Brighton Floored by a Wolves Sucker Punch
When the Football League’s longest unbeaten run from the start of the season came to an end, it at least did so with a degree of finality. Being the last unbeaten club in the upper echelons of the English league system had, in all honesty, become something of a millstone around the neck of Brighton & Hove Albion. After last season’s closer than expected or wanted brush with the possibility of relegation back to League One, a year of mid-table security might have been enough for the club, but from the start of the season Chris Hughton’s team had been grinding out results week after week, seldom looking likely to set the world alight, but being consistently difficult to beat.
The dam, however, burst shortly before Christmas, and it burst in the most emphatic manner possible. Middlesbrough came to Falmer and walked away with a more than comfortable three-goal win and rising speculation that it will be they who emerge from the morass of Championship clubs to claim a place in the Premier League come the end of the season. There were some who felt that the unbeaten run was doing Brighton more harm than good, that the team may have been becoming preoccupied with maintaining that position, belied by the fact that the team had drawn eleven of its first twenty matches of the season. Perhaps, thought optimists, removing any fear of losing in the league for the first time this season might do the players good from a psychological perspective.
Things haven’t quite worked out like that for Brighton & Hove Albion, though. The Middlesbrough game turned out to be the first of three without a win or a goal, with only a single point from a trip to Brentford to show for their efforts and an anaemic home defeat at the hands of Ipswich Town in their last match. And whilst league positions in such an unpredictable division might count for little at this stage of the season, the team that had been top of the table a couple of weeks ago is now in fourth place in the table, and is, if anything, headed in the wrong direction. The turning of a new leaf that a new year represents couldn’t be more timely, so far as this club is concerned.
Shortly before the kick-off, television cameras catch striker James Wilson vomiting on the pitch. Wilson, whose form has been such during this spell on loan from Manchester United that some have wondered aloud whether a a return to Old Trafford to bolster their stuttering attack might be on the cards, has been a totemic figure for Brighton this season, but has recently missed a couple of full appearances with a bout of influenza. His appearance is a welcome one for a Brighton team which has itself struggled a little to score goals this season, but his return if still suffering from illness may be considered a little more questionable.
For twenty minutes, though, there seem to be few signs of anything other than a convincing home win. Brighton control the possession and Wilson, with a shot from the edge of the penalty area, forces an excellent save from Ikeme in the Wolverhampton Wanderers goal. Wolves have had an up and down sort of season, but their recent run of bad results – which peaked with a four-one thrashing at Sheffield Wednesday – turned around a little after Christmas with wins against Reading and Charlton Athletic, and their tails are up, figuratively speaking. And Brighton feel brittle. One break on the right hand side brings a save from goalkeeper David Stockdale from Afobe, and then it happens, a tame cross from Graham on the left-hand side which seems like a straightforward enough take for Stockdale before Connor Goldson diverts the ball away from him and into an empty goal.
From here on, a series of rather predictable shortcomings come to overtake Brighton & Hove Albion. They continue – haphazard attempts at defensive clearances notwithstanding – to look solid enough at the back, although Wolves give every impression of having decided that the one goal is all that they’ll need to win this match and shut up shop accordingly, but it when they get to the final third of the pitch that they start to run into problems. In anything like attacking positions Brighton look stodgy, out of ideas, an impression not helped by both James Wilson and his strike partner for the day, Bobby Zamora, looking significantly off their best. The club has a not insignificant injury list at the moment, and it feels as though both forwards might just have pressed into service today on account of this.
Every time Brighton find themselves in an attacking position, the visitors hastily get eight or nine men behind the ball and comfortably deal with the pressure. On occasion, Wolves even venture into the Brighton half of the pitch – Coady has a deflected shot excellently turned over the crossbar by Stockdale – but in this age, during which counter-attacking has been refined to such an extent as to appear fetishised at times, there can be few complaints at the fact that Brighton have no way to pick this particular lock. This current fashion means that statistics showing possession percentages are less useful than they used to be. Put simply, Wolves are content enough to sit back and allow Brighton all the possession they want. The only statistic that really counts, they may well rationalise, is the one that shows that they have scored one goal while their opponents have scored none.
With three seconds to play of the minimum of five added on at the end by the fourth official, Brighton finally breach the Wolves defence. This time, the cross comes from the right hand side, but Lewis Dunk’s header is brilliantly tipped over the crossbar by Ikeme. The resulting corner comes to nothing, and with that the three points head back to the Black Country. Three wins in a row leave Wolves in eleventh place in the Championship table, six points from the play-off places and heading in the right direction after a faltering first half of the season. There could be worse teams to back to reach those play-off places come the end of the season, and such an eventuality would be vindication for the club sticking with manager Kenny Jackett during a faltering first half of the season.
It’s now been six matches since Brighton & Hove Albion last won a match, and four since they last scored a goal. It’s the first time that they’ve lost three successive home matches since moving into this new stadium four and a half years ago. The club has already taken advantage of the opening of the transfer window to sign the former Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion Liam Ridgewell on loan from the MLS club Portland Timbers until the end of this season whilst Richie Towell agreed to come to the club this month from Celtic a few weeks ago, and we can probably expect more activity from the club before the window snaps shut again at the end of January. It rather feels as though Brighton & Hove Albion have replaced anxiety over holding onto that unbeaten lead with anxiety over where their next goal will come from. Resolving that particular neurotic tic may well come to be the defining factor concerning the club’s health over the remainder of the season.
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