With Brighton and Hove Albion securing European football for the first time in the club’s history, The Woodwork looks back on the five key factors that secured a top seven finish for the Seagulls:
1: The signing of Pervis Estupiñán
When Chelsea came calling for Marc Cucurella just before the beginning of the campaign, Brighton’s hopes of achieving another record-breaking season appeared obsolete. The Spanish left back had played a significant part in guiding Brighton to a first ever ninth-placed Premiership finish, a factor which perhaps prompted Chelsea to pry him away from Graham Potter’s side. With Cucurella departing just under a month before the transfer window slammed shut, the Seagulls were left with little time to find an adequate replacement for their latest absentee. However, Graham Potter’s chosen replacement appeared promising. Pervis Estupiñán, a UEFA Champions League semi-finalist from the previous campaign, would make his way from Spain to Sussex, signing on for a fee of around £15 million. Thirty- three appearances later, the Ecuadorian International has evidently proved to be a bargain for Brighton. Since signing for the Seagulls, Estupiñán has achieved 6 goals and assists in the Premier League, four more than that of Cucurella in his one season stint on the south coast. The 25-year-old also appears to be dominating Cucurella in the current campaign, with Cucurella making nine less league appearances than Estupiñán in what has been a dismal season for the sixty-million-pound man. Therefore, with Estupiñán aiding the Albion in reaching heights that Cucurella couldn’t during his time with the club, the decision to sign the Ecuadorian from Villareal in place of the Vilified Cucurella has proved to be a crucial one, given the positive consequence of a place in Europe.
2: The appointment of Roberto De Zerbi
A month after the arrival of Estupiñán in August, the Albion were due another departure, with Chelsea once again the culprit. The West London outfit would appoint Graham Potter as their new manager, following the abrupt axing of Thomas Tuchel, a move which threw the Albion’s dreams of a place in Europe into doubt once more. The departure itself was a disappointing one for supporters of the Seagulls; Graham Potter had built a promising project at Brighton, but instead opted to jump the gun by going for an apparent easy route into European Football. Having been struck by such a significant loss ahead of a daunting trip to Anfield, the Albion were left with the difficult task of taking onboard an individual who could provide the Seagulls with success like Potter had. Thankfully for Brighton, Potter’s replacement would prove to be the best possible choice. Arriving in England for the first time after several managerial spells abroad, Roberto De Zerbi’s start to life on the south coast has seen the Seagulls go from strength to strength, in turn proving wrong particular pundits such as Graeme Souness, who had dismissed the Italian’s capabilities before his Brighton side had kicked a ball. The 43-year-old has overseen victories against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, in turn exceeding the achievements of Graham Potter by providing a path to European Football for the first time in the club’s history. The departure of Potter would have been a painful one for supporters of the Seagulls in September, but the appointment of De Zerbi and the feats already achieved under the Italian suggest the move was perhaps a blessing in disguise for Brighton.
3: The emergence of Evan Ferguson
In recent years, Brighton have been criticised for their capability in converting chances. From the aging Anthony Knockaert to the now absent Neal Maupay, the factor of misfiring forwards has unfortunately been a reoccurring one. Brighton’s bad luck in front of goal has blighted past opportunities of exceeding expectations, a factor which De Zerbi was able to pick up on after a frustrating goalless draw at home to Nottingham Forest in October. Therefore, if Brighton were to reach new heights under the newly appointed Italian, the theme regarding its forwards had to change. Unbeknownst to almost anyone associated with the Albion, the theme in question would soon be conquered. One day after the Albion’s home encounter with Nottingham Forest, Irish teenager Evan Ferguson put pen to paper for his first professional long-term contract, committing himself to four years on the south coast with Roberto De Zerbi’s side. Just over two months after completing the deal, Ferguson found himself on a Premiership scoresheet for the first time, striking in a 4-2 defeat at home to the league leaders Arsenal. Despite proving to be a mere consolation in the match itself, Ferguson’s goal against the Gunners would evidently work wonders for the young forwards confidence. Since scoring against Arsenal at the end of December, Ferguson has gone on to achieve a total of 8 league goals and assists for the Albion, a run of form which earnt Ferguson a call up to the Republic of Ireland squad for the most recent international break. Despite faltering in front of goal in the past, the Albion have evidently been exceptional up front in the current campaign, with Ferguson playing a key role in Brighton’s route to a record high finish.
4: Letting go of Leandro Trossard
With 18-year-old Evan Ferguson netting against Arsenal on New Year’s Eve, supporters of the Seagulls were able to go into the new year optimistic of a future in which their side would obtain a surplus of exciting forwards. However, the new-found optimism surrounding the south coast side would soon be struck by the second transfer window of the season, spelling disaster for those who adored Brighton’s Belgian winger Leandro Trossard. As seen in August, a so called ‘big six’ club had come calling for one of Brighton’s best performers, on this occasion league leaders Arsenal with their pursuit of 28- year- old Trossard. The interest from Arsenal saw a sharp change in Trossard’s attitude, with the Belgian becoming persistent that his move away from Brighton be granted. The situation became dangerous for De Zerbi, placing a severe threat on the cohesion of his team just four months into his tenure as manager. As a result, De Zerbi opted to allow the move to materialise, with Arsenal paying just under thirty million pounds for the tricky winger. Whilst De Zerbi’s decision to allow Leandro to leave initially appeared detrimental to Brighton’s European dream, the departure of Trossard instead allowed the Albion to flourish. The likes of Karou Mitoma became free to find form out wide in positions where Trossard would originally operate, whilst the squad as a whole became free of players who did not want to play for the Brighton badge. Trossard may have excelled with the Albion, but his departure only allowed for Brighton’s squad to grow closer, a crucial factor in producing the superb form seen by the Seagulls in the second half of the season.
5: Getting over the FA Cup hangover
The second half of the 2022/23 season saw the Seagulls maintain their push for a place in Europe, a run of form in which Brighton brushed past Liverpool twice within the space of a month. In the latter of the two victories, Brighton recreated their form of 1983 by knocking out Liverpool in the FA Cup, a season which famously saw the south coast side reach Wembley to face Manchester United. Ironically, the Seagulls went on to repeat such a feat, with the two sides meeting at the semi-final stage of the competition on this occasion. However, in similar fashion to the class of 1983, Brighton would fall to defeat against the Red Devils, bringing a devastating end to their hopes of a first ever FA Cup glory. Given that the defeat occurred with just a month left to play in the Premier League campaign, supporters of the Seagulls could be forgiven for fearing that such a defeat could derail Brighton’s push for a place in the top seven. Such fears would have been exacerbated by Brighton’s 3-1 defeat away to Nottingham Forest three days after their trip to Wembley, a defeat which left De Zerbi’s side four points adrift off the top seven. With games against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal lying ahead for the Albion, it was crucial that the south coast side reignite the form seen prior to their FA Cup clash in the Capital. Thankfully for Brighton supporters, their side went on to do exactly that. The Seagulls would follow up on their defeat to Forest with an impressive six wins in four league encounters, defeating Manchester United and Arsenal along the way, after a brief period in which Brighton’s European dream appeared elusive. As with the departure of Potter and a number of the players, the FA Cup hangover provided a significant obstacle for the Albion to overcome, but once again De Zerbi’s side remained persistent in their push for the promise of European Football, a feat finally achieved by the end of the campaign.