Such has been the impact of Evan Ferguson this season, that some of Europe’s richest clubs have already begun to properly monitor his progress. A scouting analysis unsurprisingly suggested that it is too early to judge whether he would still be effective for a top club. That has nothing to do with Ferguson’s brilliant talent or potential. It’s more that he’s been a perfect fit for the Brighton system so far. He’s been doing so well that those in review essentially need more evidence to see how good the teen is regardless.
Ferguson is obviously not the only one like this. You can take a look at the Brighton team, as well as some of those who have left.
It’s an issue that raises bigger questions for the game of what could be the club’s best season. Brighton are not just challenging the fixed economic realities of the sport. Until now they have been defying some logical realities, as well as the gravity of football.
In the last two years, Brighton have lost a transformational manager, an influential manager, a host of other executives and football managers, as well as, most notoriously, six senior first-team players. Modern football history shows such a level of loss that “model” clubs inevitably fail.
However, rather than abandon or simply replace these players, Brighton have actually improved. Many of those who have left have not. The game has just seen what happened to Potter and his coaching staff at Chelsea, while the coaching staff at Stamford Bridge now have to try and get the club out of a mess. One is Paul Winstanley, whose Brighton replacement in Sam Jewell now oversees the full list of potential replacement players for Tony Bloom. That’s why Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma or Neal Maupay haven’t been lost, and not just because of their own lack of impact elsewhere.
Only Ben White, Leandro Trossard and Dan Burn have done better, and that doesn’t seem like a coincidence. It is a consequence of the system.
This should be one of the main lessons from Brighton’s story, not least because of how it illustrates a growing gap in the game.
The implementation of proper systems and ideologies is proving to be a key difference between clubs, but arguably more important when it comes to players.
They can look completely different depending on which frame they are in. The correct system amplifies a player’s abilities. The lack of one leaves them looking nothing like the same talent.
Brighton’s opponents on Sunday, and their major obstacle to a great day in the club’s history, probably know that better than anyone. Yes for the wrong reasons.
That too is much more recent than the many disappointing signings Manchester United have made since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Current successor Erik ten Hag has seen many of his 2018-19 Ajax prospects fall short of that promotion to the Champions League semi-final. Among them, to a greater or lesser degree, are Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong.
They have not been used in the same way. Van de Beek’s experience at United, above all, is a warning. It’s sad because it’s not his fault, but he just wasn’t bought for the role that he should have been.
Ten Hag has taken the first steps to try to fix this problem by imposing a deeper tactical system on United, and has had some success. The potential could be seen in the build-up to the League Cup win.
However, Brighton have that opportunity on Sunday, for the same reasons that Sevilla reduced Ten Hag’s side to such a rabble on Thursday.
United have a massively expensive squad, but one that is built on multiple tactical ideas, if any of them can be called tactical ideas. It means that even though Ten Hag has used the likes of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a lot of his squad doesn’t really fit into his system. Among them are Harry Maguire and David De Gea. So every time you’re missing a few core players, the links disappear and the level drops.
This is not to make excuses for Ten Hag, especially given that the club spent £300m last summer. However, the most expensive transfer is an instructive example.
Those who know how both Ajax and United work talk about how, in the Dutch club, Antony had a clear role with constant references. The Brazilian had a 10 on the left and a striker in front, who instinctively knew how to play. That was why he was evolving as a player to the point that United spent so much. They still don’t have the same system.
Antonio has more ground to cover. He leaves him more exposed, which is even more important when he’s still such a young player, regardless of the price.
Brighton would never allow that to happen, and that doesn’t just apply to paying said fee.
Players are signed to fit in and usually ahead of schedule. As in the case of Kaoru Mitoma, they are given time to adjust before having to step in as first team players. The successors are already there before the sales are made. This points to one of the most impressive elements of Brighton’s career, especially after half a decade of steady improvement in the Premier League.
The competition has had a number of “model” clubs, from Swansea City to West Brom to Southampton. All have buckled, with so many dropping, and Southampton set out to make another one this season. This is mainly because it is impossible to maintain the same level indefinitely when you keep selling players.
Brighton have so far resisted that, and have actually gone to higher levels.
That’s almost unprecedented, as is the amount of time they’ve accomplished this. The lifespan of these models is usually four to five seasons before cracks appear.
One possibility is not just the quality of Brighton’s recruitment, but also the sophistication of its secretive analytical model, combined with good old-fashioned governance. The club’s database offers 25 potential replacements for each traceable individual in the club. Brighton also has scouts for each position. It’s very specific.
It means that they are always thinking ahead, but in more ways than one. Brighton has an intelligence group that ensures that they are not recruiting replacements but recruiting for the future of the game; for the next evolution. So they could go from Potter to someone who not only fits that but is doing something genuinely innovative in Roberto De Zerbi.
In effect, it means that they do not seek to maintain the same level but to constantly move. No one is indispensable because no individual will be in the same role. There is an elevator before any descent.
It is true that this does not eliminate the risk, in the words of technical director David Weir on the BBC this week, but it does minimize it.
However, the real challenge Brighton could find is constantly looking to maximize. After this summer, they will no longer be looking to recruit for positions 14-8, that massively fluid midfield of the Premier League. It will be a higher level player.
That will bring a higher threshold, as well as higher demands.
It’s where solid proof of success, like a Champions League or FA Cup place, helps a lot. Brighton might be on the verge of the best moment in their history, but it is just as important for the future.