Big-money transfers can cause divisions. When the deals are being done, clubs, players, and supporters can fall out. Reputations can be damaged. But for Brighton boss Graham Potter, the overwhelming feeling about Ben White’s £50m transfer to Arsenal is pride.
Pride in the Brighton academy staff who brought him through. Pride in the smart loan deals which developed him. Pride in White himself, whose reward for his player-of-the-season efforts for Brighton last year is a headline move to the Emirates Stadium.
Potter tells Sky Sports he’s even excited by the challenge of finding ways to cover for the versatile 23-year-old’s absence.
But that attitude also reflects the fact Potter sees the bigger picture at Brighton. He is entering his third Premier League season with the club and is contracted for three more. Time is a rare commodity in the top flight but Potter is using the scope he’s been given to map out a path of steady progress.
“It’s part of the process for us growing as a club and a team,” he tells Sky Sports a week before the 2021/22 season kicks off, when asked about the decision to sell White.
“Obviously Ben played a lot of minutes for us last year and was a key player but the finances involved meant it was a really good option for us as a club to improve, to keep growing, and we need to then use the money wisely to develop the team further.
“It’s not a case of there being another Ben White out there [who we can replace him with]. We have to be creative with our solutions, look internally to what we have and try to find a different type of solution. There are always a few options to that and that’s the exciting part.
“I’m happy for Ben of course, happy for the club. I’m proud of everybody in the academy and everybody that has helped his journey outside of Brighton, because he’s had some loan opportunities as well which have developed him. It’s a great story for us.”
The story will be even better if White’s exit is the catalyst for the team kicking on this season. Brighton scored more and conceded fewer goals than in any of their previous Premier League campaigns in 2020/21 but a final finishing spot of 16th was frustratingly familiar, and only achieved after several months of worrying about being sucked into a relegation battle.
Potter sees the positives, although accepts a wastefulness in front of goal needs to be addressed if Brighton are to capitalize on their improving play.
He has deployed a back four in pre-season, and a move away from the team’s usual back-three set-up could be on the cards. But it is at the top end of the field where Brighton really has to find a cutting edge.
“We took a step, in terms of our performances. We improved as a team, we defended better, we attacked better,” said Potter about last season.
“What we probably didn’t do as well as we’d like to score and finish. But that’s football, that’s the margins sometimes which can go against you. But we took some steps, individuals improved.
“Unfortunately football is quite complex. If the answer [to the goal-scoring problem] was so simple we’d be doing it.
“First of all we have to keep and maintain the performance level we’ve had over the last year, because for most of the season it was really, really good. We performed well. If we can maintain that level our results will improve.
“It doesn’t happen by accident, we have to keep working on that. We took some steps as individuals, as a team to improve what we’re trying to do. Sometimes it’s football when you have to accept it and look to improve “
‘Taking steps’ is a recurring phrase Potter comes back to, emphasizing the steady progression he is aiming to achieve at the club. Building Brighton’s strength in this division requires time, he explains.
“I now know more about the team, more about the individuals, the club, the league, everything surrounding the Premier League,” he says about the benefits of his two-year tenure so far. “I know people talk about money as an important factor but I think time and stability is also important.
We have to keep and maintain the performance level we’ve had over the last year, because for most of the season it was really, really good. We performed well. If we can maintain that level our results will improve.
“It’s clear I know more about the club and the league than I did two years ago and you hope you’ll be better for that because in terms of a coaching process the more you understand the players, the more they understand you and the deeper those relationships are then the more chance you’re going to increase performance levels. And that’s what we’re trying to do all the time.”
Welbeck injured but Mwepu offers different option
Brighton’s performance levels took a significant uptick towards the end of the last season when Danny Welbeck was finally fit and firing. Frustratingly for Potter and the player, a hamstring problem means he is likely to be out until after the international break.
But new signing Enock Mwepu adds an intriguing option to Potter’s attack. The 23-year-old was brought in from Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg and showed his eye for goal in the pre-season.
“He’s a different type of player to what we have,” said Potter. “He’s really capable of hitting the box from midfield and he gets goals. He’s a player that has a wonderful attitude, wonderful desire to improve and he’s really positive around the group.
“He also has a physicality that can deal with the Premier League, which is really important.”
Brighton supporters will be excited by the prospect of Mwepu breaking from midfield at Burnley on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. Possibly from within a new formation, too. But perhaps they will be most satisfied with the fact Potter will be there in the dugout.
The young English coach was linked with managerial vacancies at Tottenham and Everton over the summer but he insists there was never a realistic prospect of him leaving his project on the south coast.
“It was just speculation,” he says. “It’s stuff to fill the newspapers and the 24-hour media we have to live with. I was on my holidays, resting up and getting ready for this season and trying to learn and develop. It’s just part of football.
“I said at the end of last season I was two years into a six-year contract so there’s a lot of time that we still need to be together to carry on improving. There’s a lot of work we need to finish. So it’s about focusing on that.”
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