ELITE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE.
The top third of the Premier League table appears to be largely the same heading into Matchweek 9 of the 2022–23 season. After a strong start, Arsenal is in first place. Manchester City, which is in second place and obliterating teams, is doing Manchester City things. Since firing Mauricio Pochettino in the fall of 2019, Antonio Conte has Tottenham Hotspur in third place and playing their best. At Manchester United, who are currently in fifth place, Erik ten Hag appears to have changed things. Although Liverpool had a slow start, the underlying data, specifically the predicted goal differential, indicates that the Reds will be alright in the end.
The matrix has one significant flaw, though: Brighton & Hove Albion are now in fourth place.
Anyone who has been paying attention since Graham Potter took over as manager of Brighton in 2019 might not find this to be too shocking. When “Potter Ball” was originally introduced to the South Coast in 2019, it had a bit of a rocky start. However, beginning with the 2020–21 season, Potter’s Seagulls were a borderline top Premier League team in terms of predicted goal differential. Even though their ultimate standing in the league table didn’t do their play on the field much honour, the Seagulls played stunning, free-flowing, progressive soccer for significant stretches of the previous three seasons—and notably the previous two.
In fact, had it not been for some truly appalling goalkeeping and bad fortune (Brighton underperformed its xG differential by 22 net goals in 2020–21 and 2021–22 combined), the Seagulls might have already made the transition from tenacious and entertaining mid-table almost-rans to a team with a real chance of contending for European spots. In that regard, Brighton’s performance this year may be viewed as a continuation of the team’s multi-year upward trend under Potter.
One issue remains: Potter is gone now.
Yes, to the prejudice of Albion supporters everywhere; or do they perhaps only exist on the South Coast of England? Potter left this month for Chelsea and Stamford Bridge, which are considerably sexier (and much more lucrative) surroundings. Italian manager Roberto De Zerbi, whose Sassuolo team—a similarly diminutive and overachieving club in Italy’s Serie A—punched above their weight under his leadership, was able to succeed Potter as manager of Brighton. No matter how good the successor, losing an era-defining manager in the middle of the campaign isn’t ideal, so it’s legitimate to ponder how the switch will affect Brighton in the future.
The FiveThirtyEight Team Soccer Predictions give Brighton a 24 percent probability of qualifying for the Champions League, by far the best odds of any club outside of the conventional Big 6. Brighton has been playing some of the greatest soccer in England so far this season. According to the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index, Brighton presently ranks in the top 25 of all club soccer clubs worldwide, two spots ahead of Manchester United. In other words, the ability exists. Brighton may have a shot at doing something it has never done before—qualifying for Europe—if De Zerbi can continue where Potter left off.
Potter’s departure is undoubtedly a setback for Brighton. Under his predecessor Chris Hughton, the Seagulls were just hanging on to the top division, let alone fantasising about reaching the Top 4. Its debut season in the Premier League, 2017–18, was at best mediocre and at worst embarrassing. The Seagulls failed to defend well, score goals, and just avoided being demoted as swiftly as they were elevated.
Hughton was fired as a result of Brighton’s second season in the Premier League being even poorer than its first. Hughton, a legend for the Republic of Ireland and Tottenham Hotspur during his playing days, only managed to accumulate 11 points from January 1, 2019, through the end of the season, despite the fact that the Seagulls ended 17th and just avoided relegation by two points. Although Brighton was secure, Hughton’s position eventually wasn’t. Potter entered the scene and completely altered the course of the club’s history. A major uncertainty regarding Brighton’s season now that he is gone is whether De Zerbi will be able to continue.