Graham Potter's biggest Brighton achievement yet...but the next challenge could be keeping him
You don’t need to go too far back to when serious questions were being asked about Graham Potter.
Performances were often pretty good during his first two seasons in charge but the return of points was not. Albion' s fan base were divided on project Potter-ball.
One such afternoon last February at West Brom, Albion missed two penalties and numerous chances and somehow left the Hawthorns on the end of 1-0 reverse.
Potter was then 18 months into the job, they were just four points above the drop and in another nerve-jangling scrap. After the bizarre West Brom result – and after a season and half of Potter-ball – it was still tough to fathom whether Potter and his Albion team were the unluckiest in Premier League history or if something was fundamentally wrong.
The answer was somewhere in the middle. Brighton of course went on to secure their Premier League status for a fifth consecutive season and have started this campaign in impressive fashion. After seven matches, Albion are a lofty sixth with 14 points and just two adrift of leaders Chelsea.
“So what’s changed?” Is the question most regularly put to Potter over the last couple of weeks. The Albion head coach often points to “the fine margins” now working in their favour. And to a certain degree that is true. Burnley and Brentford should have buried Albion in the first half but Potter’s men hit back with late winners at Turf Moor and the Brentford Community Stadium.
Leicester was also a lucky break as VAR chipped in with a hat-trick of generous assists. These results have all contributed heavily to Albion’s fast start but so too has their extra resilience and team spirit.
Albion are no longer a soft touch who cave in after a period of pressure. Potter’s less-risky tactics allow them to stay in the matches for longer periods and when chances do come their way, the conversion rate has greatly improved.
The Potter project is now into it’s third year and it has allowed a relationship to develop not only between players but also with player and manager. Both are more assured of their roles.
Another key factor was streamlining the squad during the summer transfer window. The head coach was working with a huge first team squad last season, many of whom – such as Percy Tau, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Florin Andone and Jose Izquierdo – were good players but would struggle to deliver on a regular basis in the Premier League.
Contract situations made it tricky to move the players along but it can prove just a important as bringing new players in.
The group dynamic has improved. The experienced pros of Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy, Adam Lallana, Joel Veltman and Pascal Gross have consistently performed to a high level while Yves Bissouma, Leo Trossard and Neal Maupay are playing their best football in Albion shirts.
And pushing these are Steven Alzate, Alexis Mac Allister, Aaron Connolly and Tariq Lamptey and then, behind them, are the talented Carabao kids.
It has taken time, nerve, patience and mostly sound decisions from Dan Ashworth, Paul Barber Tony Bloom and Potter – and fans are now starting to see the benefit. When the club offered Potter a new contract after just a few months in charge, it caught many by surprise.
Clearly the board liked what they saw in the early stages and backed their instincts with a new deal for their head coach.
There have been tricky times since and fans were divided on Potter – especially when his points return was roughly the same as the ever-popular Chris Hughton.
There was also a dismal home run that saw them win just once in 14 at the Amex and a return to the Championship was a genuine danger.
Fans were voicing their frustrations on social media and calling for him to go as a definite for and against diveded the fan base.
Dismissing Potter was never seriously considered by those in power – Brighton are far more stable than a Watford or a Tottenham – but had they parted company, many would have agreed.That divide has now gone and the club appear to be at that magical point where it’s all moving in the same direction.
The vast majority are fully sold on the Potter project. Much of that is of course down to the fickle nature of results but Potter has more than earned this change in fortune. Now when he’s linked to a Spurs, Man United or even England, it’s very much a case of, “hey, he’s ours, back off.”...How quickly things change!
It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine Potter and the FA being a good match in future. Potter is rarely controversial, speaks well and is a progressive coach. Despite a limited budget, numerous injuries and covid, he has managed to improve individuals and created an environment that has improved this Albion team no-end.
His empathetic handling of the Duffy situation also proved his man-management skills.
Duffy’s Premier League career appeared over but the Ireland international is playing the best of his career. Brighton at last look an established top-flight outfit.
They may not stay as high as sixth but they can continue to punch above their weight.
Now if Potter can just get Jurgen Locadia scoring again, Brighton will know for sure they have a very special manager on their hands.