If one remembers the instant relegation Brighton and Hove Albion suffered on the last occasion they ascended to English football’s second level, it’s been a heartening first half of the season for the Seagulls. Many expected them to do well given the verve they showed in cantering to the League 1 title in May and a position just four points off the play off zone constitutes real progress.
Their start was a stunner of course – buoyed by the capacity crowd that welcomed them to the Amex Stadium on August 6; two strikes from new signing Will Buckley heralding their return before Craig Mackail-Smith’s goals helped them to the top of the table early on – it wasn’t until September 17 and Yuki Abe’s winner for Leicester at the Walker’s Stadium that the club suffered defeat and if a 3-1 loss to arch rivals Crystal Palace signalled the beginning of a patchier run of form, the fans can still be proud.
Injuries and absences have blotted the copybook a little during recent weeks. Ex-Valencia man Vicente had started to look as cultured as any midfielder in the division before picking up a niggling knock while million pound man Buckley has suffered from a recurring hamstring strain and star right back Iñigo Calderon has also been missing. Add to that a less than watertight disciplinary record that has seen Mauricio Taricco, Marcos Painter and Ashley Barnes all receive their marching instructions in recent weeks and the otherwise impressive Lewis Dunk notch up an embarrassing ten bookings in league and cup, and Gus Poyet could have done with a more settled group from which to select.
I recently had the opportunity to see Brighton for myself on their visit to the Madejski Stadium and if the 3-0 score line flattered Reading on the day, problems were easily identifiable.
The manager is clearly influenced by the footballing culture of his native Uruguay and the presence of two monolithic and hard edged centre backs in Dunk and Gordon Greer is central to this – ‘thou certainly shalt not pass’. Elsewhere, it’s about keep ball – the team are taught to cherish possession and Liam Bridcutt plays provider in front of the defence, supplying wingers Buckley and Kazenga Lua Lua, as well as whichever full backs are available with a steady stream of service.
In front of the ex-Chelsea youngster, Ryan Harley and Matthew Sparrow are good at recycling the ball and all is topped off by the liveliness of Mackail-Smith – expensive he may have been, but he plays on the shoulder of the last defender in exemplary fashion – his dainty stepping action masking true pace.
Despite dominating control of the ball for almost the entire second half at the Mad Stad, Albion’s initial undoing was the absence of their regular full backs – Jobi McAnuff enjoyed a field day up against the veteran Adam El-Abd and Jimmy Kébé caused similar problems for Taricco. This put the XI on the back foot, a problem subsequently exacerbated by an unwillingness on the part of several players to track back. Buckley and Harley were guilty of this in particular and this left Bridcutt isolated – opposing manager Brian McDermott had already identified him as the pivot through which Brighton’s game flows.
But with the Seagulls having subsequently enjoyed a famous win over Southampton, Buckley now available for selection more consistently and CMS remaining a real danger man, Poyet can still take heart. Despite his unwise defence of countryman Luis Suarez, he knows how to shape a team and his introduction of Craig Noone and loanee Billy Paynter to the fray on Boxing Day did make a difference to the game’s balance.
Having forked out outlandish money by the club’s standards this Summer, Brighton are now within touching distance of something even bigger and the joie de vivre at the new stadium is catching – so many opposing fans wish Albion well after their years in the wilderness. At the moment, however, it would take a leap in faith to believe that this squad can seriously compete with the tough mindedness of a Southampton or a West Ham roared on by more vocal, more aggressive support. The December 26 game did illustrate a lack of strength in depth and it will be no surprise if Poyet decides to make a couple of strategic additions this transfer window. Yesterday, he called for a change in the club’s wage structure and although this was perhaps understandable following an audacious attempt from Cardiff City to prise away Noone, caution may have to be exercised. Keep things sensible now and Albion may achieve the medium term growth that might suit them better.