Brighton & Hove Albion have successfully avoided relegation in the Premier League 2018/19 season finishing 17th. They finished 15th in the league last season and they were expected to finish at least on that very same position this year. Unfortunately, they started slipping away towards the business end of the competition. 13th on match-day 25, they fell to 16th within the next two and after that, they alternated between 15th and 17th until the very end.
The Seagulls failed to win a single one of their last nine league games scoring just 3 goals in the process. In this tactical analysis, we shall take a look at the statistical factors of what caused this huge decline.
Effects of the system change on full-backs
Brighton were quite aware of their lower xG and instructing Bernardo to play more offensively was one of the results of this. Bernardo, though playing as a left-back on paper drifted up more frequently than usual. One of the things that the shift to a 4-3-3 from a 4-4-1-1 allowed considering the narrower midfield. This would have ideally improved Brighton’s xG with the additional attacking element. However, Bernardo’s teammates would often pass to him and he would have to be the one making forward runs considering the numerical superiority and change in the system.
This meant a lot of the play would depend on the left-back. However, Bernardo was caught in possession in the opposition half multiple times. Near to the end of the season, he lost the ball more than 10 times per match on average. This change in the system was meant to give an extra attacking element. But due to this change, Brighton lost the cohesion they have had in the 4-4-1-1 and either enough passing options weren’t available for the newly moved forward Brazilian or he just couldn’t find them at all.
Because of this change in the system, Brighton started giving the opposition more time on the ball. In a 4-4-1-1 the ball would always have to be moving to maintain possession but in a 4-3-3, the opposition would find space between the lines and maintain possession relatively comfortably. Though this wasn’t a factor directly influencing their xG, it caused obviously fewer chances to start offensive plays.
Changes in the system and passing
Brighton’s system saw major changes around the time of their match against Leicester. Brighton‘s most used formation was the 4-4-1-1. Hughton implemented this 30% of the time. But the switch to an attacking 4-3-3 was made soon. The only system close to that was implemented against Newcastle in a 4-4-2. Brighton’s 4-3-3 led to them favouring long balls while building-up from the back. And as seen earlier, the full-backs pushing up more than usual led to the centre-backs having to either passing through the centre or risking a lot of chances of dispossession on the wings like in the case of Bernardo. This, in turn, led to the ball being played around the midfielders and the full-backs and the possession in defence was reduced.
But any passes to the defenders were not as useful as one would hope. Very frequently, due to insufficient passing options, the ball would be passed back to the defence. But the defence was not good enough with their distribution. Shane Duffy completed an average of 33 passes per 90 before the system change but after, he completed 19 per 90. His partner in defence, Lewis Dunk, reduced his open play passes per 90 from 42 to 26.
The two sides to the system change
One of the changes that affected the xG a lot was the change in styles of players. Jahanbaksh, who usually prefers to take on the opposition or dribble his way through the defence and March, the attacking midfielder, saw the biggest changes. Jahanbaksh plays on both wings, but in the 4-4-1-1 he would have more chances to dribble as he would have options for a pull-back. The 4-3-3 decreased the pull-back options but it increased the options to lay-off and for the full-backs to dribble past.
This would have ideally been a good decision as more bodies forward usually lead to an increase in xG. However, due to Jahanbaksh’s change in style, his take-ons started decreasing. From 3.4, they dropped to 1.1. Another change we see is that March started significantly fewer matches than he did earlier. When he did, his playing style was different from his usual one. He started completing more take-ons. From 1.1 they increased to 3.6. This is one of the positive changes we saw. This increase was due to him being deployed as one of the wide men or in an attacking mid role on the left as opposed to his earlier right mid or central-attacking mid roles. This, in turn, relates to the problems we saw earlier in Bernardo’s passing as he could no longer look for the usual passing options and this sudden system change resulted in that.
Post-shot xG and xG
The biggest direct factor which caused the decrease in xG was the change in the ratio of post-shot xG to xG. The biggest factor that differentiates post-shot xG and xG is the fact that post-shot xG doesn’t only factor in the passes, players etc. leading to the goal. Rather it uses the z and y-axis to estimate the quality of a shot. What we are seeing here is a clear decrease in shot quality. This largely comes down to the player form and the change in player position.
The post-shot xG involves all of the attacking players of Brighton. They have been involved in a major system change which saw some of them change their styles and some change their position. This might have been no problem earlier on in the season but the change being made so late caused a lot of problems. In the 4-4-1-1 the striker and attacking midfielder were the focal points of attack. This meant that the striker, Glenn Murray was the one scoring most goals. This explains the huge gap in the first and second highest goal-scorer with 13 and 5. The players had a responsibility thrust upon them which was not as much before as it is now. Again, it largely boils down to the change in the system and the player form.
Chris Hughton’s decision to implement the change in the system was not completely wrong. However, as we saw, it didn’t provide the desired results. The problem wasn’t with the system as much as it was a problem of players being unable to adjust to the new system quickly as expected. Hughton didn’t take the facts that it would take time to shift the system comfortably and that towards the end of the season it’s even harder to implement completely. Another problem was that it might be much harder for one player to adapt to a certain system than it would be for another.
Had Brighton continued their earlier system with only minor changes, we could have very well seen them finish much higher up the table.
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