Brighton’s relatively poor form last season always looked, from the outside, rather curious. With a very decent, and relatively wealthy, fan base operating from a superb, if somewhat isolated, facility, all the ingredients are there for a south coast powerhouse.
The momentum gained following their move from the horrible Withdean seems to have been reignited with the signing of Zamorra (an icon for the Seagulls), the loaning of Wilson from Manchester United, no doubt in the face of fierce Championship competition, and the addition very recently of the mercurial Knockaert.
A long unbeaten run has been interrupted by a minor slump as injuries and an inevitable loss of form in an unpredictable and tough division but their credentials for a top 6 finish remain intact and the game was always going to be a tough assignment for Town whose transformation remains experimental and whose recent schedule has been challenging and complicated by a midweek replay which could only create fatigue.
The visitors performed creditably but unspectacularly and were unable to overcome unfavourable odds in a game which rarely hit any heights.
Much of the fatigue looked mental rather than physical, particularly at the back where the concession of far too many free kicks around the penalty area could have lead to a far heavier defeat; up front, Town were unable to convert long periods of possession in to meaningful chances, particularly in the second half.
A rather card happy referee – who was otherwise competent and fair – had no choice but to book Hudson for a very early pulling back of Hemed which conceded the first of the aforementioned free kicks around the area wasted by the home team. The decision was correct but seemed to set a lower than normal bar for punishment in a game largely devoid of malice.
That vignette in the opening minutes set the tone for the whole game. Town lost possession in the middle of the park with Brighton fairly content to wait for the error, a slightly under par defender commits a foul and the home side spurn the opportunity.
Following the early scare, Town dominated possession and looked reasonably sharp without causing too many problems for the hosts’ back four, and Brighton had done their homework; they respected their opponents’ ability to keep and move the ball but waited patiently for their chance to break.
Before the opening goal, the home side gave plenty of warning of their speed on the break with Knockaert causing Davidson problems culminating in a fine ball for Zamorra to sweep in at the back post with an excellent finish.
That the goal came directly from a Town corner which was lofted in to the area without attracting a challenge from a yellow shirt will be of concern to Wagner on two scores. Firstly, the concession was the second such incident in a week from poor execution and, secondly, the vulnerability of his team when possession and control is lost – it is too easy for teams to exploit Town when things break down, and the goal was far from the only example at the Amex.
To their credit, Town responded well to the goal and should have equalised when the ball fell to Wells in the area. The Bermudian’s first touch was sublime, taking a defender out of play, but his second was ridiculous – slicing over the bar when he really should have scored. Hudson had done well to get the ball to the striker and it is the sort of chance Wells needs to be converting.
Though a little patchy at times – possession was given away too often – Town had their best spell of the game in the latter part of the first half which was rewarded with a late equaliser. The lively Paterson – the pick of the visitors throughout – hit a lovely cross field pass to the advancing Smith who delivered an inviting ball in to the area for Bunn to accept and plant in to the bottom corner with a powerful header following a well timed run.
The leveller was another indication of Town’s improving resilience under Wagner and, had the team been more refreshed, it was one which may have provided a good platform for the second half. Sadly, this proved not to be the case.
It didn’t help that Huws was withdrawn at the break – presumably for injury. Though not at his absolute best (he lost his footing on several occasions), he is a calming influence in the middle and can cruise through games with precise passing and the ability to read situations.
Matmour came on for an encouraging if unspectacular debut. He looks strong, willing and potentially dangerous but, like his colleagues, was unable to cause the home defence enough problems in a second half which drifted away from the visitors once they went behind.
An early corner found its way to Davidson on the edge of the box but the Australian blazed over and a Matmour effort was well blocked before it could trouble Stockdale in the Brighton goal as Town made a bright start to try and capitalise on the late first half equaliser.
Yet another dangerous free kick was conceded by Lynch, who was duly booked, and Knockaert’s effort hit the outside of the post – the closest the home side would go from their opportunities handed to them by the visitors.
Just after the hour, poor defending by Town, who really should have cleared up a less than threatening attack with an old fashioned hoof, presented the ever dangerous Knockaert with the opportunity to put in a simple cross for substitute Wilson to convert.
After going behind again, Town tried to recover but one or two promising situations – in particular one where Wells should have done better in the area by finding the unmarked Paterson rather than holding on to the ball – came to nothing and as a last throw of the dice, Wagner pushed both Hudson and Lynch forward which, naturally, left us exposed at the back and directly contributed to Tommy Smith’s second yellow card for upending Lua Lua who was bearing down on goal.
With both Hudson and Smith suspended for the next game (Hudson for 2), a major reorganisation will be necessary, complicated by Dempsey being injured, though Whitehead’s return should release Cranie from the holding midfielder role in which he is not entirely convincing.
Brighton dealt with Town’s huffing and puffing with little difficulty in a last half hour where our vulnerability to injury and suspension was laid bare, but not as bare as the lack of striking options available to the manager. Wells didn’t play badly at all, he is a willing worker for the team and his ability to link play has improved greatly under the German, but having to be supplemented by centre halves pushed forward for the second game running is a stark illumination of the issue.
A defeat then, bringing a decent run in the League to an end, but one which raises concerns rather than panic given the inherent disadvantages the team had to contend with against fresher and highly competent opposition.
Wagner will, rightly, stick to his philosophies and continue to grow and improve the resources available to him, but those assets need supplementing in this transfer window. In particular, Wells’ burden needs relieving – it is unrealistic to expect an addition as good as Brighton have achieved with Wilson, but the lack of options up front is a serious handicap to Wagner which needs resolution.
Hard work, spirit and a sprinkling of genuine talent (Lolley was largely quieted in this contest but still manages to elicit a frisson of excitement on the ball while Paterson continues to impress) will get you so far, but offensive ruthlessness is vital for the future.
After the game, the Brighton manager and some of their fans praised Town’s approach to the contest but it was telling that Houghton identified the vulnerability at the breakdown of possession and how they were better at exploiting turnovers, which told the story of the game quite succinctly.
Town have yet to prove their credentials against top half teams (other than at Birmingham when they were vulnerable through circumstances) and it is a given that Wagner will understand this and work towards the solutions; hopefully with judicial recruitment.
Inconsistent Cardiff are up next, but not for your correspondent who will now follow progress from the beauty of the San Juan mountains in Colorado. Many thanks for the kind words over the season – service will be resumed for the last few weeks and hopefully, safety will be achieved well before then.