Guardian writers’ predicted position: 19th (NB: this is not necessarily Ben Fisher’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 17th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,500-1
When the royal blue “El Capitan” mural on the side of Church Street, in the heart of Brighton’s North Laine, was painted over before the final game of last season it signalled the beginning of the end of an era. In the weeks after the graffiti, which depicted Bruno as a king, the Spaniard retired with his status as a cult hero intact and the manager Chris Hughton was sacked and replaced by Graham Potter. Since then Anthony Knockaert, a catalyst in the team’s promotion two years ago, has departed on loan. But there is calm at Brighton, a feeling that such change represents evolution rather than revolution.
Whether it was second-season syndrome, the way things had gone stale, the sense of predictability that seeped through a once-exciting team – or a bit of everything – Brighton felt they needed to freshen things up after nose-diving towards a Championship return after three wins from Hughton’s final 23 league matches. In Potter, who worked miracles at the Swedish club Östersund and, in many ways, at a financially hamstrung Swansea too, they have appointed one of the most exciting English coaches. “The job that was done here was a really good job,” Potter said. “We are now in a different phase, a different stage and everyone has been really supportive to that. But every coach, no matter who they are and what their beliefs are, would want to improve on the previous year. Now the task is to see if we can.”
As for Bruno, who turns 39 in October, the former Valencia defender made 14 starts in his seventh and final campaign in Sussex and has assumed the role of senior development coach, which will see him act as a kind of middleman between the first team and staff, and as a mentor to the under-23s and loan players. Lewis Dunk, who is set to take the captaincy full time, has been persistently linked with a move from his hometown club this summer but Potter insists Dunk has been the consummate professional. “He has been top – he has been brilliant,” Potter said. “His attitude has been fantastic, he was the captain last year, he has taken that responsibility on and has grown as a person as a result of that and he has been nothing but exemplary in his work.”
As much as Brighton were hardly flawless in defence last season – a 5-0 hammering at home by Bournemouth in April proved humbling, as did the defeat by Cardiff four days later – doing damage down the other end was a struggle. Brighton averaged less than a goal a game last season – Arsenal scored more than double their 35-goal tally – and only the three relegated sides managed fewer. Potter must address the over-reliance on Glenn Murray, who turns 36 in September. The strain on Murray, who scored 13 goals including four penalties last season, has been painfully clear for some time.
Maybe that is where Potter, who developed Daniel James from an unwanted commodity at Shrewsbury Town to Manchester United’s first summer signing, comes in. Potter may have had little choice but to throw youth in at Swansea but Oli McBurnie, Connor Roberts and George Byers made impressive strides in a short time. At Brighton, not since Solly March eight years ago has an academy player made a notable dent in the first team.
But there are plenty who are keen to change that. The 19-year-old Aaron Connolly is desperate to impress after a prolific season at youth level, when he scored 17 goals in 20 games, while the 18-year-old Taylor Richards, who scored with a cheeky Panenka from 12 yards in a friendly at Crawley, has joined from Manchester City with plans to play first-team football. “I feel I’m at that stage now that I need to push on,” Richards, who joined City from Fulham at 14, said. “I didn’t think playing [for the] 23s was helping me – I feel like I was stuck.”
There are also £50m-worth of signings who have so far underwhelmed: José Izquierdo needs to turn flashes of brilliance into something more meaningful and Potter will hope to get more from Jürgen Locadia, Florin Andone and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who has been freed from the overbearing title as the club’s record signingafter the £18m arrival of Leandro Trossard. Jahanbakhsh has yet to score and Locadia has three league goals in 18 months. Brighton’s lack of business suggests they trust Potter to nurture young blood and eke more out of a flatlining attack. As for the Belgian Trossard, who scored 17 goals for Genk last season, they are confident he will hit the ground running. “He’s a different type of wide man, not something that we’ve got already,” Potter said.
The £4m signing of Matt Clarke, whom Potter trailed while at Swansea, is a classy defensive addition, with the former Portsmouth defender comfortable in the back-three system the head coach often utilised at previous clubs. The 22-year-old will compete with Shane Duffy and Dan Burn to partner Dunk in a defensive back four while Ben White, a highly rated centre-back who has spent time at Newport and Peterborough, has joined Leeds on loan. “Matt is open-minded and wants to learn,” Potter said. “He is a player with the attitude and character you would want. Matt has played a really big role with the demands of a big club in League One, trying to get out of the league. The challenge for him now is taking the next step.”
Brighton are targeting the hallowed next step that has so far eluded them. Hughton namechecked Bournemouth and Burnley as blueprints to follow but, so far, the Seagulls’ thirst to improve has earned little reward. Their August schedule – a trip to Watford followed by home matches against West Ham and Southampton – will act as an early barometer of the strides they have made over the close season.
“We are enjoying playing a little bit different,” said the midfielder Davy Pröpper. “The new coach has new ideas, he wants to know us and we want to know his style and way of playing. It is a little more possession-based for us; we try to have a little bit more of the ball and try to find some patterns to create chances. We try to do much better than last year. I think the first year in the Premier League we did really well, everything was new and perhaps that helped us a little bit and last year we dropped a lot in the second half of the season. At the moment, it is a kind of new start.”