Graham Potter Is Doing Something Very Different at Brighton & the Results Could Be Special

Graham Potter
Arsenal FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League | James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

What's the point of playing nice football?

If the main objective of football is winning, and imposing an attractive philosophy takes time and resources that hold up that objective in the short term, why do certain teams place such a value on what appears a counterintuitive strategy?

It's a question that continues to surface in the various narratives threads of the current Premier League season, in the compulsion to judge Jose Mourinho by Mauricio Pohcettino's standards and vice versa, in the criticism and subsequent praise of Sean Dyche, and in the vindication of Liverpool's own long-term philosophical approach.

Graham Potter
Potter's Brighton had too much for Daniel Farke's Norwich | Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

This divide between pulsating and pragmatic approaches to football has materialised most intriguingly in the basement of the English top-flight, where Norwich City may be given the dubious honour of being declared 'the greatest relegated side of the Premier League era'.

The fact that Daniel Farke's side are lingering in 20th and will be almost certainly trudging back to the Championship with their electrifying approach play and pretty triangles, while dour David Moyes and Nigel Pearson sides still have a fighting chance of survival, has definitely helped the detractors of daring football.

Expansive attacking play, their logic goes, is a luxury best left to those who have enough spare change jingling around in their pockets to grab a guilt-free Jack Grealish or Thiago Alcantara, not to mention a few defenders. No matter how smart your structure is, if you're not one of the big boys a risk-free, defensively sound approach focussed on hitting it long and winning second balls is all you're entitled to.

Graham Potter, Sean Dyche
Potter and Sean Dyche have shown Premier League fans two different ways of succeeding | Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Anyone who has watched Norwich's infuriating insistence on pushing their full-backs ridiculously high up the pitch and overplaying it in their own defensive third will see that there is some truth to these criticisms. And, after all, if you're bad enough to go down, where is the pride in having played attractively throughout?

But in a much less-acknowledged side, who, because they'll probably be staying up, may not be the best ever side to go down, we can see a rebuttal to the idea that for clubs of meagre means there is only one way.

One sporting Americanism that is useful when discussing the importance of Graham Potter to Brighton & Hove Albion is the idea of a team's 'floor' and 'ceiling'.

Chris Hughton
Brighton decided that they'd come as far as possible under Chris Hughton | Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

This isn't the world's worst remake of Bob the Builder, but a concept which explains to us the contending claims of football and 'anti-football', and why chairmen turn to different philosophies at different points in time.

Your 'floor' refers to the best worst-case-scenario for your team, and managers (or should it be carpenters?) working on this floor will accept their squad's limitations and think about how they can work within them. The ultimate goal is stability rather than seeing how far you can take the players at your disposal.

It would be harsh on Brighton's previous manager Chris Hughton, who worked miracles with a small side and took them as far as anyone could reasonably expect, but this was clearly the thinking when Brighton's management shocked the footballing world by sacking him and replacing him with Graham Potter - they gambled on more than what could be reasonably expected.

Potter is perceived as a manager who targets the upside of a football team | ANDY RAIN/Getty Images

This is where we arrive at the notion of a manager who targets the 'ceiling', which effectively imagines the best possible outcome that the resources at a manager's disposal can produce.

Realistically, this involves taking players out of their comfort zones, and instilling in them the dominant attacking skills of teams far better than them - it goes without saying that while the results of working on the 'ceiling' can be spectacular, it is a risky approach lacks the stable foundations of the 'floor' to fall back on should things go awry.

Potter is a man who Brighton have trusted to fix their dodgy ceiling, and after some question marks at the beginning, the former Östersunds FK man has shown that he is no cowboy builder.

Dan Ashworth
Dan Ashworth joined Brighton as Technical Director last spring | Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Skeptics will point out that sitting in 15th with five games to go is barely even an improvement on what Hughton, who finished 17th last year, achieved. Even taking points off Arsenal doesn't exactly constituteuncharted waters for the seagulls.

But what Brighton supremos were perhaps wary of is that, having taken the time to install a recruitment structure, headed by Technical Director Dan Ashworth, which targeted technically-gifted gems like Yves Bissouma and Alexis Mac Allister, Hughton was not the man to get the best out of these invesments.

The very obvious philosophical adjustments made by Potter, which have seen average possession rise by 14%, and just under 150 more passes played per game, have on a simple level meant that that the sort of quick-thinking, nimble-footed player Brighton like to sign can be more easily accomodated.

Tariq Lamptey
Tariq Lamptey has been a near overnight success for Brighton | Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

As a consequence, it became obvious in the first half of the season that when Brighton are good, they're not just good - they can absolutely blow teams away.

Ask Mauricio Pochettino, who saw his demise at Spurs hastened by a then-teenaged Aaron Connolly, a physically-smaller forward for whom opportunities were limited under Hughton but whose finishing and ingenuity were at the heart of Brighton's swashbuckling 3-0 victory at the Amex Stadium.

Connolly is one of a number of diminutive players who Potter has introduced to the side, alongside Neil Maupay and Leandro Trossard (both 5'8) and 19-year-old Tariq Lamptey, who at 5'3 is as slight as he is outrageously talented.

Neal Maupay, Emiliano Martinez
Potter's faith in Maupay was vindicated by the Arsenal match | Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

This is not to say that Potter's influence can be reduced to 'introducing short lads', but it's the most striking visual example of how a different sort of player is being accomodated into a side where you don't have to be as physically imposing as Glenn Murray to exert an influence up top.

Brighton were admittedly pretty short on results too in a lean New Year period which saw them fail to win for nine consecutive games, but there was evidence that their fluid creative approach was viable, most notably in a goalless draw against Wolves at Molineux immediately before lockdown where they had 57% possession against the Champions Leauge contenders, coming close to a notable away win.

The unfulfilled promise pre-restart has since exploded into goals and wins, and two crucial winning strikes against Arsenal and Norwich were indicative in different ways as to how Brighton have edged a little closer to that ceiling.

Leondro Trossard, Timm Klose
Trossard was the matchwinner for Brighton against Norwich | Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Bissouma intercepted Timm Klose's sloppy pass and Brighton immediately clicked into an expansive attacking shape, with Maupay finding yet another unimposing technical midfielder in Aaron Mooy, who vindicated his selection over a scrappier player like Dale Stephens by finding Trossard with a perfect curling delivery.

The importance of Maupay's earlier winner over Arsenal may have been dissected for rather different reasons, but Matteo Guendouzi's own rush of blood to the head shouldn't obscure how Potter has made his Brighton side incredibly cool when it comes to thinking at high speed.

Mac Allister plays the ball forward, Maupay dummies as if he is receiving it inside before peeling off to the left, and Connolly is on hand to dexterously flick the ball on, and the result is a perfect chip from Maupay, a fantastic finisher whose inclusion has been facilitated by Potter's way. Three mobile, skilful hybrid midfielder / forwards, two passes, one clinical goal, all in a split second.

Graham Potter, Lewis Dunk
Potter has shored up Brighton's defence magnificently | Warren Little/Getty Images

In the background to this, and perhaps what makes them most distinctive from Norwich? A firm defensive foundation, a legacy of Christ Hughton's which Potter has quietly added to.

There were initial doubts about Adam Webster after his big-money move from Bristol City, but he is now vital alongside Lewis Dunk and the Premier League's most bizarre left-back, 'Big' Dan Burn, in a defence which has stood relatively firm since lockdown, a challenging test against Manchester United excepted.

Perhaps in this we can see a more nuanced explanation for the success of Brighton, and a happier outcome to our floor / ceiling analogy - Potter may be putting the finishing touches to the club in installing their lofty ceiling, but he's simply retouching the house that Chris Hughton built.