Brighton continue to show up their supposed betters

Brighton & Hove Albion may still be watched by predators with hungry eyes, but fans living in the moment can enjoy the greatest period in the club’s history.

Eventually we’ll all run out of superlatives for Brighton & Hove Albion, but now is not that time. Their 3-0 win against Liverpool it was almost as predictable as it was thorough. Liverpool’s decline this season has been appreciable, with no indication since they returned after the World Cup that they can turn things around and Brighton, so full of pep and imagination, were primed to tear into them.

While modern football always seems to be played with one eye on a month’s time, Brighton supporters are very much living in the moment. They’ve scored 17 goals in six games in all competitions since the domestic schedule woke up again following its midwinter break, and two of those games ended in defeat, one of them without scoring a goal. They now sit in seventh place in the Premier League. European football, for the first time in the history of the club, is starting to look like a distinct possibility.

These, it may reasonably be concluded, are probably the greatest days in the history of the club, but few expected this season to take this turn after they lost their manager just a few weeks into the season. The disruption caused by losing your manager and your entire backroom staff would surely have a highly deleterious affect on the team’s chances, and for a couple of weeks it seemed that assessment was reasonable.

When Brighton returned to the Premier League at the start of October, they did so without much of a flourish. The club hadn’t delayed in bringing Roberto De Zerbi into the club following Potter’s sudden departure and his first appearance in the dugout ended in a creditable 3-3 draw at Anfield, although even this result was tempered slightly by the knowledge that they had been two goals ahead.

But after this followed a string of disappointing results, a home defeat by Spurs and an away defeat at Brentford, a draw with Nottingham Forest and defeat at Manchester City. Four games, one goal. The Brighton that had spent most of the last five years trying to keep their heads above water, the pessimists reasoned, were back and a dream that flickered all too briefly had been snuffed out by the realities of big money and big status. The pessimists were wrong.

It hasn’t all been good news. Top scorer Leandro Trossard appears to have decided that he is too good for them and is training alone. And Brighton’s form hasn’t been imperious. Prior to beating Liverpool they lost their two previous home games to Aston Villa and Arsenal, while their run in the EFL Cup came to a juddering halt after they fired blanks at Charlton and were eventually beaten on penalty kicks after a goalless draw at The Valley.

But when you’re in the sort of mood that Brighton have been in, negatives can be turned into positives at the drop of a hat. Trossard may well want out of The Amex, but Brighton’s goals have hardly dried up since he began the staging of his dirty protest. There have even been reports of him being ‘offered’ to Arsenalwith Chelsea predictably hovering in the background, but such have been the caliber of recent performances against Liverpool, Everton, Middlesbrough and Southampton that Brighton supporters seem pretty relaxed about the possibility of him leaving.

Of course, one man’s ‘humiliation’ could be another man’s ‘conveniently timed excuse to demand to leave the club for more money’, and it remains as much a dispiriting fact of life as ever that almost every football club below a gilded few lives this life, insecure in the knowledge that their plans could be torn asunder by bigger clubs who can buy success to cover their own mistakes, and whose perpetual circling and destabilizing influence makes getting anywhere near them for a substantial amount of time so difficult.

But Brighton’s last 12 months have been about dealing with these raids and coming through them stronger than they were before. Whether the Saudi money at Newcastle, the old money of Arsenal or wherever Chelsea are finding the wherewithal to try and build a different team from, Brighton have been bouncing back from each setback looking stronger than they did before.

And this is as true over the manager as it is for any individual player. If anything, Roberto de Zerbi’s Brighton are looking better than Graham Potter’s Brighton often did. It’s still been less than a year since Albion lost six successive Premier League matches and only scored one goal throughout that period. There were clear signs that this issue was being fixed by Potter, but the upturn in goalscoring under the new manager has been striking.

Under Graham Potter in 2022, Brighton scored 36 goals in 26 games in the Premier League; under De Zerbi they’ve scored 25 in 12. They’ve added a direct dimension to their attacking play that wasn’t there for much of last season. This time last year, watching Brighton trying to chase a game was like trying to watch the Olympic 400m final being run on a course made of porridge. All too often, it seemed the players lacked the confidence to add that flourish to their performances and would frequently find themselves running down cul-de sacs in the vicinity of the opposing penalty area. Not anymore.

And even though those vultures will continue to circle and may well prize away a couple of players by the end of the January transfer window, the opportunity is there for even more. What might Brighton supporters say to a first FA Cup final on the 40th anniversary of their only other ever appearance in one? Might European football next season, for the first time in the club’s history, be an appropriate way to move this chapter in the club’s history on to somewhere even greater?

Because these are realistic possibilities, and for Brighton supporters living in the present this is the greatest period in the history of their club. There will likely come a point at which it will end. Leicester won the Premier League, but have since fallen back to where we might have otherwise expected to find them; they may even find themselves in a fight to avoid relegation this season. Southampton were picked clean by Liverpool much as Chelsea would seem to want to do to Brighton and their days of challenging for a place in Europe seem to be over. West Ham have stagnated this year.

But Brighton have just kept going. They lost Director of Football Dan Ashworth, but kept on going. They lost Marc Cucurella to Chelsea and Yves Bissouma to Spurs, but kept on going. They lost Graham Potter to Chelsea, but kept on going. Potter returned to plunder the rest of their backroom staff, but they kept on going. Their top goalscorer is now agitating for his own big payday at another club, but Brighton just keep on going.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that there don’t seem to be any one or two individuals that can just be chipped away from the first-team squad who will alter the overall pattern. Look through the team that beat Liverpool at the weekend and there are classy players in every position, from goalkeeper Robert Sanchez to World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister in midfield, to local lad Solly March, who was born in nearby Eastbourne, scoring their first two goals against Liverpool.

This is a club that is built on a system that has been working from the ground up for some considerable time. The bigger clubs will revert to the mean eventually because money always talks in the end, but for now Brighton are fully entitled to enjoy their moment in the sun. There’s a lesson to learn from this club about how to build success, and they will continue to benefit while other clubs continue to learn the wrong lessons from them.

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