old-school approach has done the trick

 • by Mark Thompson
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Brighton & Hove Albion are now in the clear. The three points picked up against Manchester United ensured the Seagulls would be playing Premier League football for a second successive season.

It’s a surprise. They were one of the pre-season favourites to get relegated but, through a combination of hard work and astute management from the perennially under-rated Chris Hughton, the Seagulls have a chance to defy the odds at the expense of more established Premier League entities.

Brighton have got where they are – 14th – by doing the simple things well as opposed to doing the more ambitious things poorly. Hughton’s side have conceded fewer goals than anyone else in the bottom half, thanks in no small part to their old-school defensive partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

The defence

Brighton’s defensive strategy is clear. They’re 17th in the league for possession won in both the attacking third and the middle third of the pitch. Look at possession won in the defensive third though, and they’re first.

The Seagulls are overperforming against their expected goals conceded – 45.48 to 39 actual goals conceded (figures discounting own goals and penalties).

However, looking at the number of ‘big chances’ that they’re conceding and the ‘bunkering’ strategy seems to be working.

They’ve conceded the fourth-fewest per game in the entire Premier League (0.89), behind only Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea. It’s even a better rate than the other big bunker side in the league, Burnley, who concede 1.02 per game.

Unsurprisingly, Brighton similarly to Burnley. Both teams are characterised by dogged defending and, to an extent, long ball football, Brighton build-up slightly more than Sean Dyche’s side.

Hughton has clearly drilled his side well, but it’s been seen before that a strong defence isn’t enough to stay in the Premier League. Effective elements in attack are required as well.

The attack

Glenn Murray is the side’s leader in terms of expected goals (7.9), and his Player Persona radar makes it clear what defines his game.

It’s not just his style that is notable of course – his performances this season have also led to tentative calls for him to be considered as an option for the World Cup.

With that in mind, something that Murray said in an interview with The Guardian last year after making his move to Brighton permanent sticks out.

“There was a period recently when big centre-forwards weren’t in favour,” he said, “but, two years down the line, look at Christian Benteke, Olivier Giroud, even Diego Costa … that style’s coming back into the game.

“Football people see what I can bring to a team. Maybe it bypasses others, but I still believe I can score goals in the Premier League and I’d like another crack.”

After scoring 23 goals in the equivalent of 38 games (3447 minutes) in the Championship last season, he’s got 12 in the equivalent of 23 this time around. He’s certainly taken his chance.

Groß by name, not by nature

Brighton do have some culture about them too – although that shouldn’t be said as if long-ball football is morally worse than an approach more focused around intricate build-up.

Pascal Groß may not have been a household name when he joined from Ingolstadt in the summer for £3million. Anyone with access to a sortable Bundesliga key passes list could guess at what Brighton might have seen though.

He was fourth in the league in 2016/17 for open play key passes with 38 and delivered 56 key passes from set pieces – a margin of 19 over his nearest competitor.

His role has changed slightly since his move to England though, coming more into line with Brighton’s style.

It’s these two names – Murray and Groß – which will get many of the plaudits for Brighton’s season, and this is understandable. However, as with any successful team, it’s the work of the collective that brings results.

Should Brighton attain safety, it will be an achievement built on the shoulders of many individuals – and an old-school approach that some may have thought was a relic.

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