The 2019/20 season has to go into the books as a success for Brighton, after Graham Potter led the Seagulls to a 15th place finish.
It wasn’t just that they’d finished 15th, something they’d also accomplished under Chris Hughton in 2017/18, it was how they did it. Potter replaced Hughton after a 17th place finish in 2018/19 and was tasked with bringing a more attractive brand of football to the Amex.
Hughton had brought Brighton into the Premier League for the first time, and kept them up in back to back seasons, playing a defensive style of football. It’s an effective style, and quite commonly used, but it puts a limit on what a team can accomplish. Brighton have shown real ambition in the transfer market since gaining promotion, and the move to replace Hughton with Potter was a further sign of that.
Potter wants to play expansive football, he wants Brighton to build from the back and have a real identity. He wants to turn Brighton from a Burnley-type to a Bournemouth-type team but with a much better defensive base. And then he wants to put his own twist on things. He wants his team to be flexible, and able to adapt to different formations at a moments notice.
Brighton lined up in 13 different formations last season across their 38 Premier League games, and that doesn’t include the in-game switches that Potter employed. The lined up in both 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 on eight occasions, and used a back four 23 occasions. In the other 15 games, they used multiple variations of a back three.
The back three could be about to become a more frequent part of life at The Amex next season as Ben White, so impressive on loan at Leeds last season, looks to sign a new contract and commit his future to Brighton. Turning down multiple large bids for White must have been difficult, but it is the right thing to do.
While Leeds are a bigger traditional club than Brighton, Brighton are more established as a Premier League club right now. Brighton should be looking to use their best assets to build their own future rather than assisting Leeds in adapting to the league. White is the most promising young English central defender around right now and if he has a couple of good years in the top flight, they could demand a fee of over three times what Leeds have offered.
White should step into the backline alongside captain Lewis Dunk and the impressive Adam Webster, all three are right footed so it’s not a perfect fit but Webster is very versatile and has played left back in the past so he’s probably the best option of the three. Dunk is the obvious pick to play the central role, leaving White as the right sided defender.
That back three should have the ideal blend of pace, defensive awareness, reading of the game and communication to gel quickly and form a formidable backline, and White will add a new facet to Brighton’s game with his ability to carry the ball out of defense.
Shane Duffy looks set to leave Brighton, with both West Ham and Celtic interested in acquiring the Irishman, but Brighton would still have newly acquired Dutch international Joel Veltman and the versatile Dan Burn to offer depth behind the starting trio.
Tariq Lamptey and Bernardo, Brighton’s options at right back are more suited to being utilized as wingbacks than fullbacks, so another benefit of a move to a back 3 should be that both of them see significant development in their game.
Left-back appears to be a pressing need, Dan Burn has filled in admirably but he’s a centre back by nature and asking him to operate as a wingback every week might be a step too far. Youngster Alex Cochrane might be ready to step up into a back-up role, and Bernardo can fill in when needed, but a starting leftback must surely a priority. Rico Henry’s name has been linked with a host of Premier League clubs, including Brighton, and he’s highly the perfect option.
A pacey, attack minded player with good defensive instincts, Henry is the right age and profile to fit into Potter’s team and make an instant impact. It remains to be seen how expensive he is, but reports have suggested a fee ranging from £8mil to £12mil. To get a long term solution at a position of need, that would represent good business for Brighton.
Henry would complete a talented defense, a back five full of potential internationals. Dunk is already more than good enough to play for England, Webster and White aren’t far off and given the lack of quality left back options, Henry could easily find his way into the squad once he’s a Premier League regular. Lamptey will have the toughest time because of the sheer volume of competition but he has the option of switching his allegiance to Ghana.
The one question mark at the back for Brighton is who backs up Mat Ryan. Jason Steele is not of the required standard but maybe Christian Walton is ready to step up after spending most of the past four seasons on loan. If not, then it’s probably time to sell him and look to add a quality reliable goalkeeper. Loris Karius is available from Liverpool for around £5million, he’s a similar style of keeper to Ryan and could be a smart addition.
It remains to be seen how Potter will set up his midfield but he has plenty of options at his disposal, even after the somewhat surprising departure of Aaron Mooy.
Davy Propper, Yves Bissouma, Steven Alzate and Pascal Gros are all quality players, with a nice mix of age. Dale Stephens is an experienced, reliable veteran and Jayson Molumba is a promising youngster who impressed on loan at Millwall last season. If Potter decides to play with two central midfielders and an attacking 10 behind two strikers, then Brighton are well stocked in the central midfield area, and have multiple options in attacking midfield.
Gros can play there, new signing Adam Lallana is best suited to playing there, Leandro Trossard and Sully March could both play there. The hope surely though, will be that Alexis Mac Allister establishes himself in that role this season and begins to show the quality and potential he has. Signing Mac Allister was a huge coup for Brighton, he’s a player of immense creative talent and someone they can build around.
Propper and Bissouma behind Mac Allister would have a lovely balance to it, especially when flanked by attacking wingbacks. It would have creativity, control, experience, youthful enthusiasm, pace, ballwinning ability and plenty of fight to it. With a solid back 3 behind them, they would have more confidence in attack as well.
The big question marks lies upfront.
Neal Maupay is more of a second striker, or inside forward, than an out and out number 9. He’s very good at what he does and gets his fair share of goals, but he can’t be relied on to do it all himself. The other options available to Potter are; Aaron Connolly, a bustly energetic forward who’s similar stylistically to Maupay, and Leandro Trossard who’s naturally a winger.
Brighton have tried a number of times to address their goalscoring woes multiple times by swinging for the fences in the transfer market. Unfortunately for them Jose Izquierdo, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Jurgen Locadia have not worked out for them. Those failed signings likely played a part in Hughton’s departure from Brighton.
Izquierdo and Jahanbakhsh can still be useful squad players, both are versatile and can be used in different ways. And both are undeniably good players. Jahanbakhsh in particular has shown the potential to be a huge goal contributor. In his final season at AZ Alkmaar he scored 21 goals, the most in the Eredivisie, and contributed 12 assists, tied for third most in the league. He finally scored his first goal for Brighton last season but featured in only 10 Premier League games.
Brighton have made it clear they are interested in bringing in some help in attack this summer and, along with left back, it’s their biggest area of need.
The two names most prominently linked thus far are Darwin Nunez of Almeria and Nicolas Gonzalaz of Stuttgart.
Nunez is the more natural number 9 of the two, and is coming off an impressive season in the Segunda Division where he bagged 16 goals. He has excellent pace, is physically strong and shows excellent movement. The timing of his runs to latch on to throughballs is particularly impressive, and he’s more than capable at dropping off to collect the ball, facing up a defender and beating them 1v1. Confidence shines through in his game and he looks like the type of player who would adapt well to the Premier League.
Brighton face competition for his signing from Benfica, apparently the favourites for his signature and spending big this summer. At the time of writing Nunez does look set to head to Portugal but Brighton going for a player like Nunez shows the right type of ambition.
Gonzales is a slightly different style of play, more a second striker or inside forward, but he’s no less talented. He had been linked to Leeds United but they opted for Rodrigo instead. Gonzales is close friends with Alexis Mac Allister which could help the south coast club secure his signature.
Gonzales scored 14 goals in the 2 Bundesliga last season to help Stuttgart gain promotion but he offers far more than just goals. He’s at his best when allowed to drop off and collect the ball deep, and use his pace and dribbling ability to beat defenders and open up the play. He’s similar is style to some of Brighton’s existing attackers, though has the talent ceiling to be better than all of them.
Ideally, Brighton would buy both. They have the budget to do so, and added such a pairing to Trossard and Maupay would give them an exciting forward group. Through in the creativity of Mac Allister behind them and Brighton would become a real top half contender. Strong at the back, functional and versatile in midfield, and creative and potentially lethal in attack.
Gonzales feels like the more likely signing of the two, given reports out of Portugal that Nunez wants to join Benfica. So Brighton may need to look for an alternative number 9 option. Ollie Watkins of Brentford would make sense, though Aston Villa seem to have the inside track on him. Callum Wilson would have offered something different, but equally as effective. A target man type who can link play and bring others into the game, but also has good movement and decent pace.
The idea of a target man, a younger Glenn Murray, could lead them to look at Wout Weghorst of Wolfsburg. Weghorst is a consistent goalscorer who’s a great target man, brilliant at holding the ball up and linking play, and is a clever consistent finisher. There are shades of Peter Crouch about his game, given his height and surprisingly nimble feet. Like Crouch he’s much more than just someone to aim long balls at, and that’s ideal for Potter. Weghorst could occupy defenders and link well with the quick movement of people like Mac Allister, Maupay, Trossard and Gonzelez if he arrives. With 98 goals across his last five seasons, Weghorst is more than capable of being a 15 goal a season striker in the Premier League, in addition to making plenty of opportunities for others.
An alternative could be Nunez’ compatriot Maxi Gomez, of Valencia. Gomez is coming off a slightly disappointing first season for Los Che, though he did manage 10 goals in La Liga. He’s a strong, bustling player with great instincts in and around the penalty box. With Valencia having major financial difficulties, they might be open to a deal for the young Uruguayan.
Brighton spent close to £70million last season on Trossard, Maupay, Webster, Mooy and Lamptey, the same the season before on Bernardo, Andone, Bissouma, Jahanbakhsh, Burn, Montoya and Mac Allister, and a similar amount in 17/18 on Gros, Ryan, Propper, Isquierdo and Locadia.
They have not tried to do things on the cheap. They’ve shown real ambition and spent money year after year, all without having to sell off any of their best players. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that they could spend somewhere in the £50mil-60mil range again this summer, especially as they’ve already brought in a substantial sum of money for Anthony Knockaert.
Players like Loris Karius, Rico Henry, Nicolas Gonzalez and Wout Weghorst or Maxi Gomez would represent another show of real ambition for a team with a talented core, a tactically innovative manager and a fanbase who have supported this team through thick and thin.
If Brighton continue to be ambitious, if their players continue to develop and if Potter continues to innovate and grow as a manager, a top half finish becomes a real possibility for the Seagulls.