Saturday, 29 February 2020

Potter suffering dreadful 2020 as Brighton struggle for Premier League goals and wins

By Alistair Hendrie

Graham Potter is having a terrible year. That’s a given. His Brighton and Hove Albion side are the only team in the top four divisions yet to win a match in the league this year, while the Seagulls’ defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday made them the first Premier League team in history to lose on 29th February thanks to 2020 being a leap year. With that said, try telling Potter that having an extra day in the year is a good thing.

After all, his side huffed and puffed against bitter rivals Palace and despite setting a club Premier League record of 24 shots, they couldn’t find inroads when it counted. Winger Solly March hit the side netting when bearing down on goal, French forward Neal Maupay fired directly into the arms of Vicente Guaita and Lewis Dunk’s goalbound header smacked into Maupay, such is Brighton’s luck.

That means Brighton are now winless in eight Premier League matches, leaving them bottom of the table if you take into account only that streak. They have five points during that run whereas Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Aston Villa have seven. Their slump is not down to any lack of defensive prowess or downturn in effort but you have to think Potter’s indecision over his best formation is weighing his squad down.

As Brighton have faltered in 2020, Potter has lined up his rudderless troops in a 3-4-3, 5-3-2, 4-2-3-1 and a bizarre 4-1-2-1-2 against Chelsea in January, which left the Seagulls without a sense of width or any degree of threat from the flanks. Potter would have been delighted to see Alireza Jahanbakhsh rescue his side a point in that match with a stunning overhead kick.

That draw against Frank Lampard’s team simply papers over the cracks however. Since the turn of the year Brighton have failed to score more than once in any Premier League match barring their 3-3 tie at West Ham in February. Potter’s chopping and changing of systems is not leading to goals and it’s a shame to see Maupay struggling when he has the potential to score decent numbers in the Premier League.

The 23-year-old, signed by Potter last summer from Brentford for £19.8 million, has scored only once in his last eleven matches, cutting an isolated figure as he roams down the wings and fights for scraps through the middle. However, he has scored eight altogether in the league this season – not bad for a team short of bullets – but their next highest scorer is own goals with four, underlining their feeble finishing.

Potter lets Maupay play a free role owing to his shrewd dribbling but the trouble is, the 44-year-old doesn’t seem to know how to get the best from Maupay – that is, how to help him find the back of the net more often. Should Maupay play as a lone striker? Should he play alongside Glenn Murray? Who knows? Clearly not Potter, who has flitted between both options without grasping three points.

The former Swansea City manager also added Genk winger Leandro Trossard to his squad during the summer. The little box of tricks netted 11 times last season in the Belgian First Division A, making him the joint-sixth highest scorer in the league as De Smurfen swept to their fourth league title. Conversely, Trossard has struggled to hit those numbers under Potter, netting only three times this term after scoring on the first day of the season in a 1-1 draw with West Ham.

Additionally, Potter has the dilemma of fitting Murray into his plans. The 36-year-old, only the second man in history to grab 100 goals for the Seagulls, has started just three matches in 2020 and it looks like Potter either doesn’t know how to extract the best from Murray or believes the veteran is past his best days.

Given Brighton’s inability to score on a regular basis and their profligacy when presented with golden opportunities, surely Murray’s height, spring and heading ability could get Potter out of a rut. Last season, under Chris Hughton, Murray became an outsider for an England call-up as he banged in 13 Premier League goals, four of them penalties, helping him finish as the league’s joint-seventh highest goalscorer.

Under the watch of Potter, though, the former Palace and Reading marksman has netted just twice in all competitions as he has faded into the peripheries. Take a look at Brighton’s next seven fixtures and Potter’s fight becomes even more gruelling. Champions League-chasing Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester City await and they also face Liverpool in April. Perhaps Murray could get Brighton firing once more in that passage.

The home matches against Liverpool on April 20th and Manchester City on April 25th look to be Herculean assessments, but as conventional wisdom suggests Albion would enjoy less possession against the top two, knocking in early crosses to Murray could bear fruit. At 6 foot, he is taller than Maupay, Trossard and Aaron Mooy and much more of a target for deliveries from the wings.

Whatever happens, Potter needs to coax more from a crop of attackers who have scored four goals between them in Brighton’s last eleven matches. Before the Palace clash the manager told the assembled press that they needed to stop fixating on Brighton’s lack of a victory in 2020 and quit peddling the same narrative. Still, as Palace tasted victory at the AMEX for the first time since 2013, the story continues and Brighton are staring at a return to the Championship.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Lampard pays for over-reliance on Abraham against Leicester City

By Alistair Hendrie

No, Frank Lampard said, Tammy Abraham had not recovered from a knock to his ankle but on the other hand, he added, the Chelsea forward was fit enough to start against Leicester City on Saturday. Lampard grinned with admiration for Abraham, just about stopping short of donning pigtails, pom-poms and a skirt. In the end he had to thank his German centre-back Antonio Rudiger who scored a brace of bullish headers to help Chelsea to a 2-2 draw which both sides could have gained more from.

You might ask what Lampard would have thought from the touchline watching Abraham huff, puff and just come up short until he was substituted for Ross Barkley on 82 minutes. The England man is far from the finished article and although he didn’t seem compromised by any injury on Saturday, he rarely looked like improving on his latest record of two goals in his last nine Premier League matches. His promise is also negated by the fact that only one of his 13 goals in the league this season have occurred against a current top six side. That was in August against Sheffield United when Chris Wilder’s side were adjusting to their new surroundings.

Leicester, of course, were far more formidable opponents. As Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes Abraham misfired on a cross from Mason Mount and also appealed in vain for a penalty when he tumbled over, attempting a cutback while under pressure from Caglar Soyoncu. As Rudiger opened the scoring, later equalising after Harvey Barnes and Ben Chilwell put the home side in the driving seat during a frantic second half, Abraham turned in a disappointing shift and couldn’t tune his radar to any of Pedro or Callum Hudson-Odoi’s deliveries behind the hosts’ backline.

Lampard will defend his striker to the end though. From day one he has championed academy talent and you feel that the former Derby County boss is attacking his first big assignment as a manager with a sense of wide-eyed wonder. He sometimes appears out of his depth but he’s enthusiastic enough to make the bold decisions.

He did exactly that by putting his faith in Abraham, leaving Michy Batshuayi on the bench. Olivier Giroud didn’t even make the list of substitutes. Lampard’s selection reinforced his absence of confidence in Batshuayi, who has only been on the pitch for 139 minutes this season in the league and is yet to start in the competition. The Belgian striker, tall and powerful in the air, would have surely fed off Mount’s set-plays better than Abraham did against Leicester. It was telling that at 2-2, when Chelsea were chasing the game, Lampard would rather bring on Barkley, Mateo Kovacic – two players who rarely gel – and Willian instead of opting for more of a target man.

Lampard’s decisions could also speak to his disillusionment with Chelsea’s January transfer window business. They missed out on Dries Meterns from Napoli. They also let Edison Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, slip through their fingers. Neither could they shift Batshuayi or Giroud. As such, Lampard sent a message to the board telling them to act in a more clinical manner in future windows.

It’s clear that Lampard would have also kept an eye on Abraham while managing Derby in the Championship last season, as the spidery forward netted 26 times on loan at Aston Villa in the same division. He is a Lampard player. Batshuayi and Giroud aren’t. The former seems particularly unsettled and Maurizio Sarri, Lampard’s predecessor, was also unconvinced by him.

Saturday’s setback was emblematic of Lampard’s lack of choice of a traditional striker. Although Mount, Pedro and Hudson-Odoi created havoc on the left none of them could fashion a clinical moment. The manager even gambled on playing the lightweight Willian as a false nine as the match dwindled out. Abraham was ineffective and Batshuayi, the substitute, was pictured hunched forward with anxiety, covering his face with his bib. Lampard will hope to put less emphasis on Abraham in the future.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more