Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Is a new centre forward really the answer to Poyet's problems?


January is days away and Gus Poyet has already signalled his intent to add to his squad, with a centre forward top of his wish list.

Despite having splashed out on Craig Mackail-Smith, Stephen Dobbie, Will Hoskins, Kazenga Lua Lua and William Buckley, Poyet's team has failed to find the net at vital times this term - leaving Brighton fans adamant a regular goalscorer is all that is keeping the Albion from a real promotion push.

Many supporters have bemoaned the loss of attacking linchpin Glenn Murray to Crystal Palace at the start of last season, with nostalgic longing for the former frontman increasing with every goal he scores for his new club.

However, perhaps the bigger miss for the Stripes has been Elliott Bennett, who racked up a stack of assists in the side's League One winning season.

True, the one-time Wolves player did not play for the Albion all of last season as well, where the Seagulls managed to finish in a credible position and not appear to miss his invention in any major way.

But the same can be said of Murray's goals. All the time the striker was firing blanks at Selhurst it would be fair to say the number of fans who, albeit accurately, pointed out the key characteristics we were missing since his departure, were far less than we have seen in the wake of his so far rampant season.

Murray leads the Championship scoring charts but his success has been far from a one-man show. Playing either side of him in a front three are Wilfied Zaha and Yannick Bolasie and together with Murray the trio represent perhaps the most exciting forward offering in the division.

Zaha, who has won an England cap and attracted attention from a host of top Premier League clubs, is widely regarded as one of the best players outside the top division. He may have just three direct assists to his name, but his trickery on the ball and occasional theatrics have won his side no end of penalties and free kicks.

Bolasie has seven assists - the joint fourth best in the Championship and a large per centage of Murray's goals have come either from passes supplied by the pair, or spot kicks won by them.

Compare the Championship's leading assist makers with those operating in the creative positions for Brighton and you see that, just perhaps, it is not just in the goal scoring positions the Albion are lacking.

Buckley, one of the team's stars of the season, has five - less than half as many as Bolton's table topping Chris Eagles, who boasts an impressive 12.

Bruno and Liam Buckley have the same number, despite operating in traditionally defensive positions, while Andrea Orlandi - the side's dead ball specialist - has three.

On their own those stats are no real cause for concern.

However, Poyet operates a similar 433 formation to Palace's, but with Ashley Barnes playing in a more defensive slot on the left of the forward three.

Barnes, who is far more at home as a forward in a 442, has just two assists to his name. And, while stats alone are not enough to make judgements on, the lack of width of the left means too much of the Albion's attacking player is funnelled down the right through Buckley.

And this is where the absence of Bennett comes in. In League One Poyet played a diamond shape midfield four, with Bennett acting as the creative point of the side. This allowed Barnes to play more central and receive the ball in attacking areas where he was more adept at exploiting. Without Bennett, or indeed the squad's most likely option, the Spaniard Vicente, Poyet has changed to a defensive 433 which too often leaves Mackail-Smith isolated.

Last season, with teams not necessarily expected Albion's possession-based approach, the new formation worked OK.

This year though teams have faced off against the Stripes with a ready made game plan. Isolate the centre backs in possession, allow the Seagulls to pass across the pitch, but mark Mackail-Smith and double up defensively on Brighton's right hand side.

When Wayne Bridge has been fit, the Albion have still managed to find an outlet on the left - particularly when the one-time Chelsea player links up with string-pulling Gary Dicker.

Lua Lua as well showed against Millwall that he has the talent to turn games from the left flank in the same style Buckley manages on the opposite side.

However, Poyet has shown his reluctance to start with two attacking widemen. Earlier in the season the side boasted three, but Craig Noone was sold to Cardiff City. He has since registered eight assists. His fellow Bluebird, Peter Whittingham has managed seven from centre midfield - far more than managed by Dean Hammond, Andy Crofts et al.

Strikers always cost more money than any other position - and they are only available at premium prices in January. Poyet says he needs a big signing in that area and you would be hard pressed to find a fan who did not agree.

However, Mackail-Smith, Hoskins, Dobbie and even Barnes have shown they can score when played in partnerships or with the right support.

Mackail-Smith in particular has a current shot conversion rate of 22 per cent - or around one goal for every five efforts on goal. That is not far shy of many of the players Brighton have been linked with, including Chris Wood and Charlie Austin.

Taking the shackles off his flyers, especially at home, might be a cheaper option than breaking the bank for another player to simply fill Mackail-Smith's lone striker slot.

While a striker does need to convert his chances, a team's fortunes is not as simple as paying big bucks for a new number nine. Any striker, however good, needs support.

And there is also the issue over who Brighton would be in a position to bring in. Among the names mentioned, Austin is likely to have higher profile suitors, while Wood would probably prefer a full time switch to the New Den.

Earlier in the season Poyet tried to tempt Jay Bothroyd south on loan from QPR but lost out to Sheffield Wednesday. The striker has since made little or no impact on the Owls' league placing. If he is the benchmark for new recruits, would they be any better than those already on the Albion roster?

Whether Poyet signs his much-coveted new forward, he would be wise to release Lua Lua on the left with, rather than instead, of Buckley on the right.

It may well be that his squad has enough quality in it already without the need for large scale reinforcements. He was, after all, the man who signed Mackail-Smith, Hoskins, Dobbie et al. Who is to say his next forward buy will do any better?

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