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Brighton and Hove Albion: Are The Seagulls Really Just Sitting Ducks?

 

When Graham Potter replaced Chris Hughton, the man who had propelled Brighton to the Premier League for the first time in their history, it was with the long-term goal of establishing the club as a top-ten side. A year and a half later, the Seagulls sit just above the relegation zone embroiled in another fight for survival. Yet, the underlying numbers suggest safety shouldn’t even be a concern. So, what’s going wrong?

By: Jon Manuel

Currently, Brighton are 17th in the table with 14 points having scored 21 and conceded 28 goals. To get a better understanding of the chances created and conceded we can first look at the Expected Goals (xG) table for this season.

The Expected Table:

TeamxGxGAxGDActual League Position
Liverpool32.618.314.31
Manchester City25.613.212.55
Chelsea27.816.311.59
Aston Villa27.217.110.18
Brighton and Hove Albion25.018.66.417
Manchester United26.920.86.12
Leicester City25.720.65.23
Tottenham Hotspur22.918.54.44
Arsenal23.221.02.211
West Ham United22.021.80.210
Everton22.522.6-0.17
Leeds United28.330.2-1.912
Southampton16.819.1-2.26
Fulham18.022.0-3.918
Wolverhampton Wanderers17.222.1-4.913
Burnley14.220.2-6.016
Newcastle United1622.9-6.815
Crystal Palace17.125.7-8.614
Sheffield United16.725.7-9.020
West Bromwich Albion9.834.1-24.319

(Including penalties, excluding own goals. xGD is the difference between xG and xGA.) 

Rather than simply looking at the number of goals scored and conceded, Expected Goals allows us to assess the quality of all shots taken and faced to better determine the value of the chances within all of Brighton’s games. The table suggests Potter’s side have a solid offensive record, producing chances worth 25.0 xG, whilst maintaining an excellent defensive one, boasting an Expected Goals Against (xGA) of just 18.6. Albion are expected to have scored 6.4 more goals than conceded, placing them fifth in this ‘Expected League’.

The reality is far bleaker, as they’ve conceded six more goals than they have scored. Even more concerning is the issue that Brighton have underperformed both offensively, scoring 5.3 fewer non-penalty goals than expected, and defensively, conceding 6.1 more non-penalty goals than expected.

Let’s look at both aspects and try to identify how and where these underperformances arise.

In Attack:

To begin, let’s look at Albion’s offensive issues. With a non-penalty xG (NPxG) of 20.3, Brighton are mid-table in terms of the quality of chances they create. The main offensive threats are their three forwards – Neal Maupay, Danny Welbeck and Aaron Connolly – and the roaming Belgian attacker Leandro Trossard. Together, they account for just over half of Albion’s open-play shots and 69% percent of their open-play xG.

Looking at the quality of the chances being taken, those of the three forwards are consistently good, particularly Neal Maupay whose 0.42 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes played places him within the top ten in the Premier League (of those to have played at least 500 minutes). That’s better than some big names such as Harry Kane, Mo Salah and Son.

The exception is Trossard. With just 0.06 xG per shot it is clear he is a fan of a more speculative effort and, having taken the second-most shots of anyone in the team, it may be worth asking whether it is sometimes better to pass than shoot.

Nevertheless, this does not explain the xG underperformance. This becomes clearer when we look at the number of goals each player has scored compared to their Expected Goals.

Struggling near the bottom is Neal Maupay. Having scored 2.2 fewer goals than expected – the fifth-worst deficit in the league – and accounting for a third of Brighton’s non-penalty xG deficit, Maupay finds himself in a rut. Connolly has also underperformed, although nothing like Maupay. On the other hand, this season’s addition Danny Welbeck has had a reasonable start, scoring about as well as expected. However, both Welbeck and Connolly (although the latter to a lesser extent) fail to reproduce the quality of chances Maupay provides.

What is clear is that Maupay remains Brighton’s main goal threat. If he can begin converting from the good positions he finds himself in then that will go a long way to healing Brighton’s offensive woes. But that is a big if.

In Defense:

On top of decent offensive numbers, the Seagulls also appear to be incredibly defensively solid, conceding just 146 non-penalty shots with a total of 13.9 non-penalty Expected Goals Against – the second-best record in the league!

Yet, when we look at the actual number of goals conceded – 20 excluding own goals and penalties – they have conceded 6.1 more non-penalty goals than expected, the worst underperformance in the league. One may then suspect that while Brighton don’t concede many chances, when they do they are dangerous ones. However, 0.10 non-penalty xG per shot conceded is middle-of-the-road for the Premier League and would suggest otherwise.

So, what’s happening? Things become a little clearer when we examine goalkeeping performances. Mat Ryan, Albion’s ever-present between the posts since being promoted, has had a terrible season – so bad that Robert Sánchez has seemingly become the new number one. To understand the shot-stopping performance of a goalkeeper we can compare their goals conceded to their Expected Goals On Target (xGOT) – a metric that considers the characteristics of an on-target shot once it has been taken.

Ryan has conceded over five more non-penalty goals than expected (excluding own goals) and has the worst rate in the league, conceding 1.61 goals for every 1 expected. This is not far off single-handedly accounting for Brighton’s defensive xG underperformance.

Improvement in this area could go a long way in Brighton’s fight for survival and Sánchez so far seems to be offering that. Only time can tell whether that will be enough.

A Word on Yves Bissouma

Despite all this doom and gloom, things aren’t all bad. One standout this season has been Yves Bissouma – a player rumoured to be attracting the attention of some of Europe’s elite. Having missed just one of Brighton’s Premier League matches so far – and starting every one he has played – Bissouma has become an integral part of the team. Often as one half of a deeper midfield two, he has a highly active defensive style perhaps best demonstrated by 49 attempted tackles this season – a total only bested by Premier League veterans Oriol Romeu and N’golo Kanté.

Primarily, he serves to win and establish possession. Having started the most open-play sequences for Albion this season, Bissouma is adept at regaining possession and recovering the ball, and has become nothing short of essential for Potter’s side. At just 24 years of age, it is no wonder he is attracting attention.

Naturally, he isn’t perfect. He is well acquainted with the yellow card – perhaps the territory that just comes with the role – and does not shy away from an ambitious effort, taking 12 shots from open-play with an average of 0.03 xG per shot. Nevertheless, Bissouma is crucial to the Seagulls this season and will have an important role to play going into its second half – if they can keep hold of him.

Summary

The story of Brighton’s season so far has been good performances without the results. It is clear they have struggled to take their own chances while gifting opponents theirs. The Seagulls will have to hope the emergence of Sánchez in goal is enough to support their excellent defensive numbers. The solution to their offensive troubles most likely lies with Neal Maupay finding his finishing boots – and quickly. If things don’t improve – and the pressure is already beginning to mount – then the process itself, and perhaps the Potter project, starts to be questioned. Nevertheless, the underlying numbers are good and this should provide hope for those who wish to see the Seagulls flying high once again.


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