It’s been a season of firsts for Graham Potter’s Brighton, with the Seagulls achieving their highest ever finish in the Premier League.
The south coast club ended the campaign in ninth place in the top flight with more points, more goals and more wins than they have ever achieved before.
Brighton have also enjoyed some memorable victories along the way, including the 4-0 humiliation of Manchester United at the Amex – which was their biggest Premier League win.
Brighton have enjoyed a hugely successful season in the Premier League, finishing ninth
It is tempting to suggest that Potter is working miracles on the south coast, but in fact the 47-year-old is simply doing what he does best – improving football teams. And his ability to succeed was predicted in data stretching back years.
An analysis of the Englishman’s career for Sportsmail shows he has delivered improvements in both attack and defence at teams he has coached.
‘He is adventurous,’ said Jeremy Steele, chief executive of Analytics FC. ‘That is a key part to his success.’
Steele is talking about Potter the man, as much as the coach.
The former left back, who amassed 320 league appearances for the likes of Stoke and West Brom, has taken an unusual route to top-flight management.
He obtained a degree in social sciences and then a Masters in Leadership and Emotional Intelligence before heading to Scandinavia to find an opportunity in the fourth tier of Swedish football with Ostersund, then to Swansea, before landing in Brighton.
Analysts have calculated manager Graham Potter has improved his team in attack and defence
It has taken until his third year at the Amex to see a real impact in the league table, but according to Analytics FC, there has been a steady underlying improvement throughout his tenure.
And the Seagulls have benefited at both ends of the pitch under Potter, despite his predecessor, Chris Hughton, being seen as a defensive coach, and criticism for the number of missed chances.
Analysts can now put a number on how much a coach improves a team’s performance. For Potter, they have calculated an 86 per cent improvement in defence and a 22 per cent enhancement in attack since he took over in May 2019.
And all this despite the Seagulls selling centre backs Ben White and Dan Burn in a Covid-affected season, and with one of the lowest wage bills in the division.
The novel approach to assessing coaches developed by Steele and his colleagues calculates the value of every action on the pitch and the impact that will have on the probability of the coach’s team scoring the next goal, or conceding it, throughout every match.
In a fantastic season, Brighton humbled Manchester United at the Amex, winning 4-0
‘We look at the changes from before they arrived,’ Steele told Sportsmail. ‘It allows us to assess the improvement a head coach can make at a club.’
The model takes account of a team’s strength relative to the opposition, so a strong performance against Manchester City would be worth more than a streaky win over Norwich. It also allows value to be given to a performance even if the team loses.
Throughout Potter’s career, performances have often exceeded results, and Brighton are now reaping the rewards.
He has developed a style that relies on an intense press out of possession, which derailed Manchester United on their last visit to the south coast, and a high volume of passes, circulating the ball before pinpointing advanced targets in fluid attacks.
Brighton’s fans have expressed frustration at times, but have seen their side flourish
In defence, Brighton conceded 44 goals this season, which has declined steadily compared to 60 in the campaign before he arrived.
In attack, Brighton carve out opportunities for fun but their inability to convert them has been a source of frustration for Seagulls fans and until now it has blunted the club’s charge up the table. While that will count against Potter’s rating in the statistical analysis, he still gains credit for an underlying improvement in the team’s attacking performance.
Last season, the problem of putting the ball in the back of the net was so acute that Brighton struggled to accumulate anywhere near the points their performances deserved and the Telegraph declared they were in danger of becoming ‘the best, but most wasteful, team to ever be relegated from Premier League’. The chief culprit then was Neil Maupay.
Ultimately, they finished 16th on 41 points.
This time around, Brighton are still missing chances and have the second worst shot conversion rate in the top flight, ahead of Norwich City.
In December, the team was booed by some of their own fans after a 0-0 draw with Leeds, despite being ninth in the Premier League and passing most teams off the park.
Brighton finished the season with an expected goals figure of 54, compared to an actual tally of just 42, with Danny Welbeck and Alexis MacAllister this year’s guilty parties.
Some Brighton fans booed their team in a 0-0 draw with Leeds at the Amex this season
However, while there has been noise about the discrepancy between performances and goals, Brighton’s showing in the league table has now muted critics.
Steele is not surprised by Potter’s success. The former sporting director lives partly in Sweden and is familiar with the coach’s impact in Scandinavia.
During seven years Potter took Ostersund, minnows of the Swedish league, to the top tier, the Allsvenskan, for the first time in the club’s history and won the Svenska Cupen, thereby qualifying for the 2017-18 Europa League.
Ostersund reached the last 16 of the competition after knocking out Galatasaray and PAOK and finishing second in their group with a win over Hertha Berlin and a draw with Athletic Bilbao. They were knocked out by Arsenal 4-2 on aggregate, despite winning 2-1 at the Emirates.
Ostersund and Potter came to the world’s attention in their Europa League tie with Arsenal
The team got better every year under Potter, including in the top flight of the Swedish league, when he delivered a 100 per cent uplift in defending against better sides and a 24 per cent step up in attacking, according to Analytics FC’s mind-boggling calculations.
Steele says English clubs have been reluctant to take a chance on coaches not already operating in the domestic leagues and Potter has had to work hard for his chance.
‘British coaches have not always been adventurous and gone overseas. In fact, by going to another country you can be missed by people who are searching for coaches,’ he said.
‘There is lack of recognition of people doing well in those jobs. It was only when Ostersund won at Arsenal were people prepared to take the gamble, but he had probably not changed his style radically in the preceding six months.’
Potter took the Swedish minnows all the way from the fourth tier in Sweden to the top flight
The chief executive believes that by developing a model to rank coaches, which accounts for the standard of opposition, it allows clubs to make informed choices about recruitment, before eye-catching results bring them to wider attention – increasing competition for their signature.
Ostersund players certainly knew they were working for a top coach.
‘We played a very possession-based type of football. Very methodical and forward-thinking. It was high risk, but high reward,’ Douglas Bergqvist, who joined Ostersund in 2014 after struggling at Exeter City, told the BBC.
‘He was just two, three, four steps ahead. He always knew what the opposition were going to do. He played different systems and was able to change personnel. He was a tactical genius.’
Potter has evidently put his Masters degree to good use, since many of his players celebrate his man-management skills as much as his coaching acumen and tactical knowhow.
‘I wouldn’t say anything’s too big for him,’ added Bergqvist. ‘I could see him taking over the England job one day – he can go all the way,’.
Ostersund beat Arsenal at the Emirates 2-1, but lost to the Gunners in Sweden (pictured)
Potter’s return to domestic football came with Swansea in the Championship in the 2018-19 season, following their relegation from the top flight.
It was a tough assignment, and one which shows the value of applying some context to statistical performance models.
In that season, Swansea’s performance dropped off sharply before stabilising later in the campaign. Steele explains that the coaching model assumes teams relegated from the top flight will preform strongly in the Championship.
This is supported by other research. Sheffield Hallam University has found that relegated clubs in receipt of parachute payments are three times more likely to go up than those that do not benefit from the handouts.
However, in Swansea’s case, a raft of key players had left, including Lukasz Fabianski, Alfie Mawson, Federico Fernandez and Sam Clucas, and the team struggled initially before recovering and mounting a late push for the playoffs.
But again, the players believed.
Potter faced a challenge at Swansea, but stabilised the team after Premier League relegation
‘He cared so much more about the performance than the result,’ said striker Oli McBurnie, who scored 24 goals for Swansea that season.
‘His philosophy was that if you get the performance right, then more times than not the result would look after itself. It was a breath of fresh air.’
‘At Swansea, we all said we could see him being England manager,’ McBurnie, who is now at Sheffield United, added in a BBC interview. ‘We believed in him that much. I honestly think he could go as high and as far as he wants. I don’t think there’s much that could stop him.’
At Brighton, Potter took on a team that had just finished in 17th place in the Premier League with 36 points. It was bold to appoint a man who had a reputation for exciting, fluid football when the margin for staying in the top flight was so narrow.
Performances at Brighton have run ahead of results, but this seasonhas ended well
Conventional wisdom might have dictated that it would be better to play it safe, survive and build.
‘I had no real expectations when I came,’ Potter told Sky Sports ahead of the final game of the season at home to West Ham United, which the Seagulls won 3-1.
‘The first year was incredibly tough… but still positive. Second season was a big step in terms of how we played, but without the results. This season we’ve taken another step forward with better results. We’ve made progress and, in this league, if you keep making progress it’s no mean feat.’
Oli McBurnie was a huge fan of Graham Potter when he played for him at Swansea City
Brighton’s chairman, Tony Bloom, who is a professional gambler, and chief executive, Paul Barber, kept faith in Potter in years one and two and again this season, when a mid-season slump brought six straight defeats and a 0-0 draw with bottom club Norwich City.
Like the number crunchers, they could see the underlying improvements at the Amex. And the thoughtful Potter believes there is more to come from his exciting side.
‘I don’t think we’re anywhere near the finished article,’ he added. ‘The hardest thing is to carry on with your ideas and keep developing the team when you’re not winning every week.’