2020 has all but concluded. While it has been an arduous year for everyone, Graham Potter can enter 2021 with renewed optimism. Fans are back at The Amex, and he has coached his team into playing some totalitarian football. Brighton & Hove Albion look much, much better than their current league standing, sitting in 16th position.
He is building top-flight experience after his endeavours in Sweden with Östersund and in the Championship with Swansea City. His focus on progressing the ball from the back and through the full-backs has underpinned his tactics at every club he has managed. Adjustments have been made along the way, but his progressive style of play has remained present throughout.
In the 2020/21 Premier League season, the main alteration has been in the form of a permanent switch to a back three system. Now, this structure changes by the week, but playing with a back four seems like a thing of the past for Potter. In this analysis, we will cover how switching permanently to a back three has benefitted Brighton, but also the potential concerns it raises as well.
In this tactical analysis, we will take a deep dive into Potter’s tactical setup and philosophy, how he gets the best out of his key players, and where his side is currently letting him down. Let’s go.
As we mentioned above, Brighton are currently sat in 16th place in the Premier League, but their performances have been, simply put, much greater than this. Expected Points has them down as deserving of an 8th place position at the moment. So, what are Potter’s side doing right, and where are they going wrong?
Firstly, they have a superb defensive structure. They rank 2nd in the league for xGA with 9.9, only currently sitting behind Manchester City at the moment of writing. They typically operate with two robust central midfielders who can put in a shift defensively, particularly Yves Bissouma to cover the defensive line and force play down the flanks where they will find two wing-backs fully capable in the tackle. Much like Man City last term, when the defensive structure is broken down, typically chances of golden value are conceded, which Mat Ryan has not done much to help prevent.
In terms of build-up and chance creation, Brighton also have a healthy rank in this regard. Potter’s side have made 343 progressive passes (6th in the league) and 99 passes into the penalty area (5th in the league), which has generated an npxG of 10.5 (10th in the league). These are all stats which are at least league average to very good, and the only reason their xG is not higher could be put down to a lack of anticipation within their attackers, who sometimes do not make the runs which the wing-backs’ crosses demand.
Finally, when it comes to their finishing, Brighton are about pretty much on par with their xG, with 14 actual goals compared to 13.5 Expected Goals, but their main man up front, Neal Maupay, is having another season of underperformance so far. He has four goals from his 5.6 xG which is not an awful underperformance, but he is not as consistent as Brighton have needed him to be so far this season, which has been reflected in their league performance.
Brighton’s most commonly used formation and starting XI.
Potter is an adaptive coach and changes his sides to match the opposition. However, this season and at the moment writing, he has chosen a 3-4-3 formation, but in recent weeks he has opted for a 3-5-2 with variance (e.g., a 3-5-1-1). They will defend in a 5-2-3 formation, with the wing-backs dropping back to provide defensive cover. His underlying tactical tenets throughout all formations is his adaptability, emphasis on keeping possession of the ball, moving the ball swiftly, and intelligent positioning.
As of the restart back in June, Martín Montoya was replaced by Tariq Lamptey, who carries much more attacking threat. Montoya looked to play the ball into the wide areas or down the channels for a midfielder or striker to move wide towards. The Spaniard did get forward, and his crosses were more frequently from a deeper position in the right half-space as a result of several quick passes, rather than a burst into space.
Inside Brighton’s half, White looks to play the ball towards Lamptey on the wing.
Inside Chelsea’s half, Lamptey can drive down the flank, forcing the opposition’s defensive line to backpedal.
Lamptey is quicker and more direct than his counterpart and he can get back to cover because of his speed, something Montoya could not do, which kept him in deeper positions. Lamptey is also able to stay wider as Brighton’s back three can space across the pitch and he does not have to tuck in as much. This is especially the case with Ben White, who is excellent at defending in wide areas and in bringing the ball out of Brighton’s back three.
This means Lamptey generally has more space to run into, and because he is a better dribbler who can cross from far more dangerous zones, Brighton’s midfield runners can continue to run vertically, rather than drift wide to take a line pass. As a result, Potter’s side are much more of a threat down the right side.
In this zone, Lamptey can breeze past Alonso with his deceptive footwork, and aim for Maupay in the box with a driven cross.
White has also given Brighton another dimension. His ability to offer a vertical passing option from the right half-space means that Brighton’s midfield pairing can push up a bit higher, or stagger, meaning that one can stay in line with White, whilst the other can roam forward and form a diamond with the other attackers. White can also find Leandro Trossard with vertical passes or switch play to the left-hand side where March can attack open space which has been vacated.
The two main issues Brighton currently have defensively is dealing with balls into the box and an underperforming goalkeeper. Potter likes his side to force their opponents into wide areas. This is particularly the case with Lamptey in the side, with his extraordinary recovery pace becoming a really useful asset to have in the defensive phase. However, if the diminutive wing-back is beaten, crosses are sent into the Brighton box, and their organisation in these situations is below par.
In a sort-of zonal-marking system, Brighton neglect Nemanja Matić in space, and Harry Maguire’s clever movement backwards keeps him onside for an easy tap-in for United.
Despite Adam Webster being a very good centre-back on the ball, he fumbles here aerially, allowing Dominic Calvert-Lewin to leap and reach the lobbed cross into the box for a goal.
Potter likes his team’s backline to drop off when in possession. While he operates a high line of engagement, we have seen his sides opt to stay deep when in possession of the ball, which could be due to a lack of speed within the backline. This means that his team is rarely troubled on the break, unless it is from a set-piece scenario. This helps when contending with fast players, and there just so happens to be a few of those in the league.
Largely, Brighton are still a really solid defensive unit. The main concern is that Mathew Ryan in goal has been conceding at a high enough rate where young keeper Robert Sánchez is being given a chance in between the sticks. Ryan has had issues with long-range efforts that he should have the time to anticipate and prevent. With this being something that Potter cannot control, his managerial acumen should not be damaged by it.
This fluidity extends to the forward line, where their attackers complement Brighton’s deeper build-up. In a 3-4-3, Potter will choose forwards who are mobile and quick, capable of smooth interchanges. Leandro Trossard can move infield to create an attacking triangle, which opens up space for Lamptey’s forays down the right.
Trossard is the most likely of the attackers to hang back and attempt through balls into the path of one of the forwards. This creates more of a 3-2-3-2 formation in the attacking phase, with the wing-backs pushing higher, and Trossard dropping deeper.
Here we see Trossard coming into a central area, drawing the attention of Allain Saint-Maximin to allow space for Lamptey down the right-wing.
Potter coaches attackers into astute pressers, or purchases ones that already are. Maupay, especially, has an aggressive quality which is difficult to coach, and even harder to defend. Under Potter, there is now less of a sense that one striker is leading the line, rather a fluid unit that works the channels, drops off, and is supported centrally by runners from deep.
In transition, Brighton will either play quite long, using the strong passing skills they have at the back and the movement of the aggressive running of their forwards. Or they will build-up play down the centre using short, quick passes and use the wide areas too. Both methods of play require quick passing and dynamic running off the ball. After a year of learning his system, Potter largely knows his starting XI, and those players understand what is required to succeed under his management.
Dunk, inside Brighton’s half, spots Connolly dropping into space, which triggers another Brighton attacker to run into the channel.
Connolly chests the ball down to Trossard, who carries it with two Brighton men in support of a fluid counter-attack.
Brighton have a couple of main issues going forward, namely Trossard’s preference to shuttle inside, and Maupay’s somewhat underwhelming finishing. When Trossard moves infield, he ends up in a far more congested area, but he struggles to beat a man in tight spaces. Now, attackers lose possession a lot, but Trossard seems to lose it at a higher rate than usual, with little reward for his efforts, as shown in his goal contributions.
When it comes to Maupay, we have a fantastic player with bundles of energy, but his finishing inside the box can be frustrating to watch. While he is great in tight spaces, and his blind-sided runs are superb, sometimes he can fluff his lines by powering his shots wide of the post. Sometimes you feel like it is a lack of composure, and he is certainly a ‘form’ striker, so once he does hit his stride, do not expect him to stop.
Through on goal, Maupay strikes the ball into the body of the keeper, when he would have had a much greater chance of scoring at the near post.
Potter’s key positions
All players on the pitch have a purpose, but some, for Potter, more so than others. If we had to choose three positions on the pitch, it would have to be a wing-back, a centre-back, and the striker (aka, the focal point). Play will begin with one of the centre-backs, build-up through one of the wing-backs, and coordinate their attacks around their focal point striker upfront.
In a back three, Brighton’s three centre-backs drop deep and spread wide to receive the ball short. The two outside centre-backs (this season, typically Adam Webster and White) on the ball will look to play a quick, short pass into the feet of the closest central midfielder, who will swiftly dispatch it on towards the wing-back. Or the wide centre-backs will look to play the ball down the line directly to the wing-back.
The central centre-back, typically Lewis Dunk, is normally used as the more direct passing option. Dunk regularly drives forward into the midfield and sprays passes into the final third, with good success. Maupay or Danny Welbeck can drop into space and collect these long passes, dragging defenders with them, creating space for another attacker to exploit.
On the ball, White looks to pass into the feet of Bissouma, which bypasses a layer of opposition press in one pass.
Now, when the wing-backs collect the ball, both March and Lamptey are very direct in progressing it. They both mainly play simple one-twos between themselves and the midfield to get beyond the opposition’s line of pressure. They are both very capable dribblers, frequently using that to resist opposition pressure as well. As we explained earlier, play will often begin on the left with March, before a bait-and-switch mechanic will occur in the final third to find Lamptey in dangerous wide areas in space.
When Lamptey enters these dangerous areas, he often opts to drive into the penalty area with his tricky feet to win a penalty or play a straightforward cut-back. These carries into the box with the ball at his feet are extremely disruptive and do a lot to help Brighton create high-quality chances inside the box.
Racing into the box, Lamptey is too fast for his opponent, Bruno Fernandes, who clumsily collides into the 20-year-old to concede a penalty.
He can also slow down his run before he reaches the penalty area, aiming to find the run of one of Brighton’s attackers. Maupay’s blind-sided runs are perfect for this attacking approach, all it requires is a calm and composed first-time strike, which is sometimes harder than it looks.
Potter has tweaked and tested with three attacker and two striker systems, and these both work fairly differently. With two up top, it requires more effort from his strikers in the build-up phase, with both forwards regularly required to drop back and contribute to the attack through their short-medium passing. That or one of the strikers will drop deep while the other continues their run in behind to create a chance on goal.
Veltman collects the ball and plays the vertical pass into Maupay, who has dropped deep into a pocket of space. From here, he can pass into Dunk to progress the ball forwards.
In a three-man attack, the right-sided forward will be asked to drop in behind the other two men and play through passes into the penalty area. The left-sided forward will usually do the most off-the-ball work out of the three, leading the press, and making the dynamic movements in and around the box to create space.
By this point, there can be no doubting Potter’s coaching ability. First and foremost, he attracts talented players to The Amex, more so than Chris Hughton ever had the potential to. His progressive style of play draws in young, exciting players to garner more playing time in a top league.
His systems change from game to game, but the underpinning tactical concepts remain – build up through the wide areas via quick, short passes, and look to find the dynamic and mobile striker in the penalty area. At this stage, Brighton’s good performances will eventually turn into good results, and when this happens, we can expect to see his name linked with some of Europe’s top clubs, and even further in the future, potentially a call to international management.