Margins have been fine between Brighton and Hove Albion and Southampton in the Premier League. Only four top-flight fixtures between the two have taken place; on three occasions, neither side could come out on top, but most recently, Saints got the better of the Seagulls in a 1-0 win at the Amex Stadium.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg scored the decisive goal on the day as Southampton took a step closer to Premier League safety at the end of March. Brighton’s poor run of form left them in danger of the drop, while Saints’ upward trajectory owed to the astute tactical work of Ralph Hasenhuttl.
It was quite the contrast to the ongoing demise at the Amex. Chris Hughton, heralded for taking Brighton to the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history, was on the brink, and his previously-resolute defensive structure had been breached, with the prospect of relegation back down to the Championship becoming increasingly pertinent.
The Seagulls steered marginally clear of relegation, with Cardiff City falling on the final sword to join Fulham and Huddersfield Town in the depths of the Premier League table. Often, clubs who fail to shake off the condescending underdog tag that is forced upon them come in for mainstream criticism when a managerial switch is decided – Brighton were no different.
Their ruthless move to wield the axe on Hughton after he had kept them up for the second season on the bounce was symbolic of a gradual change in approach from mid-to-lower-tier Premier League teams. Brighton’s football had grown tiresome, and Hughton’s tactics had become outdated. When the Seagulls pulled the trigger, raided Swansea City for Graham Potter, and embarked on a different path, the overarching message was clear: just surviving is not enough nowadays.
Everton reflected this trend when they replaced Sam Allardyce with Marco Silva. West Ham did the same when David Moyes was swapped for Manuel Pellegrini. Southampton even did so when Claude Puel was given the boot and replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino, admittedly to a markedly lower degree of justification than the aforementioned successors of football’s less enthralling figures.
Brighton were brave, bold and ambitious. Potter – whose Premier League experience had only come via brief appearances during his playing days – was headhunted by the Seagulls’ board, led by Dan Ashworth, formerly of the FA. A bustling, young English manager with unique ideas and a carefully-constructed philosophy was selected to usurp a declining relegation firefighter.
Sometimes, these moves pay off. Other times, they can go catastrophically wrong. But on the evidence we have seen so far, Brighton are onto a winner. Potter, as he accomplished at Swansea with tight resources and limited footballers, has already transformed his new team into one of the most aesthetically-pleasing sides in the division, and there is a rightful aura of intrigue that now surrounds the Seagulls.
Potter’s arrival on the south hadn’t been met by a great deal of acclaim. In fact, his appointment had gone rather under the radar, with a common, foolishly certain assumption that Brighton’s fate had more or less been sealed by their decision to appoint a manager who only finished 10th in the Championship in the preceding campaign.
However, his early critics have already been silenced by two exciting performances at the very beginning of his reign. Brighton travelled to Vicarage Road in their curtain-raising outing, and comprehensively defeated Watford 3-0. It came as a shock to many, with the Seagulls winning only three times on the road in the whole of last season, but no luck was involved.
Potter’s men dismantled Watford with deft touches, marauding runs from deep and quick interchanges. Lewis Dunk and Dan Burn were given the licence to drift into midfield with the ball and break lines of press with intelligent passes, while Davy Propper pulled the strings as the nucleus of the setup.
Brighton dominated the ball – with 51.6% possession to their name despite being the away side – and carved out the best opportunities. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s own goal gave the Seagulls the lead, but they only had their manager to thank for the two strikes that would follow.
Potter, whose master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence has aided him in managing his personnel effectively, observed that Watford began to grow back into the game when he decided, despite his side being a goal to the good, to bring two forwards on. Neal Maupay and Florin Andone arrived on the scene, and in a tactical masterstroke, they both found the net. Brighton returned with all three points and a 3-0 win to savour.
This was no flash in the pan, either. A similar, and arguably more impressive, performance was put on show for the Seagulls’ faithful to witness at the Amex against West Ham United last week.
Although Potter could not inspire his men to a second victory in as many games, he certainly came close. Brighton drew 1-1 with the Hammers and were unfortunate to have come away with only a point to show for their efforts as Leandro Trossard’s strike was ruled out by VAR.
Nevertheless, the summer signing got himself on the score sheet just four minutes after Javier Hernandez had taken advantage of space in behind the Brighton back-line. Again, the Seagulls had put their opponents under the cosh, taking a 57% share of the possession and peppering shots towards their goal. Brighton had double the attempts (16) that West Ham had (8) on the day.
Their next test promises to be an intriguing one. Ralph Hasenhuttl leads his Southampton side to the Amex, and they are in desperate need of three points after two defeats at the hands of Burnley and Liverpool in recent weeks.
Brighton will lock horns with a different animal to the teams they have hitherto faced this season. West Ham and Watford are arguably of a higher standard than Saints, and both finished in a far more comfortable position last term. However, neither press as intensely, nor hunt in packs with the same aggression that Hasenhuttl instructs his charges, and it will be intriguing to see how Potter sets his side out to cope with this approach.
The Seagulls boss has so far favoured a setup with three central defenders and two forward-thinking wing-backs; this is likely to continue against Southampton. Hasenhuttl has also preferred this more conservatively-shaped approach, with a 3-4-3 and a 5-3-2 deployed in the first fortnight of 2019/20.
Saturday’s fixture presents a barometer of progress for both clubs. Brighton will be hoping to see even further progression after a strong start to the campaign; they will surely sense an opportunity to capitalise on Southampton’s well-documented defensive woes and lapses in concentration at the back.
Saints, however, will be well aware that Potter’s teams can tend to leave space in behind the back-line despite their typically resolute defensive structures, and suffocating a possession-centric team could provoke more mistakes than they have grown accustomed to in the opening period of the campaign. Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross have been somewhat guilty of holding onto the ball for too long in recent weeks, and pouncing on occasional lethargy will be paramount to the visitors’ chances.
Brighton against Southampton could be a tale of possession versus pressing, and in what promises to be a high-intensity clash at the Amex, there will be little room for error.