Chris Hughton has rarely been tempted to overplay his hand and, speaking to a small huddle of journalists at the end of December, he was at pains to make sure nobody else got ahead of themselves. Brighton had deservedly beaten Everton 1-0 and were 11 points clear of the relegation zone, a victory away from the top half, but their manager felt cautious. “We’re at a level where we can’t afford to look upwards,” he said. “It would be nice, at some stage, to be thinking differently but in our progression I think we still need to [look at it] that way.”
The problem for Hughton was that his paymasters were less inclined to. There had been murmurings on Sunday afternoon, before he oversaw the match against Manchester City, that his head might be on the block and, while the timing of Brighton’s announcement was brisk, the fact of his dismissal was not a shock. Creditable showings against Arsenal and Tottenham in recent weeks, as well as a narrow FA Cup semi-final defeat by City, could not mask that their form since overcoming Marco Silva’s side had largely been appalling; Brighton had nose-dived and, although nobody had demanded they threaten the leading lights, there was a growing sense Hughton’s natural conservatism was holding them back.
In explaining his decision the Brighton chairman, Tony Bloom, pointed to that run of three wins from their final 23 top-flight games, which left them two points ahead of relegated Cardiff. But he also referred to “the performances during that period” and it was a pointed reference to where the biggest issues lay.
Brighton’s goalless draw at Wolves last month was a decent result on its own and, given its significance to what was by now a tense fight against the drop, lauded as such by their support. But the home fans’ jeers – “How do you watch this every week?” was the one that stood out – told a story. In fairness such a dour rearguard action, in which Brighton failed to record a shot on target, was not representative of Hughton’s four-and-a-half-year tenure. But the approach was deemed necessary because Brighton had not scored in their previous five games, conceding eight goals without reply in outwardly winnable home matches with Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff. Their attack had, put simply, gone to pot and there was little indication that Hughton was capable of reanimating it.
There were suggestions that training drills prioritised defence to the extent that Brighton’s attackers felt alienated. In 2017-18, their first season back in the Premier League after Hughton had led them from the Championship, their best offensive work had tended to come on the counterattack with wingers – usually two from Anthony Knockaert, Solly March and José Izquierdo – providing ammunition for Glenn Murray. They recorded an average of 42.8% possession but that fell to 41.4% this time around while their number of shots taken, completed passes and passes into the final third also dropped. In fact they had fewer attempts than anyone except Burnley this season and finished 18th for expected goals. Brighton had failed to evolve; the chances were just not coming and, for a sports betting wizard like Bloom, it was an unsustainable trend.
Whoever replaces Hughton will be expected to create a side that can control games – at least against their perceived equals – and reconfigure Brighton’s attacking resources. Attempts to freshen up the front line have not worked. The record signing, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, was hindered by injury earlier in the season and is yet to score; Florin Andone has not done enough to displace the 35-year-old Murray; and a flicker of mid-season form from Jürgen Locadia, an otherwise desperately disappointing arrival from PSV Eindhoven in January 2018, proved short-lived. Together the three cost £36m and Brighton, whose budget was the division’s third-lowest, are not able to take such sums lightly.
The nagging concern among supporters, many of whom accepted it was time for Hughton to depart while holding him in exceptional regard, will be that the club has forced itself towards a crossroads. For every Southampton, whose replacement of Nigel Adkins with Maurico Pochettino in 2013 sparked uproar but proved transformative, there is the Icarus-like example of this season’s impatient, flailing Fulham. Imposing a more proactive style is not easy, either, at a time when the top six routinely hoover the ball.
Brighton, though, are not asking to be like Manchester City or even, at this point, Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester. They hope a more expressive outlook will sustain their top-flight future and it is simply unfortunate that Hughton, a thoroughly decent man and a fine manager, becomes collateral damage now. In February Brighton appointed the former FA technical director Dan Ashworth to a similar position. “My job is to try and keep the first-team manager in a job for as long as possible,” he said at the time. Three months later one wonders whether he was talking about Hughton or, in fact, his successor.