Ninad Barbadikar investigates how the south coast Premier League side get so much right in the transfer market
It is not hard to see that Brighton have a smart and effective approach in the transfer market. It isn’t one sale or transfer that has made them the envy of clubs around them – it is their consistency that rightly attracts attention.
In the age of multi-club ownerships and wealthier clubs, Brighton have found a way to compete without a financial stronghold. In fact, the most they have paid for a player stands at around £30 million for the former Watford attacker Joao Pedro, while only Enock Mwepu, Adam Webster, and Bart Verbruggen have been in the £20 million bracket.
Looking at Brighton’s sales and acquisitions in isolation doesn’t tell the story quite well. It isn’t just Moises Caicedo, the Ecuadorian midfielder being bought for a mere £4 million or Marc Cucurella being sold to Chelsea for £52.5 million. It isn’t random, or luck. There’s a pattern in which Brighton operate in the transfer market, a mechanic similar to flipping players like flipping houses.
This isn’t replicable by big clubs: Manchester United or Liverpool would not be able to pull this off in the same consistent manner.
Let me explain why. Brighton’s recruitment as a whole can be broadly covered by four key pillars. These are:
- An undervalued young player that has displayed an above average talent, skill or intelligence on the pitch
- Said player has little to no experience in the top five European Leagues
- The player’s skill set, role, age aligns with Brighton’s tactical structure on the pitch
- The player is not signed for the now, the player is signed with the vision he will be developed
Brighton are able to offer starter minutes to upcoming players in the Premier League in a way that a club like United or Liverpool, competing for trophies, cannot. In that way, they are able to offer the player experience and minutes playing in a possession-based side (that is currently flourishing higher up the table season by season) and in exchange, they are able to take risks and punts on players for a higher potential profit.
That isn’t to say Brighton haven’t had misses. They have. Alireza Jahanbakhsh comes to mind, Jahanbakhsh arrived amidst much fanfare in the summer of 2018, costing £17 million from AZ Alkmaar. He signed a five-year deal after scoring 21 times for AZ as the Dutch league’s top scorer in 2017-18.
Jahanbakhsh failed to register a single goal or assist in his debut campaign in England.
What makes Brighton’s recruitment strategy intelligent isn’t how many they got right, but how little they have got wrong. The starting point for Brighton’s ability to source low-cost gems comes from the very top.
This means that, if a player leaves, or even a coach, it isn’t the end of the world. Recall the smooth transition from Potter to De Zerbi. It’s their philosophy. From the way they play to the players they sign, Brighton are developing a… Brighton way. Let’s dissect it all here.
THE PLAYERS THEY GOT RIGHT
Players who have truly defined that Brighton way have arrived under Potter and De Zerbi, and the one name from both managerial stints that stands out is Ecuador international Moises Caicedo.
Signed from Independiente del Valle in the summer of 2021 for a measly fee of just £4m, Caicedo is expected to leave Brighton for a transfer fee in the region of £100m, a huge sign of just how much the player has improved in his time with the Seagulls.
It is difficult to predict how his career would have turned out had he joined one of the elite sides instead of Brighton, however, as stated earlier, Brighton are able to offer minutes in a way that elite sides simply cannot.
Caicedo has all the hallmarks of a soon-to-be world class Premier League midfielder, combining a superb defensive work rate out of possession with the ability to progress the ball from deeper areas.
Of all the players that Brighton have gotten right, Caicedo shines brightest.
Another player who has caught the eye in more recent history is Japan international Kaoru Mitoma, who was signed from Kawasaki Frontale and first joined Brighton’s sister club in Union St.Gilloise, where he spent the 21/22 season, eventually joining the Seagulls last summer.
After seven goals and five assists in his debut Premier League campaign, it’s safe to say that Mitoma is another player who Brighton have gotten right with their recruitment.
The 26-year-old’s willingness to take players on and attack the box with intensity is what makes him such a threat in possession. In fact, according to Opta, Mitoma is second to only Solly March for chance creating carries, amassing 38 in total during the 22/23 season.
Mitoma has thrived under De Zerbi and with the Italian’s focus on allowing the wide players to be the hub of chance creation, it has given the likes of Mitoma the licence to thrive in and out of possession.
HOW DO THEY PLAY
Brighton have become the neutrals’ favourite in their time under Potter and De Zerbi with the way they have played the game, the tactical approaches of both managers and how they have forced the elite sides to think differently when coming up against them. The Seagulls are a different beast as compared to the rest of the league.
Before we look at De Zerbi’s tactics, a quick refresher on Potter’s tactics at Brighton is important.
These Coach ID radars illustrate Potter’s varying approach perfectly, against the top and bottom sides, within set principles for the team.
The Englishman showcased a great deal of tactical flexibility with the varying setups he used against different opposition. Not only that, if changes are necessary mid-game, Potter never shied away from doing that.
Deep circulation of the ball was a key tenet of Potter’s Brighton, for which he needed players comfortable on the ball. The likes of Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster, and Dan Burn were particularly relevant here, as was their keeper at the time, Matt Ryan.
Playing through the opposition press required players that were able to hold their own in possession, and Brighton certainly had that across all departments under Potter.
Fast forward to De Zerbi and the Italian’s similarities with Potter are there for all to see. De Zerbi’s approach is fairly consistent against Premier League sides of varying qualities.
Once again, the frequent circulation of the ball close to their own goal ranks them highly for deep circulation. The purpose of that deep circulation with De Zerbi’s Brighton is to bait the opposition into pressing and in doing so, creating ‘artificial transitions’ that the likes of March and Mitoma are able to exploit with their threat from wide areas.
De Zerbi’s Coach ID radars show that his approach against the top and bottom half is mostly the same. Deep circulation, attacking from wide areas and counter-pressing high up the pitch, these are some key tenets of the Seagulls boss.
“Roberto likes more the idea of building up from the back and you can see that in our games,” said Alexis Mac Allister, in an interview with Sky Sports.
“He loves to have the possession and then when we can find our wing-backs and our strikers we can try to be direct and score.”
This bold approach has certainly paid dividends. Scoring goals under Potter was a huge problem for Brighton, with the Seagulls failing to score more than 42 across any of his three seasons at the Amex.
De Zerbi’s Brighton have nipped that problem in the bud and laid to rest any concerns about Brighton’s finishing, scoring 72 goals last season in the league, ultimately helping them to a Europa League finish in the league standings.
WHAT ABOUT THE PHILOSOPHY OF RECRUITMENT?
A good definition of Brighton’s efforts recruitment and their philosophy with signings in general is to take risky bets. What’s interesting is just how calculated those risky bets are and how frequently they go for it.
This is evidenced in the above visualisation. Since 2017, the Seagulls have acquired the second most number of players, exceeded only by Chelsea in terms of the sheer outlay of signings made.
The risk factor involved in a lot of these signings is apparent in the transfers fees they have paid for players over the years. One of their most recent signings, Joao Pedro, is their club record signing, bought from Watford for around £30m over the summer.
Now of course these are risks that clubs do not take and in most cases are not able to take either. Brighton’s net of recruitment is wide-spread, and a big part of the success they’ve had is the diversification of that net.
Additionally, what’s worth noting about Brighton’s approach is how it leans towards decreasing the probability of failure with each transfer, rather than focusing on increasing the probability of success.
Given the players that they scout, including the likes of Mac Allister, amongst others. These are players who have had quiet spells at previous clubs and therefore they go under the radar for most part.
Brighton’s acquisition of these players is also not as ‘loud’ either, and it’s only when these players depart the Amex that they have the world’s eyes on them.
So ultimately, what you see with Brighton is the result of an engine running smoothly thanks to a diversified portfolio of signings.
When you are as good as Brighton are at scouting players and identifying undervalued assets in diversified markets (in part because many of these markets are under-scouted or assessed as having little merit), you also have to be prepared for the big clubs to take advantage of your talent development; the Seagulls are no strangers to this.
This summer saw Mac Allister and Robert Sanchez depart. Last summer, it was Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard. The summer before it was Ben White and Dan Burn.
Mac Allister has been the headline departure this summer and with Mohamed Kudus reportedly set to replace him, the Seagulls also have depth from other youngsters already in the squad who have shown the potential to be ready.
The likes of Julio Enciso and Facundo Buonanotte have impressed in their limited minutes are no doubt set to see more game time with De Zerbi’s side competing across multiple fronts this season as they look to take the next step under the shrewd Italian.
It will no doubt be exciting to follow their European adventures this season and how they deal with the eventual sale of Caicedo.
With a number of exciting talents coming back to the club from their loan spells, Brighton’s recruitment is the wind beneath their Seagull wings and they are ready to fly.
Header image copyright IMAGO / Offside Sports Photography / Jacques Feeney