Manchester City’s starting XI used to be the toughest in the Premier League to predict. That mantle now belongs to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Roberto De Zerbi has not stuck with the same side for any of Brighton’s five matches so far this season. On average he has made 3.5 changes to his team per game, while 21 players have made a top-flight appearance already.
For the trip to Old Trafford on Saturday, Brighton made six alterations to the XI that had beaten Newcastle United so convincingly before the international break. In came Jason Steele, Tariq Lamptey, Adam Lallana, Mohamed Dahoud, Simon Adingra and Danny Welbeck. Brighton barely skipped a beat.
The most remarkable thing about their 3-1 triumph over Manchester United was that it barely raised an eyebrow. This is just what we have come to expect from Brighton, a club that continues to punch considerably above its weight.
Brighton dominated possession at Old Trafford and created the better chances. They played with authority and purpose. The six changes in personnel, some of which were enforced, did not affect them whatsoever. Brighton are such a well-oiled machine that they can swap pieces in and out without any adverse impact on the collective.
There is no right way to play football but Brighton’s methods suggest their success is sustainable. The Seagulls do not play like plucky outsiders. Across many metrics they are a top Premier League team.
Only Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have a higher average possession this season. Their pass completion rate is second only to City. The champions and Tottenham Hotspur are the only teams to have averaged more shots per game than Brighton’s 18.6, a majority of which have come from inside the penalty area.
⚽️ No team has scored more goals (15) than Brighton in Europe's top 5 leagues this season pic.twitter.com/TpKHl2u0Se— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 18, 2023
This is a continuation of what we saw last season, when Brighton ranked third for possession, second for pass completion, first for shots taken per game, and joint-fourth for shots conceded per game.
In other words, the underlying metrics as well as the eye test suggest De Zerbi’s side are genuine top-four contenders in his first full season in charge.
The above statistics illustrate the on-field reasons why Albion are unlikely to be a flash in the pan. There is evidence off the pitch too.
Brighton have lost key players in each of the last three summers. In 2021 Ben White was sold to Arsenal. The transfer window 12 months later brought the departure of Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, with Leandro Trossard leaving in January. This time around Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo sought pastures new, while Levi Colwill returned to Chelsea. Yet the Seagulls continue to soar.
For all the talent in their squad, De Zerbi is the brightest star at the Amex Stadium. If Brighton continue to perform as they have been, the Italian is likely to be poached by a bigger club. But it is worth remembering that Graham Potter’s exit this time last year was widely seen as a blow to Brighton, not least because numerous other staff members followed him to Stamford Bridge.
Tony Bloom and Paul Barber, the owner and chief executive respectfully, have no doubt already drawn up a shortlist of candidates to replace De Zerbi should he be tempted by an offer from elsewhere.
One big question mark around Brighton’s prospects this season is particularly relevant this week, as the club begins its maiden European campaign. Balancing domestic and continental commitments is new to the south coast side, and there could be one or two hiccups along the way.
A Europa League group containing Thursday's opponents AEK Athens, Ajax and Marseille looks far from straightforward. Yet it is a measure of how far Brighton have come that none of those teams will have relished drawing them either. The time has come for the whole of Europe to take the Seagulls seriously.