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Football at this level is an exceptionally intricate game in which the world’s best coaches plot out their strategies in stunning detail, compute its thousands of moving parts, make contingencies upon contingencies. It feels hopelessly simplistic to boil down the issues with Graham Potter’s complex and delicately balanced Brighton team to “just sign a striker”. But, you know. Sometimes you really do just have to sign a striker.
Twenty shots, plenty of ambitious attacking football, their highest expected goals total of the season, and ultimately a familiar refrain. The wind blew in off the English Channel and the Amex howled and roared to keep out the cold, and yet still the ball refused to drop. There were numerous areas of encouragement: the marauding wing-backs Tariq Lamptey and Marc Cucurella, the sharp passing and movement in midfield.
Chance after chance was fashioned and ultimately squandered, most off the boot of Neal Maupay, or occasionally the shin or the ankle of Neal Maupay. “He’s a human being and he’ll be disappointed because he thinks he can score those,” said Potter. “We did everything but score. If we maintain that performance level, we’ll get the wins.”
But equally Brighton are now without a win in eight, and an autumn of overachievement is threatening to give way to a winter of discontent. Perhaps this feels like a slightly harsh assessment for a team lying eighth in the Premier League table, but the smattering of boos in the ground at full-time belied a fanbase whose expectations have been raised by the champagne football of recent months. Not all of them, you suspect, were there for the Withdean and the Goldstone years.
Meanwhile, this was painfully thin stuff from Leeds, who were also deeply wasteful in their own way. The return of Patrick Bamford up front cannot come soon enough, but of greater concern to Marcelo Bielsa will be their profligacy in possession, the weird lack of intensity, the sense of a team puffing and fraying at the edges a little. Naturally Bielsa cycled through his tactical flick-book: switching personnel, making a double substitution at half-time, but the bareness of his squad is plain for all to see.
And naturally enough, Bielsa blamed himself afterwards. “Clearly the function of a coach is for each player to play comfortably,” he said. “When it doesn’t work, it’s because I’m not doing it well. But football has secrets that are somehow difficult to solve. That’s what I’m trying to do and evidently I am not achieving it.”
For Leeds the return of Raphinha and Rodrigo had promised greater incision for a team who have looked uncharacteristically blunt in recent weeks. But with Kalvin Phillips (a midfielder) at centre-half, Diego Llorente (a centre-half) at right-back and Stuart Dallas (a right-back) in midfield, they looked disjointed and distracted in the early stages. Bielsa has always prized versatility in his players, but it is also a trait he possesses himself. Before long the trio had rotated back to their original, favoured positions.
Small wonder. Brighton were running riot. Quick diagonals to Cucurella and Lamptey on the flanks were giving Leeds no end of problems. Lamptey, in particular, was giving Leeds left-back Junior Firpo a harrowing evening: the Dominican booked after five minutes and withdrawn after 45. But Maupay had missed two big chances, and for all Brighton’s dominance it was they who looked the more frustrated side at the break.
The two goalkeepers came to the fore in the second half, Illan Meslier making a sharp save from Solly March’s deflected shot, Robert Sánchez returning from suspension for Brighton and saving brilliantly with his legs from Tyler Roberts. In fact, on the balance of chances the second half was probably pretty even.
The storm continued to blow at both ends of the pitch, but given the paucity of options on either bench there was a certain inevitability that it would eventually blow out. For these finely-calibrated, process-driven clubs, making a big signing in January – Brighton up front, Leeds potentially in defence and midfield – feels like pretty much the last thing you would expect them to do. But as it turns out, there are also clear limits to working with what you have.