Brighton & Hove Albion are ninth in the Premier League table, a position that would represent their highest-ever top-flight finish should they maintain it. Head coach Graham Potter has rightly garnered plaudits for his progressive philosophy, and the club’s board have been applauded for building an effective football organisation. What has escaped the notice of many is the fact Brighton’s breakout season might already be over. This is the story of a Premier League surprise package that has stopped surprising people.
Brighton may still be riding high in the table, but they have not won in nine games across all competitions. This run has been under-reported, perhaps due to the nature of some of the results. Of the eight league games, six have been drawn and just two lost. While defeats invite an inquest, draws tend to be more easily forgiven. Particularly when they’re of the class of Brighton’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool, or a goalless draw with a resurgent Arsenal.
Worryingly though, Brighton have also been drawing games they really should be winning. Relegation-battlers Norwich City and Newcastle United have each taken a point from the Seagulls, as have an under-performing Leeds United. The draws have kept coming, but they are no longer hard-fought points against teams with greater means. They are paltry rewards taken from teams they should be good enough to defeat.
This is not to reduce the quality of the job Potter and the players have done. Ninth is a brilliant position to be in for a club of Brighton’s size, and represents the platform for a revival of fortunes. But the Christmas period brings its own challenges. Beyond the fixture pile-up that every team will have to negotiate, the south coast club play Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Chelsea before the end of the year. Brighton could be left to rue their series of stalemates by the time 2022 rolls around.
If the decline hasn’t been evident in the coverage surrounding the club, the fans do seem to be perturbed watching Brighton’s fortunes even out. The team were booed off the field at the Amex Stadium after their 0-0 draw with Leeds last Saturday, as unrest began to spill over at the extension of their winless run. Perhaps it was a case of heightened expectations, with four wins from their first five Premier League matches setting the tone for a season unlike any other. While the frustration is understandable, it seems unfair to turn on a team who have outperformed expectations this season.
Fan unrest is a constant theme in football nowadays. The first portion of the season was characterised by the Steve Bruce saga at Newcastle, where the manager was subjected to weekly abuse from fans until his dismissal. Manchester United’s fans being asked by Bruno Fernandes to direct their ire at the players rather than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will stand as a turning point in that club’s managerial direction. But Brighton fans don’t want Potter to go, and despite occasional links he seems to have no desire to move on either. The club and its manager feel perfectly suited, so perhaps Seagulls supporters would do well to temper both their expectations and reactions so as not to cause a chasm between Potter and the club.
Form is a fickle mistress, often here today and gone tomorrow. Should Brighton regress to their previous mean, they may end the season in a familiar lower-third spot in the table. It will feel more painful after a promising start than it would as the result of a season-long relegation battle. Survival is a prize for those who fight for it, but less of an honour for those that have scaled the heights of the European places this season. After half a season of being referred to as the surprise package of the league, Brighton must now fight against a return to their usual position.
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