The first proper bunch of Premier League games are over, and one team has been surprisingly impressive; Brighton. For many, one of the favourites to go down, for those in the know, they knew Brighton would thrive this season. Why? Graham Potter. This tactical analysis will demonstrate the prowess that will eventually (probably), take English football by storm.
Potter’s young, vibrant side is flourishing with his tactics transforming them into one of the most engrossing sides in the league. Instantly, the hallmarks of Potter’s style have been clear, the offensive shape is creative and fluid, player-use is more enticing, ball progression is more progressive and commanding.
Admittingly, they sit only 16th, but Brighton have been good. Unlucky to say the least. The transformation has been instant, the difference has been staggering. They’re currently underperforming by quite a bit, so eventually, everyone will take notice of the new ‘Potter Powerhouse’. xPTS wise, they should be 6th, not 16th.
This tactical analysis will look into the tactics used by Potter that have made Brighton so interesting, so quickly.
Arguably one of the brightest minds in football, Potter’s track record is fascinating. Following an eye-catching spell at Ostersund, he probably performed one of the most underrated jobs in the Championship last season.
His intelligence and innovation was clear in Sweden, from ballet performances to writing books – he had his players at the top of their game. Guiding Ostersund from the fourth division to the Europa League is some success story.
While his players revelled in performing arts, his own creativity was clear simply through his style of play. The most un-British of British styles of play. Think less Sam Allardyce, more Marcelo Bielsa. Exciting, isn’t it?
His style and finesse was clear at Swansea too, despite failing in promotion. The Swans had their problems, from asset stripping to losing key players – Potter had a re-build to do. Yet they still dominated teams with the ball (4th highest possession, 57% & no team completed more passes p90, 451), this wasn’t passing, for passing sake either, his philosophy was intricate and offensive. They had the 5th highest xG differential (+0.25), they hit the woodwork more than anyone else (23 times) and we’re 4th highest in big chances missed (57).
The brand was clear. A brand Brighton wanted
Adaptability is key. Nowadays, changing and varying your system and shape in terms of the opposition is a crucial asset. Some might say it’s conservative, others: an appropriate culture. Variation in formation not only causes problems for opponents but benefits the progress and implementation of players – to me, using the same players but in different roles is a clear portrayal of a Head Coach’s ability.
Above: three random line-ups taken from Potter’s time from both Swansea and Brighton, clearly prove the flexibility that Potter has in his team’s formations. His sides become unpredictable to face, which perfectly complements the fluid offensive style that he implements.
In the matches so far, Brighton have frequently changed their structure, particularly at the back through the versatility of Dan Burn. Whether played as a centre-back or left-back, Burn’s role rarely differs, equally presenting his attacking capabilities. The freedom within player roles is the perfect blend for Potter.
It’s pretty much been the regular for Brighton so far, so unsurprisingly, the 3-5-2 is working. Personally, one of my favourite formations, it offers the ingredients that Potter demands to make his concepts work so well. Exploitation in wide areas, defending in numbers, midfield balance, a striking duo up front.
The positives are clear. As the still shows, the formation itself opens up various passing options for the ball-player – while numerous players are occupying space between-the-lines. Albeit a simple example, it proves the benefits of a well-coached system, players know where to be and where to pass.
Quite simply, that’s the point. A coach who can have his team playing so well in a range of different systems is clear proof of how good that coach actually is. No matter the formation, the tactics seem appropriate, simultaneous to Potter’s main concepts still being prominent in-game.
Changing a Philosophy
Brighton are one of the most prominent examples of a club thinking progressively and efficiently. The move to replace Chris Hughton with Graham Potter was the perfect resemblance of that.
The signs within the final 12 months of Hughton’s tenure were clear. Moves in the transfer window were more forward-thinking, players were younger and more technical, and quite obviously, didn’t suit Hughton’s way. Chairman, Tony Bloom, took the horrendous form and used it positively – out went Hughton, in came Potter.
The pertinacious, ignorant, generic statements came out. ‘Be careful what you wish for’, ‘know your place’ etc. But the data proved Bloom right.
Most obviously, Brighton finished just two points off 17th and had won twice in the league in 2019. Using xG, the sides flaws were striking and quickly becoming detrimental. Only Huddersfield put up less xG in 2018/19, while their xPTS had them finishing in the relegation zone – below Cardiff.
Brighton are different now though, and by different, I mean good. Like, really good.
The change in philosophy has been monumental. Already, Brighton are averaging 54.4% possession compared to 41.9% last season and completing almost double the number of passes (415 compared to 278). Even in their recent game vs Spurs, the juxtaposition in ideas was distinct. They registered 48% possession as opposed to the 22% and 194 passes that they put up in the defeat in April.
The pass map from Brighton’s recent game vs Newcastle characterisation of the development of Potter’s style. The foundations of this new philosophy are clear. Shorter, sharper passing, at a much higher volume in much better areas of the pitch. The key playmaker, Pascal Groß, is highly involved, frequently linking up with the midfield behind him and Martin Montoya beside him – a key example of how effectively Brighton break-the-lines.
The campaign so far is only a little sample size in the impacts that are already being had – but the impact is still evident.
Overlapping Centre Backs
Positional and personnel rotations at the back have quickly become a personality trait for Brighton so far. Whether playing four or three-at-the-back, their defence system is adventurous and inventive while still applying the defensive stability that the Hughton-era was known for. That defensive solidarity, perfected through the help of the pivot in front, consequently, allows for the audacious patterns of play that are becoming a trend.
Albeit Dunk has now consolidated himself as the main central defender in the back-three, earlier on he represented the clear impacts of Potter’s tactics. After picking up the ball by the half-way line, Dunk continued to progress the ball, playing a one-two before showing the composure to find the right pass.
It should have resulted in a goal.
It’s Dan Burn though, who’s become the pivotal centre-back for Graham Potter’s system. His role in the side is virtually to be the vital cog that connects the whole team. His ball progression is crucial, consequently proven through his high amount of successful final third passes, despite his position. His 4.5 p90 is higher than the likes of Harry Maguire and Kurt Zouma.
Burn has adapted quickly to Potter’s philosophy and the data from his performances so far prove it. Burn is central to Brighton’s creative backline, so far boasting 10.6 progressive runs p90, vs Spurs alone he attempted five dribbles too. While it was his cross that resulted in Aaron Connolly’s first-ever Premier League goal.
The images above for instance perfectly convey the impact Burn can have. With Brighton playing high-up, Burn swoops in to win a loose ball and rather than retaining the ball, hoping to conserve possession – Brighton’s forward-thinking philosophy again comes into play. Burn not only intercepts the ball, but he then pushes forward too. His quick-thinking eventually leads to one of the better chances of the game for Pascal Groß.
The example above signifies the outlet that Burn provides for Brighton. His influence on the ball is unmistakable – just the 71 passes here. Five of them into the final third, from a centre-back, it’s impressive stuff.
Playing Through the Press
Modern-day football is now centralised around good build-up play. It’s a key determiner to see how well-coached teams are, the best teams do it and they do it well. Potter’s Brighton have been no different. Whether it’s been making simple passes through the middle-thirds to slowly work it forward, or intuitively playing quickly to beat the high-press, Brighton’s passing is tremendous.
The Graham Potter way is in full-flow at the Amex.
His tactics are condensed around high-possession football, but as this tactical analysis has portrayed, his philosophy is quick and effective rather than dull and rigid.
So far, Brighton have proved their ability to beat opponents press frequently. Whether it be press-masters Man City (8.26 PPDA) or Spurs’ recent lax approach (10.40 PPDA). Particularly against Man City, their new passing potential was shown tremendously – consistently breaking-the-lines, opening up City’s midfield countlessly (not easy).
With Brighton playing out at-the-back (obviously), a short-pass from ‘keeper Matty Ryan triggers the City press that attempts to corner Adam Webster. Yet despite three City players pushing forwards, Webster still has various passing options – breaking-the-lines here could potentially make the opposition vulnerable further ahead
Smartly though, a simple faint from Webber opens up passing lanes further and easily finds Dale Stephens whose quick-thinking means he can simply lay-it-off to midfield partner; Davy Propper. Within three passes, Brighton have taken 5 Man City players out of the game and suddenly have numerical superiority in the attacking areas too. It’s almost like playing out from the back is a good thing.
Against Spurs, various examples proved the exact same thing. This time Brighton playing in a virtual 2-1-3-2-2 with the shape split wide and asymmetrical to create more passing options during the build-up. The positives with the abnormal shape, were apparent constantly at the Amex a few weeks back.
Brighton’s shape demonstrated its beneficiaries here – with the centre backs split and one of the midfielders dropping to supply further support. Despite Spurs pressingly highly though, their structure is disjointed, and Brighton capitalised with their positional rotations exhibiting its potency. With Ryan passing into midfield to Stephens, Alzate then also drops to provide the next passing option as he uses the space poorly vacated by Spurs’ press, with Stephens then doing the same to present the next option.
This time, Brighton cleverly display how sometimes it’s better to go backwards before advancing. Goalkeeper, Ryan, makes use of the space on the edge of the box to join within the build-up play, with the centre-backs again split in an attempt to disarrange the opposition pressing. The position of the defenders then allows for space to be created ahead, and with the movement of the midfield – Brighton can easily cut-through Spurs’ weak press
All in all, Brighton are looking impressive just as this tactical analysis has proven. Graham Potter is so far working his magic and I don’t think it’ll be long before other Premier League clubs start to take notice. His footballing ethos combined with his desire to implement youth players and his personal ability to adapt through various systems – all are incredible attributes for up and coming managers.
Potter is laying the foundations for future successes, even if that’s just becoming a main-staying mid-table side. Generally speaking, Potter’s key concepts are shining through this Brighton side:
- Dominating ball possession.
- System adaptability.
- Organised off-ball structure.
- Flexible and fluid positional rotations.
- More shots taken; fewer shots conceded.
Gone away are the cautious tactics of Chris Hughton, Graham Potter is inventing a stylish, creative and balanced style of play.
This is a team that’s taking more shots, keeping the ball more, being more progressive, creating more big chances while still retaining the hallmarks of Hughton’s Brighton. They’re still defensively solid; conceding just 12.0 shots p90 compared to 13.9 last year, xG against is also down to 1.3 from 1.6 p90, while their PPDA is up to 8.99 from 13.69.
The fact of the matter is; Brighton are much better – and Potter has a lot to do with that.
The fundamentals of the new tactical implementation are becoming clearer through every game. The eye-test proves it, the data backs it up. It may only be the start, but Brighton are only on an upward trajectory and there’s no reason why a top 10 finish can’t be achievable.
Graham Potter is a coach to keep an eye on, a coach to admire and commend. An English coach who will one day, be sitting comfortably beside the big managers.
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