Five games into the new Premier League campaign and there is a familiar feel to the table, but for one discernible anomaly: Brighton & Hove Albion are fourth.
As it stands only Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have more points than Brighton, who are currently above champions Manchester City, to perhaps everyone’s surprise bar Pep Guardiola himself, who only last season described Graham Potter as “maybe the best English manager right now.”
The old ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage sounded loud when Brighton traded Chris Hughton’s pragmatism for a more eye-pleasing brand under Potter. But the gamble from club owner Tony Bloom (a renowned figure on the high-stakes poker circuit) has paid off, with the club now combining style and substance.
Premier League 2021/22 top six finish odds with William Hill…
- Chelsea (1/250), Man City (1/250), Liverpool (1/100)
- Man Utd (1/50), Spurs (5/6), Arsenal (6/4)
- Leicester City (7/4), Everton (5/2), Brighton (10/3)
18+ only. Be Gamble Aware. Odds in this article are correct at 16:00, 20/09/2021.
Potter produced wonders in Sweden after taking Ostersunds from the fourth tier to the Europa League in just eight seasons, and some of that managerial gold dust is now rubbing off at the Amex. They have had a relatively favourable opening run of fixtures, but they have set themselves up as wildcard candidates for the 2021/22 season. So who have been the early standout stars? And what is making ‘Potterball’ tick on the south coast of England?
Brighton’s league position after five matches played in previous seasons:
◉ 17/18: 16th
◉ 18/19: 14th
◉ 19/20: 16th
◉ 20/21: 16th
They currently sit in third place. 👀 pic.twitter.com/6SabKzThrk
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 19, 2021
The perfect double pivot?
As injuries and inconsistency beset Adam Lallana’s form at Liverpool, his role actually shape-shifted over time as Jurgen Klopp looked to find a place for the piquant playmaker at Anfield. This culminated in his eventual redevelopment as a central midfielder, a role in which he is currently thriving at Brighton.
Alongside the cocksure Yves Bissouma, who recently described himself as the best midfielder in the league when talking to Brighton legend Glenn Murray on BBC Sport’s Football Focus, the duo have formed an exceptionally enterprising double pivot.
“I don’t want to be arrogant, but it’s me because in my head I am working to be the best,” explained Bissouma.
“So I cannot say another name, I know in the Premier League there are so many good midfielders, but for me, it’s me because that gives me the confidence and the energy to work hard to show people I am here and I am Bissouma.”
Bissouma is a technically gifted midfielder with an extensive set of skills, but his most outstanding attributes involve taking the ball both off opponents, and around them.
Few Premier League central midfielders have completed more take-ons than him (61) since the start of last season. And only Burnley’s Josh Brownhill has made more interceptions as a midfielder in that timeframe than Bissouma, who has since 2020/21 won possession with more tackles (80) than anyone in the division.
Meanwhile, functioning further back has allowed Lallana to dictate the tempo, operating almost as Brighton’s midfield metronome as they look to hog the ball and meticulously create openings, perhaps underlined by the fact that Potter’s side currently rank fifth for highest average possession this campaign (56.48%).
Only last season’s top three (Man City, Liverpool and Man Utd) and Leeds outrank them in that particular metric, highlighting Potter’s emphasis on ball retention and recycling play. The Lallana-Bissouma midfield partnership has been the key to that process, and looks to continue indefinitely.
Shane Duffy’s resurgence
Will Shane Duffy be this year’s Craig Dawson? When the former Watford centre-back moved from Vicarage Road to the London Stadium last year no one batted an eyelid, but he shone in the heart of David Moyes’ defence as the Hammers finished sixth, and Duffy has made a similarly solid start having come in from the cold.
The Republic of Ireland international spent 2020/21 on loan at boyhood club Celtic, but he largely flattered to deceive during a mistake-ridden campaign in Glasgow. He returned to Brighton in a state of limbo, having initially been cast out by Potter while failing to impress at Parkhead.
But in selling Ben White to Arsenal, the Seagulls have not simply gained £50m. They have also avoided having to reinvest in a new replacement. Duffy, the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ in 2018/19, is currently in career-defining form, dispelling the narrative that an old-school defender can’t find a home in Potter’s defence.
His more clearance-leaning approach certainly does not seem to mesh with Potter’s progressive philosophy. But as the saying goes, opposites attract, and Duffy’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense defending balances the neat and nimble playing style of Brighton’s more lithe ball-players.
Marc Cucurella: From Barca to Brighton
Marc Cucurella is an archetypal Potter player: versatile, tidy in possession, technically superb. He fits Potter’s wing-back system like a hand in a glove, slotting in on the left flank to energise the side and bring some creative flair that chimes with the likes of Lallana and Leandro Trossard.
When the club pulled off his transfer from Getafe for £15.5m on deadline it felt like one of those ‘wow, why did no one else sign him?’ sort of deals. Cucurella has been making considerable headway in La Liga for some time now, having long been tipped to return to Barcelona one day.
A La Masia graduate, Cucurella has had football’s most revered education and so comes to Brighton well-versed in the intricacies of a possession-based game (naturally). There is something very Cruyffian about Potter’s approach to the game, and signings in the mould of Cucurella will only enhance that perception.
So far the Catalonian has acclimatised well to the high-tempo pace of Premier League football and has given Brighton a real creative adrenaline shot. The prospect of Cucurella on one wing and Tariq Lamptey (when finally fit) on the other is certainly a tantalising one, and could be game-changing when made a reality.
An unlikely frontline flourishing
Danny Welbeck has been a polarising figure for much of his career, but he seems to have found a stable home at Brighton. The 30-year-old has certainly had his fair share of injury issues but has made a strong start to this campaign.
It has not quite been a firing-on-all-cylinders opening, but over the past few games Welbeck has worked exceptionally well in tandem with Neal Maupay, showcasing the kind of link-up play that could see this particular attacking partnership blossom as the season progresses.
There is a quasi-big-man-little-man feel to their play, though not quite Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch, with Welbeck standing at 6ft 1in and Maupay at 5ft 8in. The noticeable height difference certainly serves to belie the reality of their play, both being very much ball-to-feet forwards.
In the opening five games, the duo have combined to net four goals, both recently getting on the scoresheet to take down FA Cup holder Leicester City in a 2-1 triumph. It may not be the most noteworthy of frontlines in Premier League history, but it’s one that is currently flourishing under Potter.