A sparkling performance and some welcome gifts from the Chelsea defence gave Brighton a cathartic win against their former manager.
Well, what a day this turned out to be for Brighton & Hove Albion. They ticked a number of important boxes. This was a big win against a team with considerably vaster resources, and a first ever league win against Chelsea. It was a return to form after five games without a win, and a first win for new manager Roberto De Zerbi. Oh yes, and their supporters got to sing ‘You’re geting sacked in the morning’ and ‘Potter, Potter, what’s the score?’ at the manager who upped sticks and left the club the first time a golden carrot was dangled in front of him, and then returned to take their entire backroom staff too.
And what effect did all of this have on Brighton? Well, De Zerbi started well, with a 3-3 draw at Anfield against Liverpool in his first match, but since then performances have been patchier. Spurs were business-like but not much more in beating them 1-0 at the Amex. Brentford beat them comfortably. The game against Nottingham Forest felt like a throwback to all the previous times when it felt as though they couldn’t buy a goal. Losing to Manchester City was to be expected, but it did complete a run of five winless matches since he took charge.
Of course, the loss of the manager is one thing. This happens to clubs with wearying regularity, always a reminder of the vast gulf between those for whom it is a livelihood and those for whom it is a fandom. But it seems absurd to believe that the sudden – and frankly unexpected – removal of an entire backroom staff wouldn’t cause a huge amount of disruption, no matter how much it might seem quickly smoothed over from the outside.
It’s not even the first time this has happened. Dan Ashworth went for the Saudi money earlier this year. And it has been suggested that Potter still isn’t happy with what he’s already taken from his previous club. It’s now being strongly rumoured that Brighton’s Head of Scouting Paul Winstanley is going to head for Stamford Bridge as well. Stamford Bridge needs renovation; it wouldn’t be that surprising to see a couple of the stands from the Amex turn up there too.
But such behaviour from a head coach, who will have been on and on at them about the importance of teamwork, ‘building a family’ or whatever while he was there, can also have a galvanising effect on those left behind. Brighton’s players went into this game with a point to prove like no other. The supporters, who are routinely encouraged by clubs to buy into the emotional side of the game only for everyone involved to act like it’s ‘just a job’, would have their opportunity to let him know exactly what they thought of the way he acted.
It took less than five minutes for the team to get going. Thiago Silva had already headed the ball off the line twice for Chelsea when Leandro Trossard scored to give Brighton the lead. Things didn’t get any better for Chelsea throughout the rest of the half. They were pressing high but not retaining possession, and this was leading to huge gaps behind their defenders which Brighton, who looked as though they’d started with four up front, so relentlessly were they attacking, could easily exploit.
Chelsea seemed happy to give Brighton a helping hand throughout the first half, too. After 14 minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek turned the ball into his own goal from a corner. Christian Pulisic shanked the ball wide with goalkeeper Robert Sanchez prone. And then, with three minutes of the half to play, Pervis Estupinan got in on the left again and pulled the ball back for Trevoh Chalobah to divert the ball past Kepa Arrizabalaga. 3-0 at half-time, two of them own goals. Kepa did not return for the second half, replaced by Edouard Mendy.
But nerves started to creep in with the start of the second half. Barely a couple of minutes in, Kai Havertz headed in a Conor Gallagher cross from close range, and the mood around the game started to shift. Brighton began to drop off slightly, and a slightly reshuffled Chelsea team started to move into these spaces and into attacking positions.
The pressure started to build, in that way so familiar when A Big Club is trailing. But Brighton did hold their own and they grew into the second half. Chelsea were limited largely to half-chances, although they did create quite a few of those, and when Havertz skied the ball over the crossbar from 12 yards out with four minutes left to play, the game was really up.
Could there possibly have been a more satisfying outcome to this day for Brighton supporters? Everything was teed up for a fresh layer of disappointment, with their team, which certainly displayed a degree of their recent fraying in underwhelming performances against Brentford and Nottingham Forest, having to take on the might of Chelsea, coached by the man who didn’t just walk out of the club a couple of months ago, but who also took the entire backroom staff with him.
But when the game came around, they started with the force of a hurricane, creating chance after chance throughout the first half, even if they were reliant on Chelsea’s defensive munificence for two of their goals. And they showed genuine character in the second half.
Conceding right at the start could have allowed those little insecurities to start creeping in, but instead they settled, calmed the game and, even though they were on the defensive for much of the second half, seldom really looked like completely surrendering their lead once they had it.
If Brighton supporters were wondering ‘what’s the point?’ after the plundering of their club, well, the answer to that question is ‘today’. Today is the point. Big money will win in the long term, because big money always wins in the long term. Chelsea are only two league places and three points above them in the Premier League, and even if that looked faintly ridiculous on the basis of their game against each other, most would still expect Chelsea to qualify for next year’s Champions League and for Brighton to fall short.
But sometimes it’s best not to dwell upon football’s structural inequalities. At least today belonged to Brighton, for proving revenge can be a dish best served very warm indeed.
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