On Saturday, something happened for Brighton that had never happened before. After a second 4-1 win of the season, with six points accrued and a goal difference of +6, they sat top of the Premier League. It was the first time in the club’s history that they had ever spent a night in first place in the top flight of English football.
By the time we have got around to writing and publishing this article, they’ve spent five whole days and nights top of the pile, and with West Ham at home up next, they’ll be hoping to extend that stay next weekend into double figures for nights at the top.
Looking back on Brighton’s recent history, it is remarkable how far they have come. Just 26 years ago while playing at their former home, the Goldstone Ground in the old Third Division, they faced relegation from the Football League in the final game of the 1996-97 season. But after coming from a goal down to rescue a point against Hereford, they beat the drop by the skin of their teeth. Hereford, who were stuck level on points with Brighton, dropped into the Conference with an inferior goals-scored record. They were then forced to ground share with Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium for two years, before moving to a decrepit athletics stadium until 2011.
Today, Brighton find themselves playing in a shiny modern arena, sat ahead of everyone else in the Premier League table, including clubs that account for seven Champions League titles and two trebles in the time since Brighton escaped relegation from the Football League by a few goals. It’s fairytale stuff.
We might only be two games into the new season – and Brighton won’t exactly be expecting to challenge for the title come May – but they deserve to be where they are; they are top on merit. Roberto De Zerbi has created a genuinely brilliant side whose table-topping displays this season should come as no surprise. Their form is merely an extension of what we saw from the team last season.
In fact, since De Zerbi took charge of his first game at the start of last October, Brighton have registered the highest non-penalty expected goals per 90 of all Premier League teams (1.97).
That is, they have created better quality chances more consistently than Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool – everyone – over a period of nine months of football. Their rate of 1.82 goals per game shows that they haven’t quite converted their chances at the rate they have been making them, so their record could be even better than it is with slightly better finishing.
In the second half of last season, they marched up the table playing attack-minded, bold and creative football, and secured European football for the first time. Then, this summer, they sold two of their best and most important players, with Moisés Caicedo joining Chelsea and Alexis Mac Allister moving to Liverpool.
Was it time to panic?
Not in the slightest.
Mac Allister moved early in the window, and Brighton made out publicly that Caicedo wasn’t for sale at a penny under the price they had set. It’s hard to know for sure, but presumably those high up at Brighton knew that the Ecuadorian would leave this summer; they had certainly, and wisely, planned for that eventuality. They probably even knew when they bought him in 2021 that he would move on to bigger things – there have been reports since he made his Chelsea move that many of the world’s biggest clubs had been tracking him long before he went to Brighton.
Brighton do succession planning incredibly well. In Billy Gilmour, they already had one young, supremely talented central midfielder who had spent a year at the club and knew De Zerbi’s football, and in Mahmoud Dahoud they then added an excellent and more experienced player this summer. They also brought in James Milner, who has played right-back so far but provides more cover in central midfield. The transition to life without Mac Allister and Caicedo has been so seamless it is barely believable.
That is in no small part because the attackers have been performing so well. Brighton blend youth with experience beautifully, with teenager Julio Enciso an exceptional prospect who already looks at home in the Premier League playing alongside 32-year-old Danny Welbeck, and Solly March (aged 29), Kaoru Mitoma (26) and new signing João Pedro (21) all starting the new campaign in impressive form. They have the highest xG in the Premier League this season (6.23), while March, Mitoma and left-back Pervis Estupiñán make up three of the four players across the entire Premier League who have three goal involvements already this season.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Brighton’s play is how quickly they shift from their build-up play and possession-based football to quick, direct attacks. They like to play deep in their own half with the ball on the floor, but when they spot an opportunity to play forward quickly, they take it. That was part of De Zerbi’s thinking when he chose to replace first-choice goalkeeper Robert Sánchez with Jason Steele, who could play accurate passes over longer distances more effectively. Sánchez was sold to Chelsea for a reported £25 million this summer, adding a few more pounds of profit to Brighton’s books for 2023.
This variety to their play shows up in the numbers. They have averaged 61.5% possession so far this season, which leaves them behind only Chelsea (69.9%), Arsenal (66.0%), Tottenham (63.0%) and Man City (62.0%), while only Arsenal (13) and City (11) have had more open-play sequences of at least 10 passes that then end in a shot or a touch in the opposition box than Brighton (8).
They also, meanwhile, rank second only to Aston Villa (7) for direct attacks, with six, where a direct attack is exactly as it sounds – a quick attack up the field – but is literally defined as ‘an open-play sequence that starts just inside the team’s own half and has at least 50% movement towards the opposition’s goal and then ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box’.
Brighton have also been the most effective team in the league when it comes to these attacks; only three goals have been scored from direct attacks in the Premier League this season, and Brighton have scored two of them. They have been ruthlessly efficient when breaking at speed.
They are brave in possession, building in a unique way from defence with their central midfielders dropping very deep to join the build-up phase and to create space further up the pitch. When they can play through the opposition’s press they do, but they aren’t at all afraid of going long, with Welbeck always providing an out ball high up the pitch.
De Zerbi’s side are also bold out of possession. They average the fourth-largest distance from their own goal that their open-play sequences start (43.9m), and the third-most high turnovers in the top flight (22), behind Manchester United (31) and Everton (28), though neither of those teams have scored from a high regain, while Brighton have. They also have the third-lowest PPDA rate, allowing their opponents just nine passes for every defensive action they make, behind only Arsenal (7.5) and Tottenham (8.8).
Their approach hasn’t come without problems, though, with Brighton caught open slightly too often. Their expected goals conceded this season of 3.62 is more than 10 other Premier League teams, while Wolves almost matched them for xG at the weekend.
This is front-foot, assertive, attacking football that is usually only reserved for the biggest and best teams; the teams with the greatest resources who can suffocate their opponents on – and indeed off – the field, and tend to have more control of games than Brighton have been able to manage.
But they are going against the grain under De Zerbi. The fans probably count themselves fortunate that he hasn’t been stolen by a bigger club, but he sees the situation in quite the opposite way.
“I’m lucky to be the coach of Brighton,” he said after the win over Wolves. “I’m happy because I have a lot of great players. Maybe not as famous as other big teams in the world, but they are very important players.”
As a club, they have pulled off some remarkable acts in recent years. Beyond their success in rising up the leagues, they have reinvented themselves time and again following the departures of countless big players and even their former manager, Graham Potter. Nobody involved with the club would say they regret the sales of any of Marc Cucurella, Ben White, Yves Bissouma, Dan Burn or Leandro Trossard, simply because they have improved as a team with every departure.
After losing Caicedo and Mac Allister this summer, with De Zerbi at the helm, this might be their greatest trick yet.