Premier League

The Big Problem That Could Damage Brighton’s Season

 • by Thomas McIlroy
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Brighton and Hove Albion’s fourth game in 13 days ended with a heavy defeat to Liverpool, as the Seagulls went down 5-1 at the Amex Stadium this weekend.

Those four games saw Chris Hughton’s side pick up just two points from a possible 12, scoring three times and conceding eight.

They have slipped from eighth, with 15 points, to 12th, with 17 points.

And the fear could be that the drop in form has come with the step up in the frequency of games, something which will only get worse throughout December, with Brighton having six more matches to play before 2017 is out.

The Seagulls made just two changes from their tie against Crystal Palace when they faced Liverpool, while Jürgen Klopp made six from his side’s midweek win against Stoke City.

Tiredness kicking in

A trip to Old Trafford followed by a derby against Palace was always going to take it out of Brighton, and it showed on Saturday, with what was their biggest ever defeat at the Amex.

After the game, Hughton said: “We had the highs of [Manchester] United at the weekend, a tough game here against Palace, and whether that had a little bit of effect – they certainly looked more energetic than we did.

“I thought we looked a little bit flat at times and, where we can be a good side in keeping possession of the ball, I thought that’s as poor as we have been for a while in possession.”

And with his team not looking energetic, there is a question as to whether the Brighton boss truly believes all of his squad is Premier League ready.

A tight-knit squad

Obviously, having a consistent starting line-up is much more useful than chopping and changing every week, but there comes a point when the squad needs to be used.

So far this season, Brighton have used just 19 players. Only Burnley have used fewer (18) in the Premier League. At the other end of the spectrum, 26 different men have featured for Watford.

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Out of those 19 players used for Brighton, six of them – Dale Stephens, Davy Pröpper, Lewis Dunk, Mat Ryan, Shane Duffy and Pascal Groß – have started every Premier League game.

Anthony Knockaert and Solly March have also featured in every one of those 15 matches, while captain Bruno has missed only one game.

That leaves only two real positions in the squad that have seen real rotation – up front, with Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed vying for one spot, and at left-back where Gaetan Bong and Markus Suttner have started eight and seven matches respectively.

Of the 19 players to have featured for Brighton, five of them – Isaiah Brown, Jamie Murphy, Liam Rosenior, Ezequiel Schelotto and Uwe Hünemeier – have played for less than 220 minutes in the league.

It’s obvious that Hughton sees his squad of around 15 players as the key men at the moment, and the Seagulls boss also clearly likes working with a small squad.

Last season in the Championship, he used 24 players, just one more than Brentford, Reading, Leeds United and Huddersfield Town, who all used 23, the lowest in England’s second tier in 2016/17.

But, while of course, there are more games in that league, it’s one thing playing three games in a week in the Championship and something else doing the same in the Premier League, where the quality of the opposition is much better.

Recent drop-off?

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If you look at their last three games, not including Stoke as that was off the back of an international break, the stats show how Brighton are slightly struggling with the step up in fixture frequency.

Their shot accuracy has dropped slightly from 45 per cent in their first 12 Premier League games to 44 per cent.

And the only game where they have been above their season average of an expected goals (xG) value of 0.8 per 90 minutes, was against Liverpool.

The Seagulls had an xG of 1.67 against the Reds, but versus Crystal Palace (0.34) and Manchester United (0.57) it was considerably lower.

And, while attacking wise it may have been an improved performance against Liverpool, the Reds pace proved too much for Albion’s defence, with Brighton letting in five.

The problem is, with a lack of game time for many of players this season, some of which is due to injury, a lot of them are now not match fit.

At one of the toughest times of the season, where the games don’t stop coming, throwing them in seems illogical as they will not be up to scratch in the league.

But other teams will be tired too, and perhaps that is what Hughton needs to do.

It’ll be then when he gets a proper grip on how many of his squad are actually Premier League standard. And that knowledge will be crucial going into January.

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