• 2019/20 Review – Revolution to Evolution

    End of July. Normally, I’d be writing my season preview about now. The previous season would have finished in May in either spring heat or an unseasonal downpour, with a half arsed lap of honour, beer, handshakes and hugs in the bar afterwards and one final moan about train queues and sing-song on said train.

    NSC would have been through several rounds of transfer market angst, including at least three posts that said “just sign a striker. ANY striker. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?” (the same posters then nowhere to be seen as the 15 million pound Dutch answer to Mark Farrington stunk out every single game). We’d have played a few friendlies and some posters (possibly the same ones) would have written the prose equivalent of a Beachy Head leap after the Under 23s performed with somewhat less than full enthusiasm away at Stockport in 30 degree heat while the rest of us hit the beach. We’d have seen the shirt held up to signify a singing (sic) at least three times, one of them by a tanned French lady called Analise, much to the annoyance of many resident gammons.

    And now, after a soporific summer spent ignoring Wimbledon, dozing in front of the cricket and Formula One, dodging showers and eating outside when the mercury hit nineteen degrees and “looking forward” to an EasyJet flight to somewhere obscure in Turkey with the kids, the football season would be hoving back into view like an old friend or a comfortable pair of shoes.

    Well this is 2020.

    Welcome to a season that lasted a year, facemasks, behind closed doors, tests, social distancing, fist bumps and elbow rubs and piped crowd noises. Welcome to being able to hear the actual sound Paul Pogba makes when he handballs a free kick in the box and pretends to have been pole axed in the face. Welcome to purgatory.

    Covid has turned our world upside down. There have, of course, been many tragic deaths and many lives altered forever, so it’s not for me to make light of it or even dwell on it too much here. It merely serves to put what I will say next into context and explain why I’m writing an end of season report when I should be writing a pre-season preview.

    Purgatory has many levels though. Just ask Dante. You may have thought (with some justification) that where I was describing the average soporific summer just now, I was missing the fact that 2020 really should have been a sporting spectacular summer with the Olympics from Tokyo live in your front room at 3am and England getting knocked out of the Quarter Finals of Euro 2020 on penalties. So, yes, I was describing the last normal summer we’ve enjoyed. Missing out on the Euros could have been all too much for many of us football fans. So, the best thing about the Top of the Pops Lip Syncing that is closed doors football, is that it filled a televisual void and gave us an excuse to stay up until 10.15 watching football, glugging ale and chomping crisps after all.

    So different is that experience to normal football that the only way you can review the season is in two bits, pre and post lockdown. Also, just so people can bounce this in November to tell me how wrong I was, there’s a prediction section. Think of this piece as Scrooge’s ghosts, only in piss-poor football writing form.

    Part 1 – Revolution - The Normal Season

    Eleven and bit months ago we were all straining at the leash to see Potterball. On 2 August 2019 the Albion took on Valencia of the Champions League and beat them 2-1 on a balmy evening at the Amex (at least I think it was balmy, it was a bloody long time ago) introducing the home crowd to something we may have named “flexible 3-4-3”. It’s hard to convincingly state how different this was to the second half of the previous season under Chris Hughton. Here we were winning against a decent team instead of shutting up shop. Still, though, the biggest benefit of three big lads at the back was that the winner came via Shane Duffy at a set piece. We’d met a couple of Valencia fans who were studying in Brighton at the Station and showed them the ground. Afterwards they were on the same train as us too and said “Valencia were very Spanish and Brighton were very English”. You perhaps couldn’t argue with that but I’m not sure what they’d have made to all eleven players behind the ball for 89 minutes. This was not evolution, it was revolution. BOOM. Welcome to Potter world.

    If you thought that was good, however, a side that had been so notoriously awful away from home that people were starting not to bother with the ticket binfest, won their opening game 3-0. Away. BANG. Have that.

    And so we waited for the first league game at home against West Ham and another revolution, straight out of the wham, bam, thank you mam school of how to mess with people’s heads – VAR. If Covid hadn’t been the only story in the World in 2020 then the only story worth telling in football in the 19/20 season would have been VAR. A pendant’s dream, VAR exists to suck the joy out of life in the same way as Brussels Sprouts, Coldplay albums and Michael McIntyre’s Saturday night show. A packed Amex went absolutely loopy as Leandro Trossard, on his home debut, gave us the lead, only to have it ruled out because (IIRC) Dan Burn’s left arm was offside. Or maybe it was his bollocks. Who cares. The anti-joy sucked the life out of the ground and people barely celebrated as Trossard really did score, though by this time it was an equalizer and not the opener. As we headed for the exits after an anticlimactic draw the talk was not of our being in the Champions League spots on alphabetical order, but of a bloody machine near Heathrow.

    I’m not going to review every game, because we’d be here forever, but I want to set the context that, just as much as Potter was carving out a quiet but definite revolution at our football club, so VAR was carving out a noisy one in the Premier League. Did it stop arguments? No. Did it get everything right? Absolutely not. Did it start to change how we viewed football even before Covid? Absolutely.

    But Potter ran with it. The revolution continued. On a boiling hot day at the Amex we welcomed Southampton and played much of the game in exhausting heat with ten men, thanks to psychopathic Andone. Far from making excuses for the player as many would, Potter binned him off. In came Aaron Connolly. Much has been written about the young Irishman and he still has much to learn, but on great days at the Amex he played a starring role in turning over Spurs at home and mugging Everton for a winning penalty (VAR to the fore here as well, but already Potter was learning how to use the new parameters).

    Away at Newcastle we controlled the whole game from start to finish but failed to score. At home we comfortably beat Norwich. We gave Liverpool a real shock. Burnley scraped a draw with a last minute goal.

    And, of course, for no revolutions go smoothly, we played beautifully in a 4-0 reverse at Man City and woefully in a defeat at Chelsea. We looked as lost at home to Sheffield United and Leicester as I’ve ever seen, playing into the hands of two of the most obvious teams in the league, but we battered Palace on boxing match points, only to have bloody Wilf recue a point, and beat Arsenal at theirs. At home to Bournemouth we won comfortably. A big group of friends met in the mild post Christmas open air of the Harvey’s bars for a pre-match chinwag and after the game my son and his mate got selfies with many of the players. Big Dan Burn even managed to squeeze into one. It’s my phone’s wallpaper and, in maudlin moments, I think of it as the last day I was truly happy.

    A little inconsistent then. To an extent we were the little girl with the curl but, what it wasn’t was dull. Something would happen, even if it was us being frustratingly played off the park. As we went into the new year we were comfortably clear of relegation and the football was truly revolutionized. Not only Connolly involved from the youngsters but Alzate looking great, used almost as a utility player. Entire train journeys spent playing “guess the line up” ruined as, by the time you got to the concourse, Potter had picked something madder than even The Boy’s hyperactive friend could have imagined after a glug of coca cola. But we were playing football.

    And then.

    January may have kicked off with the goal of the season from none other than Ali J (yes, really) but the rest of the month was an anti climax. A dreadful cup performance against Massive, routine defeat at Everton, bloody Grealish nicking a point at the Amex and a capitulation at effing Bournemouth. Meanwhile, reports were emerging from Wuhan of a disturbing new virus.

    Not a single win in February or March either and defeat to THEM (spit) but some evidence of a second revolution. Now it was Potter the pragmatic and draws scraped (at Sheffield United and Wolves) or earned (West Ham) showed we had more than one way to play football. We hadn’t won in 2020 and as much as we were improving again all the talk was of this virus………

    Part 2 – Gaming Lockdown

    On 14th March 2020 the Albion were due to play Arsenal at home. Though a Covid peak was about to hit the country many, including myself, were still planning on going. Then I got a text from friend. “Not going to happen. Arteta’s got Corona”. The game was indeed suspended as Arsenal went into isolation and so did everyone else. On the 23rd March the whole country went into lockdown.

    The Premier League was suspended, initially until the end of April, but then indefinitely. Euro 2020 was shifted by a year and the rules insisting that the Premier League complete by the end of June lifted to an indefinite finish. Initially it felt like the lockdown rules would stay forever but, gradually, as things got better, so Project Restart emerged. It’s easy to forget, because so much has happened this year, that the Albion were only two points clear of relegation on 29 points. We also had Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City to come in successive home games and that after the rearranged Arsenal fixture. Many believed we didn’t want to restart and, particularly among Liverpool and Leeds fans, it seemed we were the Project Restart enemy. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

    We were against neutral grounds, but so were many others. There was a good reason. It was absolutely pointless and involved two full squads travelling for each game instead of one. Instead Project Restart became formed and, as it turned out, worked beautifully. First players could train together but distanced. Then contact was brought in, but only under a strict testing regime. The remaining fixtures would be played in late June and throughout July, most days having at least one game, many having more. Tournament football times. The Euros were back in Premier League form. Given it was summer there would be drinks breaks allowed half way through each half and five substitutes would be allowed from three stoppages, plus half time. And no crowds. No crowds at all.

    On a gorgeous June afternoon the Albion took on Arsenal at home. The initial signs were bad as they hit the bar very early on, but then Maupay chased a ball into the box that Leno looked like he might handle over the line and the keeper came off worse in the challenge. As he left the pitch on a stretcher, he left very little doubt in anyone’s mind who he blamed for the injury. Cue Arsenal slowly losing the plot with Le Petit Shithouse. Which was fine. Despite Pepe giving them the lead with a lovely curled shot we never quit. Dunk equalized from a short corner routine they’d switched off from. With a minute or so remaining we worked quick ball down the left, MacAllister finding Connolly who laid off perfectly for Maupay to finish. Our first three points in 2020 shifted us well clear of relegation and lit a spark in Guendouzi that would seemingly end his Arsenal career, after a final bust up with Maupay and reports of less than humble comments throughout the game that may just have inspired our Neal to finish them off.

    It turns out Potter, Barber and Ashworth had planned lockdown football perfectly. We rotated the squad and targeted games. We coached and changed in drinks breaks. Though we were thrashed by both Manchester clubs we arguably started a weaker first XI in both those games. Liverpool were given a game, including a goal of the season contender from Trossard, but unfortunately we’d given them a two goal start with sloppy play out from the back.

    But Germany, who had restarted sooner, showed us that home advantage without fans counted for little. Results went to the better technical teams and those who played as a complete eleven. Away from home, our Achilles heal normally, we won at Norwich and Burnley (more of that later) and drew at high flying (before lockdown) Leicester and in form Southampton. This was where our stronger starting lineups appeared. At the end of lockdown football we were P9 W3 D3 L3. Twelve points to finish on 41. We’d used most of the squad, had never looked tired (City game apart where we were destroyed) and had played a mixture of fast paced possession and counter attacking defence.

    Indeed, the big losers in lockdown were those that relied on crowds (or in the case of Palace a few spotty bellends with a drum), a couple of key players (or in the case of Palace, Zaha), or who just couldn’t change style. Palace lost seven games on the spin. Leicester dropped out of the Champions League spots. Norwich were beaten by everyone. Smug Eddie couldn’t find points at all, except for against the aforementioned Leicester, and when it was too late. Watford’s revival ended in relegation as their propensity for conceding early goals increased with every week and the Pozzos inexplicably fired yet another manager. And us? We were fine. It turns out Potter knew just what he was doing. Pre lockdown there were rumblings of discontent. All of those have gone.

    Part 3 – Evolution – The Future

    I sit here writing this knowing we are safe. A 15th place finish and 41 points being our best ever haul. The new season is starting on September 12 and already, even though it too is likely to be behind closed doors, I’m excited.

    The Albion who came out at Burnley did so in a retro kit that has divided the crowd but brought back sweet memories for those of us who grew up at The Goldstone in the 1980s. Tariq Lamptey, signed from Chelsea in January, didn’t play before the stoppage, but after it has been Man of the Match (in my eyes) on three separate occasions. Adam Webster, who had a difficult time in front of a crowd, has looked assured. There are reports of Adam Lallana signing and his role being partially in player development. And somehow we’ve managed to let the mighty Leeds United let us have their promising centre back Ben White.

    But Burnley showed how Potterball may be taking over again. The squad is now evolving, as squads should. We’ve had a year of these tactics and look far more comfortable with them. Against a team that had a superb home record we won and won well, taking their lack of comfort on the ball and hesitancy at the back and using it to our advantage. A quicker paced possession game beckons. With Alzate to come back from injury and Bissouma scoring his first goal, the regular midfield two of Stephens and Propper may be broken up. Duffy could be on his way, with White the replacement. Oh, yeah. The prediction part. Well, we need a striker as Murray ages even further, but, if we get that, then I see only better football and a comfortable mid table finish next season. And none of this, now, is revolutionary. In extraordinary times, Graham Potter is leading a very ordinary evolution at Brighton and Hove Albion.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. blue'n'white's Avatar
      blue'n'white -
      Great review of the season and exactly as I remember it too.
      Thanks for taking the time to write it all down
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