Bayern Munich’s Champions League win in May has raised suspicions that the stylistic worm may have turned in European football with power reasserting its traditional hegemony over the delicate arts.
Not that Bayern are any slouches in the skills department mind – it’s just that they are just as likely to break rapidly with raking passes and muscular bursts than to keep the ball patiently, aiming to prise out an opening.
In English league football, Swansea City have been the standard bearers for the now threatened credo perfected by Barcelona and the slow evolution of the game on these shores will no doubt allow them to profit from it for a good while yet.
The Swans’ chief imitators in recent times have been Brighton and Hove Albion – marginally less successful in that the ethos has failed to help them to the Premier League, but admirable nonetheless in their dogged adherence to the cause.
That may have been threatened by the unseemly departure of Gus Poyet this summer of course – so the Seagulls have been keen to maintain a certain continuity.
Hence, while the Swansea blueprint laid down by Roberto Martinez has been maintained by the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, the south coast club have looked to another manager with Hispanic antecedents in Óscar García.
At the Madejski Stadium yesterday, it was soon clear that there is life in the old passing dog yet. Arraigned against a Reading side hoping to develop a more patient style of play but still largely reliant on strength and force, Albion maintained their devotion to the old values.
It helps that García has assembled such an impressive back line of course and there can be few more reliable netminders in the Championship than Tomasz Kuszczak – he was only rarely called into action by a shot shy Reading – save for two comfortable parries from Jem Karacan long rangers.
Making Matthew Upson’s loan deal from Stoke a permanent one looks on this evidence to have been a canny piece of business from García with the ex-England man looking classy and assured on the ground where he spent a highly successful loan spell eleven years ago now. It’s still only three years since the former Arsenal youngster nodded in against Germany in Bloemfontein and that he’s now a full time Brighton and Hove Albion player is a coup to make up for the loss of another loanee, Wayne Bridge, energetic after being introduced at half time here.
Alongside him, Gordon Greer continues to be fundamental to the Seagulls for no matter how carefully you want to pass the ball, having an enforcer in your rear window will always give you confidence while Brighton are also extremely well served at full back.
We know all about Iñigo Calderón of course – a real stalwart throughout the club’s rise and surprisingly active in the opponents’ penalty area on this occasion while Stephen Ward is a very different kind of full back but looked well nigh impassable on the left – he was the main reason for Royston Drenthe’s miserable afternoon, capped when the Dutchman was withdrawn tactically after the sending off of Pavel Pogrebnyak.
In midfield, the tinkering with personnel has been most evident – Liam Bridcutt was missing with a groin problem but Ward’s Republic of Ireland teammate, Keith Andrews, one of the few Eire players to emerge with an enhanced reputation after Euro 2012, used all his experience to perform the water carrier role to tenacious perfection.
Andrews sat at the base of a diamond which saw two comparative newcomers to the first XI both cope well with the ebb and flow.
Jake Forster-Caskey has a Reading legend for a father and one for a stepfather for good measure and I had last seen him perform faintly inconsistently in an Oxford United shirt a year ago. Not so here – he was always busy and gave as good as he got against the opposition’s two best players on the day in Karacan and Danny Guthrie (excepting Alex McCarthy of course).
Ditto Andrew Crofts, who has been in and out of the side since arriving from Gillingham and this lower league stalwart certainly didn’t look out of place as Brighton found it far easier to find a rhythm than Reading.
In attacking areas, Kazenga Lua Lua was probably the Seagull’s most effective player on the day and if the comparison isn’t too grandiose, every tiki-taka outfit needs a dribbler to provide penetration – Lua Lua found the gap between Sean Morrison and Chris Gunter an ample one and he’ll be satisfied with his afternoon’s work. The same might also be said of David López, to this observer at least, surprisingly preferred to Will Buckley – his crossing was always dangerous as was his ability to control delicate passes to the wing.
Which leaves Leonardo Ulloa, harshly sent off in a classic piece of ‘evening of the scores’ by the referee – before he raised his foot a little too high to receive his marching orders, he had provided Alex Pearce in particular with a torrid afternoon and it’s no surprise that his goals to game ratio (13:21) is so good.
So the raw materials continue to be very pliable down Falmer way and Ashley Barnes served notice of his ability too with a smart volley that forced McCarthy into a great save after coming on. Other such as Lewis Dunk, Craig Mackail-Smith and Kemy Agustien wait in the wings – it would be highly surprising to still see Brighton marooned in fifteenth place come May.