I’m guessing you’re still waiting to be woken up from this table turning dream, which shows Brighton & Hove Albion unbeaten, top of the league and unrecognisable from the team that escaped relegation only a handful of months ago. Well here’s the truth, you are wide awake and this really is happening.
The Albion look a formidable force after a summer of rehabilitation, but none of us would have expected the flying start we’ve been spoilt with so far. So what’s the big difference between last season’s strugglers and the present crop of high flyers? Well let me tell you. After successfully keeping the Albion afloat within the league last season, Chris Hughton was able to gather enough evidence of where things needed to change. Often at times last season, the side looked narrow in options and lacked balance as a team unit. Stability is what was needed and that’s exactly what we got. The aim was to create strength in depth throughout the squad. Starting from back to front, Niki Maenpaa was brought in to bolster the goalkeeping options, creating added competition between David Stockdale, who had an unconvincing debut season between the posts and youngster Christian Walton.
Experienced centre half Uwe Hunemeier arrived during the summer from SC Paderborn, where he was club captain and helped win promotion to Germany’s top tier, a challenge reminiscent of the one he is now faced with. Alongside the German, Shrewsbury Town’s Player of the Season winner Connor Goldson was also recruited, providing solid options in defence with Lewis Dunk and skipper Gordon Greer already at the club. Well-travelled Cameroon international Gaetan Bong and Premier League experienced wide man Liam Rosenior have been added to support long serving full backs Inigo Calderon and Bruno. Bong has been an ever present in the team so far this term, with Rosenior holding his own further up the pitch in replace of absent wingers Jamie Murphy and Kazenga Lua Lua.
Murphy arrived from Sheffield United off the back of a double-figure goal scoring season. The Scotsman is a welcome addition to the squad, with a lack of midfield contribution towards goals being a large part of the reason behind last season’s failure. Solly March is showing promise so far this campaign, scoring the opener against Leeds United and collecting invaluable game time under his belt, which will help soften the rough edges within his game as he continues to grow as a player. At the tail end of last season, signs of a potential midfield partnership between Dale Stephens and Beram Kayal were clear to see. The pair have been outstanding in the middle of the park and orchestrate everything that has been good about the Seagulls so far this season.
Andrew Crofts’ recent return to action is a major boost, freeing up some of the pressure that has been placed upon the shoulders of Stephens and Kayal during the opening period. His arrival from the bench has been instrumental in the wins against Leeds United and Bristol City, showing the energy needed to finish strongly and inspire those around him. With Lewis Dunk finishing Albion’s top goal scorer last season, it didn’t take much to recognise the area which needed the most attention. Israel international Tomer Hemed was brought in to strengthen the striking options and fill the gap that was left by Leonardo Ulloa, following his £8 million move to Leicester the previous summer.
Hemed’s current five goal contribution has been important in the accumulation of points that see the Albion sitting on top, with all five goals coming in narrow victories both on the road and at the Amex Stadium. A feeling of euphoria was generated around the club when Bobby Zamora put pen to paper, adding muscle to the squad but more importantly, rejuvenating supporters and creating an excitement that everybody connected with the club had sorely missed.
Similar to Crofts, his energy and passion on the pitch has been inspirational, making the difference in back to back games and showing the fight that was never there to be seen during the previous campaign. Sam Baldock continues to show the desire to succeed in a blue and white shirt, tirelessly running week in week out and eventually for him, the goals will come.
Another summer recruit Elvis Manu is patiently waiting in the wings for his chance to shine, with his lack of game time a result of the current strikers performing well, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a bad thing at all. However his chance will come and with that he must take it. The club strengthened in all departments in preparation for this season and the rewards of doing this are there to be seen. In previous seasons, the club has relied hugely on the loan market to fill in gaps and look for new ideas. The current squad doesn’t contain a single loan player and combined with the present success we are having, it speaks volumes in terms of the outstanding reconstruction the club underwent to get back on track.
Bournemouth proved the importance of togetherness and stability within a team, with their Championship winning squad consisting of only two loan players over the course of the season, as Eddie Howe displayed consistency in his team selection and resisted the temptation to go for broke in the loan market. Injuries and suspensions will always act as disruptions to a team throughout the season, however with the current set of options Chris Hughton has at his disposal, the club are now better equipped to handle these set-backs and maintain the promising form they have shown so far.
Despite being unbeaten with eight wins from 12 games, all of those victories have been by a single goal, which speaks volumes about the fitness levels and mental toughness of the squad, as the games have swung in the balance until the final whistle. We now have versatility and quality throughout the squad. It’s not all about the starting XI anymore, Hughton’s hand is no longer restricted and the weapons he has available from the bench can be used effectively to win games.
Enjoyment is back on the south coast and whether it lasts or not, all the signs are there to argue that Brighton are healthy enough to challenge until the end, after an intelligent summer of recruitment.
By Kieran Cleeves