• The day Hughton won back the fans, but lost the backing of Bloom - BHAFC 1-1 Newcastle

    The abrupt sacking of Chris Hughton was quite a shock - not just, for the footballing world outside of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, who appear decidedly outraged by the decision following the Albion’s survival - but for the fans too, despite a relative split on whether the decision was correct. It may have well happened sooner, at a more comprehensible time, after the disastrous loss against Cardiff. The Argus report that “Bloom contemplated a change on April 16 following the 2-0 home defeat by the Welshmen” - yet Bloom hesitated to pull the trigger. This decision has proved to be a success.

    The fact of the matter is, it looked like the Albion were on an upturn as the season drew to a close. Despite tough fixtures, there was a definite resurgence within the team, and enough points were scraped together to stay in the division for a second consecutive season. As the Argus described, “Albion rallied under Hughton, earning a crucial 0-0 draw at Wolves, losing narrowly to a late goal at Tottenham and then drawing at home with Newcastle before victory for arch rivals Crystal Palace at Cardiff sealed safety.” And it is that game against Newcastle, the day we effectively secured safety, that I wish to draw upon.

    As much as Hughton was heavily criticised while the Albion were struggling to get results between January and April, his 4-3-3 didn’t show any overt tactical or stylistic deficiencies. The main problem, among a variety of combining factors, was that after moving our wingers further up the pitch they were not producing sufficient quality to justify the formation shift. Bar Knockaert’s magical strike away at Palace, there was been a noticeable lack of attacking returns from wide areas. Additionally, Pascal Groß was missed heavily, having been deployed in an extremely effective number 10 role for the majority of last season. Without his creative influence, constant, intelligent movement and set-piece prowess, Albion looked flat and timid. The fundamental point is that Hughton’s team selections and formation choice were not especially flawed, his decisions were not clueless - it was clear that the squad was starved of confidence, and performance levels slumped subsequently.

    Following on from these inarguably dismal few months of football, Cardiff’s loss at already relegated Fulham and the Albion’s subsequent 1-1 draw with the Toon filled the fans with a powerful blend of optimism and relief. Most considered us practically safe - though after watching Manchester United’s pitiful performance in the final game of the season, Albion fans find themselves shamefully muttering “Thank God for Palace”. Yet, the Newcastle game itself was frankly bizarre - a true ‘game of two halves’, an encounter I have found absolutely fascinating since watching it unfold in my seat from the West Upper. The first half...really was THAT bad. In my Match Report, I shortly alluded to the glaring errors that we had made in our approach to the game, without any real time nor scope to analyse the game in detail:

    “In reality, this was absolutely painful. It’s almost hard to even distil the 1st half, considering how abject the performance was. And not often, in my view, has Hughton made any real errors. More relevant, has been the failure of players to deliver what is expected quality wise - and that has snowballed over time, confidence dropping lower and lower. However, in this first half, watching a system and a team selection initially lauded by ‘we know best’ fans and armchair pundits as Chris finally seeing the light, it was a complete and unequivocal disaster.”

    Contrary to what came before - the Newcastle game WAS riddled with mistakes. A naive tactical set-up, players out of position shoehorned into the starting eleven, a glaring combination of errors swiftly exploited by his opposite number, Rafa Benitez. Bloom is always watching on from the stands as an Albion fan, and his concern after the Cardiff result was wholly understandable, but he opted to keep with Hughton and give him a chance to turn things around. However, seeing the Albion flounder in the first half against Newcastle may have made the chairmen’s mind up; the set-up was ironically so un-Hughton, reckless and dangerously vulnerable. Of course, Bloom would not have made a decision so huge on a whim, not based off one single game, but it’s hard to look past this first half debacle as a seminal moment in Hughton’s eventual sacking.

    Hughton would have known that Newcastle frequently operate with a 5-2-3 / 3-4-3 formation, and yet he chose to start the game with a 4-4-2. Pascal Groß was asked to play wide right, with an Andone and Murray partnership upfront.



    Despite an apparent numerical advantage for the Albion, Newcastle’s wide forwards would position themselves between the full backs and the central defenders. This has the effect of complicating how we are able to mark them, asking a question over whether, in the case of Pérez for example, he is picked up by Bernardo, or by Dunk. By tucking in, Newcastle’s wingers free up the wide spaces for their Wing-backs (Manquillo and Ritchie) to get forward.



    This space in behind is what we want to exploit, as Ritchie is pushing up aggressively. However, Groß is too slow to take advantage of this space on the counter, and so were pushed deeper and deeper, unable to pose a threat transitioning quickly from defence to attack.



    As for our press, often Albion would abstain from pressing Fernandez immediately, as he is the least comfortable playing out from the back compared to Schär and Dummett. However, Newcastle countered this by looking for Shelvey to drop deep and dictate play - when he collects the ball, Stephens is unsure over whether to go with him to hold his position - not wanting to be drawn too far away from his back four. In addition, when the ball is on the right side, Groß would sometimes look to float inside and gang up on Shelvey to try and win back possession, thus leaving the Albion susceptible to switches of play from deep.



    Shelvey dropping deep to dictate play, with Ritchie available to receive a pass.



    The other option Hughton’s side employed was an alternating press from one of the two strikers between the middle centre back, and the wide centre back. In this instance, Murray is shifting between Fernandez and Dummett. This was not to be an aggressive press as there is always a spare man in defence, with the intention of drawing one of the defenders out of position to be dispossessed, leaving a space at the back.



    However, this is physically demanding on your forwards and requires sustained and intelligent defensive concentration. After 18 minutes of chasing the ball out of possession (Primarily because, due to the nature of the set-up, Brighton were unable to get out of their own half) Murray abandons his duties and left Dummett to take the ball upfield unchallenged. This caused a huge problem and confusion within the team.



    As demonstrated with a real-life image of the scenario unfolding, the system, intended to facilitate a direct, attacking approach, had the Albion camped in their own half unable to escape. The tactics were completely strangling the team. For the goal, Stephens is unsure whether to ignore his defensive responsibility and engage with Dummett, Groß, concerned with Richie, appears the same. Dummett is allowed to cross under no pressure, and we found ourselves 0-1 down in our biggest game of the season.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. golddene's Avatar
      golddene -
      A great summary, the beginning of the end as it were?
    1. drew's Avatar
      drew -
      Not entirely sure I would go with the comment that Hughton won back the fans!! Also, massive question over the selection of Izquierdo bearing in mind within days it was announced he was requiring an operation, especially when he had a fit March and Knockaert on the bench.
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