Chris Hughton desperate to halt Brighton’s downward spiral
Albion have not scored in the league in seven weeks and are now in a relegation dogfight
Chris Hughton: has five games to ensure Brighton maintain their Premier Division status this season. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty
Chris Hughton resorted to rattling off the positives.
There were the recent away performances, “apart from the Chelsea one”, at Crystal Palace and Wembley. Going back further and Wolves, today’s opponents, had been beaten last autumn in trademark Brighton fashion: robust defending, a clean sheet and a Glenn Murray finish to claim the points.
Then there was Pascal Gross’s return to fitness and that of José Izquierdo, players who have missed huge chunks of the campaign. The pair contributed 23 goals and assists last season in a team that scored only 34 times.
Throw in, too, the reality Hughton’s side may need to muster only one positive result from five fixtures, starting at Molineux, to secure survival. Cardiff, the team clawing at their backs, will surely need two from four games.
“Have we been absolutely brilliant this season? No, we haven’t,” said Hughton. “But we’ve been in a position where, while never comfortable, we’d have been happy. Now we have one last challenge.
“What I can’t do is fill the players with fear, so I’ve given them the facts. We have five games to go, we’re two points above the relegation zone and we don’t want to rely on other teams. It’s in our hands. The only things that will stop us are if we’re not good enough in the end, or if we don’t work hard enough.”
Neither scenario, normally, would seem applicable for a robust, hard-working side who have competed effectively since returning to this level, after 34 years, in 2017, but these are strange times at Brighton.
A team that claimed 25 points from 20 games up to the turn of the year have managed only two league wins since, their nosedive masked by a run to an FA Cup semi-final. Five consecutive defeats in all competitions suggests they may have hit the wall.
The crisis of confidence quietly gnawing away at Hughton’s players has been exposed in their past three home games, all surrendered to teams Albion would expect to beat.
The 5-0 drubbing by Bournemouth was humiliating. More damaging still was Tuesday’s reverse to Cardiff when the visitors displayed the cold, calm composure Brighton currently lack. Senior figures, from Dale Stephens to Lewis Dunk, Murray to Davy Pröpper, were paralysed under pressure.
Hughton is well aware of familiar criticisms being flung his way from the sidelines; the accusations of tactical inflexibility and murmurings that, for all he has achieved over four years, the players may no longer be responding.
He suffered a similarly untimely slump at Norwich in 2014, winning twice in 11 games at the same point in the season, and was sacked before a daunting five-match run-in. The Canaries subsided with a whimper regardless.
Brighton remain horribly reliant upon Murray’s goals, and, at 35, he has looked worn out and isolated of late. He has three goals since the beginning of December, and Albion have not scored in the league for seven weeks. They boast a solitary clean sheet in 12 league games with Dunk and Shane Duffy not the sources of strength they once were.
The hierarchy at Brighton, from the owner, Tony Bloom, to the deputy chairman, Paul Barber, via the technical director, Dan Ashworth, remain supportive, and there is no suggestion Hughton’s future will be discussed until the summer at least. Most fans bellowed defiant support at the interval on Tuesday. It was only when that failed to materialise that frustration gave way to boos.
Hughton always suspected this would be a tricky campaign. He is partly the victim of raised expectations.
Had Albion begun with eight points from 13 games, a tally similar to those scraped by Burnley, Southampton or Palace, and then recovered like that trio then the panic would have been contained. Instead, Albion’s campaign has been played out in reverse. Whether there is scope for Hughton to change things – the switch from 4-4-1-1 to 4-3-3, forced by Gross’s absence, has not been a success – is open to debate given the resources at his disposal.
Brighton are enduring what so many clubs of their size experience in the elite division when forays into the transfer market, always a gamble on their budget, do not yield immediate dividends.
They have scoured foreign markets for players of potential. Gross’s signing had been a masterstroke, but £3m successes are rare. Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the record signing at £17m having claimed the Dutch Eredivisie’s golden boot last season, has failed to find the net.
Jürgen Locadia, £14m from PSV, boasts three goals in 30 top-flight appearances while Florin Andone has also needed time.
Ashworth, who arrived in February, will influence future recruitment but Hughton must rely upon the usual suspects to secure safety. A year ago, they did just that against Manchester United. Now, at Molineux, this team yearn for a repeat.