The Graham Potter Dilemma

The Graham Potter Dilemma

The “analytics revolution” in sports has completely changed the way that different games are played. Starting with baseball’s “moneyball” — the term used by Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane to describe his team’s use of sabermetrics to find cheap talent — every sport now has a slew of statisticians and data scientists crunching numbers to determine starting lineups, generate tactics and grade players. See American football’s Pro Football Focus (PFF), whose grading system is used by every team in the league to assess and track their players’ performances.

In football, one of the most popular forms of statistical analysis that the wonks are using is “expected goals,” or the number of goals that a team should score based on the chances they create throughout the game. A penalty kick, for example, gives a team an xG (expected goals) of about 0.76, a number based on the percentage of penalties that are successful. More difficult shots have a lower xG, maybe around 0.1, while chances like tap-ins are closer to a 0.9.

By and large, winning the xG statistical battle is a pretty good predictor of whether a team will win a match. Popular Twitter account “The xG Philosophy,” which determines xG for all games across Europe’s top leagues, created a “Justice Table” that shows where each team would be in the league based on expected points, a calculation of how many points teams should have based on their xG.

League leaders Manchester City are in first in the Justice Table, and most teams are within a few spots of where they are in the actual table. There are a few teams, however, with significant gaps generated from their expected points. This includes last-placed Sheffield United, who have a fourteen point difference between their “actual points” (11) and their “expected points” (23). But even accounting for this, Sheffield would move from twentieth in the real table to nineteenth in the Justice Table.

The club with the largest difference is Brighton and Hove Albion. In reality, the Seagulls sit languishing in sixteenth on 26 points, but the Justice Table would put them in fifth place on 42 points. 

The difference between the xG numbers and actual goal tallies from Brighton’s games is astounding. In Brighton’s recent match against relegation-threatened West Brom, for example, the Seagulls missed two penalty kicks and squandered numerous other opportunities, winning the xG battle 3.14-1.13, but losing the game 1-0. The xG Philosophy reported that in their last three games, Brighton have only scored one goal from an expected 7.79.

This astronomical gap between expectations and actuality has left many Brighton fans wondering where the blame falls for their inability to convert chances. Is manager Graham Potter (now often nicknamed xGraham Potter) the problem, or are his tactics creating chances that his players just cannot convert?

Unlike many managers of Premier League teams in the bottom half of the table, Graham Potter has eschewed the traditional tactics of sitting back, absorbing pressure, and relying on counter attacks or set pieces for offensive output. Potter’s Seagulls play a high-pressing, high intensity style that creates a lot of chances from wing players like Tariq Lamptey and Solly March. Usually employing a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 formation, Brighton likes to create overloads that catch their opponents off guard. Despite these tactical advantages, however, Brighton is not winning games.

The main reason Brighton’s poor performances is that the club’s forwards are just not putting the ball in the back of the net. French striker Neal Maupay has only scored seven goals in 24 appearances this season (his xG is closer to 12), and has squandered countless other chances that would have given his team more points. 

Brighton’s other forwards —– Pascal Groß, Danny Welbeck, Leandro Trossard, and Aaron Connolly —– have only chipped in eight goals from a combined xG of 16.42. The thirteen goal difference between the combined actual goals and expected goals from Brighton’s five forwards is the biggest source of the team’s woes.

As a result, Brighton are statistically among the least lucky teams in the league. Brighton players have hit the woodwork thirteen times this season, including twice this weekend on two different penalties. Only three clubs in the league have hit the woodwork more often. Similarly, despite having only scored the fourteenth most goals in the league (27), Brighton have missed the sixth most big chances of any team (33).

Otherwise, the rest of Brighton’s team is performing well. The club’s defense is perfectly middle of the road, only conceding 33 goals, which is good for tenth fewest in the league. Led by center back Lewis Dunk, Brighton has rarely been outscored badly enough to be out of most games. The team had two key 1-0 wins against Liverpool and Tottenham earlier this year that showed the defense’s ability to withstand pressure and protect leads whenever the offense gives them the opportunity to do so.

Overall, Graham Potter’s tactics have created a free-flowing Brighton offense that routinely creates good chances to score. The fact that his strikers cannot finish might reflect poorly on his training routines and weekday finishing sessions, but when push comes to shove, Premier League strikers should be putting away the chances they get. 

If Brighton had a player like Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, whose thirteen league goals mark a vast overachievement of his 7.73 xG, then Brighton could be legitimately challenging for European football this season. Instead they’re staring down an impending relegation scrap that could send them to the Championship.

Like Billy Beane before him, Graham Potter has the numbers on his side. Brighton has all the makings of a good Premier League team, and the data prove this. In a perfectly rational world, where the expected goals a team has line up with its actual output, Potter would probably be the runaway favorite for Manager of the Year, but instead pundits are wondering whether he’ll keep his job.

If luck breaks the Seagulls’ way, and they manage to cling to their perch, the club absolutely needs to keep Graham Potter. Yet to get the most out of the man and his system, the club’s top brass must make the signings needed to turn expectations into reality.