Premier League teams who don’t have tons of cash aren’t usually the most inventive in the transfer market. Many lower-table transfers just involve picking up decent players from either other Premier League clubs or the FL Championship. Of course, this is not to say that signing players you have to Google from countries you didn’t know existed is a better strategy than buying players who can adjust more easily, but you don’t usually see PL clubs taking divergent approaches to buying players.
However, Brighton and Hove Albion (side note: I love the names of English football clubs) have, in the last transfer window, experimented with players from peripheral leagues. They signed Colombian winger José Izquierdo from Club Brugge for €15 million, who scored 0.65 goals per 90 minutes in the 2016–17 season. They also signed Dutch central midfielder Davy Pröpper from PSV Eindhoven for €13 million, who ended up playing over 91% of available time in the PL at Brighton. In addition to those two was Australian ex-Valencia keeper Mathew Ryan (who seems to have done pretty well in his first season), full-backs Markus Suttner (from Ingolstadt for €4.5 million) and Ezquiel Schelotto (from Sporting CP for €3 million). In January, Brighton broke their transfer record and paid €17 million to buy Dutch striker Jürgen Locadia from PSV. While Locadia didn’t end up playing much in his first season, he did score 0.63 non-penalty goals p90 in his half-season at PSV.
But their main signing, who epitomised their approach, was Pascal Groß, who cost a meagre €3 million from relegated Bundesliga side Ingolstadt. An analytics favourite for years, Groß in his 2016–17 season was, statistically, one of the best at creating shots in the league. When you factor in the fact that his club scored only 36 goals that season, it’s pretty special output.
Needless to say, Brighton’s signings didn’t escape criticism. Paul Merson in his transfer window grades over at Sky Sports said the following:
“I look through the list of signings and I don’t really know any of them. When you get promoted to the Premier League, you need to bring in a few seasoned professionals. This league will be new to almost everybody in that squad and for me that approach isn’t going to work. I’m not happy with that.”
As you probably guessed, it turned out that their approach worked. Under Irish manager Chris Hughton, Brighton helped themselves to a 15th-placed finish. The new signings played a pivotal part in their performance: you had Izquierdo scoring 5 and assisting 3 goals, Mat Ryan doing well between the sticks, Schelotto often impressing with his buccaneering runs down the right flank, and Pröpper assisting 4 goals and keeping things going in midfield. Groß turned into Brighton’s best player, assisting 8 goals, scoring 7 goals, and proving to be one of the best set-piece takers in the Premier League.
On July 1, Brighton announced the signings of backup keeper Jason Steele, youth team defender Joe Tomlinson, 30-year-old center-back Leon Balogun from Mainz on a free transfer, and 25-year-old striker Florin Andone from relegated La Liga club Deportivo La Coruna for €6 million.
Let’s talk about that Balogun transfer first. To start off, buying a 30-year-old defender isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Based on the eye test, it’s pretty clear that the Nigerian center-back is fairly physically-adept, and based on his defensive numbers (which can’t really be relied on given that we don’t know if more=better here), he’s an active defender with 5.4 successful tackles + interceptions p90 (2nd-highest for center-backs in Europe’s big-5 leagues in 17–18). Factoring in fouls as failed tackles, Balogun won 54.5% of his tackles — which is above average (66th percentile for big-5 league center-backs). He’s also decent in the air, winning 60% of his aerial duels. With the move, however, he’ll be moving from a club that presses fairly high to a club that sets up with a deep block. While there are signs that Balogun can turn out to be a reliable utility player for Brighton, his injury history is slightly worrying: he missed matches last season due to a rib fracture and a bruised hand, and he also had muscular and hamstring problems that ruled him out of many games in the 2016–17 season.
The signing that turned a lot of heads was Florin Andone. On the surface, it’s underwhelming — the Romanian striker scored only 6 non-penalty goals last season. However, digging into his expected goals (xG) numbers, you see that he could have scored around 10.5 goals if he had converted his chances like the average shooter. This, when adjusted for minutes, is 0.55 xG90, which is the 4th-highest in the 17–18 La Liga season.
Since there wasn’t much of a difference between his xG and his actual goal tallies in his other two seasons in La Liga since 2014–15, there’s a good chance of him going back to finishing his chances at an around-average rate at Brighton.
As you can see in his player bar, he has impressive shooting numbers, but his link-up play and dribbling is sub-par. However, 35-year-old Glenn Murray, who scored 8 NPG for Brighton in 17–18, wasn’t much better at this either, so it shouldn’t be a red flag. Looking at his injury history, there isn’t anything that points to him being injury-prone. Andone looks like a real steal for Brighton, and with Locadia too competing with him for a spot in the starting lineup, they have some decent firepower up front.
On the 5th of July, it was revealed that Brighton had signed Brazilian full-back Bernardo from RB Leipzig for €10 million. While his statistical output doesn’t look great, it’s important to note that he’s still 23, and played lots of minutes for a top club.
On the 17th, 21-year-old Malian central-midfielder Yves Bissouma arrived at the club from LOSC Lille for €16.9 million. As Mohamed Mohamed wrote in March, Bissouma is a talented 21-year-old very capable of defending and dribbling, and has good vision with the ball. His shot selection looks messy though, with 1.8 shots taken p90 from outside the box. His statistical output is special, especially considering that Lille was a poor team in 17–18.
With zero matches missed due to injury in the past two seasons, Bissouma, who was linked with Tottenham Hotspur earlier, looks like a very, very exciting transfer.
Finally, we get to the star signing: 24-year-old Iranian winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar, bought for a new club record fee of €19 million. Jahanbakhsh ended up as the Dutch Eredivisie’s top scorer with 21 goals, and also put up the joint-3rd highest number of assists with 12. Although there’s generally some level of uncertainty while signing players from the Eredivisie, Jahanbakhsh’s numbers are very dominant, and can translate well into the Premier League.
Fast, good at dribbling and passing, and with a decent work-rate, Jahanbakhsh will be fun to watch in England. As this chance map kindly provided by George Ball shows, his shots usually come from the right side of the penalty area and from outside the box.
And apart from a couple of games missed due to groin strain in 16–17, he doesn’t have a history with injuries, so it looks like a great signing from every angle.
With newly-promoted sides Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers making great advances in the transfer market (with the former signing Jean-Michael Seri and Andre Schurrle and the latter signing practically every good Portuguese player not named Cristiano Ronaldo), the competition in the Premier League’s bottom half isn’t like any of the other big leagues in Europe. It can also mean Brighton finding it harder this season than the last.
But this summer, they have met their rivals’ spending with equally smart business, and it opens up the question of pushing on to compete for the top 10 in the future. Brighton almost certainly have an analytics department, with their owner being the ‘maths wiz’ owner of Star Lizard, a sports betting consultancy that uses statistical models to forecast football matches.
In a season that is destined to have lots of narratives to spin, the performance of Brighton will be one smaller story to keep track of.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which powers the StrataBet Sports Trading platform.
Featured image by Paul Hazlewood.