Since the comeback to the Championship in the season 2011 / 2012, the Seagulls racked up the Promotion Play-Off 3 times in the last 4 years, but they never managed to get through to the Final. After Crystal Palace in 2013, Derby in 2014, last year Sheffield Wednesday were to reach Wembley at the expense of Brighton. But, this year may be different, as Chris Hughton’s team sits in 2nd place of the Championship after 25 games (1 game in hand).
Hughton became manager of Brighton midway through the 2014/15 Championship season, replacing Sami Hyypia and avoiding the relegation with a final 20th place. In the 2015/16 season, the Irish manager guided Brighton to an impressive third-placed finish, missing out on direct promotion to the Premier League through an inferior goal difference of two goals. Today, after 95 matches in charge, Hughton’s team is challenging Newcastle at the top of the table.
Comparison between Hyppia’s tenure (24 games) against Hughton’s (22 games)
One of the early accomplishments made by Hughton was to improve the defensive set up of his squad. Brighton moved from a 1.33 goal against (12th) to a more comfortable 1.00 (4th). During the Hughton’s 22 games in charge, only Norwich, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth conceded less goals than Brighton, a good sign of a quality defence. This came at the expense of the offensive output that decreased from 1.08 (16th) to 0.82 (20th), but it was enough to secure the Seagulls another season in the Championship.
The great work performed by Hughton in his first six months, continued in the 2015/2016 and obviously in the current season. Hughton displays his team in a classic 4-4-2, but as any set-up the keys are not the numbers themselves, but the principles working behind.
Difficult to penetrate a team with 9 players behind the ball
This set-up allows Brighton to be defensively compact when the opponents are in control of the ball. The Seagulls do not rush to regain possession in a Klopp’s style; their objective is to leave opponents with no chance to progress centrally with the ball, forcing them to play out wide, where risk is lower and where it’s easier to apply pressure.
Once the ball gets there, opponents are forced to get back or to deliver crosses inside the penalty area, situations in which players like Duffy (6’4″) and Dunk (6’4″) are comfortable with.
Unlike other sides, Brighton commonly display at the centre of the pitch two holding midfilders that are Dale Stephens and Steve Sidwell. Hughton requires from them nothing more than intercepting or capturing the ball and then play short and simple passes to the more advanced players.
Unusual but effective
Like it or not, this defensive set-up allowed the Seagulls to concede only 17 goals in 25 matches (1st), and they are limiting opponents to get chances to score (2.92 SoTA / P90 – 1st).
Though, defensive numbers reflect a team leading the League, the offensive ones are not on the same level. And for a team competing for a spot in the next Premier League, this could be its Achilles heel.
Championship Top 10 Shots on Target For (Source: footcharts)
After 25 games, Brighton collected 4.33 SoT / P90, the 9th best team in the League. A performance close to the one of the last year, in which Brighton recorded a 4.41 SoT / P90 (6th). Although, the shot volume is not that impressive, Brighton in 2015/2016 accumulated 72 goals (1st) at the end of the regular season. This year, with one game in hand, the Seagulls are the 5th best team.
Looking at some games, the impression is that Hughton organizes a rigid attacking phase made by 2 or 3 standard build-up plays. The most commonly used is the one involving the fullbacks (Bong or Bruno), which are required to start the build-up phase and move the ball to the opposition half.
And then it comes Glen Murray. 15 goals so far.
Finally, we’ve just passed the halfway of the season and the feeling around the Seagull’s performance is positive. The defensive set-up has been working perfectly so far and this contributed the most to the Brighton’s winning march. Hughton’s two years and half work have been remarkable too. Now we have just to wait the next 21 games and see whether this dream will become true.