Why Graham Potter's formations have me reaching for the red wine and dreaming of Vladimir Putin
Whenever I drink a little too much red wine, I tend to have very strange dreams.
You know the sort, when you suddenly realise that you are on the start line of the Grand National alongside Vladimir Putin and Alison Hammond despite never having ridden a horse before in your life.
According to Google, there are 6000 wineries in Bordeaux. I could have consumed a bottle of red from every single one and still not dreamt up Graham Potter’s starting line up for the Albion’s season opener at Burnley.
The individuals selected seemed eminently sensible. Not many would argue that the 11 players Potter sent out were the best available to him, with the possible exception of Adam Lallana who had to settle for a place amongst the substitutes.
It was Potter’s 4-1-4-1 formation and positional decisions that were the problem. Where do you even begin? Adam Webster looked like a sheep caught in the headlights as a friend of mine likes to say, seemingly unsure whether he was meant to be playing as an orthodox right back or as part of a back three.
Playing Pascal Gross at left back was akin to putting Jenny from Gogglebox in charge of landing a man on Mars. Not only has poor Pascal probably never played there in his life, but Potter was putting his most creative player in a position from which it is very hard to create anything
Yves Bissouma was one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League last season. So Potter used Steve Alzate in that role and pushed Bissouma further forward.
And if 2020-21 taught us anything, it is that Neal Maupay is much more effective as a second striker. Naturally, that meant Maupay led the line alone in the first half.
Potter must have been the one drinking Bordeaux dry to come up with such a gameplan. What made it even more bizarre was the timing. Brighton have just played three meaningless pre-season friendlies where nothing was on the line.
If you want to chuck Gross in at left back or see how the Albion fare playing a back four, do it away at Luton Town or at home to Getafe. Deciding that the time to start experimenting was when the first three points of the Premier League season were up for grabs is an extraordinary piece of management.
And yet… it was arguably Potter who went onto win the game for Brighton. The least he had to do at half time was switch to a more familiar 3-4-1-2, which he duly did. Adam Lallana brought an element of control after replacing Enock Mwepu but where Potter really earned his money was with his final two substitutions.
Jakub Moder had been on the pitch for less than 60 seconds when he teed up Maupay for the equaliser. Fellow bench warmer Alexis Mac Allister had an equally quick impact, sweeping home a perfect ball into the box from Gross – creative player in creating something from a creative position shock – within a minute of his own introduction.
This contrast between Potter’s initial selection at Burnley and his game changing substitutions sums up his two years at the helm of the good ship Albion nicely. In the first half, it was easy to understand why was responsible for the longest winless home streak in the club’s 120 years of existence.
And yet in the second half, Pep Guardiola’s description of Potter as being the best English manager in the world suddenly carried a lot of weight when Moder was claiming assists and Mac Allister was scoring winners.
Sometimes, it feels like Potter is trying to be too clever. Brighton have enjoyed the best results of his time in charge with a settled team and players being used in their actual positions.
We got none of that in the first half at Turf Moor with the result being that Burnley should have been out of sight.
In the second half, he reverted to a familiar formation and players in familiar roles. The Albion were dominant and, lo and behold, went onto win the game.
It seems fairly obvious then that Potter simply has to pick his strongest XI in their best positions to stand a better chance of winning games of football. Who knew?
There is a case to be made that the farce of a first half followed by the stunner of a second could be the best thing to happen to Brighton this season.
Within 45 minutes at Turf Moor, Potter should have learnt what his best formation is and that his players need to be used in positions they are used to.
If he deploys this new-found knowledge over the course of the next 37 games, then the Seagulls may well soar to new heights in the 2021-22 campaign.
Winning at Burnley is no easy feat. The Albion side who accomplished it should have enough to see off Watford on Saturday, and I say that as someone whose glass (of Bordeaux) is invariably half empty.
That of course is dependent on Potter not sinking too many bottles of his own and giving Gross a go at centre back this time or something equally silly.
Now that really would be a dream akin to riding in the Grand National with the Russian president.