With half a season left to play, our fate was not mathematically going to be decided by the outcome of our trip to Falmer to take on The Seagulls. However, with Burnley’s recent form pulling yet another team away from our sights, the game did seem to bare a major significance for our belief that we can achieve survival…
Graham Potter’s side have not won a league game at home this season and until they beat Leeds last time out, were on a very similar pattern of results to that of ours, playing reasonably well but failing to win. Their victory at Elland Road seemed to be a tougher result to take than some of the points we’ve thrown away recently as there was always hope whilst we were only one win away from catching them. It was a wakeup call and a reminder that draws are very handy but not the results that are going to keep us up on their own. Surely we needed to start approaching games with more urgency, especially in a game against the side directly above us?
I was disappointed by how we threw away the cup tie with Burnley at the weekend and didn’t understand why we opted to play Anguissa and Bryan in a reserve side that was likely to lose. Anguissa looked very lethargic against Brighton and it’s no surprise as he’s the only player to feature in every Premier League game so far. Fair enough if you play most of the first choice eleven and go for it, hoping to gain some momentum with a win, but if you are treating the cup as a run-out for fringe players, why not rest them all and give the likes of Carvalho a start as a reward for his head-turning performances in the under 23s? With Antonee Robinson suspended, we knew that we were going to need Joe Bryan for the Brighton game and with games coming thick and fast, squad management does seem to make sense, but all sense was lost (at least it was in my household) when the team sheet was revealed, with Joe Bryan on the bench and our top goalscorer at left back. What?
Onto the game itself and it was a blast for the neutral. Just what you want to see for your evening entertainment: two sides who keep the ball and do very little with it. The possession stats swung several times as both teams tried to dominate the ball with Brighton creating the better opportunities, but with very little conviction. It was reassuring to see Alphonse back to his best, putting the two unfortunate errors against Utd and Chelsea behind him. The French international is fourth for most shots saved in the Premier League this season and it’s becoming clear to me that most of our clean sheets are down to him saving our bacon.
Obviously, we have found a way to be more resilient, and in Joachim Andersen, we have an organiser and a leader at the back. Scott Parker deserves credit for identifying a way to make us more compact and was bold to change from his style that got us promoted. The downside to this is that in curing our defensive frailties, it has made us almost non-existent in an attacking sense and whilst it’s perfectly acceptable to play this way away to the likes of Leicester and Man City, waiting for your one golden chance to nick a goal, Scott seems to become fixated on one system and we play it against everyone. A counterproductive move as our players are capable of doing more than feeding off of scraps in a game against a team who have only won 6 games in a calendar year.
I think the majority of fans accept that we need a goalscorer and I hope we can get one in before the window closes. It would be season-defining if we did and would potentially give Parker the missing piece to his jigsaw. However, the argument for a new striker loses credibility and becomes more of an excuse than anything else when he opted to leave Mitrovic on the bench again and played Decordova-Reid as the left wing-back. In my opinion, Scott Parker does little to help himself when he sets us up with Cavaleiro to lead the line. You’ve got to make the best out of the tools you have and if they aren’t good enough, we can blame it on the lack of a competent striker afterwards. You can’t play someone who has 1 goal from open play in his last 37 games, out of position, leave out your main talisman, put your top scorer in defence and then blame our toothless attack on not having a striker.
Perhaps the player most affected by the decision to play Reid in defence was Ademola Lookman. Normally I would credit the opponent’s manager for finding a way to nullify our biggest threat, but Brighton’s dilemma was made for them. With no natural width or overlapping, Ade became isolated and always had numerous players marking him so that he couldn’t get a foothold on the game. The only time he seemed to have some joy came after the arrival of Joe Bryan and Aleksandar Mitrovic with a few minutes to go. The duo had a very positive impact and restored balance to the side.
A left-footed wing-back and Mitro’s presence in the box allowed us that one golden chance I referred to earlier. Bryan’s cross forced a tame clearance which fell perfectly into the path of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The Chelsea loanee didn’t do much wrong with the chance and it was brilliantly cleared off the line by Lewis Dunk. The game ended 0-0 but those few minutes showed some encouraging signs and hopefully hinted at the potential rewards to be gained when you take the handbrake off a little.
We are still in a position to turn this around and the progress made with draws against some of the big clubs has just about kept us in the mix. The defence is solid and we are always in every game we play, that is a platform to build on in the second half of the season.
Ironically the ‘safety first’ approach is continuously dropping two points and seems to be steering us away from safety but we have a chance to stop that this weekend in another massive game. At an altitude of 551 feet, The Hawthorns is the highest ground above sea level in the country, but if Parker doesn’t allow his players to express themselves and go for three points, it won’t be long before the campaign becomes the Lost Season of Atlantis.
On to Saturday, COYW!