“We were in front of the best English manager right now. You have to be a top side to play that way.”
Those were the words of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after he watched his side beat Graham Potter’s Brighton 1-0 at a soaking wet Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
Phil Foden’s goal late in the first half proved to be the difference, hauling City back into the title race with another vital three points while condemning Albion to yet another defeat on the road.
The hosts were not at their scintillating best, but they are certainly on the right track to push for another tilt at the Premier League title and did just about enough to see off Brighton, despite Raheem Sterling’s late penalty blunder.
But the most interesting talking point and takeaway after the game was Guardiola’s praise – extremely high praise, in fact – for Brighton manager Potter.
The Spaniard’s fluid footballing philosophy has been clear ever since he graced the turf of Barcelona’s Camp Nou as a manager for the very first time. Coming up against a team managed by Guardiola, you know that for the majority of the game you’ll be chasing shadows; attempting to close down space, only for subtle drops of the shoulders, intricate flicks and succinct one-touch passing, with laser like accuracy, to breach the defensive and midfield lines in a heartbeat.
Nowadays, Manchester City are the team to benefit from Guardiola’s insatiable desire to manipulate space, pinning teams back into their own half as their opponents dream of dispossessing a set of 11 players intent on holding onto the ball for as long as possible.
Brighton aren’t so relentlessly brilliant at doing all of those things, but there are parallels to be drawn with Potter’s style of football down on the south coast. The Seagulls’ brand of survival football at any cost under Chris Hughton is no longer a thing, and instead Brighton look to crisply stroke the ball and open up spaces, with freedom of movement and a willingness to receive the ball into feet at the fore.
Occasionally there are long direct balls into the channel, which allow Brighton to exploit the pace of Neal Maupay, but more often than that it’s a patient approach that is undertaken; one that is similar to City, who pick their way through teams when the moment is right, and Barcelona of old.
But for all of the ball-playing aesthetics, the thrill of receiving praise from a manager like Guardiola and the argument of playing football ‘the right way’, there is a question mark around the sustainability of such a style for team who lack the same quality of players.
Brighton clearly want to stay in the Premier League, but there’s no getting away from it; they are in the midst of a relegation battle, and, unfortunately, are not picking up points at a regular enough rate to steer clear off the drop. They lead ever improving Fulham, who themselves are keen to press ahead with a more idealistic style of play under Scott Parker, by a slender two points, and the Cottagers have two games in hand due to scheduling conflicts in this most bizarre of seasons.
More worryingly, Brighton have picked up just two wins out of 18 this season, and are now without a victory in their last eight Premier League games. Only once have they appeared in the top half of the table, and that was as early as the second week of the campaign – when Newcastle were taught a footballing lesson at St James’ Park in a one-sided 3-0 win.
Since then, there have been glimpses of what they can do – fighting back against Wolves to earn a point and winning well away at in-form Aston Villa being two examples of that. But Potter will be the first to admit that Brighton have failed to build on the foundations of a pretty successful first season in charge (from a points picked up and goals scored perspective, anyway, as Albion notched the highest of each as a Premier League side during 2019/20).
Startlingly, as good as Brighton look on occasion and as much as their philosophy has impressed neutrals and the club’s owners alike – they rewarded Potter with a two-year contract extension just months after landing the job, committing him to the Amex until 2025 – their win percentage under the former Swansea boss actually makes for grim reading.
In 56 Premier League games played, Brighton have emerged with a maximum three points on just 11 occasions – giving Potter an unenviable win rate of just 19.6%. If that vein of form continues, Brighton will pick up just three more wins all season and that is form that will almost certainly see them relegated, even if they do currently draw 39.2% of games.
It doesn’t beg the question, yet, of whether Potter is the right man to lead Brighton forward, as he clearly is in some respects, but it does leave you wondering how long he will persist with a philosophy that is clearly not delivering results. Unless something changes, dire consequences are on the horizon for Albion – ones that are surely not worth it for the sake of maintaining a certain style of play.