Premier League

Why Brighton’s Defence Will Help Them Survive

 • by Frank Smith
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The tactical vista of the Premier League has become more complex over the last few seasons.

Jürgen Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool brought the concept of counter-pressing into the mainstream, while Mauricio Pochettino’s rise with Tottenham Hotspur gave greater insight into the value of pressing. Antonio Conte’s time with Chelsea has popularised the 3-4-2-1 system, while Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and their positional play have provided a fascinating new look.

Amid all of these aggressive and attack-minded coaching developments, it’s easy to overlook the work done by Chris Hughton at Brighton and Hove Albion.

As someone who has had a positive effect on every one of the four clubs he has managed, it’s no surprise to see his newly-promoted side sitting in a respectable 14th place after eight games this season. However, what is more enticing is the team he appears to be building, a team capable of shutting down far more expensive attacks.

Hand his Brighton will hope to once again thwart their opposition when they travel to face West Ham United this Friday.

BRIGHTON’S DEFENSIVE FORTITUDE

In an interview with The Guardian, Hughton gave an indication of his approach to Premier League survival. “Burnley and Bournemouth are very good examples for us,” he said. “I hope our squad does well but I’m very conscious of how tough the Premier League is – so we need to keep our strong work ethic.”

The work ethic the Brighton boss extols has been on show throughout the team’s start to the season, which has included tough clashes with Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City. They opened the campaign against the latter, who currently sit top of the league.

Hughton couldn’t have asked for a more difficult assignment to start with, but his players didn’t disgrace themselves by any means. Lining up in a basic 4-4-2, each individual within the unit worked hard to ensure retention of the collective shape.

Marking zonally and with position being their main reference point, they moved together from left to right, guaranteeing that the distances between players remained relatively short. While they didn’t press with any real intensity, their position-based coverage made it difficult for Manchester City to play through the centre.

This defensive scheme has worked in other matches as a means to limit the opposition’s chances of penetrating Brighton’s deep defensive block. However, there are also elements of man-oriented zonal marking in the way they play.

This is particularly the case with the wingers, usually Solly March and Anthony Knockaert, who tend to mix holding the shape of the midfield with tracking opposition full-backs whenever they venture forward.

The wingers’ marking of opposing men has at times led to Brighton forming a back six when both opposition full-backs push forward into more advanced areas down the flanks. When this happens, Hughton’s back four becomes extremely compact, leaving minimal gaps in the channels between them.

Against Arsenal, the south coast side operated in a 4-5-1 shape as opposed to their usual 4-4-2, though the Gunners’ use of wing-backs often meant they looked more like a 6-3-1. This structure is something that has worked well for Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion in recent years, as it allows for numerical overloads in central defensive areas.

In the above graphic, Isaiah Brown is seen dropping deep to support the three-man midfield. The role of the strikers, or in this particular case striker, is key to Brighton’s ability to reduce the effectiveness of the opposition’s possession.

Against Manchester City, the two strikers – Pascal Groß and Tomer Hemed – dropped back to maintain a short distance between themselves and their midfield team-mates. This compressed the space between the lines, made sure Brighton were compact and forced City to play around them.

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Hughton’s side are not the most effective when building possession from the back. Against Arsenal they were – in contrast to their defensive play – far too open when trying to play out. This perhaps explains why they have averaged the third-highest amount of long balls in the Premier League this season (76) while also obtaining the fifth-lowest average possession (45.5 per cent).

West Ham may therefore have success pressing high on Friday night, however, what Brighton lack in quality on the ball they more than make up for in defensive organisation and work rate. These are traits they have carried up from the Championship.

Last season, no team conceded fewer than Brighton’s 40 goals in the English second tier. Indeed, only Newcastle United could match that record. Over the course of the 46-game campaign, Hughton’s men kept an incredible 21 clean sheets.

Their ability to retain a compact defensive shape is essential to their efficacy at the back. That’s why they have yet to let in more than two goals in one Premier League game this term. And, while the team is sacred, it’s worth highlighting the individuals who comprise it.

Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk are a solid centre-back partnership. Both are aerially strong and attentive markers; the latter is also a highly capable ball player over long distances. Behind them, Mathew Ryan has proven to be an exceptional last line of defence since joining from Valencia.

Only five Premier League players have completed more tackles per game than Dale Stephens, who averages 3.3. Alongside him Davy Pröpper combines industry with flair to help spark counter-attacks. Elsewhere, March’s fitness and teamwork make him a good wide outlet, while Groß has shown his quality – only nine players in the league have averaged more than his 2.3 key passes per game.

When it comes to attractiveness or innovation, Brighton are unlikely to score high marks. But, so long as they keep the tally in the ‘goals conceded’ column down, they have a good chance of staying up.

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