How bizarre for Brighton to finish this season, one in which it gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time in its history, with the taste of disappointment.
But that’s exactly what’s happened.
If you’d offered a Brighton fan a second place finish at the start of the year, or even in February, they’d be stupid to not take the deal. But after the Seagulls secured promotion on April 17 with a seven-point lead over preseason favorite Newcastle, the title was almost assuredly theirs.
What followed their promotion was riotous and jovial celebration. Their objective had been realized. But what followed THAT was one point from their final three matches and a feeling that maybe the team isn’t quite the juggernaut that many thought.
Personally, I thought that the team that outpaced Newcastle over 43 matches was ready to compete in the top flight of English football. It would be nice to add another weapon here and there on the roster, but by and large, I thought they were ready.
What that final slide has done is prove that Brighton still play like a Championship-quality club. And that’s fine! The roster was built with the idea they’d be competing at the Championship level. They were a top Championship club all season. What’s important now is adding the necessary pieces to turn into a Premier League-quality club.
Brighton’s defense was it’s strongest asset with Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy as arguably the best pair of centre backs in the Championship, and David Stockdale its best keeper (though he may be off to a new club next season). Whatever happens at goalkeeper, surely Dunk, Duffy, and a talented, if not spectacular crew of full backs will be enough to hold a firm back line.
If I were in charge of making this team Premier League-ready, I’m reengineering the midfield. Anthony Knockaert is a weapon on the wing, but it seemed like the team had to force him the ball and rely on his magic to manufacture goals. That won’t fly next season. They’ll need to change strategy.
The flat 4-4-2 is a fine formation for one of the best teams in the Championship, but in the Premier League, more talented teams will exploit the rigid and limited ball movement options. Even this season, it was difficult to get the ball upfield unless Knockaert had possession or a full back found some open space. Moving to a more fluid formation and adding some talent in the midfield will create more options to get into attacking positions. Adding another talented striker will keep opponents’ center backs on their heels and open space for center mids to move forward.
For example, if Brighton moved to a 4-4-2 diamond, all of a sudden there are more options on the offensive. Moving Knockaert or perhaps even the powerful-legged Solly March up behind the strikers gives you a real threat right in the middle of your opponent’s defense.
Finding space for the rest of the midfield rotation players is more difficult, and ideally, this is where you’d bring in new players more familiar with the formation. It’s easy to say they’ll find talented players that will fit into the tactics and culture of your team, but difficult to do. But buying players is what happens when clubs are promoted and their budgets increase.
This is just an idea for a formation change, albeit one that I think would work well. It would allow us to keep the same shape in the back and add another defensive specialist sweeper while still adding more complex options in the attack. Knockaert won’t be able to take on three defenders by himself in the Premier League and Murray won’t have many looks as clean as he did this year. Chances will need to be created in different ways if the Seagulls are to avoid immediate relegation. We knew this before, but with the way the team finished their Championship campaign, it’s even more apparent.