Arsenal’s win over Newcastle was one of their most impressive performances of the season. The result clinched a top-two finish for the Gunners, their first since the 2015-16 season. And a far cry from the back-to-back years finishing 8th. One more win in their final three matches would lift the side to 84 points, their highest total since the Invincible season in 2003-04 (90 points). To close out the season Arsenal have home fixtures against Brighton and Wolves, with a trip to Nottingham Forest in between.
Despite a thoroughly impressive season, much like Arsenal, Brighton have suffered a recent dip in form. They’ve lost four of their last five matches, including a 5-1 defeat to Everton, but that run also includes a 6-0 demolition of Wolves. They still have one or two matches in hand over the teams ahead of them in the table, which with wins would lift them into a race with Liverpool. However, their final five matches include Arsenal, Newcastle, Manchester City, and Aston Villa. A tough run, to finish out what could be a historic season.
TSF: Coming off a 9th-place finish last season, what was your prediction for this year with Graham Potter at the helm? Has this been the most impressive season you’ve seen by the club given not only their current place but having to switch managers early on?
WAB: There are plenty of examples of teams who have broken into the top 10 for the first time and then struggled to repeat the trick the following season. I thought that may happen to Brighton, so anything above sort of 13th in the table would have been a successful season. When Potter walked and asset stripped the club of its entire coaching staff, nobody was entirely sure what to expect. To lose a manager, assistant, first-team coach, goalkeeper coach, attacking coach, and recruitment specialist in one hit, not many clubs would survive that.
The Albion though have not only survived it, but thrived from it. Roberto De Zerbi has proven a clear upgrade on Potter and Brighton are playing a style of football which is as innovative as it is exciting. My favourite ever season is 2010-11, when Gus Poyet’s side completely outplayed and dominated League One including teams like Southampton, Huddersfield, Peterborough, and Charlton. The current campaign though pushes that might close for enjoyment.
TSF: Brighton is well positioned to finish in the top six, or at least it’s within their control at this point. The club has never qualified for European competition. Do you think they make it and how much squad depth would need to be added to handle the extra midweek matches?
WAB: The intense schedule Brighton have faced since the start of April might yet crush any European dreams. Seven matches in April and seven in May for a squad that lacks quality in depth was always going to be a tough ask and there have been signs of tiredness. The players looked knackered both physically and mentally when losing 3-1 at Forest three days after the FA Cup semi-final defeat to United. It was a similar story against Everton last time out, when Brighton were turned over 5-1 at the Amex having beaten United and Wolves. All three of those games took place in the space of eight days.
And that really answers the second part of your question. At least five or six new players would probably be needed to cope with Europe. The club seem to realise this and are doing a lot of early business. Watford forward Joao Pedro has been signed for £30 million and the announcement of James Milner on a free transfer is apparently imminent. Brighton also look set to sign German international Mahmoud Dahoud on a free from Dortmund, who looks a great capture if for no other reason than his name rhymes.
TSF: Arsenal fans very much thank the club for Leandro Trossard. Which players have stepped into his place at Brighton and how have they performed since he left?
WAB: Trossard was Brighton’s top scorer at the time he left, and yet since he played his final game the Albion have been one of the leading scorers in the Premier League. Kaoru Mitoma has proven a ready-made successor on the left whilst the emergence of Evan Ferguson has meant Trossard’s absence has not been missed through the middle either.
Where Brighton have missed Trossard is in terms of squad depth. Had he still been at the Amex, then the workload on the likes of Mitoma, Solly March, Ferguson, and Welbeck will have been lessened as De Zerbi would have had greater opportunity to rest players. Pedro would appear to be the long-term Trossard replacement.
TSF: Looking ahead to the summer, Brighton appears to be in a great spot. The only regular contributors who have contracts running out this summer or next are Joël Veltman & Danny Welbeck. What positions will be a priority for the club in the transfer market this summer?
WAB: Welbeck is under contract until 2024 and the club have the option to activate a year extension for Veltman, although they may yet opt not to. Veltman has said recently he wants to play in Spain or Germany before his career ends and he has been such a good servant that if he wanted to go down that route now, I don’t think Brighton would stand in his way.
The Albion did not make any major signings in January, so this will be De Zerbi’s first transfer window. It also means he is essentially working with Potter’s squad, making what he has done even more impressive as it is very much a group of players designed for Potter’s 3-5-2 rather than De Zerbi’s 4-2-3-1.
Because of that, Brighton have a noticeable paucity of full backs. A new right back and competition for Pervis Estupinan on the left seem logical signings. A new central defender will be needed if the Albion cannot turn Levi Colwill’s loan into a permanent deal and depending on what happens with Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo, maybe another central midfielder too.
What happens in the goalkeeper department will be interesting too. In dropping Robert Sanchez for Jason Steele, De Zerbi has made it crystal clear he wants a number one suited to his playing out from the back style which is far riskier than most other clubs. Steele has done well, but if Brighton have serious ambitions of regularly challenging for the top six then they need an upgrade between the sticks.
TSF: What is your predicted starting XI for Brighton this Sunday and a final scoreline prediction?
WAB: Before Brighton beat Wolves 6-0, it was fairly easy to predict De Zerbi’s XI. He has now started rotating his squad though and making decisions nobody would expect. Basically, you have more chance of guessing the lottery numbers successfully. As for a scoreline, 1-1. The Albion have a decent record at the Emirates and although Arsenal won at the Amex on New Year’s Eve, that was facing a Brighton without both Mac Allister and Caicedo. Those two are so important to the way Brighton play, that you can probably write a line through that piece of form.
Thanks to We Are Brighton for their time heading into the fixtures this weekend.