Losing Graham Potter to Chelsea just over halfway through their head coach’s long-term contract is a big setback for Brighton and Hove Albion.
There’s no getting away from that fact — and the disappointment is exacerbated by the decimation of his backroom staff, too.
Potter has taken assistant Billy Reid, coach Bjorn Hamberg and recruitment analyst Kyle Macaulay with him to Stamford Bridge, together with two Brighton stalwarts in captain-turned-coach Bruno Saltor and goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts.
Nevertheless, there’s no panic at the Amex Stadium about the departure of the man who steered them to their highest-ever Premier League finish of ninth last season and who leaves them in fourth place, six matches into the new one.
A buyout clause of £20million ($23m) softens the blow, which just goes to show what an inspired decision owner-chairman Tony Bloom made in hiring Potter at the end of the 2018-19 season and then, just six months and 13 matches later, awarding him a two-year contract extension to June 2025.
It’s a huge ‘transfer fee’ for a manager/head coach, equivalent to around £150,000 a week for the 33 months that were left on that six-year deal.
Potter has transformed Brighton from resilient, top-flight survivors into a team thriving in the sport’s No 1 domestic league, gradually instilling his progressive playing style into a squad which blends experience with mobile energy and athleticism.
He’ll be a hard act to follow, but Brighton have been planning for the day they might lose him since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
Brighton have a select shortlist of potential successors, managers working both in the UK and abroad, and will concentrate their efforts on getting one of these candidates over the line based on factors such as availability, cost and the likelihood of landing them.
Potter first made his name by taking Ostersunds from the Swedish fourth tier to the knockout phase of the Europa League in seven years.
Kjetil Knutsen, who is highly rated in the corridors of power at the Amex, has performed similar miracles during four years in charge at Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt.
The 53-year-old has delivered back-to-back domestic titles in his homeland, and Glimt destroyed Jose Mourinho’s Roma 6-1 in the Europa Conference League last season (then drew 2-2 in the reverse fixture two weeks later) before a 5-1 aggregate win over Scottish title-bound Celtic in the knockout phase.
Facing Roma again in the quarter-finals, they beat them for a second time (2-1) in Norway, but lost 4-0 in the Italian capital in what was their last outing of a marathon 61-match, 11-month season. Roma went on to win the competition.
Knutsen has enjoyed European success with Bodo/Glimt (Photo: Patrick Goosen/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
Knutsen’s side are currently second in the Norwegian league and are in the Europa League this season, where they have been drawn in the same group as Arsenal.
Closer to home, former Brighton defender — and, for two games in 2014, caretaker manager — Nathan Jones has done superbly in two spells at Luton Town, delivering promotion to the Championship in the first one and steering them to the second tier’s play-offs earlier this year in the second, although his CV was blemished by a troubled nine-month spell at Stoke City in the same division three years ago.
It would be expensive to get former Swansea manager Steve Cooper out of Nottingham Forest, who he led to Premier League promotion last season via the play-offs after taking over in the September when they were bottom of the table.
Continuing the Swansea theme (Potter spent 2018-19 there after leaving Ostersunds, coping with financial constraints following their relegation to the Championship. His move to Brighton then saw the Welsh club appoint Cooper, who led them to the play-offs in both of his two seasons), their current manager Russell Martin is Brighton-born and a disciple of Potter’s passing style.
Swansea manager Russell Martin is an admirer of Potter’s passing style (Photo: Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)
The postponement of Brighton’s home game against Crystal Palace on September 17, due to a clashing rail strike, is inadvertently helpful.
It creates a three-week gap between Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth (which may also be postponed) and the visit to Liverpool on October 1.
Anfield may seem like a severe start for Potter’s successor, but it is arguably preferable to facing Brighton’s bitter rivals Palace amid a frenzied weight of expectation.
Under-21s coach Andrew Crofts — who began his career as an apprentice at Chelsea, before two spells in Brighton’s midfield — takes the reins for now with assistant Shannon Ruth and vastly-experienced midfielder Adam Lallana, who is currently out with a calf injury. Set-piece coach Nick Stanley and assistant goalkeeping coach Jack Stern will also be part of the group.
Potter’s successor will inherit a talented squad which is disrupting the normal pecking order at the Premier League summit.
It’s a small and early sample, of course, and as such, should be treated with caution — especially after Potter’s exit — but Brighton are performing at a high level so far when it comes to dominating opponents, as illustrated by the chart below.
This is demonstrated both by chance creation (non-penalty xG per 90 minutes) and in terms of territory (the percentage of time Brighton spend in the other teams’ defensive third versus the time opponents spend in theirs).
Further tough fixtures await in October, including a visit to back-to-back champions Manchester City, but Brighton have shown themselves to be capable of getting results against anyone, home or away.
Their start to 2022-23 — including beating Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford — isn’t a flash in the pan.
They finished last season strongly to claim that ninth spot, and have taken 30 points from the last 14 matches since early April.
That’s Champions League form: an average of 2.14 points per match over a 38-game season equates to more than 81 points. For context, Chelsea finished third last season with 74 points.
Another factor to take into consideration in the foundation laid by Potter in these opening weeks is the teams who would have been expected to be vying for European qualification getting off to poor starts.
West Ham’s 3-1 defeat at the Amex on the final day last season, having led at half-time, cost them a Europa League place. They had to settle for the Europa Conference League instead.
David Moyes’ side are currently in the relegation zone, already nine points behind Brighton, who beat them 2-0 at the London Stadium last month.
It’s been even worse for Leicester City, who finished a point above Brighton in eighth last season. Thrashed 5-2 at the Amex on Sunday in what turned out to be Potter’s final game in charge, they are bottom of the table with 12 fewer points than Brighton after six matches.
Moises Caicedo and Leandro Trossard celebrate Brighton’s second goal against Leicester (Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Wolves, the club who ended up immediately behind Brighton in 10th last time, are now 14th with six points and only three goals.
Brighton appear to be moving past their closest competitors from 2021-22 as well as other, bigger, clubs such as Aston Villa and Everton.
Bloom is already looking forward to Europa League group-stage journeys to Germany, Portugal and Sweden this season with Union Saint-Gilloise, the Belgian club he co-owns, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility for Brighton to follow suit.
Speaking at the end of May 2021 after Brighton had just finished 16th in Potter’s second season, Bloom said: “If being top 10 is realistic, so is getting into Europe.
“The first year we are in Europe would hold massive excitement for our fanbase, myself included — travelling to many places.
“It’s something to look forward to, but we’ve got to earn that. Absolutely, it would be great to be there.”
The European dream has been dented by losing Potter and so many of his support staff — but Brighton are still an attractive proposition for whoever his successor turns out to be.