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.
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.