Brighton & Hove Albion have had their fair share of heroes this season. Pascal Groß has proven to be one of the bargains of the season, Glenn Murray has sealed wins with his scoring touch while Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have put in herculean efforts to keep things tight at the back.
However, the latest toast of the Amex Stadium is José Izquierdo. The tricky Colombian winger popped up with the equaliser against Stoke City on Monday night to stretch the Seagulls’ unbeaten run to five games and leave Chris Hughton‘s side in ninth place.
For a newly-promoted side that had one point and no goals after their first three games, that’s not bad at all.
Groß got himself on the scoresheet once again, the German scoring his third of the season with a fine finish from a Davy Pröpper cross, while the Netherlands international enjoyed a stellar night himself, once again impressing alongside Dale Stephens in midfield.
However, it was difficult to ignore the mercurial talents of Izquierdo on the wing, who looked to be Brighton’s most menacing attacking outlet, causing Mame Biram Diouf plenty of problems down the left flank.
His performance proved that he is beginning to adapt to the Premier League following a £13.5million move from Club Brugge in the summer, but it also highlighted some of the shortcomings in his game. Those can be ironed out in time, though – Hughton looks as though he has a rough diamond on his hands.
Izquierdo, whose 14 goals lifted Club Brugge to within touching distance of the Belgian title last season (ultimately losing out to Anderlecht), has found it difficult delivering an end product for Brighton this season.
Before Monday night, his only goal came in the win at West Ham, a swerving shot which Joe Hart would have expected to keep out. He had also failed to notch an assist, while Groß, in stark contrast, has five to his name.
Needing to improve his output, Izquierdo played like a man with a point to prove against Stoke. He was involved from the outset. After just 70 seconds, he was released down the left flank. Cutting back inside onto his right foot, he skipped past Kurt Zouma but ballooned his cross well over everybody and out for a throw on the other side.
Just two minutes later, though, the Colombian created his first chance, taking on Darren Fletcher before fizzing a ball to Murray, who completely misjudged the weight of the pass and kicked the air comically.
In the 18th minute, Izquierdo showed more good and bad. Capitalising on the space left by Zouma and Diouf being caught high up the pitch, the Colombian gave Pröpper an option in behind. The Dutchman’s through ball was perfectly-weighted but, after cutting inside and picking his spot in the far corner, the 25-year-old curled wide. It was a gilt-edged chance and one from which the record signing should have at least tested Seagulls keeper Mat Ryan.
An effervescent presence on the left, Izquierdo seemed to be the best outlet for Brighton in the first half. After 25 minutes, he impressively shrugged off Joe Allen in midfield to make space for the shot. After pulling the trigger, the ball scampered out for a throw. Not his most accurate effort.
However, these are things that can be gradually honed and crafted with hard hours on the training pitch. There can be no denying that Izquierdo, however raw and unrefined he may be at this stage, is the live-wire of this Brighton team, and certainly got more supporters to their feet last night than Anthony Knockaert, last season’s Championship Player of the Year.
Izquierdo completed both dribbles he attempted but misplaced 12 passes. Both of his shots before scoring were also off target, so he certainly endured a bit of a mixed bag. However, most important he kept at it. After Stoke tightened things up defensively after the break, Izquierdo’s influence faded as the game wore on.
Then, on the hour mark, just as Hughton was considering replacing the South American with Solly March, he struck. After Stephens’ lifted pass found Murray, the striker slipped it to Izquierdo. His initial cut-back was blocked by Kevin Wimmer but, as the ball rebounded to him, he swung his right leg and found the corner. The goal earned Izquierdo all the match-saving plaudits and understandably delayed March’s introduction.
It’s worth noting that, in the build-up to the goal, Izquierdo had come close to conceding possession, cutting inside and selling Groß short with his pass. Luckily, Pröpper was alert to step in and find Stephens. Fine margins indeed.
However, for his endeavour and enterprise, switching his play by attacking down the flank and coming inside to be an influence from a central position, Izquierdo deserved his goal.
It will bolster his confidence significantly and give him a platform from which he can build.
He has the natural ability to become a star in this Brighton team, but he won’t be afforded as many chances on a weekly basis. The key to his Premier League development will be sharpening his end product and capturing that killer instinct that will allow him to strike at the first time of asking.