On paper at least, it is hard to tell the difference between Brighton under Chris Hughton and Brighton under Graham Potter. At this point last season, Hughton’s Brighton were 15th with 33 points; as the Premier League restarts, Potter’s team are 15 with 29 points.
The initial signs were promising. On the opening weekend Brighton went to Watford and hammered them 3-0. Summer signing Neal Maupay opened his account, and they registered a possession share of 51.8% rarely seen away from the Amex in the Hughton era.
While the performances which followed didn’t stay at that level (the dire straits of early-season Watford may have helped paint a rosier picture, in hindsight), Brighton were competitive in just about every match, bar a 4-0 thrashing at Manchester City. Disappointing defeats by Southampton and Aston Villa were ballanced by rousing wins over Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal.
The decade ended with Brighton 14th, only a point behind Arsenal and two points from the top half. Hughton’s controversial sacking had been vindicated, and Potter’s more attractive style of play was slowly bearing fruit.
What happened next, then, was unexpected. Brighton did not win a single Premier League game in 2020. Six draws and three losses, including a poor performance at Bournemouth and a derby defeat by Crystal Palace, means they pick up the restarted season still in need of a couple of wins to ensure safety.
In many ways the situation mirrors last season’s campaign, when a downturn after Christmas saw them slide into a relegation battle. And just like then, the run-in is brutal. Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City are all standing in the way of valuable points.
Brighton will probably survive, given the five teams below them with fewer points and worse goal difference. The real question is what happens in the summer. Will Potter stay? Will he be backed in the transfer market? For all Brighton’s improved football on the eye, the core statistics of points and goals are not where they should be for a club openly holding top-half ambitions.
When it clicks, they are impressive to watch. A towering back three or four anchored by Lewis Dunk has often defended well this season, in front of the usually reliable Mat Ryan. Davy Propper is one of those players to have bloomed under Potter, working well with Aaron Mooy. Yet the lack of a regular goalscorer (top-scorer Maupay has only one goal since Christmas) remains a major concern.
Much will depend on these final nine games. Brighton have made a habit of rising to the occasion against the better sides, and that fortitude will be needed with this bruising fixture list. Their primary task? To find that elusive first win in 2020.