There isn’t a nice way to sack a manager who has delivered the best football memories for a generation of Brighton fans.
Integrity, dignity, humility and kindness are words often associated with Chris Hughton, and rightly so. But those human qualities count for little in the merciless world of the Premier League, particularly when you’ve won just three of your last 23 league games and none of your last nine.
Brighton escaped relegation by a whisker, mainly because Huddersfield and Fulham were woeful and Neil Warnock’s spirited but limited Cardiff team fell one victory short. Chairman Tony Bloom said that run “put our status at significant risk.”
For Bloom, a sports bettor and property investor, parting with Hughton is not about what has been achieved but how to progress further. He has made numerous key decisions in transforming the club’s fortunes since he succeeded previous chairman Dick Knight in 2009 but this is perhaps his biggest gamble.
Hughton’s cautious approach will and has kept a club like Brighton in the Premier League but the chairman is demanding more. There was disagreement on recruitment and style of play and Bloom’s next move will be crucial. Who arrives next has the not so easy task of playing attractive football against the richest teams in the world with a fairly thin squad. Swansea’s Graham Potter and Derby’s Frank Lampard are two of the early front runners with the bookmakers.
The football at the Amex, in the latter part of the campaign, was indeed grim. They scored just once at home in March, which was a 1-1 draw with Huddersfield while April was even worse, as they netted one goal in all competitions home and away. Pascal Gross’ equalising header against Newcastle broke a club record of 11 hours and 13 minutes without a goal - a record held since 1970.
Bloom takes a statistical based approach to football and by his calculations, the numbers simply didn’t add up. Brighton had 371 shots this season, the second lowest in the Premier, just above Burnley. They scored 35 times, with only the relegated teams of Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield netting fewer. Hughton’s team pumped forward a rather unattractive looking 2,623 long balls, which was the third highest in the league. Only Burnley and Newcastle launched more. Sean Dyche’s position at Burnley however remains largely unquestioned, while Rafa Benitez is considered one of the finest tacticians in the sport. This season, with an equally limited squad, Benitez clearly believed being direct and defensively sound was the way to go...Hughton would no doubt argue the same.
Injuries and not just tactics hindered attacking progress at Brighton. They were overly-reliant on 35-year-old Glenn Murray and a run to a first FA Cup semi-final for 36 years stretched a thin squad further. Gross, easily their best and most creative midfielder, struggled with a persistent hamstring problem while Colombian international winger Jose Izquierdo’s hardly featured due to a knee injury. Zero goals from 15 appearances was not the return they were hoping from a player who impressed greatly in his first season.
Brighton’s maiden campaign in the Premier saw new recruits Gross, midfielder Davy Propper and keeper Maty Ryan make a positive impact, this season’s arrivals fared less well. Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a £17m striker signed from AZ Alkmaar, failed to net in 19 appearances. Florin Andone, a busy striker only called upon when Murray needed a breather, scored just three in the league. The £17m Mali midfielder Yves Bissouma picked up eight yellow cards and just one goal from 17 outings, while the £9m Brazilian left back Bernardo failed to convince since joining on a four-year deal from RB Leipzig. The less said about Jürgen Locadia’s progress the better. Three goals in 32 from a £15m striker who once tore defenders to shreds in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven. Expensive failures from the recruitment department, or did Hughton fail to get the best from talented individuals?
Hughton’s team are renowned for their defence foundation, with Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, the central defensive pairing, often highly praised. Pep Guardiola described Brighton as “an incredible defensive team” after Manchester City’s narrow FA Cup semi-final win. But that wasn’t always the case. When Albion were promoted from the Championship they played some excellent football and finished second with an impressive haul of 93 points. They were the fourth highest scorers with 74 goals and had the second best goal difference, behind champions Newcastle. Hughton then figured out out a way to keep Brighton in the Premier, including that notoriously difficult second season. It wasn’t always easy on the eye and his dismissal doesn’t come as a total surprise.
Brighton’s hierarchy is changing and the former FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth arrived at the Amex as technical director in September last year. He’s responsible for overhauling recruitment and the academy, and it’s clear they wanted a different direction with the manager as well.
The chairman likes a statistic: Hughton won 40.93% of his 215 games. If the next manager can equal that, then Brighton will continue to do okay in the Premier. If they don’t, and if they get next season’s recruitment slightly wrong, then they could regret letting Hughton go. Bloom is a gambler and this one looks like a 50-50.