If there is a blueprint for winning at Old Trafford, it probably doesn’t involve selling your two best players. If the theory was that Brighton will emerge from the summer around £90million richer but poorer on the pitch without Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, they conjured what – on paper, anyway – ranks as one of the best results in their history.
Although, perhaps, not even their finest against Manchester United since the start of May. A maiden win against Old Trafford was a second against United in swift succession; for 7 May, read 7 August. After a 4-0 victory at home, with the soon-to-be £90million pair, came a 2-1 victory away. United’s decline has to be factored into any evaluation but even February’s 2-0 defeat, when Brighton were the superior side for an hour, offered evidence that now they are a better team than United: not necessarily individually but definitely collectively.
“It was a big difference with their routines,” noted the beaten Erik ten Hag. “They are a long time together with a certain philosophy and plan, cooperation between coach and team.” It was a triumph of cohesion, coaching and continuity. Graham Potter supplied the context: taking over a team fourth from bottom, requiring results to persuade the doubters. “The way you convince people in football is to win and when you are Brighton and Hove Albion it can take you time to win,” he said.
His tenure has been marked by winless runs, but also by flagship victories: away at Arsenal and Tottenham on successive Saturdays in April, at home to Manchester City last May, beating Spurs and then winning at Anfield in a week earlier in 2021. He only needs a win against Chelsea to complete the set but Potter does have four draws in his last five meetings.
His Brighton can be draw specialists, sometimes struggling to win the supposedly winnable games, but they show a willingness to take on the superpowers and the skill to prevail against them. They can win wars of ambition as much as attrition.
This year has already brought their highest top-flight finish and this was the earliest of indications that ninth place might not be their ceiling. “You have to try and make progress,” Potter said, and the complication comes in the form of the footballing food chain. A purist in terms of style has a pragmatic recognition of the realities of a world where Brighton’s recruitment and his capacity to improve players have made Bissouma and Cucurella, like Ben White before them, attractive to the big six.
“It is not too easy to lose the players we have lost but we understand why we have lost them and how the fees can help the club progress,” Potter said. “Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella are footballers valued at quite a high price which suggests they are good players. But I always think the collective idea is more important than any individual.” So Brighton proved, teamwork allowing individuals to catch the eye. Moises Caicedo took on Bissouma’s responsibilities for regaining possession. An all-action destroyer looked an internal replacement for the new Tottenham recruit, a midfielder proving a case of Albion’s forward planning. If Cucurella’s lucrative departure took them by more surprise, Potter has shown he does not need to spend similar sums to engineer excellence.
Only two of his starting 11 cost more than £10million. Caicedo was a £4.5million bargain. The match-winner Pascal Gross cost just £3million. Six of his teammates were still cheaper: Joel Veltman at £900,000, three products of the academy and two experienced free transfers, in Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck.
The best forward on the pitch was one United’s previous Dutch manager discarded. His energy belied his 31 years, his cross brought Gross’ opener. “He was amazing,” Potter said. Welbeck had suffered from a stomach bug beforehand, but it was never going to deprive him of a return to Old Trafford. “He would have strapped the toilet on to his backside to play,” Potter said. “It would have slowed him down, though.”