Josh Hobbs continues our Transfer Gurus series with an analysis of Dan Ashworth’s time at Brighton & Hove Albion.
Ever since the Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United was completed, speculation over who would take on the role of Director of Football was almost as rife as who would take over from Steve Bruce as manager. Although Eddie Howe was appointed within a few weeks of the takeover, the Director of Football post remains unfilled.
Dan Ashworth is reportedly the man the new ownership of the Magpies have identified as the next holder of the role. However, he is unable to take up the role until an agreement is reached between Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion, where Ashworth has now been placed on ‘gardening leave’ from his role as Technical Director after signaling his intent to take the job at St James’ Park.
Newcastle hope to sort out this issue in time for the former FA man to lead their recruitment over the summer, and with the Magpies likely to be one of the big spenders in Europe when the window opens, Ashworth seems the ideal man to continue our ‘Transfer Gurus’ series with.
Ashworth was appointed to his role at Brighton in 2018 but did not begin working for the club until 2019. As a result, the transfers we focus on in this piece will begin with the 19/20 season as it’s difficult to know what influence he would have had on the January 2019 window. In fact, he may not have even taken up the role in time for that window, as it is impossible to corroborate his start date.
During Ashworth’s tenure at the AMEX Stadium, the Seagulls have established themselves as a Premier League club, finishing 15th and 16th in his first full seasons at the club and currently sitting 11th in the division. In that time, he has overseen a major squad churn. In fact, according to Transfermarkt, while there were 41 recognised first-team players at the club at the end of 18/19, it now suggests that they will have 33 first-team squad members when loanees return this summer.
Over three seasons and six transfer windows, Ashworth brought 22 players to the club, while 30 players have left. The incomings cost £157.46 million with £89.76 million being brought in through sales, leading to a net spend of £67.7 million. Interestingly, since his appointment, Ashworth bought four players for fees greater than the club’s previous transfer record, so he was not afraid to make some bigger signings in the role.
Here’s how those transfers have been spread by age group:
In this series, we will discuss four different age ranges. Peak age is shown on the graph and comprised the years between 24 and 28. The other three categories are ‘potential’ (17-20), ‘pre-peak’ (21-23) and ‘diminishing returns’ (29+). Keep that in mind as you assess the graph above as these categories will be referred to throughout the piece.
As you can see in the graph above, a key part of Ashworth’s role has been building a squad for the future. The majority of incomings have been young, while most players leaving the club have been late in their peak years or moving into the ‘diminishing returns’ phase.
Note the average age of incomings is 22.81 compared to the average for outgoings, which is 27.7. This is borne out in the average age of the squad as well. The 41 first-team players contracted to the club at the end of 18/19 had an average age of 25.78. The average age for the squad this season, including returnees at the end of the season, is 22.84.
It is also important to point out how few of Brighton’s incoming transfers under Ashworth have been peak age. This is likely for financial reasons as the club are aware that they can get better value out of high-quality young players than from the kind of peak age players available to a club of their level and financial power.
Interestingly, when it comes to peak age outgoings, there are fewer than might be expected. This is not a model built with the idea of buying young players and selling them on for profit. We will explore that more later, but if it were, one would expect to see many more peak-age players being sold. Instead, this is a strategy to buy young talent who can play for Brighton for an extended period and ideally spend their peak years at the club.
As we look into Ashworth’s strategy on a deeper level, let’s first focus on where the majority of the outgoings have come from.
Trimming the fat around the squad
As the graph above shows, the majority of the outgoings in Ashworth’s time have been players in the latter years of their peak or those moving into the diminishing returns period. With Brighton looking to overhaul the squad, this meant moving on players who would not be able to make a long-term contribution anymore.
Here are all the players of peak age and beyond who left the club during Ashworth’s tenure:
Notably, the majority of these players left without bringing in a fee and only four brought in fees of over £1 million. In fact, the largest fee was a player that Brighton wouldn’t have been looking to sell in Dan Burn. However, the player made his intentions clear that he wanted to move and £13.5 million will have been seen as a good fee for the club to receive, especially given the player’s age.
It’s also worth pointing out that all but eight of the 23 players in this group ended up moving to clubs outside of the top five leagues. This reinforces the point that these players were allowed to leave because they weren’t able to contribute at the level required by Brighton anymore. In fact, in many cases, their contributions to the first-team squad had already halted.
For example, Leon Balogun didn’t make a single league appearance for the club the season before he left. Whilst Ashworth did not bring in much in the way of funds from the players, he did trim unnecessary fat from the wage bill by allowing these players to leave.
Before moving on, a quick note on Alireza Jahanbakhsh. The Iranian was the club’s record transfer, bought for £17.1 million in the summer before Ashworth joined the club. However, despite the 21 goals and 12 assists he contributed fo AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie the season before, he failed to deliver in the Premier League.
Jahanbakhsh was only three years into a five-year deal at the Amex when he was sold to Feyenoord for a fee of less than £1 million. Ashworth clearly felt it was better to cut losses on the player and save his wages rather than keep him just because the fee was way below what they would have hoped for, given how much they had initially paid for him. This would have been embarrassing for the club but is sensible from the technical director.
Buying players for the long term
When it comes to bringing players in, Ashworth has leaned overwhelmingly towards young players. In fact, of the 22 signings he made, 14 of those were in the pre-peak age group or younger.
Here’s the list:
Brighton’s two most expensive signings ever—Enock Mwepu and Neal Maupay—are in this group, whilst the £16.2 million spent on Marc Cucurella is the sixth-highest fee in the club’s history.
Nobody would argue that Maupay has been clinical during his time at the Amex; he has famously and consistently underperformed his expected goals. However, he has performed an important role for the team. His 27 Premier League goals have come at a rate of 0.32 per 90, which is a good rate for a striker in a bottom half side.
Although £20 million is a high fee for Brighton, it is a fairly standard fee for a Premier League striker. Given that Brentford sold Ollie Watkins for over £10 million more a season after they sold Maupay, despite the two having had similar seasons in the Championship, the fee paid for the Frenchman looks a little better value.
Something that stands out from this table is the fact that only Tariq Lamptey and Marc Cucurella were signed from Europe’s top five leagues. In the case of Lamptey, they were able to offer an elite prospect regular minutes which he wouldn’t have got at Chelsea. More generally, though, signings from other Premier League clubs haven’t even been attempted.
Instead, they have prioritised top prospects in lesser leagues. With these signings, there is a risk that the player won’t make the step-up in quality—as was the case with Jahanbakhsh—but they look to be having greater success with their latest record signing in Enock Mwepu.
The Zambian was one of the standout performers in the Austrian Bundesliga and he had impressed for Salzburg in European competition as well. Looking at his TransferLab profile from 20/21 compared to fellow Tier 4 midfielders (Austrian Bundesliga is a Tier 4 league on TransferLab), you can see he was a standout at the level.
This form convinced the Seagulls to pay what is their record transfer fee for the midfielder but a sum that is also not too much of a high-risk fee for a Premier League club. On this occasion, they have been rewarded for moving for a player from a lesser league when other clubs in the league might have waited to see him make a move elsewhere first.
According to Transfermarkt, Mwepu’s value has risen by £7 million this season and this only looks like increasing. He has played 13 times in the Premier League, hitting just over 700 minutes thus far.
However, he had become a regular starter before a hamstring injury kept him out for eight games recently. He returned to fitness in the last couple of games and made a major contribution in the win against Arsenal, assisting Leandro Trossard’s opener and then scoring the crucial second goal below:
Importantly, the other players to contribute to the goals in this game were also bought from less fashionable leagues. Trossard was bought from the Belgian Pro League and the provider of the assist for Mwepu, Moises Caicedo, is also part of this group of potential/pre-peak players.
In that game, the Ecuadorian teenager was making his Premier League debut after being bought last January from Independiente in his home country. In Caicedo’s case, Brighton followed what appears to be a clear strategy in their recruitment to buy players early in their development before loaning them to other leagues to continue their development before giving them a chance in the Brighton first team. You can read more about this strategy in our Loan Pathways piece on Brighton.
Another example of this strategy can be seen in the signing of Abdallah Sima from Slavia Prague. The £6.03 million fee paid for the 20-year-old may end up looking like a bargain if he can perform as well as he did for the Czech side. He scored 16 goals and made 7 assists from the wing in 20/21.
When Brighton subsequently bought him at the end of the summer window of 21/22, they immediately loaned him to Stoke City in the Championship. However, whilst this move was meant to acclimatise him to English football, it has been a disappointment for all involved. Here’s his injury record from that period:
One would expect to see Sima loaned again next season, before getting his chance in the Brighton team, but this is an example of the risk inherent to these kinds of deals. A season like this could knock Sima back in his development and mean he never makes the grade at the AMEX. However, the fee paid was low enough to make it a risk worth taking.
Peak players weren’t completely ignored
Whilst signing peak players has largely been something Ashworth avoided, it wasn’t something he completely ignored. As you can see below, there have been a small number of them who joined the club during his time:
Importantly, the two who cost significant fees—Trossard and Adam Webster—were at the very beginning of their peak years. Meanwhile, Denis Undav was signed this January from Union Saint-Gilloise, a club owned by the same owners as Brighton.
Those players late in their peak years and beyond were all either available on frees or for low fees and deemed to be of a high enough quality to regularly contribute in the Premier League. This has clearly been successful in the case of Joel Veltman, Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck.
Webster and Trossard have shown why Brighton have continued to shop in markets like the Championship and the Pro League. Both have been key parts of the team since they joined the club in 19/20 and Webster has proven himself as one of the more confident centre backs in the league with the ball at his feet. Playing for Graham Potter, this has been particularly important and has helped the Seagulls play a possession style that many Premier League teams with Brighton’s budget wouldn’t attempt.
A big sale was necessary
One thing which has not been mentioned yet is that, on the outgoings front, £52.65 million of the £89.76 million brought in while Dan Ashworth was in charge came from one player: Ben White. That equates to 59% of the total fees accrued during Ashworth’s time at the club.
The technical director played a very good hand when it comes to this sale. He turned down £30 million from Leeds United for the player the previous summer, despite him never playing a Premier League game. A season later, they were able to bring in over £20 million more when they did agree to let him go. Without the sale of White, the net spend would look a lot less healthy at over £120 million.
Also, it’s notable that the biggest fee the club have received under Ashworth’s time at the club—and in fact in their history—was for an academy product. They have not raised much at all by buying players to sell on and certainly not any large fees, unlike a club such as Brentford.
It may be the case that players like Yves Bissouma, Lamptey or Mwepu bring in significant fees in the next couple of seasons, though, which would suddenly make their profits through player trading increase in a big way.
A change of strategy at Newcastle?
One would expect that Brighton will continue with a similar policy to their recruitment now that Ashworth has moved on. David Weir was given the role as interim technical director, having worked under Ashworth as assistant technical director.
With that in mind, the club seem most likely to operate in markets they have had previous success for this summer at least. After all, they were finding value in lesser markets before Ashworth’s arrival so that is not necessarily a policy that he brought in.
What will be more interesting to see is what direction Ashworth will take Newcastle’s recruitment. January was the first window where the Magpies were a financial superpower and they immediately flexed their muscles, spending £92 million to overhaul the squad and provide Eddie Howe with the tools to pull away from relegation danger.
Will Ashworth continue to look in under-valued markets at Newcastle? He will now have the spending power to buy elite players from Europe’s top leagues.
That being said, given that St James’ Park won’t be hosting European football for another season at the very least, he will still need to be creative with his transfer targets. Newcastle might be able to offer huge wages but they won’t be able to offer players the ability to test themselves in Europe’s top continental competitions, which could prove a dealbreaker for some.
In that case, Ashworth’s experience at Brighton in identifying players who are able to raise the level of the squad despite coming from less glamorous leagues could be vital. He will surely try to attract some players from Europe’s elite leagues as well but a blended approach here could serve Newcastle well.
Likely it will still take time to climb the Premier League but Brighton’s former technical director looks likely to be an effective choice for the Magpies if they are going to build something to last for the long term. He has a proven track record of overseeing a sensible squad build and will not fall into the trap of going for the scattergun recruitment that has been displayed at some other clubs that have tried and failed to climb the table in recent seasons.