Premier League 2018-19 preview No 3: Brighton & Hove Albion
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 14th
Last season’s position: 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1
Now that the novelty factor has worn off for Brighton & Hove Albion, one of their key challenges will be staying true to their values this season. After the euphoria of defying last year’s predictions of doom, the temptation to dream big must be strong. Yet that makes it even more important for Chris Hughton to ensure that everyone inside the Amex Stadium remembers that the club’s main priority must be establishing themselves in the Premier League.
Granted, talk of survival can sound mundane when Burnley were able to back up their first campaign in the top flight by qualifying for Europe. Brighton were widely tipped to go down last season, especially after picking up one point from their first three matches, and they relished proving the doubters wrong. Even when they slid towards trouble after Christmas, a strong run in February and early March calmed fears and it is unlikely they will ever forget beating Manchester United to secure their top-flight status with two games to spare.
Yet while avoiding any final-day drama was a fine achievement, it should also be pointed out that Brighton’s unease had been resurfacing before they earned their first victory over United in 36 years on a wild Friday night. They had not won since beating Arsenal 2-1 on 4 March and their final two assignments were trips to Manchester City and Liverpool. A piece of bad luck here, a couple of mistakes there, and Brighton could have been preparing for life back in the Championship.
That might seem like an uncharitable reading, but it is unlikely to have escaped the level-headed Hughton’s attention. For all that it is impossible to argue with the immense pride Brighton took from staying up, their manager will know that finishing seven points above a wretched bottom three is no reason to get carried away. In a league this competitive, with precious little to separate the majority below the top six, there is no room for complacency in a team looking to avoid second-season syndrome.
Encouragingly, however, it is unlikely that will happen at a club with Brighton’s sensible mindset. They have not developed ideas above their station after finishing 15th. There has been no vanity splurge, no drive to target fading stars simply because they might sell a few shirts, and no sudden demand for a big-name manager to replace Hughton. Instead they have spent the summer looking for ways to progress without compromising the levels of organisation, teamwork and humility that have been in place since Hughton replaced Sami Hyypiä at the end of 2014.
Brighton have acknowledged that some members of a promoted team have a natural ceiling in the Premier League. High-class opponents wise up to them and while the players who impressed last season will strive to stay in the team, it is vital that they face competition for their places. Too much loyalty can be risky. The idea is that a sprinkling of quality in the right places will give Brighton, who won two away games last year, more depth and make them a more rounded team.
At their best they are capable of playing fast, vibrant football that relies on direct wing play and the inventive, intelligent Pascal Gross probing between the lines. Yet Hughton, who tended to favour a 4-4-1-1 system last season, needs to ease the goalscoring burden on the wily Glenn Murray. While the 34-year-old is still going strong, providing a focal point in attack and finding the back of the net 12 times last season, more is required from Murray’s fellow forwards given Brighton only scored more than one goal on eight occasions.
With Sam Baldock set to leave, the jury out on Tomer Hemed, Percy Tau poised to go on loan after his £2.8m arrival from Mamelodi Sundowns and Florin Andone likely to need time to settle after signing from Deportivo La Coruña, the pressure is on Jürgen Locadia to show why Brighton signed him for £14m from PSV Eindhoven in January. Locadia’s only league goal came in a 4-1 win over Swansea in February, although the 24-year-old Dutchman has the support of his manager. “When you speak with him it’s the intensity of the Premier League,” Hughton said in May. “Here he arguably would not get the space and time he would get in Holland. He will benefit from a pre-season.”
Someone else who flourished in the Dutch league is Alireza Jahanbakhsh, an Iran international who is out to prove that leading Eredivisie players can make the step up to the Premier League. Brighton’s wide players are crucial to their attack and although José Izquierdo was often an electrifying presence on the left, Anthony Knockaert was more frustrating on the right and Solly March is still developing. Jahanbakhsh, the club’s record signing at £17m, chipped in with 21 goals and 12 assists for AZ Alkmaar last season and could make a huge difference.
The 24-year-old’s arrival demonstrates that Brighton’s recruitment team are endeavouring to think outside the box. A determination to look in places others are ignoring allows them to find young, hungry and affordable players who still have time to improve.
Yves Bissouma is another example, although the promising Mali midfielder will initially find himself below Beram Kayal, Davy Pröpper and Dale Stephens in the pecking order after his move from Lille, while Bernardo’s arrival from RB Leipzig gives Hughton another option in the full-back positions. The buccaneering Ezequiel Schelotto alternates with the experienced Bruno on the right and Gaëtan Bong is reliable on the left, but Bernardo can play on either side. Hughton will prize the 23-year-old Brazilian’s versatility.
Despite the new arrivals, there is a settled feel to Brighton’s squad. The resilient pair of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk are mainstays in central defence and will not be dislodged easily by Leon Balogun, a 30-year-old Nigeria international who has signed on a free from Mainz, although one area of concern for Hughton will be his team’s vulnerabilities at set pieces. They conceded 21 goals from dead balls last season, leading to criticism of Mathew Ryan’s command of his area. Australia’s No 1 will face competition from Jason Steele and David Button.
Overall, however, Brighton look equipped to survive if they adopt the right mindset. Consolidation is the aim, with Bournemouth’s cosy mid-table life something to aspire to. Anything more will be a happy bonus.
The mood feels calm and under control, which is just how Hughton likes it.