The pause to the 2019/20 English Premier League season provides an opportunity for a tactical analysis of one of its most interesting projects: Graham Potter taking over the managerial reins at Brighton and Hove Albion.
Potter’s appointment in the summer was an intriguing one, given that he brought with him a reputation for playing possession-based, passing football, allied with energetic pressing tactics without the ball. These were Potter’s hallmarks in his spells at both Swansea and Ostersunds, but extremely different to those methods employed by his predecessor at Brighton, Chris Hughton.
At the end of November, Brighton were sitting in 12th place, but closer to sixth than the relegation zone in terms of points, and Graham Potter was duly rewarded for this impressive start with a new six-year contract.
Since then things have become more difficult for the Seagulls and, at the time the season was suspended, Brighton found themselves in 15th – the same position as under Hughton at the equivalent stage in 2018/19, but with a lower points total.
In this piece, we perform a tactical analysis on the changes Potter has implemented and look at the stats to see what has gone right and where Brighton can improve going forwards.
Under Hughton, Brighton would typically set up in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 tactical system, as demonstrated below. They would look to cede possession in a mid to low block.
The key to this tactic was not to let opponents play through Brighton as a priority, but instead keep play in front of their units by utilising horizontal and vertical compactness, ‘sliding and screening’ with patience as the opponents moved the ball.
In contrast, Potter’s Brighton have shown greater tactical flexibility, alternating between 3-4-2-1, 4-2-2-2, and a 4-3-3 (both seen below), often changing mid-game.
Part of this tactical flexibility is helped by players such as Dan Burn being comfortable as a left-sided centre back or overlapping left-back, which makes it easier for Brighton to alter systems.
The defensive phase has seen a huge change in 2019/20, with Brighton looking to gain the ball higher up the pitch and win possession back immediately after losing it, as borne out by the statistical analysis (data from FBRef).
The graph shows in the Premier League in 2018/19, Brighton under Hughton applied more pressure to opponents deep in the Seagull’s third of the field.
This is, of course, a logical tactic for a team sitting in a deeper, organised block, looking to bring the opposition ‘on to’ them before engaging. Conversely, the Brighton of 2019/20 are much more likely to look to make challenges higher up the pitch.
This is further supported by in-game footage: the picture below shows the 2018/19 English Premier League fixture at home to Manchester City. Brighton are set up in a 4-5-1 mid-block seeking to drop and narrow their formation. Glenn Murray, at centre forward, is looking to make play predictable, with two banks positioned behind him.
However, in 2019/20 Brighton look to set their defensive line much further up the pitch to engage their opponents earlier.
Here, away against Manchester City in the English Premier League, Brighton (now playing right to left in the image) have set-up high and, in some positions, man-for-man. The front pair have encouraged City to play out to their centre-backs, but still close enough to apply effective pressure, whilst the Brighton players have ‘locked on’ to the pivot player and the other Manchester City central midfielder who might also look to drop into the pivot space. They have sat slightly off the Manchester City full-backs to encourage a pass, which they will then look to press.
In the next image, against Wolves, the Brighton shape is different, but the higher line is again apparent. Neal Maupay at centre forward has encouraged the pass into the deepest defender, who Aaron Mooy is now looking to press early as he received with his back to goal (a trigger for the press), with the other three players in the unit screening any passes through them into central midfield.
Potter has also instructed Brighton to quickly counter-press the ball where possible upon losing possession in the attacking half: again this can be deduced from an analysis of the data supplied by Wyscout.
The table demonstrates that Brighton allow the opponent to have fewer passes in possession before engaging them defensively now, compared to in 2018/19 under Hughton.
This is supported by the video analysis, which shows players looking to win the ball back quickly after losing possession when they think they can do so.
In the image, Brighton have lost the ball but nearby players, in this case, Mooy and Davy Propper, immediately apply pressure to win it back, with both the right-back and centre-half ‘stepping up’ on to their immediate opponents to support the press. Meanwhile, Dale Stephens (No.6) is well-positioned to ‘close the net’ of the press, but also provide cover if it is unsuccessful.
The radical changes to Brighton’s philosophy when they have the ball are just as clear. In the 2018/19 English Premier League season, Brighton took a more mixed approach to how they played out from the back. But in 2019/20, they play almost exclusively short from the goalkeeper.
There has been a sea change in Brighton goalkeeper Matt Ryan’s game, playing far more short passes, as these statistics from Wyscout demonstrate.
Not only do Brighton look to play out from the back, but they also play far quicker short, passing football than was previously the case.
The stats for 2019/20, supplied from Wyscout, demonstrate how they play lots of passes in the time they have the ball, ranking in the top quartile for passing rate and total passes overall across the league. This is reflected in the scatter graph.
This is a huge contrast to 2018/19 where Brighton had a far lower passing rate of 332 passes per 90 minutes – ranking just 17th in the division.
The match footage here shows tactically how Brighton look to progress the ball from the back: using their goalkeeper and centre-backs, they invite Aston Villa to press, at which point teammates move into space to create overloads low down the pitch, with the intention of outnumbering their opponents.
The Brighton players are connected, creating triangles and diamonds for their players to play through or around the overloaded Aston Villa forwards. This quick passing, movement, and overloading of the opponent deep in the Brighton half is a key feature of the Potter gameplan.
The radical overhaul in Brighton’s overall tactical approach from 2018/19 to 2019/20 is made clear by a statistical summary:
|Brighton 2018/19||Brighton 2019/20|
|Shots per 90||8.45||11.37|
|Touches in Box per 90||11.27||16.13|
|Passes Per 90||332.08||460.31|
|Shots against per 90||12.92||10.99|
In the first months of Potter’s rein, these were, naturally, used as markers of success. Brighton looked poised to enter the top half of the English Premier League table, their tactics had been dramatically altered, and Potter was awarded his new contract.
Results fall off
However, the second half of the Premier League season has seen Brighton dragged into a relegation dogfight. At the time the league was suspended, they were in 15th place – just above the relegation places and in a similar predicament to the previous campaign.
So given the seemingly positive change to their style of play and with it the underlying statistics, what happened?
Firstly, it is a fair argument to say that Brighton in 2018/19, as previously discussed, did slightly better than they perhaps deserved: Understat’s expected points table placed them 18th, in the relegation zone and one place lower than they eventually finished.
Meanwhile, in 2019/20, they have been unlucky, with Understat’s same expected points calculations putting them more than nine points better off and in 11th place. Their performances, particularly in the first half of the season, deserved more points than they gained, and the xG table would bear this out.
However, luck alone doesn’t explain Brighton’s struggles and we must look deeper into the reasons behind their fall down the league.
The defensive transition
Unfortunately for Brighton, their new playing style might, in part, also be their weakness.
To play a passing game through the thirds, sides require a wider, dispersed shape when in possession. But this means more space for an opponent should they win the ball unless Brighton can respond quickly.
Brighton, like many possession-centric sides, try to offset this issue by immediately pressing the ball upon losing it: either to win possession back early or allow the rest of their team to drop into shape. But when you give the ball away in bad positions or opponents overcome this counter-press, they have lots of space to launch their attacks into.
This is also one potential risk of the higher defensive line. In theory, it should give up fewer shots on your goal, but when opponents do get past your defensive structure, it allows them high-value chances.
Conversely, a deep block tactic, as favoured when Hughton was manager, allows the opponent more shots, but of lower value, because there are more defenders put between the opponent and the goal. It is a risk v reward equation – high pressing teams will create good chances for themselves by winning the ball back near the opponent’s box and should also limit shots against them. If they get it wrong however, the opposition can punish them severely.
This scatter graph, using FBRef data, partly demonstrates the issue – Brighton look to win the ball higher up the field, but do not always execute this as effectively as they might, leaving themselves exposed.
Simply put, Brighton’s combination of an ‘open’ style of possession play, plus an aggressive press that is sometimes ineffective, means they offer up too many good chances.
Opponents easily breaking Brighton down or hitting them in transition is a recurring theme in the footage of goals they have conceded this season. At the conclusion of each move in these images, the opposition scored with a high value, close-range shot.
Analysis of the footage below, against Wolves, shows combination play beating Brighton’s defensive organisation on the left, allowing Wolves to break into masses of space with the Brighton defence backpedalling.
Versus Manchester United, in the next image, a similar incident has occurred. Now, with a single pass, United are running at the Brighton defence in a 3 v 3 with open space behind.
Brighton were in defensive transition having lost possession on the edge of the Leicester area. The image below shows them failing in their counter-press and they are now outnumbered and exposed with many of their team caught ‘wrong side’ and space to attack behind their defence. One simple pass has them in huge trouble.
Mooy has misplaced a pass in the image beneath. Analysis reveals Brighton’s extremely dispersed horizontal and vertical shape in possession means they are now vulnerable in transition, with the centre-backs facing a 2 v 2 and space for Watford to attack.
A lack of creativity
We have already established through our statistical analysis that Brighton see plenty of the football, but they don’t hurt the opposition with it as much as they could.
The graph, made using FBRef data, shows that while Brighton rank fifth in the league for the volume of touches, the other recognised ‘possession’ teams in the division all have a much higher number of goal-creating actions per 90 (two offensive actions leading directly to a goal). This is a crucial difference – Brighton are on the left of the dashed line – this represents the ‘average’ number of goal creating actions – no better than mid-table, despite being among the ‘best’ teams in the Premier League for overall touches.
Too much of Brighton’s possession can be ‘sterile’ – albeit they are a better creative force than last season, but you would still expect more.
So how does Potter address these problems?
Defensively, there are already signs that he is doing so by taking a more pragmatic approach to some games. In the February away fixture against Sheffield United, for the first time this season, Potter played with a lower block and placed a premium on defensive compactness, securing a 1-1 draw against Chris Wilder’s high flying side.
It might be that Brighton now choose to play this way either away from home or when seen as the underdog. See the image below from the fixture – Brighton are deeper and keeping disciplined banks in an effort not to be easily broken down.
If they don’t want to do this more regularly, Brighton will either need to execute their pressing scheme better or lose possession in less dangerous areas of the pitch. This means work on the training field and possibly addressing this weakness in the transfer market in the summer, recruiting mobile players who excel in recovery runs or defensively 1 v 1.
Although there is no comparison in terms of budget, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool serve as a good example: his side is highly organised at pressing and counter-pressing, but on the occasions Liverpool’s press is beaten, they have players such as Fabinho, Wijnaldum, and Henderson who will chase the ball down and recover it at speed. And assuming they can’t stop the problem, Liverpool still have the 1 v 1 excellence of Van Dijk to call upon at the back. The greater level of individual ability and correct skill set compensates for any rare breakdowns in the system.
Brighton might also consider making more tactical fouls, stopping opposition attacks in the early phases before they quickly progress into dangerous situations closer to the Brighton goal.
Brighton should address their spells of sterile possession and recognise when to play through their opponent, either when passing lanes open up or by dribbling, and perhaps might consider just occasionally mixing up their passing ranges without sacrificing their identity. It’s easier said than done, but the aim must be to create similar numbers of goal-creating actions to other, possession-heavy sides.
So has the change to Graham Potter been successful?
It is probably still too early to reach a final conclusion. He has yet to complete a full season, so we will have to see how the performances and statistics look moving forward.
There are certainly signs of promise. Potter has overhauled Brighton’s style of play to see them make more passes, take more shots, and press higher up the field. They are a more positive and offensive-minded team.
The scale of this change should not be underestimated and, in my view, better suits many of the players Brighton have recruited in recent years in an attempt to establish themselves as a top half English Premier League side. And they really have been slightly unfortunate – in other seasons, they might well have found themselves in a higher position in the league. Given time, we might expect the table to rebalance in their favour.
However, there are clearly issues that need addressing if Brighton are to move forward with this tactical philosophy: they need to reduce the number of high-value opportunities on the Brighton goal, often as a result of the defensive transition, and they will need to do more with the larger amounts of possession they now enjoy.
It would seem the building blocks are in place, but the long term success of ‘Potterball’ will be based on the manager, his backroom team, and the players meeting these challenges.