Entering Matchweek 9 of the 2022-23 season, the upper third of the Premier League table looks roughly as it always has.1 Arsenal sits on top after an excellent start.2 Manchester City is in second, doing Manchester City things (read: absolutely demolishing teams). Antonio Conte has Tottenham Hotspur sitting in third and playing as well as it has since dismissing Mauricio Pochettino in the fall of 2019. Erik ten Hag seems to have turned things around at fifth-place Manchester United. And though Liverpool got off to a sputtering start, the underlying data — namely, expected goal differential3 — suggests the Reds will be just fine when all is said and done.
There is, however, one major glitch in the matrix: Brighton & Hove Albion currently sit in fourth.
This might not seem too surprising to anyone who’s paid attention since Graham Potter took over as Brighton manager back in 2019. “Potter Ball” got off to a bit of a shaky start when it was first introduced to the South Coast in 2019, but starting with the 2020-21 season, Potter’s Seagulls were a borderline elite Premier League outfit in terms of expected goal differential. During large stretches of the previous three seasons — and particularly during the previous two — the Seagulls played beautiful, free-flowing, progressive soccer, even if their final place in the league table didn’t do their play on the pitch much justice.
Indeed, if it weren’t for some truly dismal finishing and bad luck — Brighton underperformed its xG differential by 22 net goals in 2020-21 and 2021-22 combined — the Seagulls might have already made the leap from plucky and fun mid-table almost-rans to a club that has a legitimate chance at challenging for European places. So in that sense, Brighton’s performance this season could be seen as a continuation of the club’s multi-year ascent under Potter.
There’s just one problem: Potter is gone now.
Yes, to the detriment of Albion fans across the globe — or maybe they just exist on England’s South Coast? — Potter jumped ship earlier this month for the much sexier (and much more lucrative) confines of Chelsea and Stamford Bridge. Brighton managed to replace Potter with Italian manager Roberto De Zerbi, whose Sassuolo team — a similarly small and overachieving club in Italy’s Serie A — punched above its weight during his tenure.4 But losing an era-defining manager during the middle of the season isn’t ideal, regardless of the quality of the replacement, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder what kind of an effect the swap will have on Brighton going forward.
So far this season, Brighton is playing some of the best soccer in England, so much so that the FiveThirtyEight Club Soccer Predictions give it a 24 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League — by far the best odds for any club outside of the traditional Big 6. And not for nothing, Brighton currently sits in the top 25 of all club soccer teams on the planet — two positions higher than Man United — according to the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index. In other words, the talent is there. If De Zerbi can pick up where Potter left off, Brighton might have a puncher’s chance at something it’s never done in its history — qualifying for Europe.
To be sure, the loss of Potter is a blow for Brighton. It’s not that long ago that the Seagulls were struggling to remain in the top flight under his predecessor Chris Hughton, let alone dreaming about the Top 4. Its first-ever season in the Premier League — 2017-18 — was undistinguished at best and ignominious at worst. The Seagulls couldn’t score; the Seagulls couldn’t defend; the Seagulls narrowly escaped being relegated as quickly as they were promoted.
Brighton’s second season in the Premier League was even worse than its first, and culminated in Hughton’s sacking. Though the Seagulls finished 17th and staved off relegation by a measly 2 points, Hughton — a Republic of Ireland and Tottenham Hotspur legend during his playing days — managed to secure just 11 points from January 1, 2019, through the end of the campaign. Brighton was safe, but Hughton’s job ultimately was not. In stepped Potter, who changed the tenor of the club’s entire history. Now that he has departed, a huge question looms over Brighton’s season: Can De Zerbi keep it going?
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