Were Brighton Right To Sack Hughton?

Coming the day after the final game of the season, it was quite surprising to see Chris Hughton had been sacked as manager at Brighton & Hove Albion. He kept them in the Premier League for the second season and even when they were on a poor run of form, it never felt as though he was in danger of losing his job.

Judging from my Twitter timeline when he was sacked, the reaction was somewhat mixed.

Quite a few people felt as though the decision was harsh, given Hughton had taken the club into the Premier League and kept them there, while others mentioned how the club had suffered some poor form, winning just 3 of their last 23.

Personally, I think Brighton made the right decision and it’s even better they made the decision early. With this in mind, I thought I’d look at why I think Brighton made the right choice and what could change with the newly appointed Graham Potter.

Downward Spiral

As previously mentioned, Brighton had an incredibly poor second half of the season, with only Huddersfield taking less points than them.

In 2019 Brighton’s only wins came in consecutive games in March, against Huddersfield and Crystal Palace. Their home win against Huddersfield was their only one in 2019, after winning five of ten in 2018.

It’s not even something that can be blamed on schedule, with only 2 of their last 9 home games against top six sides, while home matches against fellow strugglers Huddersfield, Cardiff, Southampton, Burnley, Bournemouth and Newcastle all came in the second half of the season – yet the Seagulls only took 4 of a possible 18 points from these sides.

Away from home they were also poor, winning just three games and taking the third least points in the division, but did manage 7 points against the bottom 7 sides, marginally better than the 3 they took at home.

Brighton’s form against the other lower sides seems to be one of the most disappointing parts of their season.

Against the bottom 7 (not including themselves, so Newcastle in 13th and down) they took 12 points from a possible 42, it’s not even a point per game. They did the double over Huddersfield, so six points came from them, which means they only managed 6 points from a possible 36 from the rest. Half a point per game against other teams in the relegation battle really isn’t good enough.

Their conservative style of play seemed to pay off better against top half sides, with Brighton’s home record being 4-2-4 against the top 10 – the losses coming only to the top four – compared to 2-3-4 against the bottom nine.

Looking into Brighton’s underlying numbers doesn’t make their season look any better. It’s not as though they had a poor record because of some kind of misfortune.

Brighton’s xGD placed them in the 17th spot they finished, while their xG and actual goal numbers were around the same at both ends of the field. Their xG against was the 5th worst in the division, while their xG was the 2nd worst, behind only Huddersfield. Brighton’s xG for was the 4th worst in Europe’s top five leagues last season.

Brighton play defensively, which makes the lack of attacking production unsurprising, but, despite the defensive style, even their defensive numbers aren’t good, having the 12th worst xG conceded in Europe’s top five leagues.

Looking back and comparing the numbers with 2017/18 shows that Brighton got worse at both ends ends of the pitch in 2018/19. Their xG took a hit, going from 1.07 per game to 0.94, while their defence moved a similar amount in the other direction, from 1.51 to 1.63.

Splitting this up further, between the 2018 half of 2018/19 and the 2019 half, makes for more bleak reading for Brighton fans. Their xG for went from 0.98 to 0.9, while their xG against went from 1.55 to 1.73. A rolling average and a fancy trend line graph would illustrate this point better, but I’ve never quite managed to get the hang of making them.

From the outside, judging by their signings and fact their owner made his money in gambling, Brighton seem to be a club that use data, so were likely aware of the declining underlying numbers they were experiencing and decided to act early.

There is an argument that Hughton could have been given time to turn it around himself but, given there was no indication of him turning it around over the last season, it would be a gamble.

Hiring a new manager is also a gamble, but it seems better to make the move early and give the new manager a full pre-season, rather than risk repeating the form of 2019 and be in a position where they need a new manager part way through the season to come in and lift them out of trouble.

Brighton have seen they weren’t good enough early and that their numbers were moving in the wrong direction, so made the decision to change manager. While Hughton has done a good job to get them where they are, the second half of the season does give the impression that he’s taken them as far as he can.

Reluctance To Play New Signings

This is something that is harder to judge and comment on as Hughton will see players every day in training, but with the money Brighton spent on some players in the summer, you’d expect them to want a manager who will play them more often and get the best out of them.

You could also argue that it wasn’t a great move to bring in players who aren’t an obvious fit in the style of play, but the players were definitely talented and it would have been nice to see Hughton be slightly less conservative and look to give players like Alireza Jahanbakhsh the freedom to thrive.

Of the new signings from last summer, only Martin Montoya played significantly more than half the number of league minutes. Yves Bissouma and Bernardo both played around half, Jahanbakhsh around a third and Florin Andone around a quarter.

With Bissouma putting up some impressive numbers, albeit in less minutes than people had hoped, Jahanbakhsh was probably the most disappointing of the new players. He went from an xG of 0.42 p90 and an xA of 0.38 p90 in the Eredivisie to an xG of 0.1 p90 and an xA of 0.04 p90 in the Premier League. While you’d expect some drop off, going from a strong Eredivisie team to a bottom half Premier League team, you’d also expect a lot better than he did produce. He did have the Asian Cup in January, but it’s not as though he was a significant part of the side before this.

The heatmap below shows the difference in his touches at AZ and Brighton, showing at Brighton he got much less of the ball, especially in advanced areas/around the box.

Brighton will be hoping that Graham Potter looks to get the best out of their new signings, particularly in attack.

Style of Play

I always feel like I’m being some kind of footballing snob when criticizing a more defensive managers style, but there’s legitimate reasons with Hughton – mostly coming down to the fact Brighton were poor.

It’d be fine if Brighton played defensively and had a good defence, but they had one of the highest xG conceded in Europe. There doesn’t seem much value in stifling the attack as much as they did if it doesn’t result in a strong defence.

So, how is Potter different?

@AshwinRaman_ wrote a great piece about Potter at Ostersunds, which talks about how Potter made the Swedish club into a great counter-attacking side. They also note that a lot of their numbers make them look like a possession based team, but in reality they’re not. To take a quote from the article:

ÖFK definitely look like a possession-based side, but they really aren’t.  Watch about five minutes of them playing and you’ll understand that ÖFK play out from the back like Napoli (rapid passing in tight spaces), but become direct when they move forward.

@AshwinRaman_

The graph below shows the average passes per possession for and against for teams in Europe’s top five leagues and Swansea.

You can see Brighton were one of the most conservative teams in Europe when out of possession, while being fairly direct with the ball, while Swansea look the opposite. Interestingly – and supporting what @AshwinRaman_ said – Swansea and Brighton’s PPDA wasn’t that different, despite the difference on the graph above. Looking at PPDA and average opposition passes per possession, Swansea are a bit of an outlier.

@AshwinRaman_ also notes that Ostersunds defended deep, but generally pressed as soon as they lost possession. This could explain the disparity with the PPDA and passes per possession numbers. Their counter pressing can disrupt the oppositions possessions and bring the average down, while if they don’t counter press, or aren’t successful when they do, they’re happy to drop deep.

The clip below is from their home game against Brentford and shows them to be patient when playing the ball out of defence, but more direct one they break the Brentford block and create some space.

Also interesting in the clip is the positioning of the attacking ‘3’ in the 4-2-3-1 shape. Daniel James on the left is wide, while #10 Bersant Celina also goes over to the left to try and help progress the ball and right-sided Nathan Dyer is incredibly narrow.

This seems something that can suit Brighton’s attacking players, particularly when looking back at Jahanbakhsh’s heat map from his final season in the Eredivisie.

What’s also interesting is while Swansea and Brighton had a similar number of counter attacks last season, Swansea were much more effective from them, as can be seen from the graph below.

One trade-off from Potter’s style of play is that Swansea conceded more counter attacks than Brighton, but only a low percentage resulted in a shot, which can be seen below.

Most importantly, what Potter did worked. Swansea had the 6th best xGD in the Championship last season, but under performed at both ends of the pitch. The context is different, with Swansea being a newly-relegated side and Brighton a struggling Premier League side, but given how Potter took Ostersunds up a couple of divisions in Sweden and progressed to the Europa League knockout phase with them, it’s not as though he’s only done well with stronger sides.

Conclusion

As previously noted, I think Brighton made the right choice in sacking Hughton. Their xG numbers were moving in the wrong direction and didn’t look like changing, his defensive style of play stifled their attack and didn’t result in a strong defence, while he didn’t do much to incorporate and get the best out of their new signings.

Making the decision early is a strong move from Brighton as a lot of football clubs feel much more reactive than proactive, often making a decision after a team has suffered, rather than seeing that if what’s happening continues they’ll be in trouble. It also means new manager Graham Potter has a full pre-season to prepare for his first Premier League campaign.

Potter also looks a strong appointment for the Seagulls. He looks as though he can build on what Hughton has done, adding a better counter-attacking threat, better structure in possession, better use of the ball – even if it’s as a more defensive measure as they slowly play out from the back – and restricting the opposition’s chances better than his predecessor.

Brighton have been an interesting club to follow off the pitch, making some left of field transfer moves compared to other Premier League clubs, and with Potter it seems as though they could also become a lot more interesting to follow on the pitch.

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