The 2022/23 Premier League campaign has seen Brighton achieve perhaps what would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago.
At the end of the 2012/13 season they had just finished fourth in the Championship and suffered playoff semi-final defeat to a Crystal Palace side who would go on to seal promotion at Wembley. All eerily similar to the season Sunderland have just played out, although I suppose we only had 69 points to their 75.
Nevertheless, the parallels are obvious.
Fast forward to June 2023 and the Seagulls have ended the Premier League season in sixth with 62 points, their highest-ever top-flight finish and points tally. The reward - a debut appearance on the European stage via qualification for next season’s Europa League.
Clearly, these achievements within such a short time frame are mightily impressive, and the south coast side have proved that through the right investment, some faith in youth, and by developing a well-rounded squad, anything is possible.
This provides some hope that we could one day hear the sweet sound of the slightly tacky Europa or Conference League anthems over the Stadium of Light’s Tannoy. Maybe Thursday nights under the lights for cagey 0-0 affairs with far-flung Bulgarian outfits, edgy victories against the cream of Kazakhstan’s first division or inevitable away defeats to Sevilla should not be seen as merely a dream, but instead a tangible possibility.
The idea of European glory seems unfathomable, but after witnessing Brighton’s meteoric rise and West Ham’s Conference League triumph, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have similar future ambitions of our own.
The driving force behind Brighton’s success stems from some outstanding recruitment, along with an excellent ability to replace any departing players, seemingly without a drop off in quality. This is not to downplay the genius of Roberto de Zerbi, who has coached his team into playing some of the most attractive football in Europe, but instead to acknowledge the importance of bringing in suitable players for him to utilise.
Graham Potter should take credit for the outstanding 2022 summer arrivals, who have all played their part this season. Pervis Estupinan came from Villareal for just £15 million, and has formed an integral part of their defensive unit. Billy Gilmour has begun to flourish in his midfield role, following a £9 million move from Chelsea, whilst the 19-year-old Julio Enciso introduced himself to English football with an equalising goal during their 1-1 draw with Man City that has been described with an abundance of superlatives. It’s rightly up there in the goal of the season discussion.
What’s impressive about Brighton is that in recent windows they have always lost one or more of their best players. In January, Leandro Trossard left for Arsenal, joining Yves Bissouma and Cucurella in London, following their own respective moves to Spurs and Chelsea last summer.
Casting back to January 2022 and it was the defensive stalwart Dan Burn making a return to his homeland in the North East. Looking even further, to summer 2021, and you see that it was Ben White who began a mass exodus of Brighton players to the capital.
But the scouts keep mining and finding gems. Last summer it was Estupinan, Gilmour and Enciso, the one before Cucurella and Mitoma (who was sent out to Union SG for further development). In January 2019, it was Alexis Mac Allister, the Argentine dug-out from South America, who signed before being loaned back to Argentinos Juniors.
He has since been employed to pull Brighton’s strings and the boots he leaves after joining Liverpool will take some filling. But they will be filled. They always are.
A scaled-down version of this transfer policy is crucial to Sunderland’s success in coming seasons. We obviously have nowhere near the budget but clearly a long term plan is always in place with Brighton, and we should be doing the same.
With Ben White's pending 2021 departure looming, did anyone panic? No, a quality replacement in Marc Cucurella was already on the plane and signed from Getafe before the White deal was finalised. The likes of Mitoma and Mac Allister were not rushed into the first team, but instead developed on loan until ready. Being prepared to sell and re-invest is key, with players looked at and lined up well in advance of pending departures.
In practise, the rumours surrounding the possible departure of Jack Clarke, who has received interest from Premier League clubs Brentford and Crystal Palace, alongside 2020/21 Scottish champions Rangers, is a reality we must be prepared for. It’s vital there is a process at Sunderland where we accept players leaving and replace them accordingly. A transitioning club seems to regularly have its best players leave, so for us to evolve successfully we should be following suit. Brighton have done this perfectly, adapting to the likes of Ben White, their best defender at the time, and more recently Leandro Trossard, who had 10 goal involvements last season, leaving, but having no tangible effect on form.
Of course, it’s very early days for this window, but it does feel as though the higher powers at the club are at least attempting to mirror Brighton’s approach. The early knockings have been enjoyably proactive, with emerging links to an array of candidates.
A hunt for some much-needed strikers to help out Ross Stewart has begun, via links with Benfica B centre forward Luis Semedo, who ironically has also been rumoured to be on Brighton’s radar. There is some limited footage of the 19-year-old floating around Twitter, and he seems to be a bit of a goal poacher.
Nevertheless, if we see him scoring regularly in a Sunderland shirt there can be no complaints regarding how they come. Defensive reinforcements are also a must, so the confirmation of Nectarios Trintis’ move from A-League champions Central Coast Mariners to the Stadium of Light was a welcome headline.
The 20-year old Australian made 24 league appearances last season, has captained his National U20’s side, and is a definite prospect to play for the Socceroo’s proper. He looks very comfortable with the ball at his feet and possesses an excellent passing range, attributes which should suit the Mowbray system perfectly.
The prospect of him shooting diagonals up to the wingers or looking more directly towards Stewart is an appetising one, and should provide an added dimension to our play.
Another aspect of the Seagulls’ success has come from their reliance on academy players to contribute. It’s an area we should be looking to utilise to perhaps a greater extent than Brighton, merely because our budget isn’t at the same level.
Evan Ferguson has emerged as a standout academy product during the second half of the season, helping to fill the void left by Trossard in January. The Irishman needed to wait until Boxing Day to make a first league appearance this campaign, but made a further 18, bagging 6 goals at a rate of 0.57 per 90 minutes played.
Add 2 assists to this and you have the 12th best attacking figures in the league according to ‘FootyStats’. For Brighton, it feels as through having this youthful injection has been an added bonus, but for us our budget means the development of academy players should remain high on the agenda.
The success of promoting Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson into the first team has been obvious, and it’s no secret that we’re a club focussed almost entirely on the development of young talent. We’ve all heard the stats about the average age of our starting eleven, which was 22.8 years old across the season, and clear reflection of our priorities.
This approach has been beyond encouraging so far, so its important we continue to give academy players the opportunity if deserved.
Evan Ferguson has proved just how beneficial doing this can be.
But for all the focus on youth and player development, potential and talent, it seems as though less tangible qualities are getting lost amongst the discourse surrounding the club. The importance of having some experienced heads in the dressing room and on the pitch has been forgotten somewhat, perhaps because we achieved so much without it. But from looking at Brighton you can see that they’ve struck a balance between youthfulness and experience, which has perhaps given them greater cohesiveness to reach the next level.
On a basic level, the experienced heads provide some reassurance for the younger players. The likes of Jason Steele, Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana are all at the dawn of their careers. They’ve been through the mill and seen it all before, their experiences are surely invaluable to the less-established figures in the squad. Their wisdom isn’t something we see but is surely like gold dust behind the scenes.
The core of the team includes Lewis Dunk and Solly March, who both came up from the academy in 2013, along with Pascal Gross, who has now spent over six years at the club. They are all players who have been crucial to Brighton’s success this season, making 36, 33 and 37 league appearances respectively. The 6ft 4in Dunk is the ultimate centre half, making 0.88 interceptions and 2.27 clearances, along with winning 1.85 aerial duels per 90 minutes across the season.
The skipper and marshal of Brighton’s troops, he has been a stalwart throughout his time at the club. March also played an important role, contributing 7 goals and 7 assists during the previous campaign. But for me, the key man and unsung hero has to be the German maestro Pascal Gross.
The 31-year old has popped up predominantly as a defensive midfielder or full back, and also made 4 appearances as a makeshift centre forward. Mr Everywhere had 9 goals and 8 assists last season, and played 3246 minutes, the most of any Brighton player. James Milner, Gross’ footballing doppelganger and a pending signing, will seriously struggle for minutes if their current utility man takes this form forward.
Beyond their own individual attributes, this trio are pivotal to how Brighton play. Dunk conducts from centre half, with Gross often receiving on the right side of midfield to link up with March during build up play and in the final third. This especially comes to the fore when Gross and March switch positions, confusing opposition defences.
Surely it's no fluke that De Zerbi trusts these two players to provide the link ups which are so crucial to their attacking style. Clearly, this core of players in central positions has been pivotal for the development of a now flourishing Brighton side. They bring cohesion to their attacking play, with thousands of hours on the training ground together perhaps giving them that edge which has propelled them into the European places.
And this concept of the central core is by no means unique to Brighton. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, for all their talents and tactics, have taken years to reach treble winning heights. A core of Ederson, John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker have all played with one another since 2017.
Yes, Pep is the mastermind, and the beyond world class Erling Haaland has been integral, but there is little doubt of the telepathy these players must have and the importance of this to their magnificent achievements this season.
We plain and simply lack these qualities, which will surely be holding us back to a degree. We don’t possess this central core, which makes the playoff run even more remarkable, and our apparent cohesion a managerial marvel from Mowbray given the circumstances.
We were getting results with an entirely makeshift backline, a midfield of Pierre Ekwah and Dan Neil who only started together five times during the regular season, and with an attacking force somewhat cobbled together with various loanees in the form of Amad and Gelhardt. Granted, Roberts, Clarke and Stewart did at least have the 2021/22 season to learn each others games.
Getting a core of players, especially in central positions, playing together regularly will be a huge benefit for a promotion push next season, with the returns of Danny Batth and Corry Evans a big positive going forward.
The key is to build for the future and integrate our younger talent, with the aim of forming a central unit to mirror the roles played by Dunk, March and Gross.
We should look to ensure Ekwah, Neil, Ballard and new signing Triantis play together wherever possible to get this process in motion.
Clearly, there’s a balancing act given the inevitability of players departing across the course of the next few windows. Keeping hold of a few is crucial, alongside the development of a few central players to provide consistency and stability to the squad.
Accepting that we will have to sell is important to ensure progress as the team evolves, which Brighton have managed supremely. The future for us is bright, and one which will hopefully at some stage take us to the heights recently reached by the Seagulls.