Sunday, 30 December 2012
What is going wrong with Brighton? Tactical problems Poyet needs to address
Yesterday's humbling 3v1 home defeat to Watford seems to have created a definite shift in terms of the fans' support for Brighton manager Gus Poyet.
An online poll showed roughly 50 per cent were still very much in favour of keeping Poyet at the helm, while a season high 30 per cent said they believe it is now time for a change in manager. However, the biggest change is the number of people who have moved into the sitting on the fence camp.
According to the post match poll around 20 per cent, or one in five fans, are now not actively calling for Poyet's head, but not 100 per cent behind him.
This figure is telling. Poyet has assembled a decent squad and will surely spend in January in a bid to find the missing ingredients. For many fans the frustration is not that Poyet is doing a bad job or signing dud players, but that the Albion are close to competing at the top end of this division but missing out because of a few tactical problems.
Can Poyet fine tune his team and tactics to solve the current problems? You would be hard pressed to argue he does not deserve a little longer to prove he can. Poyet is a young manager who is still learning his trade. Brighton fans would do well to remember that.
However, Poyet does need to start showing signs that he IS learning from mistakes and showing signs of tactical development. If he can't, many of those current fence sitters may start drifting towards the Poyet Out troop.
So what is currently going wrong? Is it as simple as signing a new centre forward?
1. The team is being set out too defensively, particularly at home
Crystal Palace have been one of the success stories of the season, over-achieving and finding themselves in fourth place. The key to their form? An attack-minded front three or Glenn Murray, Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie. In fact, the majority of the top teams currently employ a 433 formation - including Brighton.
The difference though is that Poyet continues to only start one wide, attacking player in that front three. More often than not William Buckley has been used on the right hand side, with Ashley Barnes or someone similar starting on the left. This represents an over-cautious approach and makes much of Brighton's attack predictable.
By only starting with one genuine wide player, it allows opponents to double up on them knowing the threat from the opposite flank is far less dangerous. It also reduces the pace at which the team can attack.
Yesterday Buckley was injured. Poyet may we have started him and Lua Lua, but I doubt it. If the Albion are going to be a more potent attacking threat, Poyet needs to take the shackles off his wide players and set out to win games, rather than not to lose them. I genuinely cannot think of another team in this division who start one of their front three primarily because of their defensive work.
2. Too slow getting the ball into final third
The style of football the Albion have played under Poyet is such a vast improvement on that of his direct predecessors it seems nit-picky to criticise it too heavily, but the fact remains the passing approach adopted by the Seagulls is often too ponderous.
Contrast the slow approach of the Albion with the lightning fast attacking of Watford and you can see why Brighton are finding it hard to cut teams open.
More often than not, the ball is played across the back four a couple of times before starting to build an attack.
Part of the reason for this is that teams now work hard to isolate Adam El Abd and Gordon Greer in possession and cut down their options. But part of it is also down to the Albion's ability on the ball.
Yesterday Watford looked a team who had been well drilled into getting the ball forward quickly, while still keeping it on the floor. Rarely did a pass move sideways along their defensive line. They played a good, technical passing game but still managed to shift the ball from front to back quickly. Their movement off the ball was superb.
Brighton, on the other hand and Liam Bridcutt aside, are too often found turning their back on the person in possession. The final five minutes was a microcosm of our season. Two goals down, El Abd and Greer persisted in exchanging passes when the ball should have been coming forward far quicker.
The upshot of this slower approach is that teams are back and set up defensively by the time the ball arrives in the final third.
Without signing a match-controlling ball player in January, perhaps the answer is to reintroduce Gary Dicker to the middle three. Is he a player who would get in the starting line-up of any of the top six teams? Probably not. Does he use the ball quicker and more incisively than Andrew Crofts and Dean Hammond? Almost certainly.
He may not be as good as the likes of Peter Whittingham, but he may be the best option Brighton have until Vicente is fit. He certainly has a far wider range of passing than some of the players currently above him in the pecking order.
3. Not getting the most out of our attacking players
This point works in tandem with the last one. Quite simply, we are not working the ball to our attacking players in the right positions.
Yesterday Lua Lua started well. However, as the game went on the positions he found himself receiving the ball became deeper and deeper. It is often the same with Buckley. If we worked the ball forward quicker we would be in a position to release our wide players one on one in the final third. This is where they would be at their most deadly. Too often they get the ball on the halfway line, faced with two players and lacking support.
And the same can be said for Craig Mackail-Smith. Too often he is left isolated up top and his game is reduced to chasing lost causes or making runs into the channels from the halfway line.
Part of the problem is that he does not suit the 433 formation Poyet insists on playing, which seems a strange problem to have given that it was Poyet who decided to sign him.
Teams also defend deeply at The Amex, reducing the spaces behind the defence which Mackail-Smith prefers to operate in. On the one real occasion he was slotted into such a spot yesterday, he sent over an inviting ball to the far post which David Lopez could have been expected to have better anticipated.
True, Mackail-Smith is far from firing on all cylinders. But, halfway through the season, he has hit double figures, suggesting his performances have not been as bad as some have made out.
Simply, give him the ball with his back to goal 40 yards out and his is unlikely to impress. Get the ball forward faster and he may begin to justify his price tag a little more.
4. Lack of consistency in team selection
Poyet likes to shuffle his pack on a regular basis but, in doing so, he is stopping players in key positions from developing the sort of understand which only comes from a run of games. To not know your best starting 11 after so long in the job is a worry.
Brighton could benefit from picking a central midfield three and giving them half a dozen games to gel. The defence has benefited from a settled back four, it is about time the midfield was given the same opportunity.
5. Lack of Plan B
Raised so often by Albion fans it is becoming something of a cliched response to defeats, but the fact remains Poyet seems reluctant to change his approach.
The best managers at this level are able to see things developing on the pitch and make changes to compensate. Poyet stills seem to favour simply replacing like with like and crossing his fingers. Again, he is still learning as a manager, but he does need to show signs his is developing a wider base of tactics because often the current approach looks blinkered and naive.
6. Other minor tweaks needed
The Albion lack pace in the centre of defence, something which will continue to be exposed at this level and not helped by Bruno's often poor defensive positioning which can drag El Abd or Greer out of their comfort zone during counter attacks.
Recent bad performances have also highlighted what some fans see as a lack of leadership on the pitch. Greer seems critical rather than inspirational and the senior players, again Bridcutt aside, seem unable to rally the troops, although a strong second half showing against Millwall recently showed their is still spirit in the camp.
Off the pitch, club officials have been vocal in talking up the team's chances of promotion. This has created perhaps unreasonable expectations of what can be achieved this season. Quite simply, you can't blame fans for being unhappy at recent results when the club has talked up our chances of promotion.
One particularly hard to fathom aspect of the Albion of late has been Poyet's habit of signing players and then either not playing them, or playing them out of position. Stephen Dobbie is the best example. When he arrived, Poyet said he would be used in an attacking role similar to Vicente. Vicente has not come back to first team action but yet Dobbie still finds himself restricted to coming off the bench or starting wide left. Yesterday, Ashley Barnes was introduced in attacking midfield ahead of Dobbie, which makes you wonder why we bothered to sign him in the first place.
Brighton are not in bad shape. The back to back successes of Southampton and Norwich City are not the norm. Teams often have to spend a couple of seasons acclimatising to life in the Championship.
However, this season already looks like being a missed opportunity - with Brighton toiling and surrendering points left, right and centre at a time when consistency could see them firmly in the promotion mix-up.
Poyet though deserves time. Not because the club's promotion from League One was as miraculous as some champion it. Mark McGhee did the same on a substantially smaller budget. No, Poyet deserves time because the difference between this squad genuinely competing and it chugging along like current form is small.
A tinker here, a change in approach there. Certainly the chances are things Poyet should be able to achieve. A poor January, wasted money and a continuation of the currently blinkered approach though may see a few more coming down off the fence.