Brighton still have a lot to play for in Premier League season

This Albion season, I mean. The unprecedented one.

The most exciting one in their 123 years.

The one which will, at worst, almost certainly end in their (joint) third best league position of all time alongside a debut European campaign.

Which could still end up in European football again, which was once seen as a bonus but at one stage not long ago felt like it should be half-expected.

Albion goals have dried up – especially if you don’t count those scored for them by opponents.

The football feels a bit more laboured and they did not even look like Brighton when they started going long in the second half at Burnley, although there were reasons for that – both tactical and climatic.

The fact Manchester City are coming next feels more ominous than opportunity.

The finales to the last two seasons have been exciting, dizzying and have ended in celebrations.

I suppose the one thing which is important is perspective.

This is how it used to be. A few weeks without a win or much excitement, then moments which will be savoured for years.

We all remember fondly the 2-1 win over Arsenal and that momentous Friday night at home to Manchester United in the first Premier League season.

Not so much the two long months between those games.

Anthony Knockaert’s brilliant goal at Crystal Palace to clinch a 2-1 success is recalled without the burden of the bleak time which followed and came so close to sentencing Albion to relegation.

At that stage, matching or beating the club’s best-ever finish of 13th, set in 1982 and itself seen as a disappointment at the time, felt like a reasonable, if slightly optimistic, target.

It was in that summer that Tony Bloom surprised everyone and revealed his top-ten vision Now we have 13th as a worst option and it feels like a comedown.

Even in the thrilling run-in of two years ago, when North London was theirs and Manchester United were swept aside on a wave of football the like of which we had never seen, Albion were heading for 13th at half-time in the final game.

Three second-half goals against West Ham elevated them to ninth.

We could yet see similar dramatic movement over a short space of time this year, given how tightly that area of the league table is packed.

Albion are tenth after 32 games. That is fantastic.

But, equally, sometimes seasons don’t end in a thrilling flourish.

The fact they don’t is what makes the special ones special.

We might yet see a stunning Albion finale, we might not.

If we don’t, it does not mean there is not a lot to be taken from the coming weeks, even though it feels a little flat now.

Albion have injuries. Of course they have injuries – almost a whole team – and that cannot be ignored.

The fact it is mentioned before and after every game does not make it boring. It means it is enduringly relevant.

Last year they didn’t. Almost everyone was fit and firing.

The same goes for two years ago.

As Roberto De Zerbi agreed last Friday, there are players thrust into responsible roles now out of necessity who will reap rewards in the coming seasons – or that is the plan.

Carlos Baleba is one. He has had to adjust more quickly than Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo or Yves Bissouma did.

Jan Paul van Hecke, being identified by some as player of the year, is another given Adam Webster’s lack of fitness and then rhythm.

We hear a lot about investment in players and it always refers to money.

But you also need to invest in time, experiences, ups and downs. Maybe we are seeing that now.

De Zerbi also pointed out that the best example of a player taking his chance – Jack Hinshelwood – is also a case of an important player being sidelined by injury.

Bart Verbruggen has been given a run of games.

That will either cement him as a Premier League and international goalkeeper or tell us, and De Zerbi, that he is not up to it.

My strong suspicion is it will be the former.

This is all spadework, part of construction. It is not reaping rewards, which is the fun bit.

We all know about the sales of two star midfielders last summer and as yet they have not been fully replaced.

Albion’s midfield is weaker now than in 2022, 2023 and, hopefully, 2025. And that is where the work in progress comes in.

I used to have a theory that a strong end to the season was the key foundation to a good following season. Events in 2000 and 2010 were great examples of that.

But then Chris Hughton came along and 2015 happened.

If you think the current run is a bit underwhelming, think back nine years. I have never seen an Albion side so lacking in threat, so toothless, as that which ended the 2014-15 campaign (although 2018-19 came close).

Hughton had guided them away from immediate relegation danger but they were still near the foot of the table and looking becalmed.

They did not score in their last four home games.

Watford, Norwich and Bournemouth all came to the Amex and celebrated promotion in the South Stand.

Huddersfield came and hit the inside of the post in a 0-0 draw.

Albion could have sent Wigan down but lost 2-1 up there.

It was hard to watch and, to be fair to him, Hughton recognised that when asked about it later.

But, all the time, he was assessing what he had, what he needed, who he wanted to get rid of.

Those lessons led to a long unbeaten run when action resumed in August and set the foundations for the promotion campaign of 2015-17.

Yes, I know that is two seasons. But ‘campaign’ does not have to mean ‘football season’, we just use it that way in this job to avoid saying ‘season’ in consecutive sentences.

A campaign is a concerted effort to achieve something over a certain period of time, and Albion’s promotion campaign ran from the summer of 2015 until the evening of Easter Monday, 2017.

So it is not necessarily fun. And, yes, it feels like some magic has gone right now.

Albion’s incredible tale might have peaked and it might be downhill from here.

But I strongly believe that is not the case, especially looking at who occupy key positions at the club, at players who are absent, at the way this has all been built step by step and at the recent financial report.

Football is reality. Albion have had a taste of that recently, albeit reality which still exceeds what used to be the dream.

But it can also sometimes appear to defy reality.

Like it did when Graham Potter built a side with lots of midfielders and very few defenders from a run of six defeats and a home 0-0 with Norwich and sent them out to re-write club history.

Like it did when De Zerbi took them to greater highs than Potter had achieved.
You might feel like you want the season to end but you will miss it when it does.

Albion’s fantasy football has felt more humdrum because some of the on-field fantasists – Mitoma, Joao Pedro, Enciso, Estupinan, increasingly March – have either been absent or below their best.

The highs have been so high, the lights so dazzling. For various reasons, they are not now. But the underlying trend is still upwards.

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