Brighton’s beautiful game

Brighton and Hove Albion is a team that has clearly caught my eye this season in the Premier League. Under Graham Potter, the Seagulls have shown leaps of progress in the previous season already. Some of their commendable performances this season were the second halves against Manchester City and Liverpool, two of the strongest sides not only in the English Premier League but also in Europe. Brighton fought hard to achieve a draw against Liverpool, and despite conceding a couple of goals against City in defensive transitions, they were electric in attack often putting the heavyweights on the backfoot. The game against Leeds United away was one of the most exciting games of football with plenty of chances despite ending in a draw.

Just as the manager himself was, I was quite surprised too to notice the reaction of the Brighton fans after the game for the kind of football they play and their current position in the league table. Although the lack of goals and wins are evident, his side is highlighted by a clear set of principles that define their playing style. They are a possession-based team that build up with superiorities and press aggressively upon losing the ball. In this analysis I attempt to dive deeper into some tactical aspects of Brighton under Potter referencing moments from their last draw against West Ham United.

The attacking phase: patient buildup and construction

In the attacking phase they build up patiently. In fact, Brighton are the slowest team in the league at progressing the ball up the pitch, as they average just 1.04 metres per second of progression.

They are tactically flexible in terms of formations. They are comfortable playing either 4–2–3–1 or 3–4–2–1. The common aspect of both systems is the way they construct their attack. The goalkeeper is the first attacker and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. In many situations he drives outside his box with the ball at his feet as a deep libero. This allows his two CBs to drift wider. This is a very important principle because the wider and higher the CBs are able to move, the better they are able to connect with the advanced players through line breaking passes. They are also better connected to the fullbacks with short passes, and in general this ensures better width to the structure coming out of the back.

The first passing option out of the buildup is the two pivots who are crucial to the Brighton system in orchestrating the attacking phase. The two central midfielders occupy the two inside channels and try to be positioned at different heights. From here they can form triangles with the FBs and the CBs and advance the ball further up the pitch through short passes that break lines of press. Yves Bissouma is a fundamental member of the two-man pivot system, and he is usually paired with either Jakub Moder, Pascal Groß or sometimes Adam Lallana.

Against many teams, the two pivots are tightly marked, in which case Brighton still want to maintain their fundamental of patient buildup through short passes instead of launching the ball long. They just look for other options. Sometimes in a 4–2–3–1, the FB drops to buildup with 3 players which is a familiar system anyway when they play 3–4–2–1.

In most cases, Brighton prefers to have their fullbacks higher up and wide to provide width. If the pivots are not an immediate passing option, they look for alternatives to play the short passes through the centre. Here comes into play the dynamic role of the attacking midfielders and forwards. Having so many players in advanced positions, one of them can easily drop deeper to offer an outlet through the inside channels while forming triangles with surrounding players who can act as the third man to get the ball out beating the first line of press.

In both systems 4–2–3–1 and 3–4–2–1, Brighton have atleast two attacking mids and one centre forward who play between the lines in front of the opposition defence. Neal Maupay, alongside Leandro Trossard or Alexis Mac Allister aren’t tall physical forwards who hold up defenders physically as target men. Neither are they the quickest sprinters who target the space behind the defense with runs in behind. Instead, they prefer to play between the lines making complementary movements that make space for each other with their positioning. The three forwards in the centre form a triangle. If one makes a run against the defensive line forcing them back, the other drops between the lines making space to receive a pass, while the third moves out wide and overloads the wide channels with the FBs.

The FBs bear the responsibility of connecting the attack and the defence with short passes, overloading the wide channels in attack offering width and immediately squeezing the space with the counterpress during defensive transitions. Having an engine like Cucurella is very handy in this system whom you find in one instance pressing outside his box, and in the next instance making the run on the far side for the switch of play.

The CBs are an important part of the possession style of play in both attacking with line breaking passes and defending with close range support. Brighton have ball-carrying CBs who are comfortable pushing up into the midfield if they find space.

The defensive transition: counterpressing

The key principle upon losing the ball is to immediately apply pressure. Brighton have the third highest successful pressure rate of 30.8%. Having a numerical superiority in every zone with players positioned to help each other out with short distances from each other plays a massive role here. In fact, the longer Brigton’s defensive transition lasts, the more dangerous the situation turns out for them with most such events leading to shots on goal conceded bringing the keeper into action. Brighton’s PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is around 11.2 which is fifth highest in the league behind City, Liverpool, Leeds and Aston Villa. With the CB positioned so high up the pitch, they prefer to win the ball back as far as possible from their own goal.

Brighton’s tackles attempted shows they prefer to counterpress higher up the pitch and away from the centre or around their penalty area (source:

Overloading the midfield with both pivots and forwards dropping deeper and CBs pushing higher enables them to create the superiority they need in specific zones. The other reason they prefer to win the ball back early is because they require their FBs and wingers positioned high and wide. A defensive transition forces the wide players back with the task of defending.

Brighton prefer to exploit players like Cucurella for his attacking qualities rather than his defensive ones. During a defensive transition, if Cucurella has the liberty of holding his position higher up because his central players are most likely going to win the ball back, it helps Brighton transition better into attack should they win back possession since they can always switch the play with a diagonal long ball.

With the goal of pressing they opposition high, they also pick specific moments defined by cues that trigger a high man-oriented press with the entire formation pushing up. The objective is to force the opponents to lose the ball or clear it long.

Positioning in zones

Brighton can be described as a team that likes to play very positionally both in the way they attack as well as defend. The players make sure the distances between one another are short creating lots of triangles for fluid passing networks in possession. They try to minimize their defensive transitions to the extend that the subsequent phases can be looked at as an extension of the existing phase.

In the zone of intervention, where the action around the ball takes place, the players are tasked at immediately putting tackles in to disrupt the opposition gaining control of a possible attacking transition. The players around the zone of intervention are positioned close to each other in a zone of mutual help to offer support through short passes in case possession is won back. Through these short passes, Brighton reestablish their rhythm and can then look to move the ball into the zone of cooperation where players are positioned strategically to advance the ball further up into the final third.

The fluidity of Brighton’s attacking system also has a structure to ensure its stability. For example, the two pivots who are always required to support the zone of mutual help by moving closer to the action. The FBs always must provide width in attack by staying wide. The forwards need to constantly drop between the lines to offer free passing lanes but at the same time be positioned behind lines of press to create superiority during possession. The CBs have to move wide to form the zone of cooperation for the ball to be switched, in which case the GK forms a link between them as a deep libero.

What is lacking?

Brighton’s disappointment this season is most definitely the final third. For the style of football they play and the chances that they create, they simply don’t convert them to score enough goals. This causes viewers and their own fans to question the practicality of their system of play. The lack of being clinical in the final third causes an understandable uncertainty in having all that amount of possession. They need to find more ways of arriving into the final third both centrally and wide. They also need to find ways to attack the space behind the defence quicker when the defensive line is higher up the pitch.

The other Achilles heel has also been longer stretches of defensive transition. They leave huge spaces behind to defend and this causes them problems against oppositions with quick, physical forwards who can exploit moments of counterattack and convert them. Although I’ve only analysed their open play, Brighton also concede from set-pieces which definitely needs some homework to sort out.

At the end of the day what matters in football is results regardless of the style you play. Currently Brighton play far better than what the results reflect about their performances. Graham Potter’s principles would be definitely better represented if they pick up their goalscoring form as well. Nevertheless, they are an exciting team to watch for their possession-based style and I sincerely hope that the pressure to achieve better results doesn’t cause them to sacrifice their flamboyance on the ball.

Expansive football: A simplistic categorization

Expansive football has drawn a lot of attention in the last two decades for its aesthetic expression of the game, tactical prowess and technical superiority. The reason is simple. Teams that dominate possession and are able to successfully maintain an attacking phase, look dominant, create more chances to score, and win more often than teams that don’t. Although there are numerous ways in which teams achieve an expansive football structure in their attacking phase, I attempt to simplify them in this article by categorizing them as low expansive or high expansive.

Fig. 1 Categorization of expansive football models — low expansive versus high expansive

Most football formations depict how a team defends without the ball. However, when a team has possession of the ball, the players need to position themselves to make the field as big as possible. They need to exploit certain areas of the pitch that gives them more control over the opposition, such as the centre, or half spaces. The attacking team also needs to move relative to the structure presented by their opponents who are defending them. Here comes the importance of positioning advanced players between the lines and pinning back defenders with forwards. Finally, the buildup structure provides a platform to recycle possession and continue maintaining the attacking organization. This buildup structure depends on how the opposition presses from the front — with one, two or three strikers.

The basic elements of a positional formation remain constant — width, superiority, defensive cover. Thus we would expect any kind of expansive positional attack to have players positioned on the wings to stretch the width, between the lines to create superiority behind lines of pressure, and close support range that can immediately offer defensive cover if the ball is lost. So how does categorizing expansive structures into low or high expansive help us?

Although the static occupation of zones on the pitch look similar in both systems, the dynamic movement of the players affects opposition structures differently. At a glance, we can see that in high expansive structures, players move outward from the top and tuck inside from the bottom. In low expansive structures, players move outward from the bottom and tuck inside from the top. In most game scenarios, opposition markers will track down players in their zones. Thereby, the movement of players create spaces than can be exploited by teammates. As a consequence, different movement of players are bound to create different spaces to be exploited. Let’s look at their nuances in detail with each type of structure:

Low expansive model

This type of positional attack is typical to a lot of teams from Spain. The fullbacks strive to push higher up as wingers and stretch the width. This draws the centrebacks out wider, and the central pivot drops deeper as the third centreback. The wingers tuck inside and either pin back the last line of defenders or play between the lines.

Fig. 2 Low expansive model

A lot of room opens up in the lower half spaces that needs to be occupied by central midfielders. Quite often we see the fullback pass on their defensive responsibility to a central midfielder who covers for them as they push higher. We often see creative playmakers building up the play from deeper where there is more space.

A consequence of facing low expansive structures is that the opposition tends to get more compact at the back line. The overlapping fullback adds superiority on the wide lane and, along with the inverting winger, creates a 2v1 overload for the opposition fullback. To balance this overload, the opposition winger is forced to track back and collapses onto the backline if he gets pinned positionally.

Fig. 3 Overload on the wide lane in a low expansive model

The backline gets compressed and the midfielders or wingers get spread out trying to defend the overloads on the wings. A 4–5–1 easily turns into a 5–4–1. This creates space in the middle which is why a creative player can thrive from deep. Sevilla during the 2019 season were a perfect example of this system with Jesus Navas, the RB pushing high up as an attacking player and Ever Banega having a lot of freedom to create plays from deep.

As the fullbacks push higher up in the wide channels, the centrebacks are drawn out and forced to defend wide spaces. This requires atleast one central midfielder to balance the distances between the centrebacks either by splitting them, or playing alongside them. This central midfielder is usually the pivot. Bringing the central midfielder out of the centre and onto the backline tends to sacrifice his qualities as a midfielder to beat markers with his body orientation, break lines of press by receiving on the farther foot and creating superiority in the middle. Instead the team relies more on his distribution in low expansive formations. Pay close attention to Busquets as he adapts to different systems Barcelona uses against different opponents.

Fig. 4 Barcelona vs Getafe from 2019–20 season demonstrating a low expansive model

Low expansive structures also affect the movement of the striker and the spaces that open up for a striker to exploit. As the opposition defensive structure gets compact, there is less room for a striker to make behind the defensive line of the opposition. A striker finds other players pinning back defenders and is often an excessive addition against the backline. A striker who can play as a false nine, however, can find a lot of opportunities to drop deeper and receive the ball as there are more spaces in the centre with the dispersion of the opposition to the wings. We frequently see Messi playing this role in the current Barcelona system (2020–21).

High expansive model

This system is more recent than the former, famously reinvented by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. The wingers tend to play a more traditional role of hugging the touchline. The central midfielders push up high and play between the lines, while the fullbacks invert and defend central spaces left by the midfielders.

Fig. 5 High expansive model

As the fullbacks invert and play more centrally, very often the centreback, in possession of the ball, looking to play around an opposition, finds the winger directly in the wide channel. It becomes a tempting prospect for the opposition fullback on the same side to track the winger dropping deep to receive the ball and apply pressure, because if the press is successful, the centreback could get easily isolated against a counter attack from the wide.

With no threat behind the fullback, he is free to neutralize the winger by closing down the space immediately. Thus, contrary to how low expansive structures tend to make the back line compact, high expansive structures tend to draw out the backline and disperse it.

Fig. 6 Spaces created between the defenders in a high expansive model

In such situations, an advanced midfielder looks to exploit the dispersed backline by making runs along the half spaces or inside channels. This makes the opposition vulnerable to through balls as the spaces open up at the back. How often have we seen these runs made by De Bruyne at Manchester City? If low expansive structures open up spaces in lower half spaces, high expansive structures create room in higher half spaces.

Another difference to low expansive structures is the room created for the striker. The striker has a lot more freedom to attack the spaces created by a shifting backline and can position himself anywhere along the line. However, for the central midfielders to successfully occupy spaces between the lines, he most often needs to pin back specific defenders in certain instances.

Fig. 7 Manchester City vs Schalke from the 2018–19 season demonstrating a high expansive model

The fullbacks need to be technically skilled to play in the centre as overloading the middle will tend to attract opposition midfielders to mark players. As the superiority is created in the middle, the spaces tend to open up on the wide areas, especially on the opposite flank. There needs to be a winger positioned on the opposite touchline ready for the switch as an overload is created on one side.

“Low expansive structures tend to make the back line compact, high expansive structures tend to draw out the backline and disperse it.”


This categorization is conceptual and based on logical interpretation of how spaces are created. Actual game scenarios tend to be a lot more complex. Team structures nowadays tend to be asymmetric even, having an overlapping fullback on one wing, and an inverted fullback on the other. The decision making involves the qualities and characteristics of players more than merely tactical reasoning.

Fig. 8 A summary of both models

If you notice, both these systems create a 3-at-the-back framework in two different ways. I deliberately chose the 4-man defence systems to explain these models, not to infer that 3-man defence systems are inflexible, but rather the oversimplified assumption that a 3–5–2 is inherently expansive with the dynamic role of wingbacks. Tactical intricacies to a 3-man-defence is not only possible based on concepts like superiorities and overloads, but commonly utilized by many teams like those of Tuchel, Conte and Nagelsmann.

Although conceptual, this categorization hopes to provide clues on opponent behavior based on which model we chose to attack with. The spaces that open up by virtue of a team’s formation is a consequence of small-sided games that play out in different zones of the pitch, a small example of which I demonstrated earlier in both models. The infinite possibilities and combinations are what makes the tactical framework of the game interesting.