System Adaptability is Great, Player Versatility is the Key — Graham Potter’s Brighton

If you’re a regular watcher of the Premier League, you are likely familiar with Graham Potter’s Brighton & Hove Albion. Now in their sixth consecutive season in the top flight (and their fourth under Potter), the club have become renowned for their savvy recruitment and innovative style of football — a style that has garnered many admirers of their head coach.

Potter’s willingness (and ability) to make both subtle and unsubtle modifications to his side’s shape, structure, and approach on such a regular basis underpins this unique brand of play. Brighton’s shape in possession, structure out of possession, and the ways they attempt to exploit the opposition often change drastically, sometimes on a week-to-week basis.

One aspect of recent Brighton sides that has not altered drastically, however, is their personnel. Nine of their starting XI vs Manchester United on the opening day of the campaign started the final fixture of last season against West Ham (Cucurella and Bissouma have since moved on for large fees). Of those nine, just one (Caicedo) made his Premier League debut for Brighton in 2021/22. The rest have been with the club, and regular fixtures in the side, since the beginning of 2020/21 or earlier.

How then, with a style that relies so heavily on constant change, have Brighton sustained such a consistent first-team squad? I believe that, in large part, it is due to Graham Potter’s ability to repeatedly mould players into new and unfamiliar roles. And while the widespread praise and admiration for his adaptability is overwhelmingly deserved, the way he has developed so many members of his side into multi-functional cogs has played a significant role in Brighton’s success, and deserves far more attention.

System adaptability is far easier to accomplish with players capable of fulfilling multiple roles. This approach, and Graham Potter’s success with it, shows that having tactically flexible players at a team’s disposal is becoming increasingly important in the modern game. The role and positional development of Pascal Gross, Alexis Mac Allister, and Marc Cucurella shows exactly why.

Pascal Gross

Signed from FC Ingolstadt 04 in the summer of 2017 for just £2.5m, Pascal Gross has been with Brighton since the start of their Premier League journey and is widely considered their greatest ever bargain. His role prior to joining the club was that of a traditional no. 10 — primarily tasked with creating chances from central areas behind the center forward.

And that’s exactly how he was deployed under Chris Hughton in his first two season’s with the club. Hughton rarely (if ever) deviated from his rigid 4-2-3-1 formation, and Gross was the central focal point. His influence was significant — he led the team in goal contributions in 2017/18 (7G/8A) and played nearly 5,000 league minutes across his first two campaigns.

Since Potter’s appointment, Gross has remained a consistent starter in the side but his role has not. As Potter has tinkered with different systems, Gross’ position has often changed with it: from wing-back (on either side) to wide forward and more natural central midfield roles. The below pictures highlight a particular role he played in vs. Newcastle in 2020/21 — as a hybrid right wing-back that would make runs inside of Brighton’s two center forwards when they approached the final third.

Since the second half of last season, Gross has almost exclusively played on the right-hand side in an advanced central midfield role, often combining with the right winger/wing-back but also with the positional freedom to allow his intelligence to prosper — constantly moving into dangerous areas to feed through forward passes or making well-timed late runs into the box.

And perhaps most surprisingly, Gross’ chance creation numbers have not faltered with these positional moves. Since joining the club, his xA per 90 minutes has always been between 0.20 and 0.26 each season while he’s recorded over 3 shot-creating actions (SCA) per 90 in every Premier League campaign so far. As Brighton’s set-up has evolved and altered Gross’ overall influence has only increased, all while allowing his primary quality to remain consistent.

Alexis Mac Allister

It’s interesting to look back on Graham Potter’s evaluation of Alexis Mac Allister when he first returned from his loan spell at Boca Juniors in January of 2020:

“He’s an intelligent footballer, plays in space well, likes to attack the box, and he adds (probably) goals to the group”.

This was, at the time, a very fair assessment of a player that was brought in as an exciting, young advanced midfielder from Argentina. His role at Boca Juniors and initially at Brighton was exactly that, but his influence was minimal, and he struggled to hold down a consistent spot in the side.

Mac Allister became regularly involved as a starter under Potter for the first time last season, but his role in the team changed more regularly than anybody else. The pictures below are from two separate matches, just a week apart: one where Mac Allister was deployed as a center forward, and the other as the deepest lying midfielder. Different strengths within his skillset were utilized in two separate game approaches from Potter. As a CF, his movement and close control helped to retain possession after sustained periods of pressure, while in a midfield role, he was able to dictate the tempo from deep.

Since then, Mac Allister has found a home as Brighton’s holding midfielder, starting each of their first four games of the new season in that position. It’s a role he’s flourished in, and his relationship with Moises Caicedo has been a large factor in Brighton’s success. Mac Allister’s passing range and positional discipline paired with Caicedo’s more natural ball-winning and ball-carrying ability has been really effective — sparking attacks and helping to overturn possession on numerous occasions (see below):

Shifting Mac Allister into a deeper-lying and more defensive role would likely not have been considered by other managers (and maybe even seen as an unnatural move), but Brighton’s structure has adjusted with it. Potter has deployed a box midfield shape out of possession, adding extra numbers centrally and helping Brighton dominate these areas. The benefit of system adjustments that coincide with role changes is clear — Brighton didn’t add extra personnel, but were still able to completely adapt their approach.

Marc Cucurella

Perhaps the clearest example of the benefits of player role development is Marc Cucurella’s transformation under Potter’s tutelage. Before his move to Brighton in the summer of 2021, Cucurella was part of a Getafe side that deployed an extremely direct, narrow 4-2-2 shape, with the Spaniard predominantly on the left of midfield. His role out of possession usually involved closing down the opposition right back, while in possession he was often situated high-and-wide near the touchline.

Potter’s variety in structure meant that Cucurella gained experience in a number of different left-sided roles last season, all dissimilar to the position he played in at Getafe. His initial introduction into the team saw him play as a natural left back in a four (as well as in a more advanced wing-back role), and he was entrusted with far more responsibility in the build-up phase, tasked with helping Brighton progress the ball into more advanced areas from their own half.

The role he particularly shined in was when Brighton shifted into a hybrid back five/back four shape in the second half of last season — which saw Cucurella at left-center back out of possession before moving to a more traditional left back role with the ball. This really allowed Cucurella’s defensive nous and ball progression abilities to shine without limiting his threat going forward, all while enabling Brighton to remain flexible and unpredictable in shape and structure.

The numerous positions Cucurella played in last season and the way his role adapted both in/out of possession provided a far deeper insight into his qualities. In the span of 12 months, Cucurella ~ the left midfielder ~ signed for Brighton for £15m before Chelsea recruited Cucurella ~ the left back/left-center back/left-wing back ~ for £60m. A £45m profit gained in just one season, with Chelsea largely attracted to his positionally and tactically flexible traits.

The system adaptability that has been the bedrock of Brighton’s success is, in large part, due to the versatility Graham Potter instills in so many of his players. Potter’s tactics not only make his side unpredictable and exciting to watch, but in doing so he helps create tactically malleable individuals, suitable for multiple roles and increasingly desired at the top level of football. Maybe this approach is the way forward in the modern game.

Written by Max Taylor, @MTaylor1_

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: