Graham Potter is a thinker. Aside from being a highly-rated Premier League manager, he is an academic with a degree in social sciences and a masters in leadership and emotional intelligence.
The 46-year-old is articulate in conveying his ideas on how football should be played, shown by the way his stylish Brighton side have performed in an over-achieving season.
But there is one thing, when it comes to talking about Brighton’s campaign, that Potter can’t quite explain with an eloquent answer.
The Seagulls have already set club-bests for points and wins with three games to play and will also suffer their fewest defeats. Having never finished above the bottom six, they are currently ninth, set for a club-record finish, potentially inside the top-10 having never previously finished there.
And yet this historic season has seen the sale of centre-backs Ben White and Dan Burn, issues with Covid and injuries, and likely fewer goals scored than when they were worrying about relegation before finishing 16th last term. How does Potter explain such a change of fortunes in tougher circumstances?
“It’s a tricky one,” he tells Sky Sports ahead of facing Manchester United, live on Sky Sports. “I’m asked a lot, ‘Why’s this? Why’s that?’ You want to give some clever, coach answer but sometimes it’s just ‘football’ and part of why we love the game. Sometimes you can’t explain things.
“We ended up with 41 points last year but performance-wise we were so much better than that. This year has been really tough to analyse to a certain extent. We’ve had lots of Covid and injuries which would normally derail you, but we’ve managed it really well. The players have been incredible for that, as a group they’ve found solutions.
“We’ve had really good moments and then times when the margins haven’t gone our way and you have to suffer for a bit. It’s hard to say why it is. We haven’t had a stable season, we’ve had quite a challenging season, that’s what makes it even more satisfying that we’re in the situation we’re in now.”
Brighton make progress despite setbacks
The picture of Brighton’s season is muddied by their 14 draws – only matched by Crystal Palace – which has currently left them with more defeats than wins. They have the third-worst home record yet the fourth-best away record. The worst xG differential (47.4) having scored 13 goals fewer than they should have done with a shot conversion rate of 7.7 per cent, the second-lowest behind rock-bottom Norwich (6.6 per cent).
But ultimately what matters is that Brighton have improved on last season and that shows progress which has been Potter’s aim from the start.
“I had no real expectations when I came,” said Potter of his appointment in 2019. “You’re taking over a team that finished 17th with 36 points, trying to implement a different playing style, introduce young players and then start to develop.
“The first year was incredibly tough for various reasons but still positive. Second season was a big step in terms of how we played, but without the results. This season we’ve taken another step forward with better results. We’ve made progress and, in this league, if you keep making progress it’s no mean feat.”
Only once did things really threaten to spiral out of control this season as Brighton chalked up six consecutive defeats across February and March, but chairman Tony Bloom and chief executive Paul Barber, described by Potter as “very intelligent”, were never going to hit the panic button. Since then, Brighton have lost just once – to Manchester City – in six games and they haven’t fallen lower than 14th.
I don’t think we’re anywhere near the finished article. The hardest thing is to carry on with your ideas and keep developing the team when you’re not winning every week.
The departure of White to Arsenal for £50m saw Brighton sign versatile defender Marc Cucurella, who, based on his first season in the Premier League, looks a steal at £15m.
Midfielder Enock Mwepu has also impressed since arriving from Red Bull Salzburg last summer although has seen his minutes hampered by injury.
Possession key to success
Brighton, the seventh-youngest squad in the division, have been able to control games and, in turn, churn out results. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have averaged more possession across the season.
Potter is adamant there’s still lots more room for improvement, but this season will only raise expectations. After a goalless draw with Leeds in November, some Brighton fans booed the team off the pitch. Potter responded by questioning whether he needed a “history lesson on this club” whose side were in eighth at the time.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near the finished article,” he said. “The hardest thing is to carry on with your ideas and keep developing the team when you’re not winning every week.
“You can’t really control too much what people think from the outside. We’ve seen it before, if you start to lose people become critical and they’ve got short memories, that’s just life.
“Our supporters are fair-minded, they understand the club, the vision, I think we do quite well to articulate what we’re trying to do. They know it’s not a straight road but as a football supporter, you want to dream. That should always be the case and has been with the teams I’ve worked with. It’s football, who knows? Our job is to keep improving.”
This summer will be the first Brighton have experienced without technical director Dan Ashworth, who is set to join Newcastle. Potter praised the “fantastic” job he did but believes the club has plenty of other “good people” and will be fine without him.
As ever, for a club of Brighton’s size, it will be as much about who they lose than who they bring in. Striker Deniz Undavm, signed from Royal Union Saint-Gilloise for £7m in January, and Polish midfielder Kacper Kozlowski following his £8m move from Pogon Szczecin will report for pre-season after spending the remainder of the season on loan.
Brighton need to address their lack of goals having had only 10 different goalscorers in the Premier League this season – only Watford (8) have had fewer.
“We always look to keep improving window-to-window,” said Potter. “We’re not a team that has to sell anybody but at the same time if someone comes and pays Champions League transfer fees and salaries for our players then it’s something as a football club we have to look at.”
Potter may have his own interest if reports are true Tottenham will look to appoint him should Antonio Conte not stay.
“I’m very happy here, very focused on what I’m doing,” said Potter on the speculation. “I just get on with my job and keep focused.”
Potter on Manchester United and Erik ten Hag
“I’m expecting a tough game, simple as that. You just have to look at the players they have. The season hasn’t gone as well as they’d have liked, I’m sure they would admit that and it can happen sometimes, but still they’ve got top players. It’s a fantastic game for us, great for our supporters, we need to play well.
On Erik ten Hag: “Obviously I saw the Ajax team that reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, I enjoyed watching them.
“I think if they can get to the point where Ajax were in that semi-final, because that team played really fantastic football, they sold important players to other clubs after, but as a football team I was really impressed by them. It’s an exciting appointment for Manchester United and I am sure it will go well.”